In Search of Meaning: Beyond the Veritas Forum

Last week, MIT hosted the Veritas Forum on Science, Faith, and Technology, purportedly to address whether religious belief can be effectively reconciled with scientific pursuit. Veritas began with a Harvard group on a "quest for a life with hope, meaning, and purpose." The event's speakers (and its parent Web site) argued that the individual can and should believe in Christ, and did their best to convince non-religious but "meaning-seeking" members of the scientific community (and to reassure the religious) that belief in Jesus Christ and Christianity can satisfy both the need for a meaningful life and a career in science.

The issue is an important one, and the forum addressed a need: people do search for meaning in their lives. However, I would like to set forth an alternate — and Jesus-free — definition of "meaning" (and I welcome critiques of this definition), based on which I will suggest that scientific knowledge is meaningless, technology is meaningful, and that technology, but not science, should be guided by some sort of belief/value system.

By my definition, lives and actions find meaning when they are directed at something bigger than themselves. It seems to me that leading a meaningful life goes hand in hand with performing some sort of action and directing it outwardly. Using this definition, most people would agree with the statement that Mother Theresa had a meaningful life though they would also have to agree that Jihadists also have meaningful lives. Mother Theresa was driven to outwardly directed action by a system of beliefs and values and so is your average Jihadist. The belief systems are different but this difference does not render one life meaningless next to the other (though we can judge the consequences of one to be good and the other bad).

A meaningless life seeks nothing beyond itself and all (if any) action is directed inwardly. By its own declaration, meaningless existence, or "emptiness," is what the Veritas Forum is most concerned with curing. The event held at MIT was designed to administer this cure to the scientific community. But do we really need to be cured?

Veritas may not be trying to convert anyone, but they are trying to impose Christian values on those who may not have had a clear prior conception of where to find meaning in their lives. An outwardly directed action requires guidance by a value system, but this system does not have to be Jesus-centered, or even religious at all. It is just as possible — and just as potentially problematic — to apply other systems of belief, (e.g. Islam or Judaism) as a way to guide science. So the better question is: can and should religious values guide the pursuit of science and technology?

Science places great significance on the freedom of inquiry and discovery. When practiced in its purest form, its only aim is to seek truth and knowledge. Scientific truth, indeed truth in general, is intrinsically value neutral (you cannot have good truth and bad truth) and the scientific pursuit is not directed towards any goal other than obtaining knowledge for its own sake. Therefore, when a scientist enters the lab, her religion should stay at the door in order to ensure that she can seek value neutral, objective truth. Similarly, research institutions have a duty to create an environment where arbitrary value systems do not obstruct or bias the search for truth. On the other hand, universal ethical values (such as those predicating guidelines for the humane treatment of research subjects) obviously do serve a purpose.

By the definitions above, the search for scientific truth is by its very nature meaningless, since it is inward-acting rather than goal-directed. This does not imply, however, that a scientist's life is necessarily meaningless. A scientist can choose to ascribe to a belief/value system and use it in guiding decisions and actions that arise in his personal life.

Unlike science, technology has a directed goal to perform some sort of action outwardly. This makes technology a meaningful pursuit, and therefore more amenable to guidance by a value system. This value system should be carefully defined by research institutions in full awareness of the community's strong desire to see its newly acquired knowledge used in a positive way.

There is no doubt that technology has to be guided towards a meaningful end but this end can be anything from vaccines or nuclear weapons. How do we decide which ends to choose? In situations like this, religious values, insofar as they are universals, can be legitimate guides but should not be considered the sole source of guidance.

In the course of human history, well before the three Middle Eastern religions became organized, human beings from Aristotle in the West to Lao-Tzu in the East gave thought to life's hardest questions and left behind works of ethical philosophy to help us in this very pursuit of meaning. Unfortunately, in popular culture ethical philosophy tends to take a back seat to religious platitudes.

I don't intend to argue that religion is useless; indeed any discussion of the pursuit for meaning provides a welcome alternative to selfish individualism. However, religion is the Cliff's Notes version of ancient philosophy and we all know that Cliff's Notes produces not only incomplete summaries but also superficial interpretation.

The Veritas Forum promotes passive submission to an established religion, rather than a deeper examination of the search for meaning. As the cultivators of intellectual development, institutions of higher education have a duty to ensure that organizations like Veritas do not dominate the discussion in the search for meaning. Places like MIT should not allow this opportunity to be hijacked by well-meaning but closed-minded individuals seeking to impose a religious agenda. The university must see to it that the pursuit for meaning remains an active pursuit rather than a passive submission.

Rahmat Muhammad G is a graduate student in Brain and Cognitive Sciences.