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Religion Provides Meaning

I would like to respond to Rahmat Muhammad’s letter entitled, “In Search of Meaning: Beyond the Veritas Forum.” Ms. Muhammad correctly states that the Veritas Forum on Science, Faith, and Technology sought to address whether religious belief, specifically a belief in Jesus Christ and Christianity, can exist in intellectual harmony with scientific pursuit. I am writing this letter because Ms. Muhammad affirms that resolving “the need for a meaningful life and a career in science” is an important issue. In addition, she welcomes critiques of her definition of “meaning,” which I will attempt to offer.

To explain the perspective from which I assert my opinion, I am a Christian, and I assisted with organizing parts of the Veritas Forum at MIT. It has been said that “who you are informs what you write on a very deep level.” Therefore, I do not claim my letter to be perfectly unbiased, but rather trust that the arguments are logical, rational, and compelling.

Ms. Muhammad defines “meaning” as an abstract term attributed to lives and actions “when they are directed at something bigger than themselves.” Yet if meaning could be found by simply directing your life outwardly, people would not still be searching for it, and no “deeper examination” would be required. People already direct their lives to external things: power, careers, money, fame — things larger than themselves. But in the sight of death, most people would agree that these things are vain and meaningless.

However, if meaning were instead defined as “directing your life outwardly, towards your Creator,” then indeed deeper examination would be required. “Where do we come from?” is a question in the heart of every human being. That’s why we want to know who our ancestors were and where they were from, that’s why we study the earth and the stars, and that’s why we ask questions about evolution and creationism. “I am one small person in a sea of people,” you think. “There must be more than this.”

But more generally, how does “directing your life outwardly, towards your Creator” give “meaning” to science and engineering? This is where truth becomes important. Scientists would naturally agree that truth cannot be relative. It is circular logic; the statement “truth is relative” needs to be absolute fact to be correct! I agree with Ms. Muhammad that “science places great significance on the freedom of inquiry and discovery.” Such freedom relies on the fact that absolute truth is also eternal truth. For that reason, absolute truth will outlast you and me and any inquiry that we make of it. Scientists take this for granted, as shown by the number of questions they pose to the physical world. Any religion declaring to be the absolute truth should be of the same mind, and the Veritas Forum at MIT is presented in this context. As followers of Jesus Christ, we believe that Christianity is absolute truth, and so we welcome all truth-seekers and their questions.

Jennifer M. Needham G

Veritas Column Presents Flawed Arguments

Last week, The Tech published an opinion piece entitled “In Search of Meaning: Beyond the Veritas Forum,” purportedly to address the meaning of life, how some sort of “value system” is required for an outwardly directed action, and how some form of ethical (and, for Ms. Muhammad, apparently nonreligious) philosophy is necessary to direct the search of technology. I will argue Ms. Muhammad’s definition of meaning is at the least incomplete, and is not self-consistent, and her comments on an ethical system to guide scientific research are presumptuous.

From the very beginning, Ms. Muhammad’s argument is flawed: her definition of meaning is incomplete. It lacks the granularity at which the argument is to be interpreted. The motivations of a banker and a security guard are illustrative of the importance of granularity. The banker pays the guard, so the guard can afford to eat and in turn, the guard protects the banker’s funds; each action is individually meaningful. The banker and the guard perform an outwardly useful action, but from the perspective of the bank as a whole, the system of the banker and the guard is closed and therefore meaningless.

This aside, Ms. Muhammad’s claim that the quest for scientific knowledge is meaningless is not self-consistent. All technology is derived from some sort of science, and therefore the science used to create that technology has meaning. This is especially true if research was specifically undertaken with the intent to create a technology from the results. Technology is not necessarily directed outward, as Ms. Muhammad implies; the only purpose of some technologies is to beget more technology, which is internally directed and meaningless. To argue that the search for scientific truth in all contexts is meaningless is not a thorough inspection of the motivation of every scientific researcher.

Given that scientific truth is not necessarily meaningless, a generally accepted notion that research limits are necessary and required, and that we cannot wait until we develop a universal ethical code before we begin any form of scientific research, we must develop or select an interim set of values to guide us until we can find the one unifying code by which all research is conducted. But, if some form of present ethical values are purposeful for limiting science (and they probably are), which set of values is right? It is unjustified to preclude a religious philosophy from guiding research limitations, solely on the fact that it is a religion. Ms. Muhammad’s notion that such an ethical code should be not religiously motivated, because philosophy predates religion, is poorly founded. Whether or not philosophy actually predates religion has not been sufficiently determined. In the case of Aristotle and Lao-Tzu, religions had long predated either of them (including Judaism, and other early and pre-civilization religions). Potentially even at some point popular philosophy and religion were one in the same. To argue that religion is the “Cliff Notes” version of the popular philosophy is an argument without solid evidence.

It is unlikely that Veritas is the sole influence on researchers at MIT. Waiting for us to find a universal ethic code before we research anything is counterproductive, and as something must suffice for the interim, we must consider Veritas as providing one such ethical framework.

Hans E. Anderson ’08