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From left: Professors Alan P. Lightman, Troy Van Voorhis, Rosalind W. Picard, and Alex Bryne listen as Dean Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80 speaks during the discussion portion of the Veritas Forum last Saturday in Kresge Auditorium. The speakers presented their worldview relative to the topics of “life, the universe, and MIT” at the forum, which was followed by a moderated discussion when the speakers answered audience questions. The professors had a diverse range of views on questions of philosophy and religion.
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Life, the universe, and MIT — how do these relate? At this year’s annual MIT Veritas Forum, four MIT professors answered this question and shared their views on religion. Approximately 550 people gathered in Kresge Auditorium last Saturday to attend the event, jointly sponsored by the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, the Large Event Fund, and the MIT United Christian Organization. In welcoming the speakers and audience to the forum, Anna Fung ’11 — a member of the Veritas planning committee — said that the hope was to “hear more of a personal, philosophical side of professors.” Moderated by Rosalind W. Picard ScD ’91, founder and director of the Affective Computing Group at the Media Lab, the forum opened with each of the professors briefly sharing their views on life at MIT, religion, and life’s meaning.

Alan P. Lightman — physicist, writer, and adjunct professor of humanities — presented the view that “all of us are material beings.” Lightman believes that “we are nothing but bones, tissues, gelatinous membranes, electrical impulses, and chemicals. We are material. We are stuff.” While he considers himself to be a spiritual person, he notes that different people have different meanings of spirituality. He defines his version as the recognition of beauty in himself and in other people.

As an atheist, Lightman believes that his consciousness will cease to exist once he dies. Before that happens, however, he believes it is important to ask and attempt to answer the great questions of universe — how it came into being and how to live a life with meaning. “Coming to terms with our materiality is the most difficult challenge we have in our existence. All that said, we can still find meaning during our brief flicker of existence. I believe that a cosmic meaning does not exist. Instead, each of us must find a personal meaning for our lives.”

For Lightman, what is real and meaningful in life is his values and principles. His humanity forms the basis for his worldview. As a “single link” in the long succession of humans who have come before him and who will come after, Lightman says, “I am a part of the chain of the great universe, and that’s my view of the world.”

Troy Van Voorhis, associate professor of chemistry, focused on the search for meaning and peace in life. Van Voorhis said, “If I look for meaning in the right place, if I put first things first, I hope I will become a better person: I will feel secure, be more joyful, appreciate beauty more, I will be at peace.”

He also more generally explained his outlook on human fulfillment: “I believe that our deepest needs — our thirst for justice, our hunger for security, our longing for purpose, our search for answers, our desperate need for hope — are met in Jesus Christ.”

Van Voorhis believes that trying to find one’s life purpose in improving society — however noble that goal may be in and of itself — still does not satisfy our search for meaning. One danger, he said, is that if the need for one’s work is made obsolete through the development of something even better, the purpose for our lives is suddenly removed.

Van Voorhis explained, “Because I do invest a lot in my work and in my research, it hurts when things don’t work out.” So how does he deal with failure? Van Voorhis said that because “work isn’t at the core of [his] being,” failure doesn’t shake him deeply. “My ultimate purpose is somewhere else.”

Alex Byrne, professor of linguistics and philosophy, started out with a different premise, noting, “I do not have a worldview, not, at any rate, if that suggests a grand synoptic vision of the furniture of the universe and how it all fits together. The world is a bit too big for me to get a clear view of it.”

Byrne is an atheist, but does not consider the issue of theism to be particularly important. Citing Plato’s example of how a mother’s command to her son does not affect the morality of the action but merely recognizes that a moral fact exists, Byrne defined a moral fact as what the right thing to do in a situation is, independent of an arbitrator like God­. Byrne explained his belief that the existence of a God is irrelevant to the existence of morality. He notes that if God does exist, his command would always be perfectly in line with the “moral fact,” and that is why we “say that he is supremely good.”

Byrne’s conclusion is “that the moral facts, and facts about value in general, need no theistic foundation, and can be left to look after themselves.”

“The things that are of deepest value … shine just as brightly in a world without an omnibenevolent Architect. That is the sense in which God leaves everything that really matters as it is,” Byrne said.

Yet, Byrne explained, “all this would hardly be worth saying if religion was … something easily rejected with the benefit of education and intelligence. To me, the appeal of religion to people I admire and respect is one of the greatest mysteries of all.”

Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80 chose to focus on how his worldview has affected his choices at MIT throughout the years. Hastings explained that he believes “there is a God who created the universe. He has declared himself as a loving God who seeks a relationship with us while also giving us free will to choose. Our purpose is found in being in relationship to him.”

Hastings cited his Christian faith as the reason behind his view that science and engineering are “ways to find out how God created the universe and to do some good in this world.” The aeronautics and astronautics professor explained that it was this belief that caused him to choose to avoid research on offensive weapons — in particular, nuclear weapons.

The dean said that when he mentors students and faculty, he tries to help them understand that they should not find their self worth in success at MIT. As he puts it, “This is such a hard place with so many first-rate people that some failure is inevitable.” Instead, he encourages people to find their intrinsic value in something they can define despite failure. For Christians, he said, that is found in being a person created in the image of God.

A question and answer segment followed, with students and other attendees participating through texts, Twitter, and regular pen and paper. As a final parting question, one participant asked, “What is the most important question you think every student at MIT has to answer before they graduate?” Hastings replied, “How then should you live, and would it make any difference?”

The Veritas Forum non-profit, which holds similar events at universities around the country, says their mission is to “engage students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life,” according to their website (http://veritas.org/). “We seek to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ.”