Cohen: As a scientist you probe the chemistry of life.
Is there a mystical or spiritual quality to that?
That is not the quest.
for me is so interesting is that it is all the same
stuff. The periodic table of the elements is the
periodic table that we see everywhere in the universe,
both in astronomy and from samples of the universe that
end up on Earth - meteorites.
count on that.
it's a question of, given that the chemistry is the same
and the physical forces may vary, what distinguishes an
environment that can support life and one that cannot?
is not that simple a question, unfortunately, because we
have only had one example of life that we know how to
recognize, and that is life on this planet.
would we know it if we saw it...?
both of your fields - science and religion - it seems
that most people are looking for answers, not further
fully concede that I am a statistical outlier. I go
there because I love the questions.
forgotten that science, although it makes use of
empirical data, is really about constructing a model for
understanding the data, and even the best scientists
sometimes hold a little too tightly to their favorite
really great scientists are the ones who say,
"What an idiot I was yesterday. Of course that is
not it, today it's this."
talked about a research trip to Antarctica that deeply
affected you. What happened?
there to take a National Science Foundation-sponsored
course in Antarctic biology for people who might at some
point want to
I had a
certain mystical sense of something that is very
difficult to articulate without sounding loony.
standing there in a place that is so harsh and so devoid
of amenities, I could feel the silliness of the things I
had held onto - different scars in my own life,
arguments I may have had with this person or that person
- as being so trivial and meaningless in the big scheme
of surviving as a being.
It literally all went away in
say that I was able to resolve questions that had been
on my mind for a long time.
was certainly a real comeuppance with respect to my
value as a human and my place in the universe.
recognition that you can be a tiny cog in a great big
machine - or to be more poetic - a tiny grain of sand
against the vastness of all the grains of sand that
If there were
life found on Mars, would that mean anything to you religiously?
answer is no.
we have many people who conceive of God as being really
big and being everywhere and capable of anything, yet at the
same time we have this notion that we are the pinnacle of
The holy book of every faith tradition tries to place
us within the context of the universe, but we are still
participating in the recording of those stories.
something I like to poke at, because if you really do believe
that there is something in the universe that actually is the
driving force of it and is in fact the medium in which
Then we must leave open the possibility that
beyond our imagination there are other beings who are also loved
and provisioned in their own contexts, whether they look like a
fish or stromatolite or us...
it's inevitable that humans want to go to Mars - part of our
inherent nature. But some say we shouldn't try to go to Mars
when we can't even feed every child on Earth.
How do you sit
comfortably with that?
To use a poor
analogy, it's like asking why people are interested in sex.
a biological instinct that has a purpose in the big picture, in
that it ensures we will continue to have the human species.
the same token, we keep looking at new places to explore because
all organisms look for opportunities and threats in order to
exploit the opportunities and hopefully avoid the threats.
We are still biological organisms, however smart
we may think we are. So we do a lot of rationalizing of
behaviors that I believe are hard-wired into us.
one of those hard-wired things.
However, we have to look at a
kind of converse question that goes along with that:
it mean if we lose our desire or capability to explore?
something diagnostic about the human condition. And that, I
believe, should also be true as much for faith as for science.
If we tell people not to explore, but just to hold a belief, we
are taking away the critical thinking that is supposed to be
used in all our pursuits in life.
Whether it's exploring new
cooking recipes to keep us interested in eating, or education to
keep us more aware of our environment - it's the same thing.
caring for the children on Earth who don't have food or health
care? Isn't that just as powerful an instinct?
It certainly is
an instinct for me.
I think all the time about how we should
apportion our portfolio of science and technology efforts.
of the mysteries that I think the American public doesn't have a
good grasp on is the percentage of money spent on pure and
applied science relative to the amount of money spent on
developing new weaponry or other things.
When we look at the
overall portfolio, we have to understand the costs versus the
benefits. Sometimes we are making an assumption of what science
costs in each piece of its endeavor and begin to think of it in
an exclusionary way.
It is true that we have to ask the hard
Why should we build the technology that will take us
to another planet when we don't have the technology to feed
every person in this country?
The answer to that is that we do
have the technology to feed every child in this country, but we
don't have the will.
Right now we
have these billionaires who are pursuing space exploration.
You're talking about innate curiosity and people's need to
discover, but there is also an innate need to stick a flag up on
What do you think of the public seeing space
exploration as a competition between billionaires?
explore to understand opportunities and threats, remember that
one organism's opportunity is a threat to another.
that people do explore to put flags on top of mountains, but
there is a difference between exploration and adventure.
Exploration is the instinct to look for opportunities and avoid
threats, but humans are also thrill seekers, and there is a
difference between the two, even though they are both present.
This is the
fact that we have a power issue - that also is a biological
thing. It is presumed that if we have abundance that we will be
OK, even if it creates scarcity for some other organisms.
billionaires using money to explore space is absolutely to
maintain their power as the greatest.
There are all kinds of
motivations, but that doesn't mean they might not have an
evolutionary consequence that ends up being good for the rest of
Because even if you have one breakout guy who has
a gazillion dollars who decides to explore Mars, that pushes the
technology to the point that other humans will explore - and
it's not so much because Mars is an important destination.
Do you believe
in the Holy Spirit? How would we know if there was a Holy Spirit
on Mars? How would we detect it?
I do believe in
a Holy Spirit, and one reason why I like a trinitarian concept
of God is because I love that light can be a packet of energy,
it can be a wave and it can be a particle.
We already have
scientific precedent to say that you can exist as two things
I do believe in the
Holy Spirit because I can
feel that I am within a unifying system, maybe that is a
characteristic of living within a system. But as much as I
believe in the rest of the structure of the universe, in dark
energy, in dark matter, I don't think it matters whether you
call this energy you can't identify God or the cosmic microwave
I believe it doesn't matter if I understand
precisely what God is or what a spirit is to feel that sense of
being part of this whole.
I believe that if God created
everything there is, that must mean that the entire system of
multiverse exists within a medium of God.
Do I need
to understand God to know what that is? No.
I have to focus my
energies on some things that I can work at, by using both the
scientific method and theological reflection.
Do I believe that
there would be a Holy Spirit on Mars? Of course.
Because if we
are saying that God is this big, why would we put God in a box?
I can't say
what we would detect per se, because even in the scientific
sense, whether you can see something, observe something, is a
function of how well you have designed your sensors.
If a human
has an innate sense of some spiritual desire or connection, or
whatever you would call it, that is a spiritual sensor.
think you can build that with technology? I have no clue...