Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 24, 2006

E. O. Wilson, Science, and the Big Questions

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Jim Metzner, the host of “Pulse of the Planet,” replayed this revealing interview with E. O. Wilson this morning on NPR.


Program #2546
December 2001
E.O.Wilson: Future of Science

What does science have in store for us in the next century? We asked that question to one of the foremost scientists of our time. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by DuPont. E.O.Wilson is a university research professor at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

“In a deep sense, science is in the process of answering the great questions of philosophy, which professional philosophers abandoned a half century ago. Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? And those were abandoned by philosophers as essentially unanswerable – but now scientists snuffling along, being mainly concerned with discovery, have begun to answer them with what can be called the three, advancing spearheads of scientific research: the assembly of cells and organisms at the molecular level. the assembly of the biosphere and the ecosystems of the biosphere, by the coming together of species and how these species are created, and finally the nature of the mind explained by the working of the brain at the level of neurons and of circuitry – and added to this, the history of each of these through geologic time. This is what scientists are approaching in the major advances now under way in twenty-first century biology.”


E. O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard entomologist and sociobiologist, has always been forthright in acknowledging the root of his vision for life. We can thank him for his candor. Many of his colleagues, however, who have a vested interested in maintaining watertight compartments between ‘science,’ ‘philosophy,’ and ‘religion’ are embarrassed by the way he ‘blurs’ the boundaries.

This quotation raises some very intriguing questions. What does this have to do with ‘science’ — if ‘science’ is understood in the narrow sense of performing repeatable, quantifiable, and falsifiable experiments? Why did Jim Metzner believe that this was ‘science’ — and not, say, ‘philosophy’ or ‘religion’? Why does Wilson believe that digging deeper into these areas of research with ever-increasingly sophisticated technologies will reveal the answers to the ‘big questions’ that philosophy abandoned? Why did philosophy abandon the search for answers to these questions — if it did? Why did Wilson abandon the answers that the Christian Faith has given to these questions? Where else are people looking for answers to these ‘big questions’? Why is this ‘confession of faith’ priviledged in taking the ‘pulse of the planet’?

Wilson’s quotation makes it crystal clear that ‘science’ is not a stand-alone enterprise; it depends on deeper philosophical and even religious commitments for guidance and direction. Once alert to such perspectives, one doesn’t have to look very long or hard to find similar ‘confessions of faith’ scattered throughout textbooks and the scientific periodical literature.

Lastly, this quotation reveals the sub-text of the rancorous exchanges in the intelligent design vs. Evolution debate. The search for Answers to the Big Questions never goes away; it is perennial. The only thing that has changed historically is Where people look for answers.

How can the answers of the Christian community satisfy this deep hunger and thirst for answering the Big Questions of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going? And how do its answers guide and direct its ‘science’?

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