Skip to main content

Graduation Speech -- Ian Barbour '44

29 May, 2000

You are the first class to graduate from Swarthmore in a new millennium that will see dramatic advances in science and technology. I want to suggest three ways in which these new discoveries are likely to challenge our thinking.

First, molecular biology will challenge our view of human nature. Molecular biology will vastly increase our understanding of biological phenomena and we will be tempted to think that it will be able to explain everything. Reductionism is the assumption that behavior at higher levels of organization can be exhaustively explained in terms of the behavior of lower-level components: psychology is just biology, and biology is just complicated chemistry, and so forth. I would argue that at each level we need distinctive concepts that cannot be reduced to each other. Parts affect wholes from the bottom up, but wholes also affect parts from the top down. We are indeed profoundly influenced by our genes and our freedom is much more restricted than we thought, but we are not totally determined by our genes. Neuroscience and research on the brain will challenge the traditional dualism of body and soul, but they do not support reductionism. I suggest that we are unitary beings with many levels of organization and activity. Each of us is at the same time a biological organism and a responsible person.

Second, astronomy will challenge our ideas of God. Since Darwin's day, the popular press has given attention to two groups, the biblical idealists who accepted God but not evolution, and the atheistic scientists who accepted evolution but not God. But between these extremes have been many scientists and religious leaders who have accepted both God and evolution. Some of them said that evolution is God's way of creating. Others portrayed an immanent God working within the process, not a purely transcendent God intervening occasionally from outside. But now astronomy shows us an immense span of time and space since the Big Bang 12 million years ago. Of course science cannot tell us why there is a universe at all, or why it has the laws it has. If the fundamental constants in the early universe had been even a tiny bit different, the universe would have expanded too rapidly for galaxies to form, or it would have expanded too slowly and collapsed before life and consciousness could emerge.

Within the last few years, planets have been discovered going around others starts — a total of 27 planets so far. There are billions of galaxies each with billions of starts, so it appears probable that life exists on other planets — and perhaps even intelligent life, though not necessarily creatures like us with ten fingers and two legs. Surely a universal God would be revealed in the history of other planets, and not just in the history of one people on one planet. In the biblical view, the Holy Spirit is present not just in human life but throughout the cosmos, and we are only now beginning to glimpse the scope of that cosmos. Our religious thought must be commensurate with the universe in which we live.

Third, technology and the application of science will raise new ethical issues. The risks and the environmental impacts of many technologies fall unequally on different groups in society, so questions of social justice arise. New technologies tend to increase the gap between rich and poor countries, and between rich and poor families within a country. You may work on an expensive cure for a very rare disease, while millions are dying around the globe for lack of a cheap vaccine. How are priorities for medical research established, and how are the fruits of that research distributed? You can build better computers whose use in the classroom can help children prepare for future jobs. How can we make computer literacy available to all children? We are only beginning to be aware of global threats to the environment, such as global warming and resource depletion. Only through political processes can we take into account these indirect and long-term impacts which do not enter into the short-term decisions of the market place.

Genetic engineering will give us the power to alter human nature itself. Take cloning, for example. I don't have any objection to cloning Dolly the sheep in Scotland to make better medical therapies, but when you start talking about human cloning, I'm more dubious. What would the motives be? A father might want to make an exact duplicate of himself or a mother might want to replace a child who has been lost. Think of the burden of expectations that put on the new child. You won't find anything in the Bible that says, "Thou shalt not clone." But you will find that the biblical perspective supports some values, such as human dignity and the importance of the family, that are relevant to policy decisions about cloning. You can also turn to philosophical principles, but you will have to apply them in new situations that have never been encountered before.

So my charge to you is this. As you leave Swarthmore, you will be under various kinds of pressure to specialize. Some of you will be in competitive jobs in which your success is judged by narrow criteria. Others will be in graduate programs requiring intensive specialization, and it will be tempting to think that you discipline has all the answers. So let me encourage you to keep an interdisciplinary perspective as you encounter the discoveries of the new millennium. I hope you will reflect on the ethical issues arising from your work, and seek ways to express your concern on your job and through public interest groups, community organizations, and political processes. My wish for you is wisdom and commitment in working for justice and sustainability on our amazing and beautiful planet.