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A Moral Vacuum

June 11, 2009
Commentary contributed by Harriet Witt · Lahaina

Dear Craig Foltz,

Thank you for your ear at the Cameron Center on June 3. Our conversation has helped me to see your position more clearly.

As an award-winning science writer, I’m familiar with the back-story to the situation we’re facing today. In the early 1600s, mathematician Rene Descartes seriously considered burning his papers for fear of what the Roman Catholic Church would do to him if they found his work. Fortunately for science, Descartes had social connections that got him an audience with the Pope, and he was ready for dialog because the church was starting to have public relations problems after imprisoning Galileo and burning more than a million people at the stake.

Descartes negotiated with the Pope on behalf of the handful of scientists working in Europe at the time, and the two men arrived at a handshake agreement. By the terms of this agreement, the church would never speak of the material world; scientists would never speak of value, meaning or spirit. This agreement worked so well it became habitual. Like any habit, it came to feel normal and natural—as if it were a property of reality.

Today, after nearly 400 years of avoiding issues of value, meaning or spirit, scientists are working in a moral vacuum. Scientific decisions that impact our entire planet are often dictated by the selfish personal ambitions of individual scientists.

The Pope can’t punish us for doing science anymore. However, we can punish ourselves—and our planet—if we don’t heal the wound inflicted upon us by the deal that Descartes was forced to make with the Pope.

To heal this wound, we must feel this wound. We must recognize the tragic moral vacuum that’s allowing the future of science to be envisioned by the blinding personal ambitions of individual scientists.

Healing science’s 400-year-old wound is not about religion; it’s about nature. She can render extinct any species who upsets her balance. Our species has begun seriously upsetting her balance. With this in mind, I ask you to please spend a few hours alone in Haleakalä Crater, away from Science City. Let yourself be humbled and inspired by nature. Then decide whether your career goals really do benefit us all.



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