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    Beyond Belief (Updated)
    Update 11.03.08: Videos of Beyond Belief 2008 are now available to stream online. Scroll down for more info.

    In case some of you don't know about this fantastic event...

    Beyond Belief 2006 brought together a diverse array of amazing minds from all areas of the scientific community, including such notable figures as Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, Ann Druyan, Sam Harris, Vilayanur Ramachandran, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The conference lasted three days and can be seen in its entirety through the official website (using Google Video).

    Just 40 years after a famous TIME magazine cover asked "Is God Dead?" the answer appears to be a resounding "No!" According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, "God is Winning". Religions are increasingly a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Fundamentalist movements - some violent in the extreme - are growing. Science and religion are at odds in the classrooms and courtrooms. And a return to religious values is widely touted as an antidote to the alleged decline in public morality. After two centuries, could this be twilight for the Enlightenment project and the beginning of a new age of unreason? Will faith and dogma trump rational inquiry, or will it be possible to reconcile religious and scientific worldviews? Can evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuroscience help us to better understand how we construct beliefs, and experience empathy, fear and awe? Can science help us create a new rational narrative as poetic and powerful as those that have traditionally sustained societies? Can we treat religion as a natural phenomenon? Can we be good without God? And if not God, then what?

    This is a critical moment in the human situation, and The Science Network in association with the Crick-Jacobs Center brought together an extraordinary group of scientists and philosophers to explore answers to these questions. The conversation took place at the Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA from November 5-7, 2006.

    ~ + ~

    The aim of Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0 is to invite participants to undertake together an ongoing reconnaissance of Enlightenment ideas in the light of advances in primarily cognitive neurosciences, evolutionary biology, physics etc. though not by any means scanting history, philosophy, law. The word reconnaissance is used advisedly. Although reconnaissance now usually means a military information-gathering exercise, the preference is for original root - recognoscere - which roughly suggests 'to get to know again'. The hope is to explore our current sense of Reason, Truth, Belief, Human Nature, Progress, Virtue and the Good Life in this light. It could be argued that the Enlightenment was not quite the disaster that some critics have suggested, and that version 2.0, and subsequent releases, could conceivably be a dynamic improvement if we set our minds to it, guided by that eudaemonic impulse.

    This is the sequel to Beyond Belief 1 - and the second in what we now are planning to be an annual series of conversations on this topic. There were over 3 million hits and over half a million downloads of some or all of the 15 hours of conversation, which is unedited, free of the tyranny of the soundbite; hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and hundreds of blogs and e-mails. Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0 will also be videotaped and subsequently webcast as part of TSN's educational mission - To Enlarge the Constituency of Reason. It will be highly interactive: the emphasis is less on formal presentation than on participation. Invitees play multiple roles - as presenters, panelists, and participating audience members. Above all, this is a conversation.

    Clearly, the religion/faith/belief issue will come up again - as it has most recently concerning Islamic science in the pages of Nature (with thoughts of Ziauddin Sardar's Commentary on 12 July, and Sam Harris' letter on August 23). But we would also like to consider exploring what Ed Wilson (with a nod to Condorcet) would call a Consilience direction. So as well as many of the participants from last year an additional contingent has been invited from the humanities "tribe" to help us better understand, amongst other things, The Sea of Faith, the Sleep (or Dream) of Reason, the Perils of Scientism, the possibly premature reports of the Death of Utopia and the reason for the recurrent calls for Re-Enchantment.

    We shall also re-visit some of last year's questions including: Can evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuroscience help us to better understand how we construct beliefs, and experience empathy, fear and awe? Can science help us create a new rational narrative as poetic and powerful as those that have traditionally sustained societies? If not God, then what? And we shall hopefully be weaving a rich tapestry including historical threads from sources including Spinoza, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Thomas Paine, William James, Beethoven, Bacon, Rawls and Alhazen.

    We really do think of this as an ongoing project to foster and promote the use of reason in formulating social policy. It is interesting that both ends of the political spectrum are currently gnashing teeth and blaming the others for either a "Retreat from Reason" or an "Assault on Reason". It would be refreshing to have a rational discussion about this!

    ~ + ~

    Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark is the third in an annual series of conversations: an ongoing project to foster and promote the use of reason in formulating social policy. This year, we asked participants to propose a Candle — a potential solution to a problem that they have identified in their area of expertise or informed passion.

    The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan wrote:

    Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

    At The Science Network, we embrace scientific meliorism (last year's meeting, after all, was entitled Enlightenment 2.0). We support science in its search for solutions. Can we better understand the neural underpinnings of human nature, our decision-making processes, the dynamics of trust and fear and human flourishing?

    This U.S. election year, when science and reason in the nation's deliberations have been repeatedly challenged as irrelevant or elitist, and science seems to be estranged from society, Sagan's words sound prophetic — an alarm call. Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark is our response.

    Tue, Dec 18, 2007  Permanent link
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