A Celebration of Science and Reason
By Spencer Schaffer
Existence. Religion. Sense of self. These topics were tackled by three esteemed scientists and pronounced Atheists during A Celebration of Science and Reason, which is currently on a national tour around the United States. Developed by Travis Pangburn and his company Pangburn Philosophy, the concept behind the project is to share and discuss the roles of Atheism and Science in a world of growth and change. Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, and Matt Dillahunty shared the stage of the Chicago Theater to address topics of religion, current science, and existential wonders, and how these things affect the lives of humans in the past, present, and future.
In the first part of the show, Lawrence Krauss, a vocal Atheist and astrophysicist, took time to share current developments in modern science, as well as his views on the sense of self and being. He also discussed current events, including statements regarding politics, education, and economics. Concerning education in today’s society, Krauss argued that schools are teaching incorrectly.
He insisted that educational institutions must teach students how to learn, rather than throwing facts at them to memorize. The correct way to learn, he says, is to allow the student to actively seek out subjects of interest, in order to maintain the innate sense of discovery that exists within every child.
Krauss also discussed the significance of awe and inquisitiveness in humans of all ages. “Perhaps the best thing a scientist can say is ‘I don’t know,’ because that allows us to work together to find a solution,” Krauss said. He went on to describe how schooling today is based on memorizing useless facts and reciting them, which is a hindrance to the learning process, especially because modern technology allows us to access any information we want in an instant.
Religious critic and philosopher Sam Harris also expanded on the importance of education styles in schools today. When asked the question whether the next generation knows how to separate the truth from the lies, and whether they even care enough to want to know the difference, Harris responded by addressing the common fear that the next generation is insufficiently prepared to deal with the problems they are faced with, and that this may very well be a result of advancements in modern technology.
“If you can’t sit in a room alone by yourself without your smartphone, you have a problem.”
In a similar sense, Krauss stressed the idea of having the ability to “separate the sense from the nonsense” when it comes to accessible information. As a result of today’s fake news mania, he stressed the importance of being able to sift through the “garbage” in order to find out what is true and what is false.
The evening explored many different facets of human life through a religious and philosophical lens, including the topic of meditation and mindfulness. Harris took the opportunity to speak of the multiple benefits of the practice, as well as the effects it can have on one’s character. Harris dove swiftly into how meditation has positively affected many aspects of his life, and advocated for the activity by emphasizing its capacity to help people confront issues in their daily lives.
“I used to be terrified of public speaking,” Harris admitted to an audience of around three thousand. “But now, it’s no problem.”
Krauss, however, continually qualified and challenged Harris’s ideas regarding meditation. Krauss argued that when observed by means of a Westernized contemporary perspective, the concept of meditation can take many different forms that vary from traditional practice. “If I’m working on a complex physics problem, I can get completely lost in it, and lose all sense of time,” Krauss said. “But I can’t sit like you do for even a minute.” Krauss is suggesting that meditation comes in all shapes and sizes rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, and therefore will be uniquely different for everybody. Anybody who experiences this feeling of flow, or getting lost in time and space is essentially experiencing the same feeling in varied forms.
Later in the discussion, Krauss addressed environmental concerns, placing significant focus on protecting the planet with the assumed mindset that we are alone in the universe. His point was that we must first understand what it is that drives human beings to take action on certain things, explain those actions with science, and then work toward influencing the actions of others in order to further develop functions of our species and preserve life on planet Earth.
The second half of the presentation was designed to address questions from the audience. Two lines of people extended beyond the back door of the auditorium, and questions ranged from beating addiction with free will, to the effects of studying meditation and spirituality with Indian gurus in order to achieve enlightenment. Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss—being experts in their fields—gave phenomenal performances while answering these questions. Their responses were quick, concise, and intelligent. The deep thinkers repeatedly tossed around big words in order to formulate their ideas into language, which was overwhelming at times, but simple enough to understand.
Travis Pangburn, CEO and President of Pangburn Philosophy agreed to meet with me for an interview after the show—something I was told he rarely does. With a Stella Artois in his hand, we conversed for over a half an hour on the goals of Pangburn Philosophy, as well as his personal views on topics such as morality, truth, and consciousness. Pangburn’s hope is to draw larger audiences to events such as A Celebration of Science and Reason, in order to deepen the social conversation regarding the changing role of religion in today’s world, as well as to provide a sort of “protection against underprivileged children” who face abuse and neglect at home. Another dimension of his company, he said, is aimed toward synthesizing art and science into one entity, where each influences the other. He believes that art has the potential to ask the big questions, whereas science as the power to answer those questions.
Building on what Lawrence Krauss brought up during the discussion, Pangburn agrees that education in today’s society is backwards and misled. “Education is about allowing the student to discover their own path toward the solution, rather than forcing them to memorize and regurgitate.” His argument is based on the concept of implicit discovery rather than the explicit demand of knowledge. When asked how he would recommend teaching the “right way” to learn, Pangburn answered by referring to a previous statement he made, which is to help cultivate a system of education where students have the liberty to explore many facets of life and science, free from the restraints of a restrictive classroom dynamic.
In an evening of intensive playful debate and thought-provoking dialogue, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, and Matt Dillahunty did their best to approach complicated topics of human existence through the lense of atheism and science. Although there may have been some controversial statements made throughout the evening, the governing factor of events such as these is exactly that: to raise the unanswered questions with the intent of generating a global discussion and progressive thoughts about these subjects—thoughts that will hopefully someday translate into advantageous and fruitful actions.