06/22/2012 05:47 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

An Universal Ethic for Science?

Professors love to pontificate, and sometimes at far greater length than they should. But underlying this obvious truth is sometimes a well-honed skill for finding words, in real time, to express an evolving idea. Like pianists and athletes, well-practiced professors have autonomic systems that take care of the essentials of their craft so that they can inject their energy, thought, and personality at just the right moment. For a professor, this involves planning sentences ahead; modulating loudness, tone, and body motion; and all the while measuring audience reaction and understanding. This frees the mind and soul to achieve a new synthesis that, on occasion, makes the individual lecture or discussion a unique and unrepeatable event for both the audience and the professor.

As part of a journalism project, one of my students was interviewing me about cosmology, and particularly about the evolution of the universe, when the conversation took a slightly unexpected turn.

"What about the future of the human race?"

I was in full flight as a cosmologist and remarked that we were not much more than a grease spot on a lump of rock. I was about to continue on this theme, but my audience did not like having all of humanity written off in such a cavalier manner.

"What can we do?"

"Not a lot. The Sun is going to evaporate the entire solar system in 7 billion years. We would obviously need to move out by then. However, the universe will eventually become uninhabitable for any form of intelligent life: The universe will approach absolute zero temperature, galactic clusters will become immensely widely separated, and eventually all the matter will be collected into black holes at the center of where galaxies used to be."

"But what about the very near future?"

I continued with apocalyptic themes: global warming, pandemic diseases, overpopulation, habitat destruction, wars caused by environmental degradation... My student frowned and continued undeterred.

"So, again, what can we do?"

I instinctively dove for the safety of being a theorist in a non-applied science.

"This is really not my area of expertise, and the tragedy is that people and their politicians have really stopped listening to anyone who tries to point to consequences of actions that go beyond 'bread and circuses.' They care more about the cost of cable TV than about good stewardship of the planet."

"But what would you tell those people who would listen? What can science and scientists do to help guide them?"

There it was: one of those magical moments that can lead to deeper understanding or deeper disappointment, a moment that must be carefully and honestly addressed from the heart as well as from science.

As an atheist, I have always made a point of reading about religion and religious beliefs, sometimes to understand humanity better, and at other times to simply understand the enemy: dogma. Due to great respect for a religious colleague and friend, I have been reading a number of books about Buddhism. As a non-theistic religion that places empiricism above scriptural authority, Buddhism is far more appealing to me than the Abrahamic religions, and particularly the Protestant faith in which I was (rather loosely) raised. Buddhism still contains much pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo about the interconnectedness of all things to levels that violate causality, relativity, and even the foundations quantum mechanics. On the other hand, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are a much more satisfying basis for an ethical system than the Ten Commandments of my Christian upbringing.

My autonomic systems were playing for time as I rooted through my mental attic to find a good answer to my student. The answer formed unconsciously, and straight out of the fundamental principles of Buddhism.

"Decrease suffering," I suggested. "All science can do is decrease the suffering of all species, not just humans, as we face and try to handle future calamities."

Maybe it wasn't a blindingly original thought (it certainly dates back to the Buddha, if not earlier), but for me it was something of an epiphany. As a physicist, I seek the fundamental, universal laws that underpin how the universe works. As an atheist, I have a well-established and well-thought-out ethical code, and I had thought that such things were personal and culturally dependent. Indeed, attempts to make ethical codes into universal truths can lead, and have led, to some of the very worst aspects of organized religion.

Many admirable ethical ideals are culturally dependent. The Hippocratic Principle of "do no harm" works well for medicine but would paralyze science and engineering, because there is always a dark side to any piece of knowledge. At that moment in that interview, I realized that a universal moral imperative based on working to decrease suffering is something that I and, I think, many scientists could embrace, and upon which one might even become positively evangelical.

More importantly, my student seemed to agree.