“…re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”
Science was my first passion – and for a reason. I was born in Northern Ireland, into a society torn apart by violence. Growing up between 1969, when the conflict started, and 1998, when a peace agreement finally stemmed the bloodshed, over three and a half thousand people died violent deaths. Thousands were killed because of the labels they adopted, or because of the labels forced upon them by others – British or Irish, Protestant or Catholic.
In the midst of the horror of almost daily sectarian murder, my father gave me a book, on astronomy, that changed my life. Reading it I discovered that our sun was but one star among billions; that the stars in the sky were all suns, just like our own only much farther away. I discovered that some stars were so far away from us that the light by which we see them may have began its journey before I was born, or even before the Earth was formed.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger had a phrase to describe what happened next – ‘escape into concern’. The philosopher described how life can often become unbearable, the reality around us too painful to bear. In such circumstances, Heidegger said, our psychology comes to our rescue. Sometimes this rescue is personally destructive, as when it leads to neurosis. But sometimes our unconscious creativity provides us with a life enhancing means of escape, an escape into concern, in which we devote our energy into an area of fascination sufficiently rich and rewarding so as to provide us with a life-long source of diversion and enrichment. For some people this concern is sport, for others music, for others still, literature. For me, my escape was science.
From then on the heroes of my childhood became scientists, and writers, such as Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg and Stephen Jay Gould. By studying science I learned about the vast age and scale of the cosmos, the randomness of the quantum world, the arbitrary laws of evolution, and the counter-intuitive laws of relativity. A number of life lessons emerged from my studies.
First I realised that the world of appearances is not necessarily the world as it really is. Second, it became clear that the discovery and comprehension of the world as it really is has been achieved only through a courageous adherence to the facts and the methods of science – often in the face of vehement opposition from authority in the form of popes, tyrants and kings. Thirdly, I learned that it is very easy to be wrong, and very often hard to be right. For me the study of science was a profound sermon on humility.
In stark contrast to the unshakable certainty of the religious and nationalist zealots waging war around me, science offered a radically different and more constructive alternative. The ability to admit that your views may be wrong, and that the beliefs you hold are subject to possible revision based on the discovery of new evidence, forms the very foundation of learning, of human development, of human progress – and of peace.
I discovered that this approach was not limited to science, but was shared by the most enlightened figures from the arts, and, as I would later learn, even by many religious figures too. “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense”, could have readily been said by Einstein as by the Buddha.
Today the methods of science are revealing to us another astonishing feature of reality that has been hidden from us until now. Psychology is demonstrating that humanity is divided between a normal majority, and a small but significant minority with psychological deviations that are sufficient to render them a separate type of human being. This small minority of people who suffer from dangerous personality disorders constitute a small percentage of the population in every society on earth. Though the specific characteristics of each of the personality disorders vary, they are united by two invariant traits – the drive to exert pathological control over others, and the constitutional inability to act with humility. And from that absence of humility springs most of the suffering in our world.