Scientific Inquiry Is 'Like Studying a Mystery'

'If there is intelligent life out there broadcasting signals into space, I suspect that we will find it sooner or later, or that it will find us. There's no use trying to ignore the possibility, regardless of the potential dangers of contact. (China tried that approach with England. It didn't work.)'

- The Mind's Sky'

SEEKING to learn while accepting that humans will never know the whole truth is "the spirit of scientific inquiry," says Timothy Ferris. It is like studying a mystery.

In a telephone interview, he defines mystery as "something that we don't know and are curious about. The reason the term is less popular among scientists is that they may be less apt to be curious about things that are too far away to be known." This in turn may simply reflect the fact that pursuing a mystery "is not a very practical research task" to them, he says.

Mystery is a working term he carries in his tool box of ideas for getting at the meaning of life. "I get the impression that there is a lot of voluntary relinquishing of intellectual tools, by people who haven't always thought over the consequences," he says. Asking unanswerable questions is a given for Ferris.

This penchant shows up in his scientific discussions about extraterrestrial life and about the concept of God, questions he neither ducks nor answers in his newest book, "The Mind's Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context."

Extraterrestrial life and the divine are topics that Ferris says far too many individuals, especially scientists, have gotten squeamish about. It is a counterproductive tendency, he asserts, and by writing about such subjects he hopes to help others overcome this reluctance.

"A lot of empiricists don't want to come close to religious questions because they think they are somehow disreputable or irrelevant. I find the concept of God much too important philosophically to abandon it.... It doesn't have anything to do with whether you believe in God, it's just that it is not a question you want to get squeamish about.... It wasn't that long ago that Pascal, looking for an example of something we would never know, said we would never know the composition of the stars. That partic ular mystery was solved within 50 years of that statement," he says.

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