Can 35 academics make life better?
How to enhance life—and dessert.
Rice Krispie treats leave me cold, frankly. Brown-butter Nutella Rice Krispie treats topped with toasted hazelnuts, on the other hand, are a different story. There were four each on two platters at our table for a recent Divinity School Wednesday Lunch, and though I was stuffed after eating one—each being the size of my foot—only the possibility of public shame prevented me from taking another. Every Wednesday during the quarter, the Divinity School hosts a lunch in the Swift Hall Common Room. For $5, attendees get a delicious lunch, followed by a lecture from a faculty member, alumnus, or community member. Enhancing dessert is easy; enhancing life, the topic of that day’s lecture, is not. William Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics and codirector of the Enhancing Life Project, began by asking the audience for the University motto, which one member dutifully supplied: Crescat scientia; vita excolatur. But, Schweiker asked, “What in the world do we mean by ‘enhancing life’?” Nowadays an enhanced or enriched life tends to refer to biomedical enhancements: longer, healthier lifespans with less pain. But man does not live by biology alone. “We are convinced that both humanities and religious studies folks are committed to enhancing life,” said Gunter Thomas, a theology professor at Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum and the other codirector of the project, presenting alongside Schweiker. The project put out a general call for 35 scholars in four distinct areas: religious studies/philosophy, philosophy of science, social sciences, and communications and media studies. During their annual two-week retreat, to be held over three years, these scholars will have time to work on their individual academic pursuits, each related in some way to the idea of enhancing life. They will also convene for a “free flow of conversation,” Thomas said, around the question of what it means to enhance life, and how it could or should be done. “If this works, we’ll have overcome some of the divide between the sciences and the humanities,” Thomas said. For example, he said that in neuroscience, the difference between nature and culture—or biology and philosophy, to put it another way—is extremely blurry. Schweiker said the enduring perception is that “the humanities talk about meaning and the social sciences and sciences talk about reality. That’s been very damaging to the humanities.” With that said, there was a lot of talk about meaning. Surely an enhanced life must have some sort of spiritual component, everyone agreed. But what do we mean by “spiritual,” and what do we mean by “life”? For example, how does a martyr—who dies for a cause—gain eternal life? And, again, what do we mean by “enhance”? It was all a lot to ponder. Thankfully, no one had to do it on an empty stomach.