|FAITH Magazine July-August 2008|
A special feature keeping us up to date with issues of science and religion
TEMPLETON WINNER, MIND AND MATHEMATICS
In mid-March it was announced that this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize – an extremely valuable prize awarded annually in recognition of, and promotion of, work for “research or discoveries about spiritual realities” – is Fr Michael Heller, a 72-yr-old Polish priest and physics professor. He received the prize on 7th May from the Duke of Edinburgh at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. At a reception after the award was given, Dr John Templeton, the founder of the Prize, said of Heller’s work that “his most creative writings can be concisely characterised as a meditation upon the miracle of the ‘mathematical essence of nature’.”
Fr Heller, of the Faculty of Philosophy in the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow, is a mathematical physicist whose background also involved a training in philosophy and theology. His current area of research is non-commutative geometry, a branch of mathematics which is likely to provide solutions in the mathematical treatment of ‘singularities’ such as in the physics of the ‘Big Bang’ beginning of the universe. He was ordained a priest in 1959 in Communist-controlled Poland, and after a period working in a parish, returned to academic studies in the Catholic University of Lublin, where his research focussed on general relativity and cosmology. When Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, became Archbishop of Krakow, in 1963, he began to encourage the activities ofintellectuals and priests in their interdisciplinary quest in science and philosophy, and Heller’s work flourished in this atmosphere, despite an ongoing repression from the Communist authorities. When eventually permitted to travel outside Poland he also pursued research in the universities of Leuven, Oxford, Leicester, Catholic University of America, and also the Vatican Observatory. He has written more than 30 books and almost 400 research papers.
Heller holds to a robust thesis of the compatibility of faith and science. His basic position comes in the consideration of the question, ‘Does the universe itself need to have a cause?’ It is a question he addressed at length in his statement on receiving the Templeton Prize. It is worth quoting him on this matter: “It is clear that causal explanations are a vital part of the scientific method. Various processes in the universe can be displayed as a succession of states in such a way that the preceding state is a cause of the succeeding one. If we look deeper at such processes, we see that there is always a dynamical law prescribing how one state should generate another state. But dynamical laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations, and if we ask about the cause of theuniverse we should ask about a cause of the mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the Great Blueprint of God’s thinking the Universe.”
In the same statement, he addressed the crucial issue of ‘randomness.’ “And what about chancy or random events? Do they destroy mathematical harmony of the universe, and introduce into it elements of chaos and disorder? Is chance a rival force of God’s creative Mind, a sort of Manicheistic principle fighting against goals of creation? But what is chance? It is an event of low probability which happens in spite of the fact that it is of low probability. If one wants to determine whether an event is of low or high probability, one must use the calculus of probability, and the calculus of probability is a mathematical theory as good as any other mathematical theory. Chance and random processes are elements of the mathematical blueprint of the universe in the same way as other aspects of theworld architecture.” Or, as he is reported elsewhere to have said, “God is also the God of chance events. What from our point of view is chance, from God’s point of view is His structuring of the universe.”
In the same vein, he is also vociferous in his opposition to so-called ‘Intelligent Design’ for reasons that he explains in his award statement. “Adherents of the so-called intelligent design ideology commit a grave theological error. They claim that scientific theories that ascribe the great role to chance and random events in the evolutionary processes should be replaced, or supplemented, by theories acknowledging the thread of intelligent design in the universe. Such views are theologically erroneous. They implicitly revive the old Manicheistic error postulating the existence of two forces acting against each other: God and an inert matter; in this case, chance and intelligent design. There is no opposition here. Within the all-comprising Mind of God what we call chance and randomevents is well composed into the symphony of creation.”
Before he knew of winning this year’s Templeton Prize, Fr Heller had already been planning with colleagues the establishment of the ‘Copernicus Centre’ in conjunction with the Jagiellonian University and the Pontifical Academy of Theology, both in Krakow. He now intends to use all the £820,000 prize money to help create this new institute, which will be an interdisciplinary research group in science, philosophy and theology, an integration of study which is close to his heart. He sees that there is so much need to bring philosophy back into science, to help address the key questions of time and space, determinism and causality, which modern physics throws up.
His statement on receiving the award can be read at www.templetonprize.org.