Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine July – August 2011

New Pontifical Academy President Says he is Agnostic on Natural Theology but that the Pope is not

The new Swiss president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Werner Arber, won the 1978 Nobel Prize for Medicine. He is the first Protestant to hold the position.

Presumably including the philosophy of science in his general use of the word "science" he says: "Until now science hasn't been able to prove whether God exists or not - whatever God may be. What might be possible in 100 years, I can't say. As a scientist, I don't see any primordial will to create human beings. But... I as an evolutionary biologist can't say how the first living organism came into being. ... I've been told by those surrounding [the Pope] that the Catholic Church sees 'permanent creation' in biological and cosmic evolution." [source:]

"Soft" Atheist Wins Templeton Prize

Perhaps the most notable annual event in the science-faith world, at least for the wider public, is the awarding of the Templeton Prize. In April, the 2011 award was made to Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College Cambridge. He has spent his research career in the fields of astrophysics and cosmology. He is renowned as a non-believer, and yet has adopted a non-aggressive stance towards religion, unlike zealous atheists such as Richard Dawkins. In fact, the latter has openly criticised Rees in the past, labelling him last year a "compliant quisling" for his openness to those of faith ... or, at least, his openness to the Templeton Foundation. One's first reaction to Rees's being awarded the 2011 Prize, admittedly, could be one of sympathy with Dawkins'sarcastic dictum, that "the Templeton Prize [is] a very large sum of money given annually by the Templeton Foundation, usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion" {The God Delusion, p. 19). Yet, while previous recipients have included renowned Catholic scientists -including Fr Stanley Jaki (1987), Fr Michael Heller (2008), and Francisco Ayala (2010) - there have also been many others who have tackled Templeton's so-called 'big questions' from angles not so wedded to a faith perspective.

Rees boldly stated, at the time of publicity over Hawking's The Grand Design, "I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don't think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic."

Rees's eligibility for the prize originates from his looking at the 'big questions' of the universe from an astronomer's stand-point. In particular, the perennial question of the nature and size of the physical universe, while not strictly a spiritual question, is still an awesome question for mankind. And Rees, in his book Before the Beginning does strongly affirm the significant fact that the "universe is a unity," while preferring, for reasons that are not clear, the multiverse hypothesis, arguing, in the manner much discussed in these pages, that this bigger cosmos removes the need for a creator.

Any one of us might agree that looking up at the night sky can bring on a feeling of awe: the size of it, the splendour of it, the questions it poses us. Rees has devoted much of his research career to probing the depths of space, as he stated at the announcement of the award:

"'Big questions' are central to the Templeton Foundation's agenda. None are bigger than those posed by cosmology: How large is physical reality? What is the role of life in the cosmos? How did our complex cosmos emerge, giving rise to conscious beings able to ponder the wonder and mystery of their existence?"

He also drew attention to some of the "gaps" in humanity's knowledge, even after the great advances of the 20th and early-21st centuries. There are not just the problems of the very large (cosmology) or the very small (quantum) but also the very complex. As Rees says: "Reductionism is true in a sense. But it's seldom true in a useful sense." He is also mindful that the enigma of the beginnings of life remains another great avenue of research, and has emphasised that astronomy has a part to play there as well, especially with the great strides being taken in the investigation of exoplanets (cf. Cutting Edge of the March/April 2011 issue).

Yet, it is clear that Rees does not see the uniqueness of the human being on earth, choosing instead to see him just another stage in some ongoing evolutionary process.

Rees claims that

"most people still somehow think we humans are the culmination of the evolutionary tree - and that hardly seems credible to an astronomer. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out. According to the best current ultra-long-range forecast, the expanding universe will continue-perhaps until infinity- becoming ever colder, ever emptier. So, even if life were now unique to Earth, there would be abundant scope for post human evolution on the Earth or far beyond."

This would seem one point of departure from the Catholic vision. We affirm rational evidence for the uniquely spiritual dimension of the human person. Our faith in Christ sees the Incarnation of God in human form as securing a definitiveness to the human being; while the human physical make-up is open to a degree of change - such as getting gradually taller - a species able to commune with God in virtue of being made up of body and soul will not mutate into a new one.

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