Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Creator and the Created: the 2008 Templeton Prize

Michael Heller, a Polish theologian, cosmologist and philosopher, was awarded the 2008 Templeton Prize “For Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.”

In accepting the prize, professor Heller said, “Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence. The paradox is that these two great values seem often to be in conflict. I am frequently asked how I could reconcile them with each other. When such a question is posed by a scientist or a philosopher, I invariably wonder how educated people could be so blind not to see that science does nothing but explore God’s creation.”

Heller was only 4-years old in 1940 when Joseph Stalin banished 1 million Poles, including Heller, his four siblings and his parents, to Siberia. This was after the Germans had invaded Poland in 1939 and Heller’s family had to flee from Tarnow, Poland, to what is now Ukraine. The suffering he experienced and witnessed in Siberia became for him a life-defining experience. Even at that tender age he sensed that many people survived the brutal Siberian extremities through the power of prayer. Heller resolved that if he survived the ordeal, he would take on one of life’s greatest challenges. “I always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion,” he recalled.

Heller wrote 30 books, almost all of them dedicated to the creative dialogue between science, theology, and philosophy. His seminal contribution was to see in these seemingly distinct realms of human understanding a profound synergy, and he used his considerable intellect and insight in clarifying the nature of this synergy for us.

Attention to Heller’s work comes at a critical time. Scientists such as Richard Dawkins and atheists/secularists such as Christopher Hitchens have declared a war on religion. Their books are best-sellers. Many religionists have responded in kind, polarizing the religion-science issue further. What we seem to overlook is that inflexible ideologies, both secular and religious, drive away common sense, a loss for all. It is this loss that Heller is determined to stem, by engaging our collective common sense and without minimizing the complexity involved in reconciling the knowable scientific world with the mysterious, and ultimately unknowable, nature of God. Through a rare combination of scientific acumen and theological insight, Heller addresses fundamental questions of knowledge and meaning in a holistic context that go far beyond the parochial arguments of the secularists and the religionists. In doing so, he also rejects a “God of the gaps” theory that uses God to explain what science cannot.

In a chapter titled “Cosmological Singularity and the Creation of the Universe
from his book “Creative Tension,” for instance, Heller writes how difficult it would be to find a book or an article on cosmology in which the author is silent on the Big Bang and the creation of the universe. But, Heller notes, it would be even harder to find a book or an article in which this problem is dealt with responsibly from the point of view of both science and theology. This is what Heller boldly sets out to do. By tracing the evolution of singularity as it relates to the origin of the universe, from Newton and Friedman to Einstein and Hawkins and others, Heller writes that “God knows the outcomes of laws and chance not by calculating from the initial conditions, but in the same direct way as God knows everything. What for us is a chance, for God is a detail of the picture that is simply present.” Even though such a viewpoint disturbs some theologians who speak of God’s immanence over God’s transcendence, Heller shows that this is nitpicking, that a transcendent God is also an immanent God. A reader may have difficulty following Heller’s carefully constructed arguments, but no one can accuse him of lacking rigor in his thinking, moving fluently between the scientific and the theological world as only one deeply versed in both can.

In the chapter called “Generalizations: From Quantum Mechanics to God”
in the same book, Heller raises the metaphysical question, so persistently asked by the 17th-century German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Heller suggests that we read old religious masters from the perspective of the most recent scientific theories such as quantum mechanics. We should not repeat their doctrines blindly, he writes, but look at them with an eye sharpened by the enlargements of imagination prompted by the achievements of modern science. He writes: “Today we ask such questions as: How old is the Universe? Did it initiate in a “Big Bang”? Will the future theory of quantum gravity remove the initial singularity appearing in the standard cosmological model? Is the fundamental level of the world atemporal and nonlocal? There are many similar queries. All these questions are purely scientific, and we hope that, with the continuous progress in developing our theoretical and empirical tools, we will sooner or later find answers to some of them. I do believe that this will greatly contribute to our better posing of philosophical and theological questions, and more cautiously formulating tentative answers to them. The main lesson we should learn from science in this respect is that we must always be open to broader and broader horizons.”

Finally, in the chapter titled “Chaos, Probability, and the Comprehensibility of the World,"
Heller writes: “Modern developments in science have discovered two kinds of elements (in the Greek sense of this word) shaping the structure of the Universe—the cosmic elements (integrability, analycity, calculability, predictability) and the chaotic elements (probability, randomness, unpredictability, and various stochastic properties). I think I have convincingly argued in this chapter for a thesis that the chaotic elements are in fact as “mathematical” as the cosmic ones, and if the cosmic elements provoke the question of why the world is mathematical, the same is true as far as the chaotic elements are concerned. On this view, cosmos and chaos are not antagonistic forces but rather two components of the same Logos immanent in the structure of the Universe.” This is why Heller believes that religious objection to teaching evolution “is one of the greatest misunderstandings” because it “introduces a contradiction or opposition between God and chance.”

When evolutionists and intelligent design proponents clashed in 2005 over the origin of life, spawning legal fights over high school biology curricula in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Ohio and other states, I wrote in an article
that “There are many theologians from different faiths who find in the theory of evolution evidence of God’s glorious self-disclosure, and many scientists whose research leads them to ask the deeper questions of life – why are we here, why do we suffer, what makes our life meaningful - that lie outside the realm of science.” I also wrote, “The unexplored region between religion and science beckons people with open minds seeking spiritual and scientific truths. Is it not possible that wildflowers of insight will bloom on it if nurtured with humor and humility?” I did not know then that the ideal I had in my mind when I wrote those sentences were theologian-scientists like Michael Heller.

Heller’s concluding statement after winning the Templeton Prize for 2008 should become a basis for public discourse on religion and science in America and elsewhere: “When thinking about science as deciphering the Mind of God, we should not forget that science is also a collective product of human brains, and the human brain is itself the most complex and sophisticated product of the universe. It is in the human brain that the world's structure has reached its focal point – the ability to reflect upon itself. Science is but a collective effort of the Human Mind to read the Mind of God from question marks out of which we and the world around us seem to be made. To place ourselves in this double entanglement is to experience that we are a part of the Great Mystery. Another name for this Mystery is the Humble Approach to reality … The true humility does not consist in pretending that we are feeble and insignificant, but in the audacious acknowledgement that we are an essential part of the Greatest Mystery of all – of the entanglement of the Human Mind with the Mind of God.”

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