Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Physics World April 2008: Prof Michael Heller

The current issue of Physics World carries a news item reporting the award of the Templeton prize to Fr Michael Heller. The Templeton prize is awarded for "progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities", and has not infrequently been awarded to a scientist. The Physics World report suggests that Fr Heller is a "former priest"; this appears to be inaccurate (see below) and I think Fr Heller is still "Father", if you see what I mean. The same news report can be found here on the Physics World website, where it has attracted to date some 43 comments. This is far more comments than any other recent news items on the site. A number of the comments are quite aggresively anti-religious in tone, suggesting that the Templeton prize is without any credibility or that to hold a religious belief is to suspend rationality. Some of them do appear rather old fashioned and ill-thought out comments, but I suspect that may be part of the internet phenomenon - the thought put into a comment may well decline in proportion to the increase in ease of publishing the comment. Here, in any case, is one of the responses, from Lublin, Poland. Lublin is the home of the Catholic University of Lublin, the philosophical home ground of Pope John Paul II.

"The aggressive and downgrading tone of the comments by Existenciel, aroman, phizii is an illustration of a lamentable state of physics-centered closed-mindedness of their authors, but not the whole community of physicists. There are physicists who know that knowledge gained by physics as a whole - although crucially important - is not the only one that is possible and valuable. There are other disciplines of science, of philosophy, and theology, that answer to the questions that are not possible to deal with in terms of physics. Therefore, all attempts at limiting this narrow-mindedness stemming from either “imperialistically” oriented science, theology or philosophy, should be encouraged. Templeton Prize serves this end nicely and effectively, even though some may be dismayed by the fact, that some its laureates are not only physicists, but also religious, and – what is more - Catholic. BTW, prof. Michael Heller continues to be a Catholic priest."

And in a post from Moscow:

"It's regrettable but understandable that most opinions of western physicists in comments are so positivistic and atheistic. Rationalism is dominant and there no place for God in their world but it is only their world. To be physicist not equals to be atheist or agnostic."

It is very interesting that Fr Heller intends to use his prize to establish a centre to investigate questions in physics, theology and philosophy, affiliated to the Jagiellonian University and the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Cracow. The centre is reported at the moment as being dubbed the "Copernicus Centre", probably a tribute to the fact that Copernicus studied for a time in Cracow. It would, though, be a fascinating choice of name for what it might say about the relationship between science and Christian faith.


Rita said...

Last week I showed a DVD on wave-particle duality to my sixth form. They were fascinated. Their reaction to Polkinghorne was fascinating. Towards the Physicist/Mathemacician, they nodded, watched and listened, then when he was interviewed as a cleric two boys shouted "traitor" at the screen!

We then had a good discussion about the nature of "mystery" and "certainty" and how just maybe Physics and Theology may not be opposed to each other. One boy came up with the good point that "you couldn't be a religious fundamentalist and a physicist" (I wonder if he's right?). It is just a shame that religion is so often equated with religious fundamentalism in the mind-set of the young and the scientifically inclined.

Joe said...

"You couldn't be a religious fundamentalist and a physicist".

I do think there is something in this, though there is a need to be cautious about exactly what "fundamentalist" means. If it involves any rejection of reason (and this is a possibility, but not always, in, for example, a strict Evangelical outlook), then there is something in it. However, it is possible to hold beliefs firmly - and if this is what "fundamentalist" is taken to mean, then it remains completely neutral with regard to its compatability with being a physicist.

At the very least, not every religion/denomination is the same with regard to the possibilities of synthesising their religious beliefs and contemporary science. Catholicism has an advantage, I think, because of its tradition of philosophical thinking and a realist metaphysics.