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Vatican Astronomer Discusses the Harmony Between Science and Faith
In a lively lecture on big questions about science, faith and the evolution of the cosmos, the director of the Vatican Observatory told a packed auditorium at the AAAS on 27 March that science is quite capable of explaining the remarkable complexity of the natural world without reference to an intelligent designer.
The Rev. George V. Coyne said modern science has revealed a cosmos shaped by the interplay of randomness and necessity over the nearly 14 billion years since the Big Bang, a world of such fertile chemical variety that the emergence of life was inevitable.
Coyne argues that intelligent designthe notion that there is empirical evidence for the existence of an intelligent agent beyond natureactually belittles God by requiring divine action to explain unresolved questions about the material world.
Modern science provides "a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God," he says. "God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution." God did not make a universe "predetermined, all set up," Coyne told the AAAS gathering. "The universe shares in God’s own creativity."
The apparent directionality of evolution, from the simple to the more complex, in both celestial objects and life forms is the result of natural processes that occurred, hit and miss, in a universe with at least 10 sextillion (or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars. From the outset, he said, random encounters between atoms were governed by necessary laws of physics and chemistry.
"Take two hydrogen atoms in the very early universe," Coyne said. "They meet one another and by force, by necessityno chance about itthe laws of nature are such that those two atoms have to make a hydrogen molecule," Coyne said. "That’s what chemical bonding is all about."
Even if the two hydrogen atoms in question were unable to bond because pressure and temperature conditions were not quite right, there were trillions of others doing the same dance. "So why should you be surprised that a few hundred times, a few billion times, a hydrogen molecule is created," asks Coyne.
Eventually, giant clouds of gas and dust formed. As clouds broke apart, dense regions collapsed to form stars. The thermonuclear furnaces at the core of those stars transformed lighter elements into heavier elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and iron. As stars die, they spew those heavier elements into the universe. Under the right conditions, those elements can combine to form ever more complex molecules, including the building blocks of life. This growing chemical complexity, Coyne said, eventually gave rise to humans.
"If this were not happening, you and I would not be here," Coyne said. "That’s a scientific fact." It makes sense, he said, that "the human brain came to be through this process of chemical complexification."
Coyne spoke as part of a lecture series sponsored by AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER). The Coyne lecture drew attendees from the Astrobiology Science Conference 2006, which advertised the lecture as a special AAAS event for registrants. Coyne also participated in a panel on public perceptions of evolution during the 26-30 March astrobiology conference in Washington. The panel was co-organized by Connie Bertka, the director of DoSER, who also gave a plenary presentation on responding to the intelligent design movement. AAAS established DoSER in 1995 to promote communication between scientific and religious communities. The program builds on AAAS's long-standing commitment to relate scientific knowledge and technological development to the purposes and concerns of society at large.
Coyne, a Jesuit priest, joined the Vatican Observatory as an astronomer in 1969 and became director in 1978. He also has had a long association with the University of Arizona, which hosts the Vatican Observatory Research Group at its Steward Observatory.
The notion that chance events play a large role in the workings of the natural world can be unsettling, even to some scientists. Physicist Albert Einstein, dissatisfied with the randomness and uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics, once remarked famously that God "does not play dice." But Coyne notes the rejoinder by an eminent molecular biologist who said God does play dice but only after "loading the dice.’’
According to Coyne, God made a universe with a certain dynamism that plays outs over time. Science, in its efforts to explain the evolution of the natural world, is completely neutral on whether there are any theistic or atheistic implications from that process, he says.
Coyne has criticized the claim by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna that neo-Darwinian evolution is incompatible with Catholic doctrine. Coyne said Schonborn’s embrace of the "intelligent design" movement represents a "tragic" episode in the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to science.
"One gets the impression from certain religious believers that they fondly hope for the durability of certain gaps in our scientific knowledge of evolution, so that they can fill them with God," Coyne has written. But if religious believers respect the results of modern science, he says, they must "move away from the notion of a dictator God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly."
For Coyne, religious faith and scientific pursuits coexist quite comfortably. "This scientific knowledge of the universe enriches my faith," he said. It is a faith marked by a very personal relationship with God, he said, one that is not derived from the rational methodologies of science. "It’s a free, gratuitous gift" from God, he said.
30 March 2006