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Religion and Science: Interview with Sir John Templeton

Article: Theosophy-Science Group Newsletter, December 2015, p2

There is a widespread belief by fundamentalist Christians that the world and all living creatures including humans were created about 6,000 years ago, rather than life evolving by natural selection and survival of the fittest. This denial of science is difficult to maintain and a new phenomenon has arisen in the form of so called ‘creation science’ which purports to demonstrate that rather than life evolving by recognised biological processes, evolution occurred as a result of intervention by an intelligent designer, presumably intended to be God. Does that mean the rejection of a literal interpretation of Genesis or did all the evolution occur in 6,000 years?

Locally, the purveyors of this doctrine have produced a DVD which they have sent to 3,000 schools with the request that it be taught in science classes. Freedom of belief is very important but attempting to undermine the legitimate teaching of science in this surreptitious way is reprehensible. It is also a shallow way of trying to introduce the concept of God or some form of Supreme Being into science. How should scientists respond? Charles Birch who is very interested in religion and science says (Sydney Morning Herald, November 14) that he thinks it would be much better to ignore it than to argue with them, which only gives them publicity which is what they want. He is cited as saying that as a believer in a God of ‘purpose’ rather than a blueprint wielding designer, he is not drawn to the idea of a deity who is invoked to explain away any scientific mysteries. Birch is also cited as being one of the scientists who helped persuade Pope John Paul II of the strength of evidence for evolution. Paul Davies has also said that Pope John Paul II told him he had no problem with the big bang.

Much better than teaching so called ‘creation science’ would be finding a way to introduce students to some of the serious attempts being made in recent years to reconcile religion and science or to find common ground, as we have been discussing in this Newsletter from time to time. Writers such as Birch, Kauffman, Conway Morris and Davies come to mind. Especially pertinent is Davies’ concept of “teleology without teleology” whereby God creates laws which allow complexity to function in such a way as to ensure that desirable outcomes emerge but without specific detailed intervention. Davies has said in The Mind of God, (Orion Publications, 1992) that he does not believe in a personal God but could accept ‘an impersonal creative principle’. Apart from many individuals, there are organizations which legitimately try to reconcile religion and science; for example, the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the Templeton Foundation.

Interview with Sir John Templeton

There is a brief report in New Scientist for September 17, 2005 of an interview with Sir John Templeton on what he is trying to achieve. Now 92, Templeton was a highly successful investor and fund manager. In 1999 he sold his Funds and set up the Templeton Foundation. He gives about $40 million a year from an investment of about $1 billion. Several scientists have received Templeton prizes including Charles Birch, Paul Davies and George Ellis. Asked why it is important to bring science and religion together, Templeton says that science creates vast power and massive advances in technology but does not itself create ‘stewardship’, the wisdom and capability to direct power to beneficent ends. Asked what kind of research he supports, he responds:

“A very promising new line of research we are supporting has to do with the spiritual theme of purpose? Does our universe have or serve a purpose? Do we have a purpose? Can science explore such topics? One area that we are funding that has an impressive scientific record in regard to this is the so-called bio-centricity hypothesis: are the physical and chemical properties of nature fine-tuned for life, such that if they were slightly different, life could not have existed? Asked about criticism, he rebuts the suggestion of some people that he is pushing a particular religious position. However he also comments that ‘some people think that science is a kind of ultimate priesthood in itself, that it should be the ultimate religion and pay no attention whatsoever to God. That is a kind of fundamentalism of its own”.

Charles Birch and Paul Davies have both won Templeton prizes for the type of research which Templeton quite rightly especially favours. Charles Birch (now long retired) was Challis professor of biology at Sydney University and has written several books reconciling science and religion. He regards consciousness as primary and says that even the attraction between electron and proton is a primitive form of consciousness. Davies, originally from England but long based in Australia, has published several books on the theme, such as Cosmic Blueprint and The Mind of God. We have followed these and more recent writings in this Newsletter. He says he would like to believe that life and mind are inherent in the universe. American, Stuart Kauffman has contributed to the inevitability of evolution of humanity via complexity theory and more recently Simon Conway Morris from England has pursued the same theme through the phenomenon of emergence in biology. All of these (and others) have been represented in this Newsletter. Could Conway Morris perhaps be due for a Templeton prize?

Reconciling Evolutionary Science And God

A View from the Vatican’s Chief Astronomer — George Coyne

In an article in The Tablet (August 6, 2005), the Vatican’s chief astronomer, George Coyne attempts to rebut a claim by Cardinal Schönborn (New York Times, July 7, 2005) that neo-Darwinism is incompatible with the Church’s belief in God’s purpose and design in creation. He draws attention to an International Theological Commission under the presidency of Cardinal Ratzinger (shortly before he became the Pope), which “Issued a lengthy statement in which it saw no incompatibility between God’s providential plan for creation and the results of a truly contingent evolutionary process in nature”. Coyne also refers to “the epoch-making declaration of John Paul II in 1996 to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in which he declared that evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis and then proceeded, far from any thought of incompatibility, to draw reasonable implications for religious belief from that conclusion”.

Coyne says there are no grounds for a concern within the Church that life evolving over billions of years “through a process of random genetic mutations and natural selection, escapes God’s dominion.” He comments that science is neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications. He says that there are three processes involved in evolution of the universe; chance, necessity and the fertility of the universe”. Presumably by fertility he means something akin to what Kauffman, Davies and others refer to as complexity, the fact that in complex situations, a new level of order can arise in a manner which is not specifically predictable. Conway Morris takes this further by suggesting that, in the evolution of life, this process inevitably leads to the emergence of appropriate outcomes such as humans.

Coyne continues: “The classical question as to whether the human being came about by chance, and so has no need of God, or by necessity, and so through the action of a designer God, is no longer valid. And so any attempt to answer it is doomed to failure. The fertility of the universe, now well established by science, is an essential ingredient, and the meaning of chance and necessity must be seen in the light of that fertility. … Chance processes and necessary processes are continually interacting in a universe which is 13.7 billion years old. … While science cannot claim to know all of the links in the evolutionary chain, nor especially the passage to living organisms, there is a very strong evidence for a large degree of continuity in the process. … The search for life’s origins may be in vain. There may be no clear origin, no clear threshold as seen by science, between the non-living and the living”.

At this point Coyne asks what should we say to the religious believer and he says: “It is unfortunate that creationism has come to mean some fundamentalistic, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis. Judaeo-Christian faith is radically creationist, but in a totally different sense. It is rooted in a belief that everything depends on God. … If we confront what we know of our origins scientifically, with religious faith in God the Creator – if, that is, we take the results of modern science seriously – it is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the sense of many of the scholastic philosophers. …

“This stress on our scientific knowledge is not to place a limitation upon God. Far from it. It reveals a God who made a universe that has within it a certain dynamism and thus participates in the very creativity of God. Such a view of creation can be found in early Christian writings, especially in those of St. Augustine in his comments on Genesis. If they respect the results of modern science and, indeed, the best of modern biblical research, religious believers must move away from a dictator God or a designer God. … God’s revelation of himself in the Book of Scripture would be reflected in our knowledge of the universe, so that, as Galileo was fond of stating, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature speak of the same God. … The Universe as we know it today through science is one way to derive an analogical knowledge of God. For those who believe that modern science does say something to us about God, it provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God. … God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He is not continuously intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves. Is such thinking adequate to preserve the special character attributed by religious observers to the emergence not only of life but also of spirit, while avoiding a crude creationism? Only a protracted dialogue will tell. But we should not close off the dialogue and darken the already murky waters by fearing that God will be abandoned if we embrace the best of modern science”.

Emergence Versus Reductionism

Paul Davies has an interesting but not-easy-to-follow article (New Scientist, March 5, 2005) discussing argument concerning whether there are inherently emergent properties which defy any conceivably possible reductionist explanation, but must rather be regarded as emergent but unpredictable or explicable in terms of bottom-up arguments based solely on physical principles. These are not actually his words but this is what the arguments amounts to. I will attempt to discuss it here because I believe it is relevant to the discussion of religion versus science, and I think Davies would probably agree.

Such things as shoals of fish or ant colonies have collective behaviour which one would not predict from merely observing single fish or ants. But he says there is an argument as to whether such behaviour could in principle be calculable from the laws of physics as reductionists would argue. Many complex systems might in principle be predictable but the calculations are ‘exponentially hard’ and we can only “watch and see how they evolve”. This he says is referred to as “weak emergence.” However a handful of scientists [and I suspect that includes Davies himself, HSM] want to argue that there are complex systems which can only be understood by taking account of “organizing principles” which emerge at an appropriate level of complexity. This is “strong emergence” and is anathema to reductionists.

Laplace introduced the concept of an in principle super-intelligent demon which could take account of the position and motion of every particle in the universe and thereby predict the entire future. Computer expert Landauer of IBM stressed that all computations are limited not only by the laws of physics but also by the computational resources available in the real universe. These are limited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, by the finite speed of light and by the second law of thermodynamics which treats entropy as the reverse of information. These limits could in principle be overcome, says Davies, if the universe possesses infinite time and resources. However, he goes on to point out that, even if the universe is infinite, the accessible portion of the universe is limited by our cosmological horizon. He states that with a universe 13.7 billion years old, the horizon is 13.7 billion light years. This is a grossly over-simplistic value but nevertheless the point that cosmology provides such an accessibility limit is valid. (See the item on Recession Velocity where Lineweaver and Davis point out (page 10) that our current horizon is 46 billion light years). The cosmological limit thus puts paid to reductionist arguments involving the concept of Laplace’s demon or extensions thereof.

Davies then asks: “How does this bear on the question of strong emergence — the idea that there are organizing principles that come into play beyond a certain threshold of complexity? The [cosmological] limit does not prove that such principles must exist, but it disproves the long-standing claim by reductionists that they can’t. … There are gaps in which higher level emergent laws can operate. … Biologists such as Christian de Duve have long argued that life is ‘a cosmic imperative’ written into the laws of nature, and will emerge inevitably and naturally under the right conditions. … If there are higher level, emergent laws at work, then biologists like de Duve may be right after all – life may indeed be written into the laws of nature.” [My emphasis. HSM] It seems that Davies would like to think so.

Always the very thoughtful and fruitful speculator on interesting issues, Davies goes on to speculate on whether complexity may be the key to the understanding of quantum physics; “Could it be that a quantum system becomes classical when it is complex enough for emergent principles to augment the laws of quantum mechanics, thereby bringing about the all-important projection event?”

Again he says: “For 400 years a deep dualism has lain at the heart of science. On the one hand the laws of physics are usually considered universal, absolute and eternal: … On the other hand, there is another factor in our description of the physical world: its states. These are not fixed in time. … The laws act on the states to predict how the system will behave. …What the new paradigm suggests is that the laws of physics and the states of the real world might be interwoven at the deepest level”.

The Creative Universe

Davies has a further short article in an issue of New Scientist focussing on Creativity (October 29, 2005). He says we should not think of the big bang as “the creation” since the universe has never ceased to be creative: ‘rather it emerged gradually, over billions of years through a long succession of self-organising and self-complexifying processes. In the early universe, “the dull, uniform distribution of matter” matching the “the near perfect uniformity of the radiation left over from its fiery birth” was “primed to set off a chain reaction of creative processes; … gravity sculpted complex cosmic sculptures. … The emergence of life on Earth, and the slow evolution of multicellularity, is just a small branch of the cosmic creativity that began with the big bang. Viewed on a cosmological scale, the history of the universe appears to be one of increasing complexification”. At first sight, he notes, this appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics which requires an increase in entropy or disorder, yet “there is enough useful energy left for the cosmos to create complex phenomena for many trillions of years to come”.

Yet he notes that while nature’s creativity does not violate the second law, it is not explained by it either. … “Physicists are far from knowing just what it takes to create order out of chaos. They cannot point to specific characteristics in the laws of physics as ‘the source of creativity’. It is not even clear that the whole story lies within the known laws. Some scientists suspect there are undiscovered laws, or overarching principles at work, coaxing clod-like matter toward organized complexity. Sometimes the hypothesized ‘principle of increasing complexity’ is called the fourth law of thermodynamics”.

He goes on to say: “One thing is clear. The simplicity of the primordial universe ensured its eventual complexity. Only these bare beginnings contain such immense creative potential; cosmic creativity was forged in the big bang. Once sentient beings like us emerged, a whole new phase of creativity came with it. Through art, science and technology, humans are refashioning the world. Who can say how far mental creativity will help create the cosmos”? Note the implication of the last sentence; he is apparently suggesting the emergence of mind.


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