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Q&A | Michael Heller, Templeton Prize winner

The meaning of the universe, etc.

Heller

Heller

The John Templeton Foundation hopes to act as a philanthropic catalyst for curiosity and discovery about life's biggest questions, ranging from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to perspectives on love, gratitude, forgiveness and creativity.

The prize bearing the foundation's name honors those believed by the organization to have made "an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension.'' It endorses no particular belief or tradition and has been awarded to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, as well as to physicists, philanthropists, writers and reformers. Templeton Prize winners include Mother Teresa, Billy Graham and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Worth more than $1.6-million, the annual prize is the world's largest annual monetary award given to an individual. That's by design. Whatever the Nobel Prize is worth, the Templeton automatically is indexed to rise in value because 95-year-old global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, when he established the award 36 years ago, believed that benefits from advances in spiritual discoveries can outpace those from other worthy human endeavors.

This year's winner, Catholic priest and cosmologist Michael Heller, 72, was a child when his deeply religious, intellectual family fled the Nazi invasion of Poland. He lived under communist rule, but was nurtured in both religious and scientific studies by the Polish archbishop who later became Pope John Paul II.

Heller has written more than 30 books and 400 papers on such topics as unifying the big two physics revelations of the 20th century — general relativity and quantum mechanics. He has worked at the Vatican Observatory. He asks the deep questions: "If we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about a cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the Great Blueprint of God's thinking, the universe, the question on ultimate causality…: 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' When asking this question, ... we are asking about the root of all possible causes."

The professor who nominated him wrote that Father Heller's "unique position as a creatively working scientist and reflective man of religion has brought to science a sense of transcendent mystery, and to religion a view of the universe through the broadly open eyes of science. … It is evident that for him the mathematical nature of the world and its comprehensibility by humans constitute the circumstantial evidence of the existence of God."

Currently, Heller is focusing on noncommutative geometry and groupoid theory in mathematics. Translation: Working to understand the moment the universe was born. "If on the fundamental level of physics there is no space and no time, as many physicists think," he says, "noncommutative geometry could be a suitable tool to deal with such a situation."

In honor of Heller as the 2008 Templeton Laureate, the foundation has launched a discussion at its Web site www.templeton.org, on the question: "Does the universe need to have a cause?"

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Michael Heller, 72, is an intellectual, a cosmologist and a theologian, a Polish Catholic priest who has lived and studied the interplay of science and religion for more than 40 years.

This Wednesday in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth's husband, Prince Philip, will recognize his achievements by officially awarding him the more than $1.6-million Templeton Prize, the largest monetary prize given to an individual. The winner often bridges the realms of religion and science by focusing on deep questions. One of them, in Heller's case, concerns the existence of the universe itself: "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

He answered some questions by e-mail.

Q: Is there anything that could be discovered in science that would shake your faith?

A: Christianity is a historical religion, i.e., it is based on historical events. In principle, it could be "endangered" by some historical discoveries. If, for instance, there is a historical evidence that Jesus Christ never existed, this certainly would be disastrous for my faith.

Has any of your own scientific

work either shaken, strengthened or in some way changed your faith?

It continuously changes my faith, or rather my "private theology." Our image of God strongly depends on our image of the world, and our image of the world continuously changes under the influence of science and scientific discoveries. This is true for both our personal views and for theology as a historical process. In this sense, we could say that science purifies our religious imaginations. Our image of God as present in the laws of nature and transcending even the infinite number of possible universes is certainly "more true" than Newton's image of God as a powerful clockmaker and a ruler of the planetary system.

As a person of science, please talk about your own sense of faith. How does science, something of reason, affect your faith, which is based largely on emotions, feelings and mystery? In fact, it's based on the very things that science can never address — that which must be taken on faith.

It is a great misunderstanding that the religious faith "is based largely on emotions, feelings and mystery." I doubt whether a religious faith, in which an element of rationality does not play the essential role, is an authentic religious faith. The very concept of rationality, presupposed by every science, is a deeply religious concept. If Einstein was correct when saying that science does nothing else but discovers the "Mind of God," then the act of the world's creation had to be a highly rational act.

Please tell me about your fascination with both science and religion. Some people would say the two are incompatible.

You may use here the word "fascination," but it is something more. I would say that the Knowledge as given by science, and the Meaning as provided by religion are conditions of decent human existence.

What is your opinion of the contentious debate between those who believe in evolution and others who espouse theories such as creationism or intelligent design?

I think that the so-called intelligent design ideology consists in a grave theological error. It claims that scientific theories, that ascribe the great role to chance and random events in the evolutionary processes, should be replaced, or supplemented by theories acknowledging the thread of intelligent design in the universe. Why are such views theologically erroneous? Because they implicitly assume that God has not power over chancy events. From the scientific point of view, chancy or random events do not contradict physical laws. On the contrary, they are nicely composed into the set of physical laws. From the theological point of view, what we call chance and random events is well composed into the symphony of creation. In short, evolution (not only the biological evolution but also the overwhelming cosmic evolution) could be regarded as creation in making.

How have Catholic teachings changed as discoveries have been made in science?

As I said at the beginning of our little exchange of ideas, religious imaginations change under the influence of scientific progress. All our culture, Catholic theology included, presupposes a certain image of the world. In the first half of the 20th century, a famous British writer, C.S. Lewis, said that in the contemporary people's image of the world, there is plenty of Freud and almost nothing of Einstein. I am afraid that today C.S. Lewis would have to change his diagnosis and to say that in our present image of the world there is more of Donald Duck than even of Freud. Of course, there is, in the Catholic teaching, a kernel that remains essentially the same, but interpretations even of this kernel may and should change as our knowledge of the world becomes more and more mature.

Is it strange in any way to realize how the church has evolved over the centuries in its attitude toward science — think of its original treatment of Galileo — and does that make you wonder where the church might stand in 500 years on some issues and beliefs?

To accelerate this change is one of the principal goals of my activities in the field of science and theology. I would only desire that this change be caused by interaction with science rather than by mass culture that even science treats as a sort of magic.

As scientific discoveries are made, will we know more about God or dispense of the concept of a divine creator?

More science is always a good ally of sound philosophy and sound religion.

For example, in our continuing discovery of more planets in the galaxy, what would it do to your faith if astronomers determined that intelligent life exists on other planets?

I once heard a saying that if God is truly infinite, he might not be interested in anything smaller than infinity. Why should we be so unique?

As a believer, what would you tell an atheist?

Be always honest in your thinking.

As a scientist, what would you tell a believer who finds science incompatible with the glory of God?

Study, just study!

The John Templeton Foundation hopes to act as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery about life's biggest questions, ranging from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on love, gratitude, forgiveness and creativity.

Worth $1.6-million, it is the world's largest annual monetary award given to an individual. That's by design. Whatever the Nobel Prize is worth, the Templeton automatically is indexed to rise in value because 95-year-old Sir John, when he established the award 35 years ago, believed that benefits from advances in spiritual discoveries can outpace those from other worthy human endeavors.

This year's winner, Michael Heller, 72, was a child when his deeply religious, intellectual family fled the Nazi invasion of Poland. He lived under communist rule, but was nurtured in both religious and scientific studies by the Polish archbishop who later became Pope John Paul II.

Heller has written more than 30 books and 400 papers on such topics as unifying the big two physics revelations of the 20th century — general relativity and quantum mechanics. He has worked at the Vatican Observatory. He asks the deep questions: "If we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about a cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the great blueprint of God's thinking, the universe, the question on ultimate causality…: 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes."

The professor who nominated him for the prize wrote that Father Heller's "unique position as a creatively working scientist and reflective man of religion has brought to science a sense of transcendent mystery, and to religion a view of the universe through the broadly open eyes of science. ... It is evident that for him the mathematical nature of the world and its comprehensibility by humans constitute the circumstantial evidence of the existence of God."

Currently, Heller is focusing on noncommutative geometry and groupoid theory in mathematics. Translation: He is working on problems to understand the very moment of the universe was born. "If on the fundamental level of physics there is no space and no time, as many physicists think," he says, "noncommutative geometry could be a suitable tool to deal with such a situation."

In honor of Heller as the 2008 Templeton laureate, the foundation has launched a broad discussion at its Web site www.templeton.org, on the question: "Does the universe need to have a cause?"

The meaning of the universe, etc. 05/03/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 6, 2008 1:29pm]

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