By Design

The doppler effect
Earth as seen by the departing Voyager spacecraft: a tiny, pale blue dot. Credit: NASA

There has always been some conflict between science and religion. One famous example was when Galileo Galilei, by supporting the Copernican notion of the Earth orbiting the sun, was placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church. A more recent example has been seen in American classrooms — when the religious concept of intelligent design was suggested as a viable alternative theory to be taught alongside Darwinian evolution, it left the scientific community up in arms.

Astrobiology Magazine had the opportunity to discuss the battle over intelligent design with Brother Guy Consolmagno, a person with a foot in both scientific and religious worlds. As a Jesuit priest and the Vatican’s astronomer, he has a unique perspective on what this struggle between science and religion means to society today.

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): From your perspective as both a priest and a scientist, what are your views of the recent controversy over intelligent design?

Guy Consolmagno (GC): Intelligent design is one of these phrases that means something different to everybody. To part of the world, it’s a code phrase for the worst sort of creationism. And to other people, it just means that you can’t use science as a way to disprove God. (laughs) Obviously you can’t. And you cannot use science to prove God.

Science has to start with an assumption. Newtonian physics started with the assumption that everything is due to cause and effect. And, lo and behold, it seems to prove that everything is due to cause and effect. But it’s not a proof, it’s just recovering your assumption. Quantum theory says everything is chance. And by golly, you can show that according to quantum theory, everything is chance. No, you don’t prove it; it’s an assumption that allows you to get a handle on the universe. You can say that the universe works the way it does because of a beneficent creator — that’s a perfectly reasonable way to start out looking at the universe, but it’s no proof. It’s your assumption.

The trouble is that some people think they can use science to prove God. And that puts science ahead of God; that makes science more powerful than God. That’s bad theology. In fact, some philosophers have said that’s what led to atheism in the eighteenth century — the fallacy of the God of the gaps. You say, "I have no idea how this could have happened. It must have been God’s design." And then fifty years later, somebody explains how it did happen, and you say, "I don’t need God anymore." If your faith is based on science, that’s a very shaky kind of faith.

Vatican Observatory, Castel Gandolfo. The library at Castel Gandolfo contains more than 22,000 volumes and possesses a valuable collection of rare antique books including works of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Brahe, Clavius, and Secchi. Credit: Arizona U./Vatican Observatory

My belief in God is not because of something I’ve seen in science. But I can turn it the other way around and say, "I believe in science because of my faith in God."

If you’re going to be a scientist, there are three things you have to believe. Number one, the universe really exists — I’m not just a butterfly dreaming I’m a scientist. Two, you have to believe that the universe makes sense. It’s not chaotic; there really are underlying laws and we’re able to find them. And the third and hardest thing, the most religious of the beliefs, is you have to believe it’s worth doing.

If your religion says that the goal of life is to meditate above this corrupting universe and reach out to the spiritual, you’re not going to be a scientist. There are many great cultures in the East that had tremendous mathematics, philosophy, and ethics, but they never did natural science because they couldn’t see the point of spending the time and money on it.

The West, with Judaism, Islam and Christianity, accepted the idea of a creator God who looked at the universe and said, "This is good." Christianity even goes as far as to say that God loved the universe so much that he incarnated his only begotten son, as the phrase goes. It doesn’t say that God loved people so much that he sent his son, but that God loved the world.

If the universe is this good, then it’s worth our while to spend the time and money studying it, even if it’s not going to get me rich, even if it’s not immediately going to give me better crops or fancier Teflon or any of those other excuses. It’s the motivation behind why we’re all here doing this stuff. It’s because we’re in love with the truth, it’s because we’re in love with this physical universe, and our love of the universe is what gives us the courage to spend our lives studying it. So, our science is based on our religion. You can’t do it the other way around.

Star field
The number of stars in the visible universe is estimated to be ten times more than the number of grains of sand on Earth and eleven times the number of cups of water in all the Earth’s oceans– or 70 sextillion, or 70,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000 [seven followed by twenty-two zeros].

AM: One of the ideas behind intelligent design is there might be ideal forms in nature. For instance, an octopus eye and a human eye ending up so similar and yet taking different paths to get there. Do you think this concept of convergence is more in tune with religious thought then other aspects of evolutionary theory?

GC: No, I don’t think religious thought gives you anything either way.

AM: Even though it suggests a Platonic ideal, or God-imposed ideal, that there is a perfect form or design out there?

GC: But I’m not convinced of that. Other eyes on some other planet may work in a far different way, and maybe even figured out a better design. We’re not in a position to say.

AM: You’re going to have different forms on different planets, because you’re going to have different environmental conditions.

GC: Even if the conditions are the same, there could be forms we haven’t even imagined. The trouble with this idea of "God’s thumbprint" is, first of all, it denies the fact that it’s ALL thumbprint. And so, I don’t want to say that this is proof of God, but that over there was just accident.

You also don’t want to deny human freedom. If you say it’s all God’s design, then what about evil in the world? Well, you could answer that evil comes out of human freedom. But then what about tsunamis in the world? Where do you draw the line? At some point, God intended things. At some point, God gives the universe freedom to do what it’s going to do. There is a line – and I don’t know where it is – but if you’re going to believe in human freedom and not pre-destination, then you have to believe that there is a huge chunk of the universe that God allows, rather than God controls.

AM: Do you mean the idea of the Blind Watchmaker – that God created the universe and just sits back and lets it tick away?

UGC12343 a real-color image of this spiral galaxy, taken as part of a large survey in the near-ultraviolet of local galaxies. Presented in November 1996 to Pope John Paul II at a conference on galaxy formation.
Credit: Windhorst, et al

GC: I don’t even like that analogy, because I think it has had so many accretions to it. I just want to step back and not make any judgments. My religion tells me that God created the universe, and it’s worth studying. Now it’s up to my science to tell me what it can do.

AM: What do you think about the idea that you can have multiple universes with different laws governing them, very much in a Darwinian sort of way, each having evolved from initial conditions?

GC: Well it’s not very much in a Darwinian sort of way, it’s very much in a Thomistic sort of way. Thomas Aquinas speaks about multiple worlds, which is really what multiples universes are. Medieval theologians went over this. And the bottom line is, you’re never going to win if you bet God couldn’t do something.

Scientifically, you have to ask, what does this theory get me? Where does this take me that I wasn’t going to go before? There is a horizon that we can’t see — if you do cosmology, you have to admit to the possibility of things beyond the light-speed horizon.

If you’re trying to counter the anthropic principle, you can put this up as a counter-example. But frankly the anthropic principle isn’t science, it’s philosophy, and not particularly interesting philosophy as far as I’m concerned. So I’m not interested in that, one way or another. If there’s fun science that comes out of it, then you can treat it as a science. If it’s science fiction, treat it as science fiction. That’s ok, I like science fiction. I just don’t confuse the two.

Dr. Consolmagno earned his bachelor of science in 1974 and master of science in 1975 in Earth and Planetary Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona in 1978. From 1978-80 he was a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the Harvard College Observatory, and from 1980-1983 continued as postdoc and lecturer at MIT. He has also spent several terms as a visiting scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and as a visiting professor at Loyola College, Baltimore, and Loyola University, Chicago. Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the editorial staff or their sponsors.

Related Web Pages

Vatican Eyes on Heaven
Adventures of a Vatican Astronomer
Vatican Observatory
There’s a Hole in My Philosophy
A Perfect World I: Tyson
Anybody Out There? Part I
Anybody Out There? Part II