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The seeming nonsensicalness of this incredible universe
June 22, 2009 6:50 PM   Subscribe

"Workmanlike" astronomy: The Vatican Observatory, among the oldest astronomical centers in the world, brings a team of Jesuits to the papal summer residence. Its scientists play a large part in the church's efforts to reconcile faith with reason. [Previously.]

George V. Coyne, SJ, former director of the observatory, writes:
The universe as we know it today through science is one way to derive analogical knowledge of God. For those who believe modern science does say something to us about God, it provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God. God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world which reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves. Is such thinking adequate to preserve the special character attributed by religious thought to the emergence not only of life but also of spirit, while avoiding a crude creationism? Only a protracted dialogue will tell.
The speech may have ruffled some cardinal feathers.
posted by l33tpolicywonk (31 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
In 2006, Pope Benedict fired George Coyne, the then-director of the Vatican Observatory, giving no public explanation. Many suspect it might have something to do with the fact that Coyne was outspoken in his support for evolution and his denigration of "intelligent design".
posted by Flunkie at 7:04 PM on June 22, 2009


He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves.

"Whichever term you use, the important thing is that He is completely undetectable."
posted by DU at 7:08 PM on June 22, 2009


I've never much liked that phrasing. It's trivial to reconcile faith with reason; the hard part is reconciling dogma with reason.
posted by mhoye at 7:11 PM on June 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


Have these astronomers condemned heliocentrism as "false and contrary to Scripture"?
posted by mattdidthat at 7:17 PM on June 22, 2009


I've always loved this. The Vatican Observatory have always struck me as one of the most fascinating groups in the Church. Particularly because they've said some of the more enlightened things out of any Christian group in the last thirty years. And anything that pisses off the Cardinalate makes me happy.
posted by strixus at 7:21 PM on June 22, 2009


Have these astronomers condemned heliocentrism as "false and contrary to Scripture"?

No, they haven't.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:29 PM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


OBSERVATORY = SERV, SERV TORY = OBSTRETICS = TORY PLOT TO USE OBSTRETICS TO ENSLAVE THE WESTERN CIVILIZATION WHERE ARE YOU DAN BROWN?@?!
posted by geoff. at 7:39 PM on June 22, 2009


Its scientists play a large part in the church's efforts to reconcile faith with reason.

Then they're not scientists.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:44 PM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Jevvies will always have to wrestle with the problem of Faith VS reality. And they will do it well while having sex with the accolytes.
posted by longsleeves at 7:49 PM on June 22, 2009


Oh Dear.
posted by longsleeves at 7:51 PM on June 22, 2009


They are looking for the planet wormwood
posted by hortense at 7:52 PM on June 22, 2009


Its scientists play a large part in the church's efforts to reconcile faith with reason.
Then they're not scientists.


Surely it depends on whether this means they are

1) fudging and spinning their scientific work in some way to try to support the Catholic faith

or

2) offering their knowledge and expertise as scientists to Catholics who are trying to figure out how the teachings of science might fit with their religious beliefs.

After all, you could say that Darwin plays a large part in the church's efforts to reconcile faith with reason, because they have to take his work into account. That doesn't make Darwin "not a scientist."
posted by straight at 7:55 PM on June 22, 2009


because they have to take his work into account

We do not have to do any such thing.
posted by longsleeves at 8:03 PM on June 22, 2009


Then they're not scientists.

Strictly speaking, no, they'd be philosophers, theologians or philosophers of science. Good point.


You know, the problem is not reconciling faith with reason. Faith has traditionally been buttressed by a particular flavor of deductive reasoning from the scholastics onward. The problem is reconciling faith with observation.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:15 PM on June 22, 2009


It's frustrating to spend so much effort on various forums defending atheism from the stereotype that "they're just a bunch of bitter people who hate religion and think anyone who believes in god is a bigot, a pervert, and a moron", only to enter this thread and see that stereotype reinforced with gusto.

Religion is compatible with science, jerks. Science can be the "how" without ever dealing with the "why", and religion (when applied reasonably) can offer the complementary relationship. It doesn't have to, but it can.

More importantly: if you see people of faith who are willing to stand up to the more medieval interpretations of religious doctrine despite controversy and sometimes great personal cost, and all you can do is jeer and ridicule them, then your cynicism is standing in the way of progress on these issues, and I don't want you on my side.
posted by Riki tiki at 8:18 PM on June 22, 2009 [20 favorites]


Science can be the "how" without ever dealing with the "why"

The more you learn about the how the less inclined you are to think that any why is necessary. Metaphysical naturalism is the perfect accompaniment to methodological naturalism, and trying to laminate it with a jacket of superstition is awkward and sad.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:27 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


> Then they're not scientists.
I wouldn't be so blunt. They do SCIENCE!, and hard one at that, researching, publishing and producing results, albeit proportionally to a small capacity like that. They helped in discovering a couple extrasolar planets last year.
I skimmed through the 2008 annual report and found that theology occupies a scant couple of pages of the 44-page publication; I quote

[God's action] enables and empowers and gives existence to the rest of the actions of the universe, but does not substitute or intervene among them. Nor does it bring about change, [...] rather it is what makes change possible.
Which -I have to admit- is rather elegant and leaves a lot of doors open. (this coming from a rather staunch atheist). Oh, they also have a woman in their staff!
Probably the firing of Coyne has to do with the dispute, cited in the last link between him and Cardinal Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna -who is a protegé of the Pope, as far as I know - and quite the traditionalist. A result of the mix of politics and the finer points of theology.
posted by _dario at 8:27 PM on June 22, 2009


The Vatican Observatory is universally respected in the astronomical/astrophysical community. They do sound, scientific work, and have added quite a lot to the sum of human knowledge about the universe. These are not "creation scientists". These are real scientists doing real work.

Not everything is simple.
posted by kyrademon at 8:34 PM on June 22, 2009 [13 favorites]


[few comments removed - the poster made an effort to make this a decent post, don't trash it by trotting out the same old stuff, okay. Go to MeTa if you just need to holler about religion without clicking any links.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:26 PM on June 22, 2009


The Vatican Observatory is universally respected in the astronomical/astrophysical community. They do sound, scientific work, and have added quite a lot to the sum of human knowledge about the universe. These are not "creation scientists". These are real scientists doing real work.

I am an actual, professional astronomer. I am also an atheist. What kyrademon says is correct.

Jeez, people. Separate your shit from your other shit.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:31 PM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


These are not "creation scientists". These are real scientists doing real work.
And, sometimes, getting fired for it.
posted by Flunkie at 9:35 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is interesting stuff. Thanks very much for the post. The Vatican Observatory also runs a very cool summer school for young astronomers (with 1/3 of the participants being from non-industrialized countries) with what looks to be a pretty nice line up of speakers this year. And you get to stay at the actual summer residence which appears to be beautiful. Started yesterday...wish I was there.
posted by kms at 11:24 PM on June 22, 2009


He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves.

Like Keyboard Cat?
posted by asusu at 1:32 AM on June 23, 2009


In 2006, Pope Benedict fired George Coyne, the then-director of the Vatican Observatory, giving no public explanation. Many suspect it might have something to do with the fact that Coyne was outspoken in his support for evolution and his denigration of "intelligent design".

Neither intelligent design nor creationism is an accepted position of the Catholic church - at least not as those terms are typically used in the US. The Vatican even sponsers conferences on evolution that specifically prohibit those things. I have no further information on the Daily Mail article, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was the sort wild speculation that sells papers so well.
posted by fermezporte at 5:14 AM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Then they're not scientists.

I am deeply honored to call of them friend. I've known Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ, for a number of years. He is a humble, hardworking, dedicated servant of God.

He is also a humble, hardworking, dedicated scientist. His CV clearly shows that -- over 40 published papers, MIT grad, and so forth. He is a very respected planetary scientist -- he chaired the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society for a year.

From his CV
Present research is centered on understanding the origin of moons, meteorites, asteroids, and Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNO’s). One continuing project is measuring the density and porosity of meteorites, with applications to understanding the lithification of meteorites, the structure of their asteroidal parent bodies, and the nature of their terrestrial weathering. He is also involved in telescope observations of asteroid spectra and the broad band colors of the irregular moons of the outer solar system, dormant comets, and TNO’s.
Not a scientist? I think even God Himself would disagree with you on that one.
posted by eriko at 6:29 AM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's also worth mentioning that Fr. Coyne was 73 at the time and ran the observatory for 26 years and remains on staff there. Not a bad way to retire.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:07 AM on June 23, 2009


I did a post that included an interview with Guy Consolmagno, who's a really neat guy (and by all accounts a very good scientist.) A different interview with him covers a lot of the standard "but what about Genesis? What about Adam and Eve? How can you be a scientist who is Catholic?!" sort of questions. Anyone who thinks that Jesuit researchers are not skilled and dedicated scientists (or historians, linguists, etc.) because of their religion is making a big mistake.

I'm dubious about the claim in the Daily Mail that Coyne was axed due to his lack of belief in intelligent design. As attested above, the Vatican is generally OK with evolution. Much more likely was a combination of general Church politics and the ongoing struggle between the generally more liberal beliefs of many members of the Holy Orders and the much more conservative College of Cardinals (in particular the current pope, who was fairly hostile particularly towards liberal Jesuits even as Cardinal Ratzinger.) A few years ago, for example, the editor of the moderate-to-liberal Catholic magazine America, Thomas Reese (another Jesuit) was ousted for, among other things, publishing some articles critical of Church policies.
posted by ubersturm at 8:34 AM on June 23, 2009


The Vatican Observatory also runs a very cool summer school for young astronomers

Spidey senses tingling.
posted by Scoo at 10:02 AM on June 23, 2009


Neither intelligent design nor creationism is an accepted position of the Catholic church - at least not as those terms are typically used in the US.

Officially, the CC doesn't endorse a specific science, be it intelligent design, creationism, or evolution. As a Catholic, it leaves the decision up to you just saying that you must accept God instilled the spirit of man into mankind at some point, be it through evolution or creationism.
posted by jmd82 at 11:59 AM on June 23, 2009


There is 'science' and then there is 'philosophy of science.' You can practice both, without compromising either.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:02 PM on June 23, 2009


I have a feeling this Jesuit would have fit right in at the Observatory.

He was a scientist who was also a priest. Theorized what we now call the 'Big Bang.' He asked Pius XII not to attempt theological speculations into his theory so as not to discredit it scientifically.
Professor Lemaître wanted his scientific theories to be judged exclusively on their physical merit, keeping metaphysical implications completely separate.

Not surprisingly, Lemaître was alarmed when he was informed that the Holy Father would be delivering a speech to the Eighth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Rome. On a trip to South Africa, Father Lemaître stopped at the Vatican to consult with two men, Father O'Connell, a science advisor to Pius XII, as well as the Cardinal Secretary of State. Lemaître's visit had the intended effect. The Pope's speech primarily praised the advances in astrophysics research in the last fifty years, making only a brief statement on the Big Bang, namely that "the human spirit, upon considering the vast paths traveled by galaxies, becomes in some manner a spectator at the cosmic events that occurred on the very morning of creation."12 Pius XII never mentioned the primeval atom hypothesis again.
He had to deal with critics who thought he was just some Catholic apologist for biblical literalism:
Despite his unquestionable scientific credibility, Lemaître's priesthood often led skeptics to question his theories, believing the Big Bang was "presented in a spirit of concordism with the religious concept of creation, and even received its inspiration from that religious concept."14 Concordism is the belief that the Bible contains scientific information not known by people at the time of the writing of the sacred texts. Even Professor Einstein confronted Lemaître on this issue. Not surprisingly, Father Lemaître had an excellent response to such critics:
Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes . . . The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses . . . As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.15
I think he deserves an FPP one day.
posted by resurrexit at 7:00 AM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


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