Thursday, March 13, 2008

Templeton Prize for a priest-cosmologist

Tempers flare and emotions run high when the issue of Templeton Foundation is brought up before scientists. Are they trying to mix religion with science? Are they buying science to confirm their view of religion? Or are they helping science by financing under-funded science? We had to ask some of these questions ourselves for the organization of Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion. Ultimately we decided not to apply for their funds. The sentiment amongst our speakers has been decidedly mix - with half sympathetic towards the foundation and the other half passionately against it.

Whatever the case, the Templeton Foundation yesterday awarded their $1.6 million prize to a cosmologist priest:

The $1.6 million 2008 Templeton Prize, the richest award made to an individual by a philanthropic organization, was given Wednesday to Michael Heller, 72, a Polish Roman Catholic priest, cosmologist, and philosopher who has spent his life asking, and perhaps more impressively, answering, questions like “Does the universe need to have a cause?”

The John Templeton Foundation, which awards grants to encourage scientific discovery on the “big questions” in science and philosophy, commended Professor Heller, who is from Poland, for his extensive writings that have “evoked new and important consideration of some of humankind’s most profound concepts.”

But he has a more sophisticated understanding than the folks advocating Intelligent Design:

Much of Professor Heller’s career has been dedicated to reconciling the known scientific world with the unknowable dimensions of God.

In doing so, he has argued against a “God of the gaps” strategy for relating science and religion, a view that uses God to explain what science cannot.

Professor Heller said he believes, for example, that the religious objection to teaching evolution “is one of the greatest misunderstandings” because it “introduces a contradiction or opposition between God and chance.”

And why science & religion:

In a telephone interview, Professor Heller explained his affinity for the two fields: “I always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion? Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.”

I cannot agree more - what can be more important than a blog on science & religion?? :)

The New Scientist blog has an interesting (and quite impartial) take on the Templeton Foundation:
The Templeton Foundation is a strange beast indeed. On the one hand, it is not officially committed to any particular religion, it does not support hack religious theories like intelligent design, it funds lots of fundamental theoretical physics that is not otherwise readily funded, and it doesn't explicitly interfere with or influence the scientific results of the various projects it funds.

On the other hand, the foundation's primary goal is to support science that in turn supports religion, to use science as a tool to promote a religious agenda. It's as if rather than fighting against science the way some religious factions - like creationists - do, they figure, we'll just buy science and use it for our own ends.

Consider this: when Sir John Templeton established the Templeton Prize in 1972 he stipulated that the monetary value should always be higher than that of the Nobel Prize -his way of saying that theology is more important than any other intellectual enterprise. Still, Sir John always seemed to be more of an eccentric billionaire than a dangerous force.
But I'm glad that this year's Templeton Prize winner, Michael Heller, provides one of the positive examples for the Foundation:
When I talked with Heller, my concerns were eased. Heller comes across as a contemplative, kind and brilliant man with an impressive intellectual range, flitting easily between talk of complex philosophical ideas and sophisticated mathematical physics. (I was intrigued that his current work is focused on ridding physics of the big bang singularity - despite the fact that many Catholics have latched on to the idea of the singularity as the space left for God and his creative power.)

He is the kind of physicist who is so awestruck by the mathematical order of the universe that he sees God lurking in equations. For him, science and religion are difficult to separate. And after talking with him I could understand why - Heller grew up in a family environment in which intellectualism and religion were deeply intertwined and in a political environment in which both were persecuted by the Communist regime in Poland. The point is, the Templeton Foundation's efforts to buy scientists might be dangerous. But Michael Heller certainly isn't.
Read the New Scientist story here, and the NYT story here.

By the way here is an exchange between Michael Shermer and Harold Kroto over the Templeton Foundation at beyond belief 2.0 (you need to see the ending of Kroto's talk and the beginning of Q&A to appreciate this exchange).