Heller Wins Templeton Prize

The New York Times is reporting that Michael Heller, a Roman Catholic Priest and cosmologist from Poland, has won the 2008 Templeton Prize. The Christian Science Monitor offers some further details here.

In case you are unfamiliar with it, the Templeton Prize is a 1.6 million dollar (!!) prize given out to those attempting to reconcile science with religion. Typically it goes to people with genuine scientific credentials who are nonetheless willing to utter comforting bromides about how science and religion are two sides of the same coin.

I’m not familiar with Heller’s work, and short articles in mainstream newspapers are not the most reliable sources on these topics. Nonetheless, let’s have a look at a few nuggets.

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.”

Standard boilerplate, but we shouldn’t let that last part go unnoticed. The apparent contradiction is between a view of things that says we are the purposeful creations of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, and a view that says that we are the chance result of tens of millions of years of bloody and violent evolution. Yeah, it’s real hard to imagine how anyone sees opposition between the two stories.

I’m assuming, incidentally, that by describing evolution as “chance” he has in mind the idea that human beings (or something near-enough to us) were not the inevitable end result of evolution. I’ll assume he is not making the childish error of thinking that evolution is a process that relies on blind chance to produce complex organisms.

The Christian Science Monitor serves up this one:

“Science gives us knowledge, but religion gives us meaning,” he says. “Science without religion is not meaningless, but lame…. And religion without science [slides] into fundamentalism,” he says.

Well, I like the implication that religion does not give us knowledge. The rest of it I’m not so sure about. In what possible sense is science lame without religion? Surely Heller is aware of the high percentage of atheists among professional scientists. Are they all doing it wrong? Is their work lame?

And in what sense deos religion give us meaning? Surely it only serves that function if we can be confident that its fact claims about God and His purposes are accurate. Does Heller have some way of establshing the correctness of such claims? If he does not, then I would suggest the meaning religion provides could be obtained more simply by making stuff up wholesale.

The Times observes:

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?”

Don’t be coy! At least give us a hint as to what the answers are!

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    March 12, 2008

    I’m sorry, but every time I hear the word “lame” used as a derogatory description, I hear it in a teenage girl’s voice. I think Heller just called me a lame-o.

    How many people could that Templeton money feed and clothe, again?

  2. #2 Alexandra
    March 12, 2008

    I would suggest the meaning religion provides could be obtained more simply by making stuff up wholesale.

    You said that as if religion and making stuff up were two different things.

  3. #3 James
    March 12, 2008

    “Standard boilerplate, but we shouldn’t let that last part go unnoticed. The apparent contradiction is between a view of things that says we are the purposeful creations of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, and a view that says that we are the chance result of tens of millions of years of bloody and violent evolution. Yeah, it’s real hard to imagine how anyone sees opposition between the two stories.”

    I stopped caring a long time ago. If these people aren’t persuaded by the Epicurus aphorism, then it’s probably a waste of time to keep arguing with them. As long as they define God down to the point where it has no operational consequences (like Ken Miller), these people are harmless.

  4. #4 El Christador
    March 13, 2008

    Don’t be coy! At least give us a hint as to what the answers are!

    Well, the answer to the one in the quote is “no”. Or maybe “define ’cause’, then most likely either ‘no’ or ‘undefined question'”.

    I’m assuming, incidentally, that by describing evolution as “chance” he has in mind the idea that human beings (or something near-enough to us) were not the inevitable end result of evolution. I’ll assume he is not making the childish error of thinking that evolution is a process that relies on blind chance to produce complex organisms.

    You’re right, he’s probably not making that error. I’m guessing it’s a good bet he knows what evolution is all about. He’s a Roman Catholic, not an evangelical. The view he espouses is logically consistent, it just winds up at the “the God you describe is no different from no God at all” end point.

    In what possible sense is science lame without religion?

    Here I think the appropriate question is “how does the lameness or non-lameness of science depend on religion?” I think a lot of people — especially scientists — could cite many ways in which science is lame. It’s just that adding religion in doesn’t make it any less lame. Rather, it’s just as lame as ever, but now with religion.

  5. #5 El Christador
    March 13, 2008

    As long as they define God down to the point where it has no operational consequences (like Ken Miller), these people are harmless.

    Ah yes. That’s a good way of putting it. That is what I meant by “the God you describe is no different from no God at all.”

    I was under the impression that a God with no operational consequences — or completely vague and meaningless and untestable operational consequences like “sustaining the human condition” or “hope” or what have you — is the mainstream Christian (including Roman Catholic). But then, actually having been born and raised Roman Catholic, attended Roman Catholic schools, and being a card-carrying Roman Catholic, I’m in no position to comment on Roman Catholic theology. (No, that’s not an ironic joke. The Roman Catholic schools I attended didn’t touch upon Roman Catholicism, or religion at all so much. It’s a good way to ensure your kids are insulated from religion during their education.)

  6. #6 tomh
    March 13, 2008

    From the NYT interview:
    “Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.�

    In other words, without religion forget about a decent existence. Just another bigot.

  7. #7 Pseudonym
    March 13, 2008

    I think it’s an elementary error, but “science without religion is not meaningless, but lame” is perfectly true if you replace the word “religion” with “philosophy”.

    Science doesn’t talk about important questions like right and wrong, good and bad, desirable and undesirable. It is inherently amoral, and can serve good or evil ends. We need some check on science that talks about these issues, and religion is one set of schools of philosophical thought out of many which may contribute its ideas in the marketplace of ideas.

  8. #8 Julian Gall
    March 13, 2008

    “I’m not familiar with Heller’s work, and short articles in mainstream newspapers are not the most reliable sources”.

    Then why do you feel qualified to criticise his work?

    As you know better than most, many religious extremists criticise Darwin, for example, while knowing little of his work. When rational thinkers get lazy like this, it gives ammunition to the irrational who say that everything is just a point of view.

  9. #9 386sx
    March 13, 2008

    The Times observes:

    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?”

    Don’t be coy! At least give us a hint as to what the answers are!Don’t be coy! At least give us a hint as to what the answers are!

    Just google for Heller “Does the universe need to have a cause?”.

    If the The Times observed that Heller answered the question, then The Times needs a reporter that knows how to read better!

  10. #10 Reginald Selkirk
    March 13, 2008

    Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.�

    Ack. Gag. Barf.

  11. #11 Reginald Selkirk
    March 13, 2008

    Typically it goes to people with genuine scientific credentials…

    And they get to ascend into the pantheon of Templeton winners with Charles Colson, creationist.

  12. #12 Reginald Selkirk
    March 13, 2008

    The “lame” comment may be a reference to an oft-repeated quote from Albert Einstein:
    science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

    Anyone who read that quote in context would understand that Einstein’s definition of “religion” is quite unorthodox, and is more akin to axiology. In the same NYTimes essay, Einstein argued against the concept of a personal God.

  13. #13 MartinDH
    March 13, 2008

    Jason:
    I believe this:
    http://www.templetonprize.org/pdfs/93-113.pdf)
    is the paper that won Heller $1.6M.

    The first part is a review of several ideas that remove the need for universal singularities. He then seems to be proposing that God (of course it can only be the Judeo-Christian god) is atemporal and aspatial and is a requirement for the universe’s existence. How he gets from A to B is beyond me.

    I’d appreciate your comments.

    Thanks

  14. #14 tomh
    March 13, 2008

    Pseudonym wrote:
    …religion is one set of schools of philosophical thought out of many which may contribute its ideas in the marketplace of ideas.

    Hardly. Religion is an incoherent morass with as many different viewpoints as there are sects, cults, and lunatic fringes in the religious world. The only unifying theme is a superstitious, unfounded belief in the supernatural. Perhaps you’re referring to the particular superstition of the wealthy prize winner here, whose infallible Grand Poobah recently declared, “use contraception … burn in hell,” or words to that effect. Thereby elevating family planning to the venerable status of ancient sins, such as, “eat too much … burn in hell”, and the like. How anyone could confuse this type of nonsense with philosophy or think that it had something to contribute to the “marketplace of ideas”, is a mystery.

  15. #15 Pseudonym
    March 13, 2008

    tomh:

    Religion is an incoherent morass with as many different viewpoints as there are sects, cults, and lunatic fringes in the religious world.

    That could also be said of philosophy. Or literature. Or pretty much any area of human endeavour apart from science.

    Science is the odd one out, for two critical reasons:

    1. It has a (literal) reality check, which ensures that it only ever adds to our knowledge, and never subtracts from it.
    2. It has built-in limits and limitations, which ensures that only that which can be repeated and tested is investigated. And, every so often, a Goedel, a Turing or a Heisenberg proves the existence of a new limit.

    Science, therefore, guarantees its own reliability and success, but it also limits itself to a quite large, but inherently bounded area of interest.

    For the record: no, I was not referring to the prize winner specifically, about whom I know practically nothing. He is Catholic, and he seems smart, which strongly suggests to me that he doesn’t toe the Catholic party line 100%. I happen to agree that the current “Grand Poohbah” (as you put it) doesn’t have a lot to contribute to the current markeplace of ideas. Far be it from me to defend Grand Poohbahs of any flavour, but the previous one was much better about that.

    BTW, I thought Reginald Selkirk’s comment above was excellent.

  16. #16 Tyler DiPietro
    March 13, 2008

    Pseudonym,

    “That could also be said of philosophy. Or literature. Or pretty much any area of human endeavour apart from science.”

    Regarding philosophy, I think there is a rather glaring omission here: the best philosophy has to offer has the traits you ascribe to science, all of which boil down to “objective constraints on what statements can be feasibly made about the subject matter.” That is, philosophy should have clarity and explicit logical structure, not self-indulgent obscuritanism a la POMO and deconstructive theory.

    Literature doesn’t have such constraints, at least not intrinsically. But there is no reason to assume that it should have them. It doesn’t concern itself with things that are ostensibly objectively true, while religion in any form necessarily does.

  17. #17 gary
    March 13, 2008

    With all the stellar research that the ID types are doing, I really can’t understand why they didn’t win this year’s Templeton prize. Maybe they’re being discriminated against.
    I hope thay haven’t been EXPELLED!

  18. #18 Christophe Thill
    March 14, 2008

    Well, I kind of like this “God of the gaps” stuff. Because science keeps plugging the gaps. And the room for God keeps shrinking. It will never be zero ; but the way sciences reduced it is an excellente lesson about how it could, potentially, expell God from almost everywhere. As I’m sure it will do.

  19. #19 Candiru
    March 14, 2008

    The $1.6 million 2008 Templeton Prize, the richest award made to an individual by a philanthropic organization, was given Wednesday…

    How the hell do I apply for this?

  20. #20 Christophe Thill
    March 14, 2008

    I’m not sure this kind of swear words will take you very far down that road, goddammit!

  21. #21 Coturnix
    March 14, 2008

    His NPR interview yesterday made me scream out loud – every stupid excuse in the book. Made for a good conversation with my kids in the car, though.

  22. #22 386sx
    March 14, 2008

    How the hell do I apply for this?

    Depends on how small your gaps are. In Heller’s case it’s the laws of physics. Science explains how the laws of physics work, but theology tell us where the laws came from. Dude if you can get that ol’ gap smaller than that then you might have a good chance at some serious cash!!

  23. #23 gm
    March 15, 2008

    I’m not sure that being opinionated and self-sufficient is always the answer either. (How many “fundamentalists” are actually just opinionated and self-sufficient? And isn’t that why so many people dislike them?)

    I think what people are saying when they say they believe in God is that they needed him, the story of him, the people in church, some aspect of what Christianity has to offer. And I don’t fight that. At a time in my life I needed the same thing. And if this Michael Heller guy was out in the gulag and decided he needed something he didn’t have enough of in himself, who am I to deny him? What do I, a pampered suburbanite who’s never had a hungry or cold day in his life, have to compare with what he has gone through?

    oh, yeah, and the lunatic fringes!

    Is religion just a morass? I admit that I don’t agree with all that is taught – like your “sinful” contraception – but I wouldn’t throw out everything before putting a little more thought into it. There are times when religion does some pretty good stuff. It’s done some bad stuff, but it’s also done some good stuff.

    (Life is a morass. Until you find something that helps you to grow and understand it better.)

  24. #24 gm
    March 15, 2008

    http://www.gm-eclectic.blogspot.com

    The older posts are better, really

  25. #25 shonny
    March 15, 2008

    I always thought that the Templeton prize was payment for scientists who are willing to intellectually prostitute themselves.
    Now it seems like the Roman Cat’licking pedophiles qualify as well!

    And yes, I love split infinitives!

  26. #26 royniles
    March 17, 2008

    We protect our religions by masking them as philosophies. We can then argue that since science needs philosophy as the basis for any new hypotheses, it therefor may find a need for religious philosophies as well. And that therefor it’s important for religion to add to scientific “knowledge” whenever it can, and simply because it “can.” The problem with that of course is that religions, if they ever were philosophies, have lost the right to use that label when they acquired the status of dogma. And the proper place for any alleged philosophy when applied to science is an attachment to the hypothetical end of the process for testability purposes rather than to the other end of the process as some sort of affirmation of a tentative conclusion.

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