An Interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno


The following interview by Sebastian Correa and Michael Taylor, courtesy of the Centro de Estudios Catolicos,  while not on Celestial Navigation (though the subject of the interview is a sailor, and apparently wrote some articles on Cel Nav!), is very interesting in that it sheds light on the “war” between science and faith – namely, that they are not at odds at all. If you check out the “Links of Interest” page on this site you will see a recommended book, The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories, that has a bit more to say about this.  Like the brilliant books by Conor Cunningham (Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong) and Michael Hanby (No God, No Science? Theology, Cosmology, Biology), Brother Guy speaks to the fact that fundamentalists of either stripe, scientific ones or religious ones, miss the point.  (And as an aside, people tend to be quite astonished to learn about the great respect the Church has for science: the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science has many Nobel prizewinners!)

 

Very few people know that the small territory of the Vatican State includes an astronomical observatory that answers directly to the Pope. Perhaps even fewer people know that there is entire community of Jesuit brothers and priests dedicated to astronomical studies there in the Vatican Observatory as well as in its sister observatory in Arizona.

We wanted to interview one of their top experts, Brother Guy Consolmagno. Guy has a special resumè: astronomer, planetary scientist, expert on meteorites and asteroids, and philosophical and theological studies. He did part of his studies at MIT and at Harvard where he taught for several years. He was also with the US  Peace Corps in Kenya for two years in the ‘80s. In 1989 he entered the Society of Jesus where he decided to takes vows as a brother. Today he is the curator of the meteorite collection at the Vatican Observatory and participated in a special mission to Antarctica where he helped collect hundreds of meteorites frozen in the slabs of blue ice. The list of conferences, publications, journal articles and other signs of his active participation in the scientific world is formidable.

He received us in the headquarters of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo. We were certain we had found a man with a passion for science, but also a man with a deep love for the Church and its mission of evangelization. Cheerful and spontaneous, Guy showed us the facilities of the Observatory and many of its collections. Finally we came to his lab where, seated amidst microscopes, computers, and even some meteorites that were being examined, we had a conversation.
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Today we are witnesses to a certain “war” between religion and science in the media. Renowned scientific authors not only tend to relegate religion to the sphere of the merely private but also affirm that in order to be a true scientist, you must not have religious beliefs. We often hear that science confirms “the nonexistence of God” and even that we are now in a post-religious era in which religion has finally been overcome as a mere memory of past ignorance. On the other hand, a certain opposition to science has been seen among believers from various religions for ethical reasons as well as for a kind of fear produced when scientific advances are perceived as opposed to one’s religious beliefs. Why do you think this polarization is so strong today?

Guy: You have to understand that the people who are generating the war between science and religion are trying to sell you something. They have an agenda and the agenda is not that of the truth. And this works in both directions. Whether it’s the atheists that insist that religion is the source of all evil or the fundamentalists that insist that science is the source of all evil, they both want to say that evil is not in me, it’s in the other guy. They’re trying to deny the original sin that’s in us all. But it also comes out of fear. Fundamentalism is a response to fear. If you’re afraid of religion it means you have no faith in your science. And if you’re afraid of science it means that you have no faith in your religion. You have no faith in the truth. It comes out of fear.

Scientists, who have no training in philosophy and try to philosophize, embarrass themselves. We’ve seen this in a number of books. But mostly they’re selling these books to the people who already want to agree with them. Religious people who have no training in science are just as embarrassing when they try to talk about science. And they also are only trying to sell their books to the people who already agree with them. The irony is that the vast majority of religious people are not the fundamentalists – they are happy with science and embrace it. And the vast majority of scientific people are happy with religion; because both groups are the same people! But those of us, who are the vast majority, have allowed the conversation to be dominated by the people who are trying to sell you something on one side or the other. And often times what they’re really trying to sell has nothing to do with either science or religion.

Now in your case, as a scientist, would you affirm that being Catholic – and thus believing in one God that has created the universe and is also “the Way, the Truth and the Life” – helps you to be a “better” scientist?

Guy: People forget that, on a fundamental level, to be a scientist you have to have certain religious beliefs. And we’ve called them religious because, let me remind you, not all religions and not all cultures share these beliefs. The first thing you have to believe is that the physical universe is real. And there are some religions that say that everything is illusion. And if everything is an illusion, then what’s the point of being a scientist? So you have to believe in the physical universe. You have to believe that the physical universe operates by rules and laws and logic. And if you’re a pagan and you say that things fall because a god caused them to fall, and that lightning strikes because the god of lightning cause it to strike, that crops grow because the goddess of crops causes them to grow… If everything that happens in the universe is the result of some intelligent imp, then there’s no way we can do science. It is only by refusing to believe in intelligent imps that one is allowed to ask, “then why do things happen?” The ancient Romans persecuted Christians because they thought Christians were atheists and they were almost right. There are many, many, many versions of God that I do not believe in, because I believe in one God. And by the first commandment, I have put all those other gods aside. I will not worship them. I will not give them credence. I only believe in one more god than Richard Dawkins. And the god I believe in is not a pagan nature god. It’s not one force alongside other forces. But it is a god who is supernatural – in existence, outside of nature, before nature. And that means that there is room then for me to ask how nature works. In addition, what I know from revelation is that this God created the universe in a logical way, which gives me the reason to believe that logic allows me to understand the universe.

If in fact faith and science are so intimately united, how did the debate between them arise? What do people have to gain from it?

Guy: You look at the history of this war between science and religion and you discover that it really came from the 19th century, from the late Victorian times. And sometimes the agenda was as simple as a political agenda against some political party that was associated with the Church, so the opposing political party would say “science is our source of truth”. In North America it was an anti-immigrant thing. The same people who were claiming that religion was anti-science were the people who were trying to keep folks with vowels at the end of their names from immigrating into the United States because they couldn’t trust “those Catholics”. Then you have the people that abuse science. Evolution is a perfectly fine description of the mechanism of coming from one kind of species to another. But then people will take that idea and turn it into eugenics or social Darwinism or try using it to justify other sorts of things that are terrible.
In the same way people will say that my religion is a source of truth but then use that to hold down people that they are afraid of, because they don’t belong to the same religion. Again it goes back to fear. A philosopher who is ignorant of science, does bad philosophy. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t study science. It means that they should study science! And good science. And spend some time with it and learn it or even better, to collaborate. One of the great things about science is that no one does science alone. Every scientist has a collaborator, two collaborators, a team. Because no one person knows enough to do it alone. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if philosophers and theologians could publish as teams? Could learn from each other? We could have a philosopher who knows some science and a scientist who knows some philosophy working on a project together.

In the US, one of the opponents of the theory of evolution has been the theory of intelligent design. You mentioned a moment ago how the theory of evolution can explain how one species comes from another but that it has been used inappropriately in the past and out-stepped its bounds. Do you have an opinion on intelligent design?

Guy: This is a marvelous example of a beautiful idea that has been captured by people who have twisted its meaning. I believe in God and see God’s presence in the beautiful logic of the universe, so I could use the word “designer” in that sense, and that is the traditional sense. But people who think they can use science to prove the existence of God make science more powerful than God. So in the end the god they’re trying to prove is no longer the real God. People who say “I don’t understand how this occurs in nature, therefore that must be where God exists,” have reduced God from the supernatural God that is the foundation of everything, into a nature-god that throws lightning bolts. And God is reduced to a pagan nature god. That’s the danger. Science is a way of stumbling towards a truth that we will never completely capture. And science is a very, very shaky ground on which to build your religion because the science of the year 2200 will look very different from the science of 2013.

In the situation you’ve just described, it seems surprising to hear that the Catholic Church has an astronomical observatory that has been active since 1774. It currently has its main headquarters on the Vatican territory of Castel Gandolfo, alongside the Pope’s vacation home. It also shares a state of the art observatory with the University of Arizona, on Graham Mountain. What is the meaning of the fact that the Church has its own observatory?

 

Guy: There’s a simple reason and a deeper reason. The simple reason is to show the world that the Church supports science. Literally with its money, literally its church buildings were buildings on top of which telescopes were built. The Pope’s summer home has telescopes on top of it. The church of St. Ignatius in Rome had telescopes built on top of it. The Church supports science. The Church not only is not afraid of science, but it embraces science when it is directed towards truth and not abused to justify things we know are wrong. The deeper reason is that the physical universe is God’s way of communicating himself to us. “God reveals himself in the things he has created”. That’s a quote from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans. “God reveals himself in the things he has created.” And so we are called to study the things he created in order to get to know God better. For me personally, when I encounter the physical universe and the way it works, I experience a sense of joy which is that same joy I feel in prayer. It is the presence of God.

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