Event Review: God and the Galaxies – a Jesuit perspective from the Vatican Observatory

dsouzaJesuit priest and astronomer Dr. Richard D’Souza recently presented this lecture at St Paul’s College. Rick Dondo attended it, hoping to be treated to images of the night sky and some scientific explanations of them. That turned out to be hardly the case, but the evening was interesting nonetheless.

If you’re curious about how religious scientists try to overcome cognitive dissonance and reconcile their supernatural beliefs with their scientific endeavors, you’ll find his observations fascinating.

The Event

This event, on November 24, 2016, was planned to be in the school’s main lecture hall. Attendance was such that it was moved to the chapel, which barely held the crowd and where the sound system was notably awful.

St Paul’s College announced this presentation with the following description:

“The evening lecture by Jesuit priest Dr. Richard D’Souza, SJ will explore his work at the Vatican Observatory, the connection between faith and reason, and question about the origins of the universe. For anyone interested in the Catholic Church and scientific discovery, this lecture will incredibly amazing.”

Putting aside the spelling and grammar mistakes in that description, this review will demonstrate that the evening, for this attendee, was far from memorable and far from amazing.

As part of the introduction, the MC for the evening indicated the talk would illustrate the relationship between science, faith and reason. I suggest and hope to demonstrate that it failed to do so except to the most initiated / indoctrinated believer.

For this review, I have used a structure that largely reflects the talk:

  • The first part is an elaboration of Dr. D’Souza’s work in science
  • The second part is an attempt to convince people that science and belief can coexist comfortably, or in his opinion, should coexist
  • The final part is reserved for my observations and personal conclusions.

This review is an abbreviated version of a longer document which is available on request.

Describing Dr. D’Souza’s Work

After a short preamble or introduction of the scope of the Universe (see my observations below), he provided some background into the various ways galaxies form. He mentioned two methods, the first was “Spontaneous”, involving the collapse of dust and gases. The second was “Accretion” or “Cannibalism” wherein galaxies collide and coalesce.

He indicated this latter was his area of expertise, specifically using models to determine the ways these collisions contribute to the various types of galaxies we observe (i.e., “shell accretion”) and how that can help us understand their histories. As is the case in cosmology, he then stated that we can now know more about the history of our own galaxy, the  Milky Way, because of this work.

Why an Observatory at the Vatican?

vaticanobservatoryThis was, in fact, the longer part of his presentation. His launching point was the premise wherein the believer assumes God. Now what? How do we answer the very human questions that arise such as Why? How?…

After several earlier iterations in The Vatican and surrounding parts of Rome, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT, alternately, here) is established at Mt Graham, AZ and has been in operation for 25 years. It includes a 1.8m mirror and considerable software that allows it be continuously upgraded to keep it able to meet the challenges of the research being done.

The work is not about proving the existence of God. The foundation of the mission is that they want to embrace the commands in the Bible, i.e., doing science is an act of worship. Twelve or thirteen Jesuits are involved; six in Rome, six at the telescope near Tucson, and others in related roles.

D’Souza noted that The Vatican has a major collection of meteorites. When the question was asked, “What would be the maximum value to science?” for these rocks, they chose to measure the meteorites. This was providing fundamental data that could be developed with the unique circumstances of the team, i.e., no funding or time constraints.

On outreach efforts by The VO Foundation, they get the same amazed reactions around the world when they show people the planets and stars via a portable telescope. He explained this as a common human characteristic and as a shared act of worship. In other words, for the speaker, the “Wow” experience of surprise was evidence of God.

He noted that Pope Leo had stated in his letter “Motu Proprio” (a personal decree) establishing the Vatican Observatory in 1891: “the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible dedication.” He contended that over time, the people at the observatory had lost sight of the “anybody” aspect. Now, they see it as important that they show the church is not opposed to science.

The common reaction is “But what? Is not the church opposed to science?” He then proceeded to provide a brief and selective history of the ways in which active Christians had made significant contributions to Science.

He specifically addressed the case of Galileo Galilei, concluding with the arguably dismissive statement that Galileo was a hothead and that may well have contributed to the animus against him.

He stated that, with the Observatory, the church wants to start a new narrative. The mandate is to do good science. Then, he launched into the real apologetics of the talk…

He put the focus on an Einstein quote in which Einstein stated “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” He provided no further discussion of that quote but carried on. (See my comments on this under Observations and Conclusions, below.)

Per Dr D’Souza, Science is about explanation (storytelling via the scientific method) while religion is about meaning. Science takes things apart, where Religion puts things together to see what they mean.

Per Dr D’Souza, Science describes natural phenomena to weave into a consistent story with other theories. Per the speaker, Faith is not certainty; rather, it is the courage to live with uncertainty. Further, Faith is not accepting a bunch of facts in the absence of evidence; instead, it is making choices in the absence of all the facts.

He discussed the roles of assumptions and axioms in the scientific method. He also touched on Gödel’s “Theorems of Incompleteness” to illustrate the fact we must know some things to advance.

He mentioned briefly what he referred to as “The Conditions of Science”:

  • A Real universe
  • The Universe has laws
  • It is worth the effort to learn the laws

He noted that some cultures do not include that last element and suggested that, as a result, they have not made much scientific progress.

As an example of the way scientific theories change, he chose the various ways in which humans have described gravity: Ptolemaic, Newtonian, and Einsteinian models have shown the advances made through the introduction of new tools, new observations, and new data.

He noted that reality does not change, but the map does.

His last thought: Religious language is symbolic and mythic, while scientific language tries to be empirical and objective.

He then took questions

cognitive-dissonance400In one response (inaudible to the bulk of the attendees in the room), he again cautioned against taking the Bible literally. To understand its symbolism, one should study theology.

When asked about the Church and the possibility of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, he responded that the probability tells us that yes, there is other life in the Universe. Is it intelligent? To that, he had only a response of “No comment”.

The last question was about the incomprehensibility (to the questioner) of the 11 dimensions of string theory and the suggestion that it is valid to ask: “Has science hit a wall?” His response was that such models are meant to provide maps to understanding reality and to permit predictions about it. He noted that Quantum Theory arises from mathematical constructs and that to date its place in science is unsure. It explains nothing in the real world and has yet to allow any predictions and as such, it is not considered to be a fully accepted scientific theory even if much research is being done in the field and other results rely on it to make explanations.

Observations and Conclusions

not-understandingMy general observation about the evening’s events is that the speaker was presenting to what I can only characterize as a room full of “the converted”. If there were any other skeptics in the room, they, as did I, failed to make their presence known in the formal portion of the event. A show of hands indicated there were, just the same, several people in the room studying the sciences, in general, and astronomy, in particular.

If he was questioned at all in a skeptical manner about the content or the intent of his material during the unstructured reception afterward, I cannot say. I did not stay long enough to observe it.

Some background on our speaker is available here (his sparse profile as a researcher at the University of Michigan) and here (his profile as a member of the Vatican Observatory staff). The latter offers insight into his published work. His sparsely populated Facebook profile offers some insight into his employment history and his timeline indicates some of his interests.

The longer version of this document contains much more detail on these highlights (or lowlights, as you prefer):

  • Dr D’Souza was sloppy with his numbers on several occasions
  • He used an approach to relating Science and Religion that showed a tendency to want to subsume and control its output to ONLY align it with Church dogma and doctrine
  • He showed an approach to life, unsurprisingly, given his vocation, to downplay the value of Science to people’s lives while glorifying the role of Religion, specifically: “Science and religion are equal but different tools for understanding life and the Universe”. This extended to muddled efforts to demonstrate the superiority of Religion by appealing to faith, hope and trust.
  • I was frankly appalled at his disingenuous attempt to co-opt Einstein in defense of religion. That quote about religion vs. science was taken out of context and this article by Dr Jerry Coyne provides the reasoning behind the argument that this quote does NOT mean what he presented it for in defense of his position. And just as telling, is Einstein’s own demolition in 1954, a year before his death, of any understanding of ANY of his writings as a defense of religion.
  • The limited selection of priest scientists seemed to me to be a self-congratulatory pat on the back… As has been the case for some time, it did not sway me from my conviction that these people were scientists by nature and Christians, even priests, by necessity. At the time, heresy was punished by death. That is a serious motivator by itself. Also, only a rare few had the personal earthly resources required to support such inquiry and joining an order was an established path to gaining access to them. The rest is arguably a matter of convenience and circumstance, not a willful choice to justify any ersatz belief in a deity of any kind.
  • Making choices in the absence of facts is more aptly characterized as “risk taking”. I fail to see how the modern technology or discipline of risk analysis applies in any way to the dogmatic following of any religion. I see religion as a prescriptive way of controlling people’s lives in a way intended to eliminate any risk that the people will rise up and take control of their own lives and their outcomes.
  • His characterization of faith also failed to move me. It is simply and demonstrably ONLY “belief without evidence”. None of his other attempts to expand on that definition swayed me in any way.

In the end, I was disappointed by the content of the talk, since it spent so little time on the galaxies and so much time on the “god” part of the title. I was hoping for some unique content, only achieved via the VATT. There was none. For that part of the result, I have only myself to blame.

My personal conclusion

This talk was another demonstration of the cognitive dissonance required to hold the two concepts in one mind, especially when one is a practitioner of the scientific method. The presupposition of the existence of a deity to justify the resulting dissonance and the failure to be intellectually honest about the fact that neither answers the main question: “Why?” defeats any attempts at the rigorous application of logic and reason. Since this was the main point of the talk, then I consider it to be a complete failure.

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