Scientists gather to discuss creation, cosmos and belief

by Paul Winner

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In the early 1980s, a group of scientists began gathering at Loyola University Maryland to discuss the cosmos. That very word, "cosmos," which astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan had popularized a few years before with his groundbreaking television program of the same name, was nonetheless felt by members of this particular group to be technically inadequate.

"A word was needed to demystify the notion of creation, to make it compatible with real science," said Richard Blum, the T.J. Higgins, S.J., Chair in Philosophy at Loyola.

Now in its 33rd year, the annual Cosmos & Creation Conference, held June 12-13 at Loyola's Baltimore campus, has developed into a much-anticipated gathering of men and women of science who are, for lack of a better word, believers. (Perhaps the more contemporary term would be non-atheists.)

At its inception, the gathering drew attendees from the scientific community who were raised in mainline religious households or had received, at the very least, a basic theological education. The range of topics they were drawn to discuss year after year included genomics, neuroscience, evolution, Neo-Darwinism, probability theory, statistical mechanics, multiverses, ontology, and concepts of matter, with the occasional genuflection to the ideas pioneered by Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Held days before a much-anticipated papal encyclical on matters of science and the environment, this year's conference and its topics could not seem timelier. Speakers included Robert Ulanowicz, professor emeritus of the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, whose lectures included a deconstruction of Newtonian physics and the metaphysics inherent in ecology.

"The great majority of discussions" regarding science and creation, he said, "occur between theologians on one hand and physicists -- high priests of science -- on the other. Few seem interested in what those of us huddled in the middle -- in the trenches, watching the bullets fly back and forth -- want to contribute."

To each scientist in attendance, the conference's formal lectures provided raw materials for thought, but more informal gatherings after the lectures were where the livelier discussions between members took place.

Blum, one of the co-directors of the conference, examined the apparent split between science and religion by noting a larger sweep of history. Beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, scientists began to acquire knowledge of things that an ordinary educated and intelligent person "would simply not understand," he said.

"Before this, Descartes or whoever could basically expect to be informed about the science of their time. They had an opinion, an informed opinion. But with the development of biology, microscopic research, astronomic research? And with atomic theory becoming the dominating model of physics?" he said, pausing to shrug. "The ordinary person didn't know what a scientist does."

Robert Pond, chair of engineering at Loyola and a co-director of the conference, agreed. "If we did a survey of the general population now asking what science can inform us about religion, it would say that science has claimed there is no God. As if science is a new religion."

"I reject when scientists nowadays talk to believers and say, 'I can change, and you can't,' " said Ulanowicz, a practicing Catholic. "Contrary to what some think, the church itself has changed enormously, though slowly, over the years. Believers can't change, but scientists can? I totally reject that. Scientists can be powerfully dogmatic about their beliefs."

"One hears the believer is unpopular, to say the least," said Daryl Domning, a professor of anatomy and biology at Howard University and a co-lecturer at the conference. In scientific academia, "there are a lot of [believers] in the closet."

"Non-believing scientists seem to have the ear of the public," Pond said.

"People like E.O. Wilson grew up in fundamentalism and decided the only alternative was atheism," Domning added. "Were any new atheists brought up with mainline educations? No. They were inoculated early against religion."

"And yet how much of this so-called new atheism, for example, is due to actual science?" Ulanowicz asked.

One of the underlying assumptions of the conference was that scientists, regardless of field, tend to develop their own cosmologies. According to the conference mission statement, this may involve "a sense for God that is expressed in non-traditional ways ... in touch with the feel of contemporary science."

"Some people who hear of us, of this conference, who haven't looked at the website," Blum said with a smile, "they assume we're creationists."

Creationism is hardly the conceptual model of the conference's lectures. Ulanowicz in his presentation spoke at length of reframing views of creation to respect the inherent processes in an evolving universe. While Carl Sagan could claim, as he did in 1988, that contemporary physics proved "there is nothing left for a Creator to do," Ulanowicz embraced a more Teilhard-friendly cosmology. Nature is dual, in continuous evolution, a constant building up and tearing down, he said. "To paraphrase Karl Popper, we are not things, we are flames."

Domning, whose lecture explored theology through the work of Charles Darwin, discussed the implications of evolution. Calling evolution "a gift to theology," Domning reminded attendees that evolution implied community and mutuality on multiple levels -- cellular, organism -- and even included room for the presence of evil, which he described as "inseparable" from natural evolution. His talk resonated with Ulanowicz's, proposing the need for scientists to remind themselves that if a thing has life, it is no longer a thing, but a process.

"My aim," Ulanowicz said, "has been to point to an intellectual neutral ground, where believers and non-believers can respect each other's intellect."

[Paul Winner is a freelance writer who lives in Baltimore.]

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