SCIENCE can find allies in people of faith, says Father Tom Boyle
The cynics among us find it tempting to disparage our American cousins with their faith in their political system, ‘the last great hope of mankind’ with its ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘American exceptionalism’. They have an admirable faith in their system.
I have never been a Scottish or British exceptionalist; I used to find the slogan ‘the best little country in the world’ quite amusing when I arrived home at the airport.
I quite like my country but I see its limitations and even its imperfections and we have too much history to not feel some equivocation. I have only ever been an exceptionalist in terms of us, good old homo sapiens. As someone who believes in a humanity made in the ‘image and likeness of God’ and a God made man in Jesus Christ, whose birth we have just celebrated at Christmas, I have always struggled with the idea that there could be other forms of intelligent life in the universe. This doesn’t mean that I’m a flat-earther, my first existence in university was as a pharmacy student and I take great pride in the long list of clerics who have contributed across the sciences.
For any mention of Galileo that I get I can quote back umpteen examples of priests, religious and lay Catholics who have made seminal contributions to science, not least Father Georges Lemaitre who was the first to propose the Big Bang Theory although he called it ‘the hypothesis of the primeval atom’.
An American Jesuit, Guy Consolmagno, is the Papal astronomer and at this time of the year he gets a bit wearied at being asked which star the Star of Bethlehem could have been. Brother Consolmagno was a properly trained and accredited astronomer before he entered the Jesuits and was immediately put to work in the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo and in Arizona. He has written much to overcome any spurious division between faith and science and in fact was awarded the Carl Sagan prize earlier this year for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public. The latest book which Brother Consolmagno has co-authored with a Jesuit colleague is entitled ‘Would you baptise an extra-terrestrial?’ His short answer is ‘yes, but only if she asks’. Needless to say this question and answer disturbs my homo sapien exceptionalism.
When I listen to Whovians, I believe that’s the correct term for those excessively partial to Doctor Who, I wonder how many of them did actually hide behind the sofa when they were children, isn’t it just another one of those modern myths? When I was a child I quite liked Doctor Who but I never hid behind the sofa – but then ours was pushed against the wall. I am slightly bemused that so many Whovians had houses big enough to have furniture in the middle of the floor.
If you really want to upset time travel fans, ask: ‘If it’s going to be invented in the future why haven’t we welcomed anyone from there yet?’
The 20th Century Italian physicist Enrico Fermi posed a very similar question about extra-terrestrials, given the high estimates of the probability of the existence of life outside of our planet and our lack of contact with such civilisations and our lack of evidence for such life existing. Fermi’s argument goes like this: the sun is a relatively young star by comparison with many of the billions of other stars, some of those stars must have earth-like planets and some of those have surely developed intelligent life, and on those planets with intelligent life which are older than ours their ability for space travel must be in advance of ours, so the ‘Fermi paradox’ asks: where is everybody?
One answer to the paradox suggested by Carl Sagan amongst others is that it is perhaps the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. We have feared nuclear and biological warfare as possible end points of civilisation, we are in the midst of a debate about the consequences of climate change and how far there is human responsibility for it.
Is it possible that civilisations arise throughout the universe and end in catastrophe? Why haven’t we? Are we just fortunate that we haven’t arrived at that point yet? Or, have we adapted the ability to step back? Are we exceptional in the universe? Have we been redeemed? And if we have been redeemed who’s led this, who is the Redeemer?
• Rev.Thomas Boyle is Assistant General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland