February 15, 2012

Copernicus, Wojtyla, Heller: a Polish Tradition


Michael Heller


©Copernicus Center


Father Michael Heller

In the 1970s, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Krakow held regular meetings for a core group of Polish Catholic intellectuals, who met in his palace to discuss philosophy, theology, art, and science. Though Poland then suffered under the oppression of the communist police state, this was a place where scholars, artists, and scientists could gather under the patronage and protection of the archbishop, to discuss in freedom the life of the mind. In 1978, that archbishop—Karol Cardinal Wojtyla—went to Rome for a papal conclave, and returned to Poland as Pope John Paul II.

That was not the end of his salon. It continued under the leadership of Father Michael Heller and the late Father Joseph Zycinski, who formalized the fellowship as the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, known by its Polish acronym, OBI. OBI spent the subsequent decades organizing seminars and conferences, and publishing books and magazines about science, philosophy, and related topics.

OBI's work attracted the attention of the John Templeton Foundation, whose mission entails exploring related questions in science, theology, and philosophy. Discussions on enriching and expanding OBI's work were well underway when Father Heller, who is both a cleric and a cosmologist, won the 2008 Templeton Prize. He donated his $1.6 million award to help found OBI's successor: the Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, a joint venture between Krakow's Jagiellonian University and the Pontifical University of John Paul II. The center opened in 2008.

The Center practices what its founders and directors call the "Krakow method" of investigating the big questions in science, theology, and philosophy. Simply put, this method employs a systematic and collaborative examination of philosophical questions within science by specialists from across scholarly disciplines. In a seminal 1986 paper, Father Heller characterized this method as "philosophy in science," a way of exploring questions of meaning within the practice of science itself, as distinct from analyzing science from a philosophical distance.

Though the Copernicus Center is grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition, Bartosz Brozek, a law professor and philosopher who also serves as the center's deputy director, tells the Templeton Report that its mission is explicitly non-sectarian. Philosophy's role is not to confirm a pre-determined worldview, he says, but to "provide a solid analysis of a given problem." This, he says, is the best service the center can provide to the Church.

"What the Church needs in times of serious challenge is a set of intellectual tools, but the tools as such cannot be designed for apologetic purposes," Brozek says. "They must be worldview-neutral, and thus may be used by anyone."

In 2011, the Templeton Foundation awarded a $2 million grant to the Copernicus Center to underwrite a three-year project investigating the limits of scientific explanation. The project focuses on three main areas: physics and cosmology; science and Catholic theology; and the biological emergence of the normative human mind. From the Foundation's point of view, the ultimate goal is to establish the Copernicus Center as a key hub of innovative research in both Europe and the broader Catholic world.

"The Foundation was drawn to Poland's rich intellectual heritage, particularly of its Catholic intellectuals, of whom Heller is a primary example," says JTF program manager Drew Rick-Miller. "What Heller and his colleagues stand for and are accomplishing is exactly what Sir John Templeton cared about. We expect this program not only to disseminate knowledge, but also to produce solid scholarly research that leads to progress on a number of important big questions."

The Limits of Scientific Explanation initiative has already established an English-language Philosophy in Science website, and last month hosted a scholarly conference in Krakow, where academics from several disciplines met to discuss philosophical aspects of cosmology, mathematics, and neuroscience. Video of those lectures will soon be available at the Philosophy in Science site.

"We believe we should be able to look at the limits of scientific explanation from two different perspectives," says Brozek. "First, from 'inside' the sciences, where limits become frontiers, and also from 'outside'—for example, from a theological perspective, where limits become limitations, but such that tell us something about the nature of the universe and the human place in it."

At both the head and the heart of the Copernicus Center's work remains Father Michael Heller, a figure who, like the Polish pope who was his friend and onetime Krakow patron, is a shining exemplar of spiritual, intellectual, and moral leadership. "His life is—and will be—an example of how to understand one's research as a vocation," says Brozek. "It is not a simple problem of career choice. It is rather an important moral choice."

Science Has Not Killed Philosophy


What Happened Before the Big Bang? The New Philosophy of Cosmology



Over the past couple of months, leading philosophers in the United States and Great Britain launched initiatives to develop a new field within the philosophy of science: the philosophy of cosmology. Funded by Templeton grants in the US and UK, the scholars will use philosophical strategies to explore fundamental questions about the nature of reality raised by the contemplation of the physical universe as a whole, as distinct from its parts. In a January 19 interview with The Atlantic, New York University philosopher Tim Maudlin, a founder of the American group, conceded that mainstream physics has in recent decades downplayed these foundational inquiries, but "the questions never went away.

“There were always people who were willing to ask them,” Maudlin said. “Probably the greatest physicist in the last half of the 20th century, who pressed very hard on these questions, was John Stewart Bell. So you can’t suppress it forever, it will always bubble up.”

Maudlin is undeterred by the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking’s remark last fall that philosophy is “dead” because it hasn’t kept up with science. “The situation is actually the exact opposite of what he describes,” Maudlin said. “The philosophy of science is undergoing a renaissance, he continued, as thinkers begin to confront the philosophical aspects of scientific questions, which Maudlin predicts” will lead to interesting avenues of inquiry."

Light From Light


Light From Light: Scientists and Theologians In Dialogue (Eerdmans)

A desire to explore the physics and metaphysics of light brought a group of distinguished scientists and theologians together in the spring of 2009 in Istanbul, the only city located on two continents as it straddles the Bosphorus, the narrow strait separating Europe and Asia. Physicists such as Robert Boyd and Anton Zeilinger discussed new discoveries related to the physical properties of light while theological questions, for example, what could Jesus have meant when he described himself as the “Light of the world” (John 9:5), were pursued by scholars like the Orthodox thinker John Behr, Gerald O’Collins, S.J., and Kathryn Tanner. The result of this collaboration has just been published as the essay collection Light From Light: Scientists and Theologians In Dialogue (Eerdmans) with contributions by thirteen authors.

The Istanbul symposium and the resulting book are among the fruits of the John Templeton Foundation’s Humble Approach Initiative (HAI), which sponsors interdisciplinary scholarly gatherings to investigate the deepest questions facing humankind. The HAI arose from the late Sir John Templeton’s belief that real spiritual progress can result when seekers humble themselves to learn from the perspectives of others.


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