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George Coyne

George Coyne is a Jesuit priest and an astronomer. He is director of the Vatican Observatory, and head of the Observatory’s research group which is based at the University of Arizona in Tuscon. Father Coyne is the host of the Divine Action series of conferences which bring together scientists and theologians from around the world.

About Father George Coyne
Coyne on the Nature of God and the Natural Sciences
God and an Evolutionary Universe
On the Role of Religion and Genetic Technology
On the God of Physicists
On Purpose in the Universe
Can Science Tell Us About God?
Can Science Inform Theology in General?

QUESTION: Father Coyne, has there been a conflict in your life in resolving your interest in science with your religious calling?

FATHER COYNE: I must honestly say, for me very personally, it's never been a conflict, in fact, far from it. The two have been very supportive. Let me say a word about it, though, because it's been my personal history, that my science has never led me to believe, to have faith. I haven't come to believe because I have convinced myself it was the right thing to do by doing science. Far from it, faith to me is a gift, which I willingly received as a little child, and then questioned as I grew up. By a gift, I mean that God gave me the gift of faith. I don't mean that in any miraculous sense, I mean through the parents who educated me, through the brothers and sisters I grew up with, the schools I went to, there was this influence upon me which was the faith, in the concrete. I accepted it, I questioned it, I grew up with it, and in the end, as a mature adult, I continue to accept it.

Now, having the faith, not having acquired it, but having been given it, as I do my science I find that it supports my faith, it enriches it, it gives it a whole new dimension. But, I have never come to know God, to see God, to believe in God through doing science. He's not the conclusion of some sort of process of my personal scientific investigation. But, my scientific investigation, because God is reflected in the world in which me made, in some sense, my scientific investigation has always supported my belief in God in a very real sense. It helps me to pray better. I have more things to pray about, my prayer is enriched, et cetera. As a religious priest I find it a very enriching experience to do my scientific research. So far from there being any conflict, in that sense in which I explained, the scientific research, being a scientist helps to support both my life as a Jesuit and my belief in God.

QUESTION: What is your field of specialty as a scientist?

FATHER COYNE: There are several areas, but it's fundamentally based upon a technique called polarization studies, using the polarization of light. Well, with that technique, currently what I'm studying is the distribution of matter around young stars - stars that have just been born, or are in the process of being born. Now we find through doing these polarization studies, that matter tends to be distributed in a disc around the new born star. Now it becomes fascinating, because analyzing that disc more carefully we find that in many cases it resembles precisely the kind of process that we think took place with the birth of the planets about the Sun. So what we're seeing are proto-planetary discs. hat is, a young star that has the physical conditions to perhaps develop a planetary system. And that, of course, becomes very fascinating.

QUESTION: Could tell us briefly how you came to be having these Vatican conferences on Divine Action in the scientific age?

FATHER COYNE: What happened, actually, it's historically of some interest. As you know, the current Pope John Paul II, from the beginning of his papacy began to take a serious interest in trying to develop the dialogue between the culture of the sciences and the culture of faith. One important thing was trying to reevaluate the whole Galileo affair. So he himself was driving the church in that direction, by his personal initiative.

In light of that, at the time of the 300 year anniversary of Isaac Newton's book - the Principia - the Pope asked us to commemorate that. He felt the Vatican Observatory was a fitting group to do that. But he insisted he didn't want it to be just a celebration, a parade. He wanted it to have a serious content. And so we proposed to him the running of a conference that would bring together experts in the various fields of science, philosophy and theology. And we did that. But in the course of that, it dawned on me why not think of continuing this into the future by having a series of such research conferences. And I talked to Bob Russell at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, and he too was looking for new initiatives. And so we did it.

QUESTION: What is your goal with these conferences?

FATHER COYNE: Well, I think it's a very specific goal. It is to open up the dialogue, at a level of serious research, on problems that overlap the areas of philosophy, theology and the sciences. One idea is the theological and philosophical notion of creation, and the scientific exploration of how did the universe begin. Another idea is the physical evolution of the universe, and the origins of human being within that universe - ie. biological evolution.

The nature of God is something that is of serious interest to believers, to theologians, and to philosophers. And yet we can't come to the nature of God, unless we also have some knowledge of the nature of the universe as having come from God. I would say the specific goal of the conferences is to study issues like that at a research level. We've always insisted that the participants invited to the conferences are established professionals in one of the fields of philosophy, theology or science, and have a very well developed, good reading interest in one of the other fields, so that we can definitely dialogue at a research level.

QUESTION: Some religious people feel that science diminishes both man and God. As someone who is both a scientist and a priest, how do you respond to that criticism of science?

FATHER COYNE: It's a very real difficulty. There are many people who do view scientific research as alienating us from religion and from God, and when so many people do, there must be some reason for it. As a scientist I would address that in two ways. One is that at the very origins of modern science people like Isaac Newton, Descartes, and Galileo were all very religious people. So doing science is not inherently incompatible with religious faith.

However the great successes of science - Galileo's telescopic observations, Newton's law of gravity, etc - all of this great success caused people to sort of say, what if we could establish religion on that same successful basis? What if we could have a good rational foundation for religious belief. What if religion could be sort of like science. Of course, that can't be. The whole dimension of religious belief requires transcendence, it requires going beyond what you can establish rationally.

Now, another thing to be said is that the technological overflow from scientific research has brought scientific research this bad name about carrying an irresponsibility and an alienation from God - because scientific research has led to things like the atom bomb, it's led to problems with depletion of ozone in the Earth's atmosphere, or at least it's revealed those problems. All of these things have come about by scientific research. But, we can't blame science for that. People tend to do that - they tend not to disassociate the technological issues from pure scientific research, so that science sometimes gets a bad name for things that science doesn't deserve having a bad name for.

I hope I'm not giving the impression of an ivory tower science, but for me science is an attempt to understand, it's an attempt to understand the universe. And I can't see for the life of me how an attempt to understand the universe, which I believe comes from God, can alienate us from God. So I would defend science on the basis that it is an attempt to understand the universe, not an attempt to manipulate the universe.

QUESTION: For you personally, Father Coyne, how does your science affect your understanding of God?

FATHER COYNE: Very briefly, it enriches my understanding of God. And that's a very personal experience of mine. When I pray, when I sort of think about God, even in an intellectual way, not necessarily in a spiritual way, my science always enters. Let me give you one very brief example, two stars, one is sucking mass off of the other star, so they're sort of developing together. Now, to me that's so different than an individual star growing on its own. It says there's unity to the universe, that every piece of the universe is sort of a part of every other piece, et cetera. And this says to me a universe that has this sort of unity among itself, this says something to me about a God who is working in his universe.

COMMENT: That's a lovely way of putting it.

QUESTION: The Christian church has a long history of gradually absorbing scientific perspectives and new discoveries. It seems to me that, in fact, that has been one of the strengths of Christianity - it has ultimately had great flexibility in absorbing new information about the world that we get from science. Today, however, Christianity is facing new challenges particularly with discoveries in the genetic sciences, and with new developments in things like mind-brain science. As you look to the future, how do you see Christianity dealing with these new challenges?

FATHER COYNE: I think it's correct to say that Christianity has always had sort of an ability to absorb the developments in science. But, it's always done it very slowly. So take the Copernican revolution, it took the church centuries before it realized that the Copernican revolution was actually a contribution to the life of the church, the development of our view of ourselves in terms of the Universe, and therefore our view of God, et cetera. But, that took centuries, and struggles, and conflicts before that happened.

I think today the church faces a very real challenge in not repeating the errors of the past, in sort of a stand off, a fear of science. I'm referring in particular to the life sciences today, and especially to developments in research in genetics. I think the church's attitude to that, in my mind as a scientist but from within the church, should be the church should welcome it, should encourage it, should be involved in it. So it's not coming up late and beginning to condemn technological developments that come from genetic research, but it is part of that genetic research, so that it can participate as a church with the technological developments and not let just them happen in their own way, and then come up late, and begin to condemn them, or something like this. I think the church's attitude should be to be a part of it, to welcome research in genetics.

QUESTION: What about the claims being made by genetic determinists who say we can explain explain everything about human behavior in terms of genetics. That would seem to conflict with the core Christian idea of free will. Some people have even suggested this kind of work is going to ultimately annihilate religion. Do you feel Christianity is under any such threat?

FATHER COYNE: I do not, and I'm speaking as a scientist now. Scientists in general tend to have what I would call a bit of hubris that the public do not necessarily understand. So scientists some times make claims that are misunderstood by the public. And one of the claims today is with research in DNA, that we're going to come to the ultimate explanation of the evolution of all biological systems, including the human person. I think to one extent that claim may be true, that we're getting a more comprehensive explanation of life systems. But, if its interpreted as meaning that we're going to completely explain the human person by biological mechanisms, then it's false, it's absolutely false. And I think no scientist, to my mind, that's worth their claims would say that.

I think that anybody who thinks science is going to explain everything in biological systems, or in physical cosmology, et cetera, is actually mistaken, because I think within science - if correctly understood - those claims are not being made.

QUESTION: What do you see as being the role for God in an evolutionary universe?

FATHER COYNE: I think the role for God in an evolutionary universe is an extremely rich concept. I think the God of an evolutionary universe - a universe that has a spontaneity to it, that has a dynamism to it, that has a development to it, and an uncertainty to it - that is a much richer God to me than a God of a deterministic universe, a universe that's predetermined. Because God to me - an essential characteristic for God - is freedom and spontaneity. And I believe that a universe participating in that freedom and spontaneity is an evolutionary universe. QUESTION: How would you respond to that claim that some people make, that when they look at the universe they don’t see any sign of God?

FATHER COYNE: I accept the view that you could see the same scientific data that I see and you can look upon it as having nothing to do with God - although I would say that you cannot use it to exclude God. I don't use scientific data as a foundation for believing in God - I use it as an enrichment of my knowledge of God. Neither of us can come to either a knowledge of God, or a denial of God by our scientific research. The knowledge of God, the belief in God, is what I call an a-rational process. It's not rational - it doesn't proceed by scientific investigation - but it's not irrational because it doesn't contradict my reasoning process. It goes beyond it.

There are dimensions to me that are not just the thinking person, but the person who is much richer, the person who has other emotional experiences, psychological experiences, these experiences also enrich me. So my answer to someone who is in contrast with me - by not seeing God in the scientific data - is that you don't see God in the scientific data because you're not me. I have other experiences than you have, that bring me to look at this data as enriching my experience of God.

QUESTION: One final question: In what sense does your science inform your belief in God?

FATHER COYNE: Well, in a very real sense my science does inform my knowledge of God. If you would allow me to say that we never know God, because if I claim that I know God, I know something other than God, because God is not knowable, he is unknowable. So we have to approach it in that sense first, that my knowledge of God is always limited. Since it's limited, anything that I can contribute to that small and limited knowledge of God is very valuable to me. And if I have a fundamental belief that the universe is created by God, then I also come to the belief that that universe reflects God, it gives me some knowledge of Him. Obviously, therefore, the more I know of the universe is, the more enriched my limited knowledge of God is.

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