“Worship him, I beg you, in a way that is worthy of thinking beings” — Romans 12:1 (Jerusalem Bible Translation)
My news feed included this article from the Christian Science Monitor on a “debate” this evening between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. I am not the most up-to-date person on popular culture and I had not previously heard of either Bill Nye or Ken Ham. However, I was surprised to learn that this “debate” was moderated by CNN and will have over 80 news organizations in attendance.
I have previously compared “debates” like this as akin to a food fight between two-year olds: there is some nominal entertainment value but the level of intellectual discourse is nonexistent and there is a huge mess that needs to be cleaned up. I have also previously written about the poor state of scientific and theological literacy in Western Culture.
I do not have time to do a thorough reflection on this topic but I compare the Nye/Ham media event with a 2008 conference hosted by the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences on “Scientific Insights into the Evolution of the Universe and Life”. This conference included leading scientists and theologians from around the world, including Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Francis Collins, Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and many others.
There were over 600 pages of transcripts and discussions but a summary of the conference was provided by Professor Christian de Duve:
There was little disagreement on major issues. The participants unanimously accepted as indisputable the affirmation that the Universe, as well as life within it, are the products of long evolutionary histories. They rejected as objectively untenable the so-called ‘creationist’ view based on a literal interpretation of the biblical account of Genesis, a view not to be confused with the belief, legitimately held by many, in a creator God. Benedict XVI in his opening address to the participants proposed a valuable approach based on a metaphysical interpretation of the creation clearly different from that of the ‘Creationists’: ‘A decisive advance in understanding the origin of the cosmos was the consideration of being qua being and the concern of metaphysics with the most basic question of the first or transcendent origin of participated being. In order to develop and evolve, the world must first be, and thus have come from nothing into being. It must be created, in other words, by the first Being who is such by essence.’
Several contributions reviewed recent developments in cosmology. Attention was drawn to a number of still unsolved problems, including dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and the possibility that our Universe may be only one among a huge number of universes (multiverse), perhaps the only one that happens by chance to have physical constants such that complex forms of matter, including living beings, can arise. The latter hypothesis, however, is purely speculative and may well remain so, because of a lack of means of either proving or disproving it.
Special attention was paid to the solar system and, within this system, to planet Earth and the emergence of life on it. The question was raised whether other such systems, possibly including planets bearing life and, perhaps, intelligence, might exist elsewhere in our galaxy or in others. This has become a major subject of astronomical research. More than 300 planets have been discovered around nearby stars and intense efforts are made to devise technologies that would allow signs of life to be detected. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been underway for some time and is being expanded, without, however, having yielded any positive result so far.
Many discussions were devoted to the origin and evolution of life. It was generally admitted that all known living beings, including humans, descend from a single ancestral form of life that appeared on Earth several billion years ago. How this form originated is not known but is believed by a majority of experts to have involved special chemical reactions that were rendered possible, perhaps even imposed, by the physical-chemical conditions under which they took place. Particularly impressive in this respect is the recent discovery that a number of typical building blocks of life, including sugars, amino acids, and nitrogenous bases, arise spontaneously, together with numerous other organic compounds, in many parts of the Universe. Not all scientists, however, believe this remarkable fact to be relevant to the origin of life.
A key event in the long history of life on Earth was the appearance, between 2.4 and 2.0 billion years ago, of molecular oxygen, a product of photosynthetic organisms and an essential prerequisite to the formation of aerobic forms of life, including all animals (and humans). Another decisive event was the development of eukaryotic cells which eventually gave rise to the multicellular plants, fungi, animals, and humans. Although many details remain to be clarified, the actual occurrence of biological evolution is no longer just a theory, strongly suggested by fossil evidence, but not conclusively demonstrated by it. Evolution is now supported by overwhelming molecular proofs and has acquired the status of established fact. In the words of His Holiness John Paul II, it is “more than a hypothesis”.
A link to all of the speeches and discussions is set forth below. I hope to discuss these topics in more depth in the future but in the mean time I am deciding whether to laugh or cry over the level of the level of scientific and theological discourse in our culture.