09 November, 2002

A Jesuit Astrophysicist?

I went to the annual Rimes Lecture last Thursday night. Their speaker this year was William R. Stoeger, SJ, an astrophysicist from the Vatican Observatory Research Group. It was the first time I'd ever heard a speech* by a physicist who is also a priest for the Catholic church. Hearing his views on things was very entertaining and quite insightful. 

The first half of his lecture was pretty straightforward, dealing with a background of current physics intended to inform the audience of what he works with each day. I liked the way he presented it, though I found that the view from an astrophysicist really tends to place higher importance on certain aspects of theory that someone like me, an aspiring high energy physicist, would consider. 

He used the anthropic principle twice in the first half of his lecture; this was exceedingly surprising, since I never thought a Catholic priest of all things would admit the possibility and existence of the non-observable universe having different qualities from this one. I mean, doesn't that imply that the conditions from which Jesus was born was completely arbitrary, meaning that Jesus is unimportant in God's eyes? His answer to this was unsatisfactory; it seemed as though he denied the existence of Jesus (though not God) whenever he talked to me in big physics words, yet he accepted entirely in the belief of Jesus when he talked in laymen's terms to other people. I wonder if this was intentional, and he meant for me to get that point, or if he isn't even aware that he's doing it? However, really it all comes down to a matter of opinion. He said he invoked the anthropic principle because there is no other way to explain it. I interpreted this as him saying that he accepts a dumb explanation if there is nothing better to explain it with. How am I supposed to argue with that? He's right; there is no better explanation. And yet he invokes it even though it decidedly goes against the existence of any given physical religious artifact, including Jesus of Nazareth? He certainly confused me on this issue, but I let it slide. I didn't want to publicly push him on the issue. 

Also, he mentioned a bit on the 'cosmological constant' which I didn't understand... I didn't ask a question about it at the lecture though, because I am sure it is just an aspect of cosmological theory that I somehow missed in my studies. I plan on e-mailing one of my professors here at Spring Hill College after I finish this journal entry to explain why there is a need for a non-zero cosmological constant. Another thing he emphasized was that any theory we devise to explain the nature of the universe is descriptive and not prescriptive. I understand his point there, but only to a point. After all, if science can't predict, then what is the point of science? I didn't ask a question on this, though... It does seem to me to be simply a matter of opinion. He believes that there can ultimately be no theory which explains reality in full; I maintain that this is an eventual, though probably non-existent, possibility. Talking on this would do nothing but make both our throats dry. 

And then there was the second half of his lecture. It dealt with explaining creation in terms of God. I hated this part. He said that since physics breaks down at t equals ten to the negative forty-third, then time must not exist before that point. WTF? 'Time does not exist'? And to think that this guy is a priest! His reasoning is that the universe must have necessarily have been created ontologically and not temporally; in other words, creation created everything in all times simultaenously and not at one single value for t. Well, this is complete and utter BS. Sure, there's nothing really wrong with what he's saying, but why does he disallow the possibility of creation at a point in time? Or what about recursive causality? Or infinite regression? Why does he dismiss all of these possibilities in one single statement during his speech? I'll tell you why. It's because he's Catholic. He maintains that ultimate creation had to have happened according to his religion, and that negates recursive causality and infinite regression. And he refuses the possibility that creation could have occurred in the form of a quantum fluctuation, since that implies a vaccuum before creation, not a void. I was highly disappointed with him when he said this. That is exactly why I cannot prescribe to religion; it limits your views for no reason other than blind belief, and that is simply unnacceptable. 

::sigh:: At least I enjoyed the lecture, right? It's good for me to enjoy myself every once in a while. I deserve it. ...don't I? 

(*-"Cosmology & Creation: The Origin, Development, and Destiny of the Universe", by William R. Stoeger, SJ, staff astrophysicist for the Vatican Observatory Research Group in Steward Observatory at UA in Tuscon.)

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