Thursday, 25 February 2016

Between atheism and creationism

Lent 2016: Day 15

Prof Fr Michał Heller, the Catholic philosopher-scientist priest is an amazing figure, I'm surprised he isn't better known. Winner of the Templeton Prize in 2008, a prize richer than the Nobel Prize (other winners have been Paul Davies, the Dalai Lama and Freeman Dyson), Prof Heller is one of the foremost figures at the intersection between religion and science. His ideas are of great interest to me. Being a priest and a professor, and Polish, I reckon I should be able to garner intellectual and spiritual insights from him.

I managed to find no fewer than five of his books in philosophy section in the big Empik on Warsaw's Marszałkowska, so I bought two of them.

The first is his bestseller, Filozofia przypadku. Difficult to translate... the Philosophy of  - what exactly? Chance? Of Circumstance? Coincidence? Case? Event? Instance? Or this nice word - Fortuity? This is important, because the word is used a lot in this book, alongside the mathematical concept of probability (prawdopodobieństwo).

The second book by Fr Heller I bought was Zakład o życie wieczne i inne kazania krótkie (Google is telling me 'Department of Eternal Life...', but I'd go with 'A Gamble about Eternal Life And Other Short Sermons'. This is lighter of the two, as each sermon can be read independently, you can dip in and out of the book. And it is based on Bible, rather than scientific - or even more difficult (for me, anyway) - mathematical concepts.

I shall be referring to both books during the rest of Lent, but firstly, a brief overview of what Prof Heller is trying to achieve. He dedicates Filozofia Przypadku to two men - Richard Dawkins and William Dembski. The first, an outspoken atheist, states that the Universe, everything, us - it all just happened by chance, without cause or purpose. The second is a proponent of intelligent design, a more sophisticated form of creationism that, while rejecting the literal assertion that the Universe was made by God in six days, less than 10,000 years ago, still posits that God has designed it all.

Fr Heller proposes that to explain evolution and the Universe, one has to accept the role of chance/fortuity. And this the book sets out to do, using mathematical models of probability to see where from a range of random outcomes, ones favouring the evolution of sentient life took place.

A reading of Bill Bryson's marvellous A Short History Of Nearly Everything, which I reviewed here, filled me with marvel at the stupendous amount of coincidences that had to have happened along the way for us to be alive here today and thinking. Filozofia przypadku looks at the mathematics behind quantum physics - the stuff Larry Gopnik was teaching in A Serious Man - tough stuff for those who've not studied maths beyond middle school (O-level in my case). Fr Heller takes a stroll through the history of the mathematics of probability, from Leibniz (the last man who it was claimed knew everything) to the present day. And then the book returns to easier ground - theology.

A heavy-going (in places) book - yet five titles by Fr Heller at Empik (an up-market WH Smith) suggests there's a considerable market for his work in a country of intellectuals. His message - reconciling God and Science - seems popular.

So - there'll be a fair bit of this coming here between now and Easter.

This time last year:
A peek into the Afterlife

This time two years ago:
The new dupes of Moscow

This time three years ago:
Late-winter commuting, Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Lent and Recession - a nice parallel

This time eight years ago:
Early intimations of spring

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