Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory, right, participates in an online masterclass with Andrzej Dragan, a physicist and artist, in this screen capture from the Pope Leadership YouTube channel, which posted the class. (Credit: CNS photo/Pope Leadership YouTube channel.)
ROME — According to a self-described “fanatic” about science and “a bit of a nerd” for the Catholic Church, people should not ask this Jesuit astronomer why a scientist would believe in God.
The more interesting question is, “Why do I believe in science?” which is actually a “brave thing to do nowadays when people try to throw up doubt about science,” said Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno.
“But I believe in it, and I believe in it so much that I am dedicating my life to being a scientist,” he said in his introductory remarks Oct. 21 during an online “MasterClass for Global Leaders” focusing on the work of NASA and the Vatican Observatory. The class was organized by the CTN Foundation and the Pontifical Council for Culture.
The three-hour event featured several speakers and expert panelists from the world of science, technology, philosophy, art and economics to discuss themes related to the event’s title, “The Future of Man, Economy and the Universe.”
Consolmagno, who specializes in planetary science, said he had once lost his faith in science. Before becoming a Jesuit, he had worked as a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and suddenly felt science was no longer worth doing.
“Why am I wasting my time worrying about these ice-covered moons” when there are people starving in the world, he said. “So, I quit science and went into the Peace Corps” in 1983 where he served in Kenya teaching astronomy and physics at the University of Nairobi and bringing a little telescope with him to small villages.
When everyone showed the same excitement and interest gazing at the night sky, Consolmagno said he realized, “it didn’t matter if they were (living in) remote villages … or students at the university or my friends back in America, as human beings we all have the same curiosity and the same delight because we didn’t live by bread alone.”
“The thing that makes us human is this curiosity, this not being satisfied with the answer,” he said, and that is the key to doing science.
A lot of scientists aren’t churchgoers, he said, “but all of us believe in truth” and “all of us look for the joy in doing science,” he said.
Consolmagno said science is built on the belief that the physical universe is not a dream or an illusion but is real and can be studied. This belief is compatible with his faith in God, who “created the universe deliberately, step by step in a logical way,” saying throughout the process, “It is good.”
In fact, Genesis is not the science of creation but is the story of how “God deliberately chooses to have entities like us who are self-aware,” he said. The high point of the story is the seventh day — a day of rest and reflection, “when we can make the discoveries,” ask the questions and enjoy the discussion.
He said what gives him faith in science, confidence in a particular theory and a belief he is on the “right track” are “the same tools that we can apply to our faith in God.”
For example, he said, people can admit they have been wrong and realize there was more going on than they realized; they can discover one solution can be applied to a whole host of problems and that these same solutions are discovered over and over again or are successful for many other people elsewhere. “That gives me confidence that I am doing something that’s right.”
A scientific theory also must be “elegant” and “so gorgeous there’s got to be truth in here someplace,” he said.
In the end, science or more specifically, astronomy, is an open-ended, evolving conversation “among thinking, feeling, emotional but rational people looking at the universe, searching for understanding,” beauty, joy and the truth.
“And love and joy and truth are the markers of the presence of God,” he said.
During the discussion segment of the program, Andrzej Dragan, a physicist, artist and atheist, told Consolmagno that as a quantum scientist he has no faith in science “because science doesn’t need my faith at all because the fundamental principle of science is to doubt” and question everything.
Dragan said St. Matthew had it right when he suggested people judge something by its fruits. “This is enough” because science has shown “it is working,” resulting in “naked apes landing on the moon” and other incredible things.
Consolmagno said doubt is part of faith.
“If you were certain, (then) you wouldn’t need the faith,” he said. There is doubt, “but we have a belief that we can resolve those doubts and learn something more, that’s the faith that we need, and I’m not even talking about a faith in God, I’m talking about a faith in the process.”
And, he said, if people were to judge worthiness only by its fruits, the case could easily be made that the technological fruits of pollution, horrific weapons and the atomic bomb might justify not doing science at all.
This narrow vision based on functionality does not inspire people “to look further nor allow us to appreciate the joy that we have when we do look further,” the Jesuit brother said.
Theoretical physicist Krzysztof Meissner agreed that faith is needed in science; “we have to believe there are laws in physics” at work “behind everything we can see.”
“You wake up in the morning and you know that the sun will be there, that you can walk because the laws of physics didn’t change, our existence is based on this faith that the laws of physics are universal in time and in space,” Meissner said.