A few seasons ago while researching at the Center for Documentation and Research of the Pontificate of John Paul II I had the pleasure of attending the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences. It was the 2014 Plenary Session on the “Evolving Concepts of Nature” held at the Vatican. At the time I was a doctoral student from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile in Rome on a research scholarship. Professor Rafael Vicuna of my university was a participant. It was at his invite that Profs. Marta Bertolaso (University Campus Bio-Medico of Rome), Dr. Héctor Velázquez Fernández (Universidad Panamericana in Mexico) and myself were invited to attend. After the day’s lectures, we enjoyed some local Italian Calzones nearby and discussed many of the themes of the day.
Dialogue among the sciences
The Pontifical Academy of the Sciences is one of those places where persons of religious faith and persons of no religious faith find common ground to advance knowledge and humanistic values. The Vatican encourages a freedom of dialogue between believers and unbelievers as an important aspect of scientific inquiry and inter-disciplinary collaboration. This was an endeavor dear to the heart of Pope John Paul II.
I found it fascinating to see the collaborative efforts of scientists from all over the world despite the very divergent opinions regarding the question of God or the possibility of a first cause in the form of a Creator. One could find representatives of different philosophies ranging from the pure materialist to material scientists who embrace a broader view of science such as that found in the middle ages which included theology among the sciences. The themes and collaborative nature of the Plenary Session seemed to embrace this broad view of science.
Classically, the term “science” included the logical and rational sciences such as philosophy and theology as disciplines capable of a rigorous scientific inquiry sharing in rational inquiry yet, different in their modus operandi from the material sciences.
Material sciences operate through inductive reasoning proceeding from hypothesis through experimentation and validation to arrive at greater and greater probabilities while the purely rational sciences operate through a combination of inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning founded on such principles as the principle of identity and the law of non-contradiction. In the case of philosophy, those general principles act as the starting point and no particular doctrine is presupposed while in the case of theology the starting principle involves an agreed body of revealed information.
The origin of life
I was able to attend several lectures while there. Prof. Rafael Vicuna delivered a talk on The Origin of Life on Earth: Nature’s Agency and/or Divine Intervention? His talk continued themes we often pursue in conversation.
Since meeting Professor Vicuna, he and I have had the good fortune of several inspiring conversations on the dual causality of nature and God. We have also discussed the role and place of philosophy in the modern world and among the sciences and he has shared with me his groundbreaking discoveries in the Atacama Desert regarding microbial colonies under translucent quartz supported by cloud moisture as a source of life. He suggested to the distinguished panel that material causes alone may not explain all there is to causality in the universe. His remarks sparked a lively Q and A.
Colors of nature
After a brief break, we heard a presentation by Maxine F. Singer on Genes in the Garden. Dr. Singer is known for many contributions including those which assisted the project which led to solving the genetic code. That project has already delivered a great contribution to humanity and holds promise for science and medicine. She has also been involved in an array of new ethical considerations related to these advances in material science.
In her talk, she explored what she called a new direction and interest for her highlighting recognizable patterns of color and design in the evolution of flowers and plants. She brought to our attention that there is a great deal of work to be done in the direction of understanding plants and that there is a shortage of qualified scientists and researchers dedicated to this important field which holds the potential for great discoveries. She called for an increase in research on the evolution of plants citing Darwin’s own frustration over his inability to explicate plant evolution.
Bridge between brain and mind
Finally, we heard an incredibly thought provoking talk by Wolf J. Singer, professor of physiology in München, Germany known for his discoveries in neuroscience and brain plasticity, speaking on what he also characterized as a new direction of interest for him: Culture, a Bridge Between Brain and Mind? In his talk, Dr. Singer explored the discoveries of brain plasticity and learning on the development of culture and our concept of culture. He provided me with interdisciplinary insights and challenges to my dissertation project on The Problem of the Idea of Culture in Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II.
Finally, some advice to students
If you are a student make use of all of the resources available to you to broaden your education experience. Consider a semester abroad. Such an experience will help to expand your education and make your studies exciting. It will also give you opportunities to give back to the community and to engage in interdisciplinary cooperation.
John Corrigan holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and currently resides in the U.S.A where he teaches at Immaculata University.