As Brother Guy Consolmagno, head of the Vatican Observatory, described at Penn in his Magi Project talk Adventures of a Vatican Astronomer, once we view the universe as the creation of a good God, endeavors of scientific discovery are then a quest to better comprehend God. As we study the possibilities of other life forms, “whether we are unique or not, the fact that we do exist is enough to be astonished.” This astonishment is a sense of appreciation that we all can enjoy; it is not limited to Astrophysics PhDs.
In Adventures of a Vatican Astronomer, Br. Consolmagno recounted his adventures from Hawaii to Antarctica, stressed the interest of the Vatican in scientific progress, and kept us on our feet with clever jokes from his experiences. What I found most captivating about his talk was how he weaved in a not only theological, but also philosophical take on his scientific work as the Director of the Vatican Observatory.
For Br. Consolmagno, religion, and his Catholic Faith in particular, gives him the inspiration and ultimately the reason, to do science. He cautioned against using science to try to prove or disprove the existence of God by reminding that science does not prove, but describes.
“You can prove anything you want by choosing the assumptions carefully. Belief in God and a God who created the universe is a fundamental assumption. If you assume that what we see in the universe is the product of a good god, then you can see evidence of this, in many, many places, including the phenomenal chemistry that allows us to have this conversation.” Regarding the potential abundance of life on other planets, Br. Consolmagno warned against extrapolation from the singular data point that we have: us. In science, extrapolation from a limited number of data points is incredibly dangerous, let alone one.
Furthermore, given that science describes, and its descriptions are constantly changing, there is an inherent danger to hang our faith in the existence (or non-existence) of God on a concept in science. What if we discover that what we once thought was true turns out to be a primitive attempt at a scientific answer? Look at how much more we know about the universe now than we did even eighty years ago. Is it not inconceivable that what we take as given now could be overturned by future discoveries in science?
It is for this reason that Br. Consolmagno chooses to take religious faith as an assumption, a lens from which he can appreciate and give meaning to objective scientific pursuits with which he is involved.
He concluded by emphasizing the love in the labor of love that is his life’s work: “By understanding or at least getting used to this universe, you in a sense get used to God… You never really understand physics; you just get used to it. And I realized that if you’re in love with someone, you never really understand them; they’re not a problem to be solved. They’re someone you grow to know over time. And this universe you’ll never understand, you get used to it. And its creator, you get used to, but… only by spending the time to get to know it.”