Pope John-Paul II to Stephen Hawking: Stop learning so much

June 16, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

Pope John Paul II, now deceased, was conflicted regarding the proper scope of science.  He saw science as “a pathway in which many have traveled away from faith.” According to Monsignor Albacete, the pope urged us “to look beyond our intellectual ideas because reason, which limits man to the visible world, will kill faith.”

The extent of that ambivalence was revealed by an article released today by the Associated Press:

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking said Thursday that Pope John Paul II tried to discourage him and other scientists attending a cosmology conference at the Vatican from trying to figure out how the universe began.
The British scientist joked he was lucky the pope didn’t realize he had already presented a paper at the gathering suggesting how the universe was created.

“I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo,” Hawking said in a lecture to a sold-out audience at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. John Paul died in 2005; Hawking did not say when the Vatican meeting was held.

Yes, our sense of curiosity might ultimately destroy us, but do we know enough to know that to any degree of certainty?  What is the true “conservative” position, unlimited science or limited science? If the scope of science should be limited, how should it be limited and by whom? By non-scientists such as the pope?  If limited completely, what could serve as an alternative to science?  We are naturally curious animals, you see.

Some people agree with the pope, that we should put specific limits on at least some fields of science. Many fundamentalists, for example, bristle at current successful efforts of biologists to study humans as a type of animal.  Others (including me) believe that the cure for dangerous or disorienting) knowledge is always more knowledge and better knowledge.  I believe quite strongly in my position.  On the other hand, intensity of belief is never a good indicator of whether a belief is accurate.

It’s ultimately a bet it seems?  There’s no way to answer this question with certainty.  Any day now, a new strain of a laboratory virus might wipe out half of the human population.  Science has already unleashed powerful forces (e.g., chemicals that poison our environment and nuclear weapons) that can damage bodies and minds.  But history shows that numerous destructive superstitions have been peeled away thanks to the scientific method.  Science has also taught us not to torture many kinds of sick people or accuse them of being possessed.  Many of them can now be treated humanely.  Science can be used for good purposes and bad. How will the next scientific discovery be used?  We don’t yet know.

Religion also has it’s plusses and minuses . In additon to many awful massacres and persecutions religions have caused, religions have also inspired countless people to engage in innumerable acts of kindness and generosity. What should we do about anything that has such potential for great harm AND great benefits? And who decides?

I’m not sure what lesson is taught by this recent revelation regarding Pope John Paul II.  I found it interesting that the Pope appeared to be afraid that we might be close to a point where we knew too much cosmology.  I don’t believe there is such a point. 

Here’s my question: Is there really a way to resolve this dispute or are these two positions merely two conflicting perspectives of faith?


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Category: Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    I would not call it conflicting perspectives of faith. As cosmologists probe deeper into the Big Bang, for example, nothing they discover needs to change what someone believes about God. If someone wants to believe God initiated the Big Bang, then more scientific knowledge about the *process* should not alter anyone's spiritual faith about the *purpose*. Believers too often fall into the trap of not understanding enough of the science to recognize that science and religion deal with different subject matter. Accordingly, they imagine there is a conflict simpy because they mistakenly believe that science has claimed something about the *purpose* (i.e., something in the realm of religion…something that conflicts with their religion, etc.), when in fact it has done no such thing.

    Proof of this conclusion is easy: plenty of research scientists (who really understand science) have no trouble believing in both God and science. It is typically only those Believers who are exceedingly ignorant of science who believe there is a conflict. And, yes, that apparently included Pope JPII.

  2. Erika Price says:

    I'd like to just briefly look at your final question: is there any way to solve this dispute [between science and religion]? I doubt it, because science has phased out much of the need for religion over time. The speculation that humans created religion to explain things they could not understand, as well as to provide a sense of inspiration and ethical background has appeared in written works for centuries.

    And it does look like science has removed much of the ground that religion once convered. We no longer need to pray for a cure to every ailment or disease, because science has helped us to discover much more effective treatments. We don't have the whole of human existance sorted out by any means, but science has helped us discover many substantial clues as to how the earth and its life forms came to exist. And while some claim that "there is no morality without religion" (Joe Lieberman), science has helped us to inspect great issues of moral obligation, such as taking proper care of the environment, and the long-term effects of torturous prison systems, to name a couple of examples. We could achieve none of these things without science, these things that religion has so far only purported to do. I can only hope that in time science will phase religion almost entirely out.

  3. hogiemo says:

    I believe that the answers to any conflict, real or imagined, between science and faith lies in our ethics. Some fear science because they see an imposition upon matters of faith and morals and wish to limit inquiry. Some see faith as an attack upon science because it is belief in the absence of proof.

    We as a species have had many starts and stutters as we have developed. Mostly we have developed some ethical breakthrough roughly equivalent to the breakthroughs we've had in science and technology. In the last century we established technology which literally could obliterate the human race and, as the docs said in "Jurassic Park", no one ever stopped to say "should we do it". In this century we are developing technology which has the potential to obliterate the essence of what is a human being.

    I think the dialogue and conflict between faith and science is an outgrowth of the as yet unperceived fundemental need for us to reconcile the ethos of world society with the technology of world society. We are exactly where we must be to develop a new ethical framework of operations in the face of the technology we have made. There will be starts and stutters, there will be sidetracks and sidelines but, with the now most appropriate focus being upon the "shoulds", I have faith we'll find our way.

    I posit a first principle: "First, do no harm". (of course I stole it from the Greeeks! Look at my background, sillies!). More to come.

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