Despite chance and randomness, universe still has ‘purpose’

Despite chance and randomness, universe still has ‘purpose’

(Credit: Pixabay.)

Jesuit Father Robert J. Spitzer is the president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith and the Spitzer Center. He spoke to Crux.

[Editor’s Note: Jesuit Father Robert J. Spitzer is the president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith and the Spitzer Center. The Magis Center produces documentaries, books, high school programs, college courses, adult-education programs, and social media materials to show the close connection between faith and reason in contemporary physics, philosophy, and historical study of the New Testament. The Spitzer Center produces facilitated curricula to strengthen strategic planning, culture, and spiritual practice in Catholic organizations as well as culture and ethics in nonprofit and for-profit organizations. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his work.]

Camosy: You’re the president of The Magis Center. Can you say a bit more about the background of the Center and its mission? 

Spitzer: The Center was formed as the Magis Center of Reason and Faith. The majority of the time you hear it the other way around “faith and reason” but that ordering of the terms might be construed by some people as implying that we are looking for reasons to justify faith. We want people to understand that if you start with natural knowledge and follow it to its logical end it will lead you to Wisdom (e.g. God as creator/sustainer of the cosmos, Jesus, the soul). The medieval scholars viewed theology as the culmination of all other subjects. That’s essentially our approach.

In terms of how we actually carry out that mission, we have two broad initiatives. The first is Catholic Education. Here we are developing web-based courses that can be used for high school and middle school religion classes, parish youth and adult education, homeschooling, campus ministry, and even self-study curriculum. We have named this initiative, Credible Catholic, because of the apologetical nature of the materials. In other words, we go beyond the “What do Catholics believe from a doctrinal and traditional perspective?” to the complementary evidence for those beliefs from the natural sciences, psychology, anthropology, history, philosophy, etc.

Jesuit Father Robert J. Spitzer. (Credit: Courtesy to Crux.)

The interest level for Credible Catholic is very high. We are currently working with 92 dioceses in the US and the Irish Bishops have mandated our 7 Essential Modules courses in their 350 Catholic high schools. In January we will be releasing Credible Catholic 2.0 which will add teacher training and certification, a library of Most Asked Questions on faith and life (currently 91 and growing), and an expanded advanced version of the aforementioned 7 Essential Modules.

Our second initiative is general audience outreach. This includes books, articles, videos, podcasts, and blog and social media posts. I have a new book trilogy in the works with Ignatius Press and the first book, Christ Versus Satan in Our Lives is being released on October 28. The other significant general audience outreach effort is our John Templeton Foundation funded, The Purposeful Universe.

This is a time in our national life where I think it can sometimes be important to take a deep breath and take in a larger perspective on the world. Is there something about running The Magis Center that gives you an outlet for doing that in ways that the rest of us should envy?

Prior to running the Magis Center I was in academia. First as a university professor and then as president of Gonzaga for 11 years. I truly enjoyed the university environment, but I recognized that the same “big” questions that nagged our students extended far beyond my particular campus to the culture at large.

The Magis Center provides a means to reach millions of people with Truth that will not only change their lives but get them to heaven. It is a great responsibility to have the type of reach that we do and to lead others on their faith journeys, but it is also a great honor – and I would say, one of the greatest honors of my life.

Whether or not you should be envious I can’t say, but I can tell you that for me this has been the most stimulating and rewarding experience that I can imagine and I look forward to what the future holds. The need is urgent, and we are answering that need every day through our work.

What is the Templeton-funded campaign “The Purposeful Universe” about?

The Purposeful Universe is about order in the cosmos and how that order implies purpose behind the evolutionary trajectory of the universe since its beginning at the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.

When people consider evolution they typically think about chance and randomness, but focusing solely on that part of the process misses the main point. Without the underlying order that’s inherent in physics and chemistry biological evolution wouldn’t have made it off the ground.

We use a myriad of examples in the Purposeful Universe project to show just how this works. We look at things like photosynthesis, the camera like eye, powered flight, etc. to show that these phenomena are “baked” into the system. Chance plays a role in how and when they will arise but because of the orderly foundation of the cosmos renowned scientists like Cambridge’s Simon Conway Morse believe that they will inevitably emerge from the evolutionary process. The system is rigged so to speak based on the underlying physical and chemical structure of the universe.

When you study evolution with order as the backdrop you recognize a purposeful process that tends towards greater complexity and ultimately rational beings that can know and appreciate their place in the cosmos. It’s a beautiful unfolding master plan that believers have long suspected that is consistent with everything modern science has discovered about the universe. It reminds me of a quote from Robert Jastrow, founding director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
― Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers

How does the particular research of Dr. Dan Kuebler, a molecular and cell biologist and the Dean of Applied Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville, fit into the project? I understand he has a particular focus on the sometimes complex interplay between order and chance?

Dr. Dan Kuebler played a critical role in The Purposeful Universe and his work and research has been pivotal in explaining the relationship between order and chance.

Dr. Kuebler earned his doctorate and did postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley, one of the top biology programs in the world. His Catholic faith brought him to Franciscan University where, as you mentioned, he leads the School of Natural and Applied Science. Dan’s academic work focuses on regenerative medicine, but he’s had a long interest in faith and science related topics, particular bioethics and evolution.

In 2008, Dan co-authored a book entitled The Evolution Controversy: A Survey of Competing Theories (Baker Academic), in which he impartially explained the main schools of evolutionary theory for a lay audience. Of the four theories, Darwinism, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Meta-Darwinism, his personal perspective was most aligned with the last school, and in particular a version of it called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis – EES.

EES consists of a more comprehensive set of theoretical concepts that drive the evolutionary process than did earlier systems. This openness to new factors (both known and to be discovered) has moved evolutionary theory well beyond the original “random-gene-mutation and survival of the fittest” theory to much more diverse, complex, and ultimately, satisfying, explanations.

In this vein Dan Kuebler, Simon Conway Morris and other leading scientists like, Father Nicanor Austriaco (Professor of Biology and Theology, Providence College) and Martin Nowak (Professor of Biology and Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Harvard University) see order as primary and chance processes as a means of uncovering the forms that work within that foundation of order.

Dan is currently writing a book on Catholicism and evolution that describes the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis in terms that a non-scientist can understand and appreciate. The book also bridges the science with Catholic teaching on creation by looking at the writings of the Church Fathers, other prominent theologians, popes, etc.

Where can we go to learn more?

I would start with The Purposeful Universe website. In addition to the short 8-minute video, the website also houses a 45-minute interview with Dr. Kuebler and a chapter from his forthcoming book. Next, I recommend going to the Magis Center website. It contains dozens of related articles ranging from the Big Bang and the fine tuning of the initial physical constants to language, consciousness and free will. And because ultimately the point here is “purpose,’ a Magis website visitor can also find information on happiness, virtue, suffering, eternal life, evidence for Jesus and the resurrection, etc.

Finally, I would point people to Fr. Austriaco’s website, Thomistic Evolution, and Dr. Francis Collins’s site, Biologos.

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