Walter Kohn is a physicist and 1998 Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry who has conversed with the Pope and the Dalai Lama.
Alan Wallace is a religious studies professor who spent 14 years as a Buddhist monk, eventually studying physics, philosophy, Sanskrit and comparative religion at Amherst College and Stanford University.
Jim Proctor is a geography professor who does research in environmental studies and refers to religious studies as, “my first undergraduate degree.” As unlikely as it may seem, Kohn, Wallace and Proctor all have something in common.
They share an interest in science, religion and the human experience. This three-year forum on the relationship between scientific and religious worldviews begins today at 3 p.m. with a public lecture by Kohn. The lecture will be held in 1003 Kohn Hall and is titled “Reflections of a Physicist after an Encounter with the Vatican and Pope John Paul II.”
The forum – which includes seminars, lectures and undergraduate courses – is a three-year project funded by a special $100,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, an organization that promotes science-religion dialogue. Proctor was in charge of writing the Templeton grant proposal, which brought the forum to UCSB.
“[The Templeton Foundation] conducted an international competition of major research institutions for a three-year research lecture series on the ‘constructive engagement of science and religion,’ ” he said. “Once it was all settled, Columbia University and UC Santa Barbara were selected as the two first-year research institutions [to win funding].”
To organize the grant, Proctor worked with a group of UCSB faculty members engaged in far-reaching interdisciplinary discussions. Proctor said the forum will attempt to acknowledge important contributions of science and religion.
“We also want to throw in a third factor,” Proctor said, “and ask how we can make sense of science and religion as being embedded in cultural, political and psychological contexts defining the human experience, while attempting to reach beyond those contexts and say something of scientific or religious validity. We think that’s a real contribution to science-religion dialogue and maybe that’s why we got the grant.”
A phrase like “science-religion dialogue” may seem foreign to the average human’s experience, but Wallace pointed out that roughly 90 percent of Americans are devoted to a religion, and a large number of these same people believe in the validity of science.
“It’s a myth to think science has ever been value-free. It never has been. Is not. Will not be. It’s also a myth to think that religion doesn’t make truth claims. It makes truth claims all over the place,” Wallace said. “So it serves us well to have these in intelligent dialogue with each other so we can develop some sense of holism in our way of engaging with reality and not be radically fragmented as individuals or as a society.”
This dialogue will begin today with Walter Kohn’s lecture. “Walter has taken a very intense personal interest in science and religion,” Proctor said, “and given his acute mind and very compassionate personality we figured he would be a very important person to be the inaugural lecturer for the project.”
Kohn will speak on his experiences last year at a physics conference in the Vatican, at which he met the Pope and witnessed a demonstration by Catholics in protest to the beatification of controversial Pope Pious IX. While returning home, Kohn became aware of a document, which was published by a committee, headed by a cardinal named Ratzinger. The document proclaimed the Catholic Church the one true church, non-Catholic Christian religions as churches that are not in the proper sense and all non-Christian religions as gravely deficient.
“I am a fierce believer in inter-religious tolerance and this was an extreme case of what I judge to be intolerance,” Kohn said.
In reaction to these issues, Kohn began a series of letters to the Pope, which he will discuss in his lecture today. “I feel very strongly,” said Kohn, “that particularly in an age where science has produced terrible weapons of mass destruction, religious intolerance is no longer tolerable and one really needs to exert oneself to eliminate it.”
Kohn hopes to reach some of his colleagues with his talk and specifically mentioned an area of physics known as string theory. He said the way in which scientists discuss the theory tends to make light of other branches of science, as well as other important aspects of the human experience.
“The enthusiasts of string theory refer to it as the theory of everything,” Kohn said. “I’m terribly embarrassed by the fact that there are scientists who can even use such an expression.”
Kohn said he believes scientists should not discount spirituality or the human experience.
“There are many scientists who, to my mind, are lacking in any form of spirituality and I think that is a great loss to them and also a great loss to the entire society,” Kohn said. “I would be nervous at the idea of someone who plays an important role in society being such a person: someone who thinks that he or she can grasp the entire human experience by scientific principles.”
William Shockley, the physicist who used statistical data from IQ tests to campaign against the integration of public schools, is an example of this type of person, Kohn said. Kohn himself is Jewish. “Judaism has contributed a lot of breadth and depth to my human experience and so I value it very much,” Kohn said. “I love science. I’m still doing it 10 years after officially retiring and I think it’s absolutely wonderful. It gives me a feeling of awe and respect for the world.”
Although Kohn’s lecture is only the beginning of a three-year project, Proctor and the other members of the Science Humanities Forum hope the end of three years will not bring an end to their dialogue.
“We hope to present a convincing argument to sustain a longer-term effort in science and religion studies at UC Santa Barbara,” Proctor said. “Our ultimate goal would be to fund a center for science and religion studies here at UCSB that would provide opportunities for continued research, course development, lecture series’ and related efforts.”
“The first to reap the benefits of this type of really interdisciplinary collaboration would be the students,” Wallace said. “I would encourage students to be very critical about that which they think they know and to ask a very savory question, and that is: What are the limits of human knowledge? And not to be so confident about some of the things we think we cannot know. Maybe we can after all.”
For more information on the Science, Religion and the Human Experience program, visit www.srhe.ucsb.edu.