William Flew on Templeton Prize

April 10, 2011 § 9 Comments

Lord Rees of Ludlow’s acceptance of the Templeton Prize has been criticised by his peers but, he tells Oliver Kamm, as a cosmologist he faces as many ‘big
questions’ as those trying to fathom the Divine

The Sun is less than halfway through its life. We are not the culmination of evolution but a step along the way

Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal, has no time for religious explanations. “I don’t understand how people can have religious beliefs,” he tells me firmly. “But I accept that many do.”

CHRIS HARRIS FOR THE TIMESLord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, is seen by many as a controversial choice for the Templeton PrizeIncredulity at how rational and intelligent people can subscribe to religious dogma is a theme of Lord Rees’s comments in our conversation at his London hotel. His wish to be understood on this derives from the award to him this week of the Templeton Prize, worth £1 million. The annual prize “honours a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.

There lies controversy. Lord Rees was until recently President of the Royal Society. His acceptance of an award, the purpose of which explicitly refers to human efforts to understand the Divine, has been criticised by other leading scientists.

Lord Rees is unfazed. He stresses that “big questions are central to the Templeton Foundation’s agenda”, and his own field of cosmology is replete with that type of question. He also sees a particular value for scientists in communicating to general audiences. “Even if we do it badly,” he says, “they remind us of big questions, such as whether there is life out there.” Lord Rees does it with practised skill, and proceeds to give me a lucid summary of the state of cosmology and the process of scientific discovery.

“Cosmology has made huge progress,” he says. “We can talk with great confidence of what the Universe was like when it was a second or a millisecond old. Astronomy has a history of expanding its horizons. From the 1920s we realised that our galaxy is one of many. From the 1990s, we learnt that other stars have planets circling around them. A further step is to ask how much more there is beyond the domain that astronomers can see.”

He speculates that our big bang may not be the only one.

The notion that other universes, with other physical laws, exist undermines a common theistic argument that our universe is finely tuned for the existence of life. If only one aspect of the laws of physics were changed, then life as we know it would be impossible. “The question,” Lord Rees says, “is how you interpret this: some say it’s coincidence; some say Providence.”

He does not go out of his way to rebut religious arguments. But a gentle irony creeps into his observations on the hypothesis of other universes, or of beings elsewhere in our own universe that we could recognise as intelligent. “Theologians may need some contortions to accommodate such findings,” he muses. Our big bang may not be the only one, Lord Rees speculates And science gives a sobering context to the role of humanity in the cosmos: “The Sun is less than halfway through its life. So we are not the culmination of evolution but a step along the way.” That too is a challenge to religious ways of thinking: “Religion stresses the centrality of humanity, but we are in reality an intermediate stage.”

For all the fascination of big questions, he stresses that these speculations are irrelevant to 99 per cent of science. “Scientists are not held up by the lack of a unified theory: they are held up by the complexity of the subject. Most recent advances in cosmology are based on advances in computing — on more sensitive ways to observe.”

I turn to the controversies over the Templeton Prize. “I’m a complete unbeliever,” he says again. “The only respect in which I differ from Christopher Hitchens is to be less allergic to religion.” Lord Rees distinguishes between religious belief and religious custom, and counts himself a tribal Christian. As Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, he is a churchgoer. He is “prepared to respect rather than rubbish” religious traditions. And he says that he would prefer to see a stronger Church of England. “Fundamentalist and absolutist religion is a genuine threat and we must muster all allies against it.”

I put to him the criticism of scientists such as Sir Harry Kroto, the Nobel laureate, who wrote in The Times that in accepting the Templeton Prize Lord Rees was “undermining the most precious tenet of science”. He says: “I am well aware of Harry Kroto’s views and those of others who are allergic to all religion. But theirs are almost certainly minority views among scientists.”

I wonder how far the Templeton Foundation will succeed in inferring a message of spiritual illumination from his work. Lord Rees replies that he is the seventh fellow of the Royal Society to get the award. He refers to Freeman Dyson, the physicist, among them. And he points to the Foundation’s support for such projects as the editing of Charles Darwin’s correspondence. After the interview I admire a simulation on his laptop of what happens when two galaxies collide. His demonstration tells me as much as anything in our talk of a penetrating and independent intellect who wishes to make scientific findings a part of public debate

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