Transcript for Guy Consolmagno on Theology and Astronomy

Jim Fleming: When Guy Consolmagno was a freshman in college, he thought about becoming a Jesuit priest. Science lured him away. He went to MIT, got a doctorate in planetary science, and then realized something was missing. Today, Guy Consolmagno is “Brother Guy”  a Jesuit priest and an astronomer at the Vatican. He believes science and religion can work alongside each other.

Guy Consolmagno: Anybody who’s looked at the stars and not been moved, just emotionally, has no soul. That’s something that is wonderful about astronomy that anyone at any level of education could go out and just go, “Wow!”If you look through a telescope and you see the rings on Saturn, that’s even more, “Wow!”And if you’re able to handle the mathematics to understand all of the things that you can get to when you get to graduate school, then it’s just all the more amazing and wonderful. You know, it’s one thing to be amazed at the universe is rational; it makes sense. That was completely unexpected. But that it should also be beautiful is the deepest and most wonderful mystery.

Fleming: Do you see astronomy as a spiritual pursuit?

Consolmagno: I’ll say how my religion and science interact is, it’s not the case that I’m going to use my science to prove or disprove some religious point. That doesn’t work. But they both interact on a mettle level. Religion is what motivates me to do science. Religion is what gives me the courage to say, “There are going to be answers. The universe is rational.

Fleming: So one of the big things going on right now, that I suspect is talked about a lot in all of the fields in which you work, is the search for life, that there may be life, that there is the expectation of life elsewhere in the universe, biological life, maybe intelligent life, maybe life that we can communicate with. Do you imagine that is a possibility? Is it a possibility you would welcome?

Consolmagno: Yes and yes. Absolutely. Part of that is the science fiction fan in me. I’ll confess one of the reasons I went to MIT was to read science fiction. They have a big science fiction library there. Part of it is scientific. My Master’s thesis at MIT, among other things, predicted oceans under the ice crust of Europa and even talks about the possibility of life there. That was 1975. So I would feel vindicated if we actually found life in those places. Part of it is simply, well, to quote Carl Sagan, the famous agnostic, “If there isn’t life out there, it sure is a big waste of space.”

Fleming: So tell me, does the Vatican have a position on how to respond to the possibility of life outside of Earth?

Consolmagno: The Vatican doesn’t have positions like that on anything but there’s certainly no reason to argue theologically one way or the other.

Fleming: Well, I can imagine that there might be some who would say, again, perhaps I’m just, perhaps I’m misquoting, I don’t know. God gave His only son. God created man in His own image. Those kinds of things, if those are true, how is it possible for there to be life elsewhere?

Consolmagno: Well, you know, I’ll give you three points. First, the whole idea of, “What is God’s image and likeness?” that was discussed in the Middle Ages and what they were talking about in terms of the Middle Ages was soul, what Thomas Aquinas refers to as “intellect and free-will”. In other words, an entity that is aware of itself, aware of other entities and able to make choices maybe to love or not love, to interact or not interact. That’s the essence of what the image and likeness of God is about. It has nothing to do with how many tentacles you have. The other question of God sending His son, our theology also says that this person of the Trinity was there at the beginning, long before the Earth was created. And, thus, not tied merely to planet Earth. We also have in our religious tradition, the tradition of, if nothing else, we’ve got angels who are, presumably, intelligent beings free to choose or not choose creations of the Creator and, obviously, not human beings. We’re not afraid of there being other entities out there.

Fleming: Does this suggest that there could be a seven-tentacled Jesus landing on the third moon of Saturn?

Consolmagno: For all I know.  When you find him, ask me again. We don’t know how it’s going to work. One of our fellows at the observatory said, “The incarnation of Jesus is, in a sense, the word.”That’s how it’s described in John’s gospel. Who’s to say that word couldn’t exist in more than one language? On the other hand, the fact that it happened once with us human beings here on Earth is sufficient to say that it’s possible that it did happen. Like a mathematical proof, it’s the one instance that says, “OK. It could happen,”and once is sufficient. But are there a zillion? We don’t know.

Fleming: Of course for centuries, the Catholic Church’s response to the discovery of new lands, of new people, was to send out missionaries to convert everyone. Do you suppose that could happen again? It’s been the subject of that science fiction that you so love.

Consolmagno: Right. Well, the very fact that they sent out the missionaries showed that they accepted these other people as fully equal human beings.

Fleming: And if the discovery of life turns out to be lettuce plants in the galaxy next door, it’s going to be a little difficult.

Consolmagno: Well, the fact of the matter is that the possibility of finding intelligent life in our own solar system is probably limited.

Fleming: And yet it is something . . .

Consolmagno: Having said that, having said that, yeah, I agree. It’s something that is fantastic to think about precisely in the sense of science fiction and saying, “All right. Let’s posit this way. Then what happens?”Because when you ask, you know, “What is the image and likeness of God mean? What is it like to talk to a non-human entity?” You’re immediately asking, “Well, then, what does it mean to be human? What does it mean for us to have a soul? What does it mean for us to have a Savior? Is it likely that other intelligent beings who are going to be subject to, presumably, the same laws of physics and chemistry, you know, they’re going to have to eat food and if they fall off a cliff, they are going to kill themselves, are they also going to have the same laws of right and wrong? Are they going to say that lying is a sin? That taking a life, an intelligent life is a sin and that the possibility of sin exists?”These are great questions. These are science fiction questions and these are philosophy questions for which there is never going to be a final, definitive answer but always, the more you think about them, the more you talk about them, the more you play with the ideas, the more you can come back and reflect on what it really means to yourself.

Fleming: One of the other things not science fiction that is currently talked about a great deal in the world of cosmology is the theory of the multiverse, the potentially infinite number of universes and we’re living in just one. What do you think of that?

Consolmagno: Well, we’ve got people working at the Vatican observatory who are actually looking into the mathematics of this, the physics of this. One of our cosmologists did his doctorate under Martin Rees, who is one of the people who’s come up with the idea. I think it’s a great idea both to make you think and to make you appreciate the infinite possibilities of creation. Back when Genesis was being written, and whoever wrote it took the best science of that day, which was Babylonian science, and said, “Bigger than the flat world that we all know we live on and the dome and the water above and below the dome, bigger that any of that was God,”and that was as big as they could imagine. If we say, “Bigger than the solar system, bigger than this galaxy, bigger than our universe, bigger than all of the infinite multiverses together, is God.”Then we’re really talking some big.

Fleming: It does seem to present a challenge but you’re saying it’s a challenge, really, not to religion but to the imagination.

Consolmagno: It is. A religion that doesn’t challenge you is not much of a religion and, frankly, a science that doesn’t challenge you is not much of a science.

Fleming: Stephen Hawking, in his recent book said, “We no longer need philosophy.”The implication was pretty clear that he felt that we no longer need religion because science can explain everything. Do you feel you’ve answered that?

Consolmagno: Well, when Hawking says we don’t need God to start the universe, he’s right. Anyone who’s trying to use God to explain the things that science can’t explain in the 21st century, is a fool because who knows what science is going to explain in the 23rd century? That’s called the God of the gaps. In fact, it’s the fastest route to atheism because if your belief in God is the God who can explain why something happens, and then science comes along with an explanation, “Oops. Suddenly, I don’t believe in that God anymore.”Hawking is right that you don’t need God to explain the gaps in our knowledge but, of course, he doesn’t really mean we don’t need philosophy. The very statement, “We don’t need philosophy,”is a philosophical statement. And there’s an awful lot of value, a lot of value that I got as a Jesuit, in studying philosophy, in studying history, in studying the humanities. Sadly, an awful lot of British scientists of the older generation never got around to taking philosophy 101.

Fleming: Brother Guy Consolmagno is an American research astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican observatory.

Comments for this interview

Best show EVER on TTBOOK (Sally Ember, Ed.D., 11/03/2013 - 5:51am)

I Tweeted @sallyemberedd and posted on Facebook on "The Spanners Series by Sally Ember" page about each of these amazing interviews! My brand-new sci fi ebook, "This Changes Everything, "Volume I of "The Spanners Series," is coming out for pre-orders THIS WEEK, and touches on all of these topics. I plan to send it to Brother Consomagno! "The Spanners Series" will have 9 more volumes. Please check 1st 14 chapters out! http://www.sallyember.com Would love your comments, listeners and interviewers, guests and others!

What nasty reactions of such (Cristero, 09/06/2013 - 8:59am)

What nasty reactions of such fools and idiots.

Agnosticism vs God of the gaps (Paul, 04/02/2012 - 2:57pm)

Brother Guy says that religion motivates him to do science, while he implies that science should not motivate one to religion (God of the gaps). I wonder why he is religious in the first place, while putting science in the back seat, albeit a nice one.
He refers to Carl Sagan as "the famous agnostic", but that's what every reality-based scientist is! Why not start out agnostic (ignorant until evidence produced), rather than religious with an "a priori" perspective (God exists)? Sagan was not only a famous agnostic, but a great scientist.

Science and Faith (Miriam, 02/18/2012 - 12:58am)

Too often the gap between science and faith keeps people from being able to relate to one another. I was so pleased to hear Guy Consolmagno talk about how the two are intertwined for him personally. I especially loved his mention of practicing "God in the gaps" science (using a "God did it" explanation when science does not have the capability to explain) and how it is s quick path to atheism. Hearing a Catholic priest discuss the necessity of faith being challenged was also inspiring.

Guy Consolmagno on Theology and Astronomy (Tim Rounds, 02/17/2012 - 4:42pm)

What total nonsense. I thought my radio had somehow changed stations (did Cheesus do it?) when I heard a person talking in certain terms about the nature of the Universe and our role in it. Has any Western institution been more discredited than the Catholic Church? "The Vatican Observatory", what an oxymoron, talk about the blind leading the blind.
Aren't there enough Xian stations already to get this silly and outdated nonsense on the air? Why do you have to do it also?
Please, leave this nonsense to the charlatans selling waterfront lots in the afterlife.