Last November the “Huffington Post” interviewed Peter Atkins, a known English chemist from the Lincoln College, as well noted for his battles against religion and faith in God, just like his compatriot Richard Dawkins.
We took the chance to interview the professor Vincenzo Balzani about the same topics, he’s a chemist too and a professor emeritus at the university of Bologna, with an international fame and recently awarded by the prestigious “Science” magazine by the “Nature Award for mentoring in science”. In 2011 he participated in the Cortile dei Gentili, a cultural event organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture (Pontificio Consiglio per la Cultura).
1) Prof. Balzani, in the “Huffington Post” interview, Peter Atkins strongly compares science with faith through a dualism between good and evil. Since you’re a chemist and a believer, do you agree with the accusations against religion? Do you see this huge incompatibility?
It’s known Atkins is an atheist, but he’s as well a smart person and it surprises me he gave so strict and unconditional judgments. I met him a couple of years ago in Rome, due to a conference of an international congress about teaching science, because he was scheduled to hold his conference just after mine; we said completely different things but at the end we complimented each other. No one knows the truth. One of the reasons the incompatibility between science and faith would be based on, is the presumed incongruence between the cosmic evolution, science says it brought us to the formation of the universe as we know it (the biological evolution on the earth is included), and the creation of the world and of the human being just like the Genesis description. In fact the two different “stories”, one of the science and one of the Bible, do not have to be contrasted: they can easily be put together. That’s because Genesis is not a scientific book, although this is what American creationists affirm. The first chapter of the Genesis is not an account of God’s activities that He gave us to make things easier and to take away from us the beauty of discovering, through the science, the history of the universe. The Genesis story is symbolic, it wants to let us know and understand a truth in faith: everything has been created by God thanks for His love for men, who are image of God.
But if it’s wrong to think that creation in a material way has really happened by times and modalities like the Genesis describes, I personally believe it’s wrong even to think that the universe tale told by the science is enough for itself and therefore, that there’s no need to the Genesis. The two stories are on different levels. The science tale is an attempt to answer to questions like: how has the universe been formed and, in it, how has the man been formed? The Bible one is the answer, by a point of view of faith, to the question: why is there the universe and what meaning has, in it, the presence of the man? As Cardinal Martini wrote, there are indeed two ‘writings’ or ‘scriptures’: there’s the man scripture, the science, who’s involved in facts, in phenomenons and in theories that explain them, and there’s God way, the Bible, where we find answers to big questions in men’s lives.
To understand what happen in the world there’s always been a need to the 2 scriptures, to the 2 different interpretations: material and spiritual. To be clearer, I’ll use an easy example, by my personal life. It happens frequently that I’m working in my study while my wife is in the kitchen. At a certain point I find myself tired, I go to the kitchen and my wife says: I’ll make you some tea. The fact of making me some tea has 2 different aspects. The first is this: she puts the teapot on the stove and has the water to boil. The science can precisely explain what happens when the teapot is on the stove. This is the material aspect. But there’s another aspect of my wife’s decision of making me some tea: she makes me some tea because she loves me. This is an aspect that science cannot understand, in the same way as my wife’s love cannot explain why the water in the teapot, on the stove, boils. The science explains how my wife makes tea; it’s a material thing; love explains why she makes me tea, it’s a spiritual thing. Material and spiritual, science and (to believers) faith are 2 different aspects, complementary, both essentials, of a single reality: the man reality.
2)Reading Peter Atkins’ answers we get a glimpse of an excessive trust in science: “there’s no issue of the being that science cannot throw light on” and more: ”science has the key for universal knowledge”. According to your scientist experience, is that true?
“There’s no issue of the being that science cannot throw light on…. Universal knowledge…”. It’s the secret ambition of certain scientists: to become like God. Stephen Hawking, a known colleague of Atkins, writes that too:” if we do discover this complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God” (original sentence).
To explain everything. If we succeeded, it would be a disaster. Sure enough on the day the knowledge arrived to determine with surety the origin and the end of everything there would be no space left for freedom. Freedom presumes the contrast with the undetermined, with the mystery. But there’s nothing to worry about. Any scientist knows that every scientific discovery creates more questions than the ones it gives answer to. Joseph Priestley said it 2 centuries ago:” The greater is the circle of light, the greater is the boundary of the darkness by which it is confined”. Martin Buber wrote this in Hasidim tales: “You gained knowledge, what are you still missing?” “This is truth. If you gained knowledge, than you just know what you don’t have yet” Wittgenstein repeated it:” I went to put boundaries to my island, instead I discovered the confines of the ocean”; Science recalled it:” The highway from ignorance to knowledge runs both ways: as knowledge accumulates, diminishing the ignorance of the past, new questions arise, expanding the area of ignorance to explore”. The physics itself teaches us that one of the things we certainly know is that we will never know everything. (Uncertainty Principle by Heisenberg). John Maddox (what remains to be discovered, Simon’s Book, 1998) explains that we still don’t know what space, time, energy and material are, and as well as how has the universe started or how has life been created, what the mind and the conscience are. Far away from knowing everything. I think scientists should just fly down. How Wittgenstein suggests, “it’s better not to talk about something we can’t discuss”.
3)You have wished for an alliance between believers and not believers to the eco-friendly energies, especially to the solar energy. Why is it a topic that believers should feel important?
Because, to the believer, the Earth is a gift from God, a kind of big talent that God gave, collectively, to the humanity. Our task is to take care and to give new possibilities, not to destroy, these talents. Looking after our planet is necessary to use his resources in a eco-friendly way. The energy coming from the Sun is the only eco-friendly energy because it’s copious, inexhaustible, well shared, not dangerous, not linked to military applications, able to develop economy and to fulfill the inequalities. Obviously, not believers are interested to custody our planet too. So, the Earth is the big Cortile dei Gentili, where believers and not believers every day have to meet and discuss, because they have to live together. The Christian must bring his gospel witness, entering laically into the problems of the planet Earth, just like every man with whom he shares the destiny.