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Faith, Science, and Secularization — An Illuminating Conference in Poland

Image: Courtesy of Dr. Michael Chaberek OP.

This year marks the 550th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus and the 480th anniversary of his greatest work, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (1543), in which he laid out his heliocentric model of the Solar System. For this occasion, the Polish Senate established 2023 as the Copernican Year. Similar to many others among the founders of modern science, including Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, Copernicus was a believer in God and clearly a proponent of intelligent design. In his groundbreaking work he wondered at the divine creation and depicted astronomy as a kind of a vehicle that transports the human mind to the contemplation of God. 

Faith, Science, and Secularization

This remarkable anniversary became an opportunity to organize a conference, “Faith and Science in the Age of Secularization: Intelligent Design — Evolution — Creation.” The conference took place at the Royal Castle in Niepolomice, just outside Krakow, where Copernicus studied. The nostalgic Medieval and Renaissance architecture of the former summer home of Polish kings created an extraordinary space for our lecturers, covering the latest evidence of design in biology and astronomy.

Our honored guests included Fellows of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Michael Behe spoke about the limits of Darwinian theory in explaining the emergence of new and complex biochemical systems. Richard Sternberg dicussed the uniqueness of the human genome and the importance of epigenetic information, whose origin the neo-Darwinian mechanism does not even attempt to explain. Günter Bechly joined us online to show the dramatic discontinuities in the fossil record, undermining the long-held story of the gradual emergence of species from one to another. Finally, Guillermo Gonzalez made the case for our planet Earth as being very special in the universe. This is due to the number of conditions that must be met all at once to form a planet suited for life, and even more of them to make it suitable for intelligent life, such as ourselves.

Worries About Our Planet

While listening to Dr. Gonzalez in a hall that Copernicus likely visited, one could only reflect upon the history of science and how it takes surprising turns. When Copernicus presented his theory, many worried that the Earth set in motion and removed from its central place in the universe would somehow diminish the significance of humans in the order of creation. The apparent conflict of heliocentrism with the Bible was the reason to condemn Galileo a century later. Indeed, some scholars claimed that there is something like a “Copernican principle,” the idea that there are no special places in the universe at all, including ours. But as science advances, more and more evidence has been accumulated that the Earth is actually very special, not due to its immobility or central position in the universe (as the ancients thought), but for many other reasons that only the latest science has been able to establish. No doubt, the people of the Renaissance, such as Copernicus himself, would gladly welcome these discoveries as a clear sign of cosmic design. Surprisingly, modern science has returned the Earth to its special place; in fact, now we can recognize it as even more special than ever. 

Darwin’s Black Box

As in astronomy, so too in biology. In the 19th century, the living cell was — as Michael Behe put it — a “black box”, that is, a system whose input and output were evident, but whose inward functions were unknown. Charles Darwin thought he had offered an explanation for the origin of species, but his theory did not address the inner complexity of the cell that was unveiled only a century later. An ardent proponent of neo-Darwinism, the late Francisco Ayala, once wrote that “Darwin’s greatest contribution to science is that he completed the Copernican Revolution by drawing out for biology the notion of nature as a system of matter in motion governed by natural laws.” Ayala believed that there was a strict analogy between Copernicus’ work and Darwin’s. No doubt, Copernicus would never subscribe to the kind of revolution that Ayala described. Nevertheless, if one takes Ayala’s analogy seriously, then he should take it to its ultimate conclusion: As new astronomy has overturned the “Copernican principle” and shown the privileged position of the Earth in the universe, in the same way biology is showing the clear evidence of design in nature, overturning the Darwinian claim that in life everything is a product of chance mutations and natural selection.

The conference was a great contribution to the shift of paradigms that is taking place in the sciences. All of our speakers, visiting Poland for the first time, helped to symbolically open a new chapter in the reflections of my fellow Poles on the questions of cosmic and biological origins. I hope the conference held in these Renaissance halls will spark a renaissance (rebirth) of the classical Christian view of a harmony between faith and science.