Symposium brings together science, religion

Scientists, theologians and philosophers took the stage last Thursday and Friday at Whitney Humanities Center to discuss the tension between religion and science, in the first of this year’s Terry Foundation Lectures.

Titled “Religion and Science: Why Does the Debate Continue?”, the series featured biologist Kenneth R. Miller of Brown University as well as five other speakers representing a wide spectrum of scientists and philosophers. In lectures and a panel discussion, the experts discussed the debate over theism and evolution and explored the possibility of a peaceful coexistence between the two.

“Supernatural explanations in science bother me as a natural scientist,” Miller said.

But Miller went on to say that as a Catholic he sees no conflict between the empirical truth of evolution and the belief in a higher power that may have set the evolutionary process in motion. The two are separate, he said: One is a scientific idea, and the other is philosophical.

The co-author of a leading high school biology text, Miller was an expert witness in the Dover, Penn., trials to reverse a school board decision demanding the inclusion of intelligent design in the biology curriculum.

Another speaker, University of Notre Dame philosophy professor Alvin Plantinga, said in his lecture that “unguided Darwinism” — in his words, the idea that evolution proceeds without the guidance of a higher power — is a metaphysical add-on to the theory of evolution, not a concept that is implicit in the theory.

Some scientists in the audience, which included both Yale professors and members of the greater New Haven community, raised some objections. Molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Robert Wyman said Plantinga failed to address any of the evidence for evolution occurring naturally, without the intervention of a higher power.

“If evolution explains everything you observe, why add on?” Wyman said.

Later, Wyman said the debate concerned more than intellectual abstractions. Because such questions influence legislation, civil rights and foreign relations, he said, “they impinge on the way we live.”

The Terry Lectures, established in 1905 to foster discussion of religion and science in the wake of Darwin’s discoveries, have in the past hosted such speakers as Carl Gustav Jung, Erich Fromm and Margaret Mead. Another series of lectures, given by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, professor of English at Brown and Duke universities, will take place on Oct. 17-23, said Terry committee member Bill Summers, a professor of molecular biochemistry and biophysics at Yale.

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