Republic of Poland

Professor Michał Heller’s lecture at WUELS

11 September 2017

In June this year he explained to Piotr Cieśliński in his interview for “Gazeta Wyborcza”: “Regardless whether the Universe had its beginning or not; whether it is limited in time or has existed eternally, there is still a question: where has it come from? What is the reason for its existence? Why – as Leibniz asked – there exists something rather than nothing? In my view this essential and non-trivial question lies beyond the scope of empirical sciences. It will always be asked by philosophers and theologians. On the other hand, the question what was before the Big Bang should definitely be tackled and the proper way to do that is to search for quantum gravity theory. When we discover it, science will not end. One explained mystery of nature generates one hundred other questions. I’m sure that when the quantum gravity theory answers the question, it will create other questions, which will occupy next generations of physicists”.

michal_heller2, Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS

A year ago, at the 5th Congress of Christian Culture in Lublin where he celebrated the 50th anniversary of the defence of his doctoral dissertation on cosmology he received a question from Jakub Wiechnik of the alateia.org web portal: “Reverend Professor, what shall I say to my religious neighbour who is totally convinced that the Universe was created in seven days because “that’s what the Word of God says”. Professor Heller’s answer was: “The world was not created in seven days. Science proves that it came into being gradually, through evolution. We discover the laws of nature and we know how things are. If we ignore scientific truth in religion, we base our convictions on illusions. (…) Such a claim, that here I have a clear text which “I believe in”, is, unfortunately, religious ignorance. There exists, after all, biblical exegesis which helps us explain the Bible. Moreover, your neighbour also shows scientific ignorance and probably knows nothing about scientific findings. If such is the encounter of science and religion, a conflict is inevitable”.

A scientist, cosmologist, philosopher and theologian who is able to notice works of art in mathematical equations of scientific theories, and compares great physicists to great artists. He himself successfully fulfils both roles: scientist-artist and scholar-writer. In 2008 he became a recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize. He is a lecturer of many prestigious American and English universities, one of the greatest moral authorities, and the founder and director of the Copernicus Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies which is universally recognized and respected in the whole world of science.

The works of professor Heller have intrigued and fascinated readers for many years. His academic achievements and scientific journalism prove not only that science and religion do not have to compete or exclude each other but also that an outstanding physicist and mathematician can be a great artist as well. This is, by the way, one of Professor Heller’s remarks from the book “Is physics a branch of Humanities?”, in which he argues that the great discoverers of physical laws – like Newton, Maxwell, Mach or Einstein – differ from Shakespeare, Michelangelo or Beethoven only in such a way that they composed their works of numbers and equations rather than notes, oil paint or marble. Their common feature is the artistic mind. Professor Heller himself fits perfectly into this group.

He is an author of hundreds of scientific and popular articles in which he both develops science and popularizes it. He is known for his skill of describing even the relativity theory with the use of literary language. The list of books written by Professor Heller is approximately as long as the list of prizes and honorary titles he has received.

Apart from numerous honorary doctorates and the Templeton Prize he has received: Golden Cross of Merit and Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta, St. George Medal and Special Super Victor. In May 2014 he was awarded the Order of White Eagle by the President of Poland. Polish readers know him as an excellent populariser of science, especially physics and cosmology; scientists around the world – as a great scholar and author of hundreds of books. He is a creator of cosmological model using noncommutative geometry to describe non-local phenomena which probably occurred in the initial stages of the Universe evolution. Professor Heller, similarly to some of the greatest minds in history, has been working for years on connecting two of the most important physical theories – General Relativity Theory and quantum mechanics.

heller_ksiazki

It is impossible to mention all the achievements of Professor Heller in different scientific disciplines. The most important of his ideas include his programme of philosophy in science, that is a philosophical reflection which is not completely separated from science (contrary to the Hegelian principle: if facts contradict my theory, the worse for the facts), but in the strict context of scientific theories. How else can we discuss the nature of time and space, causality, mathematical objects, the mind, free will or language if not by analysing what scientists have proven or assume in their theories? – asks Heller. Only such a reflection can lead to fruitful conclusions.

Professor Heller fights primitive misconceptions on the relation between science and religion. He propagates the idea of methodological naturalism whose claim is that science cannot refer to supernatural beings if it wants to explain natural phenomena reliably. Many scientists, especially theologians, like to break this rule trying to fill the gaps in our knowledge with divine interventions. Such an approach, which is erroneous from the philosophical, scientific and theological point of view, is pejoratively called a “God of the gaps” concept.

According to professor Heller there are, however, three gaps which science cannot explain. Ontological gap: why does there exist something, rather than nothing?; epistemological gap: why is the Universe rational and can be examined with mathematical methods?; axiological gap: where do universal values come from? In Heller’s conception these are not separate issues – in his view the Universe exists just because it is rational and mathematical (it can be examined), and an irrational Universe could not exist. He claims that mathematical objects are elements of physical theories and the laws of physics are formulated within them. Mathematics is, therefore, fundamental to all phenomena. Mathematics itself is independent of the person who uses it. A mathematician who attempts to prove new propositions does not create or construct them in his mind. Instead he discovers them existing in objective reality. Philosophers call such a concept mathematical Platonism.

michal_heller, Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS

He is a brilliant speaker and his living monument is the Copernicus Centre for Interdisciplinary Research which he founded and has managed from its very beginning. The Centre carries out research, educates students, organizes scientific conferences, popularizes science through meetings with academics, organizing discussion and publishing popular science articles. All of this, of course, in the spirit of philosophy in science.

In his book: “Universe at the end of the century”, published by Znak Publishing House in 1994, Professor Michał Heller wrote: “I believe that the greatest achievement of contemporary physics is the discovery that our common sense is limited to a very narrow sphere of everyday experience. Beyond this sphere there is an area which our senses have no access to.”

 

Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS

Reverend Professor Michał Heller Doctor Honoris Causa Multi

Born on March 12th 1936 in Tarnów. From 1953 to 1959 he studied theology at the Tarnów Seminary. In 1959 he received Master’s degree at the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) and was ordained a priest. In 1960 he began his next studies at the Faculty of Christian Philosophy (KUL) and in 1965 he got his Master’s degree in philosophy. He became a Doctor in 1966 (KUL) and later – in 1969 – became Doctor of Science (also KUL). Finally he became Associate Professor in 1985 and Titular Professor in 1990. From 1972 he worked as a reader at Pontifical Theological Academy (PAT) in Kraków. He was head of the Natural Philosophy Department and Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the Faculty of Philosophy PAT (since 2009 named the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Kraków). He also taught natural philosophy at the Theological Institute in Tarnów and was its rector from 1996.

He is an author of papers and books in the area of natural sciences (relativistic physics and quantum cosmology). Associated member of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo (since 1981), regular member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome (since 1991) and many other bodies.