John Templeton Foundation
home co-chairs participants
  Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow
Purpose
 

The purpose of this symposium is to explore the current understanding of the concept of matter from scientific, philosophical, and theological perspectives. Fourteen scientists and scholars have come together at the University of Copenhagen, under the aegis of the John Templeton Foundation, to consider how the metaphysical philosophy of materialism has been replaced by less reductive forms of naturalism—and assess the implications for religious self-reflection. Since Isaac Newton’s description of matter as “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles,” the concept has undergone successive transformations. Although challenged by a majority of contemporary philosophers, Newtonian mechanism and materialism was eventually embraced by scientists as the orthodox description of nature. A corollary of this viewpoint was the claim that all physical systems are nothing but collections of inert particles slavishly complying with deterministic laws. Complex systems such as living organisms and societies can, according to this reductionistic picture, ultimately be explained in terms of their material components. Such extreme materialism thus excluded not only God but also the mental world from the inventory of real things. In the twentieth century, however, Newtonian materialism began to crumble. Quantum mechanics revealed a more subtle picture of the nature of matter, and indeed, of the nature of the vacuum. The general theory of relativity and the quantum theory of fields predicted objects such as black holes and cosmic strings that defy description as aggregates of material particles. Chaos theory and complexity theory demolished the notion of a clockwork universe, replacing it with new metaphors, such as nature as a web of relational entanglements, or as a computational process, or as a self-organizing system. In particular, information has supplanted matter as the primary currency of physical reality in many contexts. In biology, the informational basis of life has superseded both vitalism and materialism as the conceptual framework for understanding the remarkable properties of organisms. Here we encounter the vexed issue of contextual or semantic information, given that genes contain coded information that must be “interpreted” by a specific molecular milieu. And thus we are led to the field of biosemiotics and human consciousness, where information acquires meaning and even purpose. Our intention is to discuss the sweeping implications of these developments for philosophy and theology. For example, some philosophers and theologians prefer to speak of an emergent monism that emphasizes the higher-order complex structures that arise in the process of evolution. They stress that informational structures should be accorded the status of “real” since they appear to be causally efficient in the course of evolution. In the same manner, classic divisions between insensitive nature and sensitive culture seem increasingly elusive. Whilst religion is rooted in a pre-scientific view of matter, moreover, it seems appropriate to ask whether a dynamic theology might be bound to reconsider traditional doctrines, including divine incarnation and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, in the context of current concepts of mass, energy, and information. It is to address such deep questions that researchers from several disciplines gather in the Danish capital during the still long days of summer.