Statement by George F. R. Ellis

Templeton Prize News Conference (March 17, 2004)

I am simultaneously humbled and delighted at the award of the Templeton Prize. I feel greatly honored by the choice the judges have made.

I am a scientist by profession, specializing in general relativity theory (that is, Einstein's theory of gravity) and its applications to cosmology — the study of the origin and evolution of the universe. After doing my undergraduate training at the University of Cape Town from 1956 to 1961, I did graduate studies on this theme in Cambridge, obtaining my Ph.D. degree there in 1964, and after teaching there returned to Cape Town in 1973. I have been mainly based in Cape Town ever since. I am also a Quaker, having joined the Religious Society of Friends in 1974, and have been involved in social activism of various kinds over many decades.

Despite being of retirement age, I am still actively working in cosmology. I have recently with various colleagues been revisiting the question of whether there was a beginning to the universe. We have developed a cosmological model which is both observationally viable and eternal — it has existed forever, and so never had a beginning. We are still exploring whether it can meet all observational constraints. So far, it has passed these tests. With other colleagues, I have been examining the issue of multiverses: is there only one universe, or is our universe but one of many, as some have suggested? Cosmology is at a very active and fruitful stage, and there are still many fascinating puzzles to resolve.

I first became involved in science and religion issues about fifteen years ago through my good friend Bill Stoeger, a Jesuit priest and astronomer with whom I have done technical work on cosmology. He invited me to write a paper for a book responding to a major Pontifical statement on science and religion issues, and from there I became increasingly involved in the topic. Now there is a cost to this involvement, because it takes valuable research time away from my professional work in cosmology. So why, you might ask, have I spent so much time engaged in this pursuit, which some might say is a somewhat esoteric debate?

I have done so because I believe the science and religion dialogue is one of the most important issues we can engage in at the present time. It fundamentally shapes the way we see the universe and how we understand our own existence. Furthermore, the time is right to engage in this study. We are at a stage in human history when, as we gaze with amazement and appreciation at the incredible progress of science in the last century, we can also start to see clearly some of the limits to what science can achieve. The way in which science and religion by and large complement each other is becoming ever clearer, as are the natures of the various points of tension between them, and some possible resolutions of those tensions. It is a good time to look at these issues.

Here I wish to pay tribute to the role the John Templeton Foundation has played in the resurgence of this debate, driven by the extraordinary energy, vision, and philanthropic generosity of Sir John Templeton. Through sound vision and careful strategic use of resources, the Foundation has facilitated development of this important topic as a recognised academic subject in many universities and colleges. It has enabled development of science and religion courses, local societies, conferences, and other initiatives that have profoundly supported both the widening and deepening of the debate. Whatever our religious or philosophical persuasion, we should all be grateful for that intervention.

For my own part, I have taken part in a series of very focused workshops run by the Vatican Observatory (Castel Gandolfo) in conjunction with the Centre for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, leading to a series of excellent books on topics such as the origin of the universe, evolution, complexity, quantum theory, and the human mind. This participation led to my writing the book On the Moral Nature of the Universe with my colleague Nancey Murphy, and to taking part in various other workshops, including one leading to a book I edited called The Far-Future Universe. I have undertaken various lecture tours on science and religion topics in the USA and Canada, and am on the Templeton Advisory Board and the Metanexus Institute Board. I am also a founding member and on the executive committee of the International Society for Science and Religion, having co-chaired the series of meetings that set that Society up, and have been nominated as its second President.

My own particular studies in this area have been on five major themes.

  1. The limits of science and of the scientific method. In the face of some who claim that the powers of science are limitless, it is important to try to understand what aspects of existence science in fact can and cannot comprehend. As I mentioned above, I believe the boundaries here are becoming clear, for example science cannot and never will be able to handle issues of aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, or meaning. However there are some areas where the answer is unclear: it is unresolved, for example, whether science will or will not succeed in solving the hard problem of consciousness. I have extensively written and talked on this important theme of the limits of science, for it sets the parameters for much of the rest of the discussion.
  2. The way that complexity can arise through physics, and alternatives to reductionist viewpoints that demean humankind. It is true that physics and chemistry underlie our existence and functioning as human beings, but that does not mean we are "nothing but" atoms, molecules, chemicals, or whatever. That phrase always hides an attempt to deny the true complexity and autonomous existence of vibrant living beings. We are much, much more than implied by hard reductionists and their favorite phrase "nothing but." I have written extensively on why it is that these reductionist viewpoints miss out on the true nature of the complex reality that emerges from the underlying physics and chemistry. And one should note here that reductionist viewpoints emanate equally from the social and human sciences as from the natural sciences, and are equally fallacious in those cases too.


    It is crucial also that despite the fact that the functioning of our brain can be understood by neuroscientists in terms of action potentials in the brain and flows of chemicals across synapses, nevertheless personal choice is real. Furthermore, the ethics that underlies the direction and nature of our choices is causally effective, and strongly shapes the nature of what happens in the world around us. It is not possible to reduce ethics to statements about neuroscience (or evolutionary history, for that matter), for it has a real normative nature; I return to this later.
  3. The natures of existence that flow from all this. Those pursuing a hard reductionist line associate it with a strongly materialist viewpoint: the claim that all that really exists are just particles with specific forces acting between them, and there is no other kind of reality to contend with. This too is deeply mistaken, and I have been developing further a line of argument of Karl Popper, John Eccles, and Roger Penrose on the multiple natures of existence. Here I emphasize that even hard-headed physicists have to acknowledge a number of different kinds of existence as well as that of the particles that constitute matter. In particular, human thoughts, emotions, and social constructions are both causally effective, and cannot be compassed by present day physics. Consequently even the most advanced physics today is unable to give a causally complete account of the factors that are effective in shaping the physical world we see around us, for example it cannot even explain the existence of as simple a thing as a pair of spectacles, because it is unable to encompass human thoughts and intentions. Furthermore, by its very nature it is unlikely to ever do so. This realisation strengthens the arguments I have already mentioned regarding the limits of science.
  4. The nature of the tensions between rationality and faith and between emotion and reason in human life and affairs. Much our of life can be thought of as a struggle between emotion and rationality — the calm analyst deciding on a logical basis what we should do, versus the emotional hot-head who rushes into action and just does things. A common view is that evidence-based science represents that calm rationality which exemplifies us how we ought to behave, and we should try to avoid basing our lives on faith and hope rather than rationality and reason. However this is also a bad misunderstanding. In facing our individual and communal lives, we always need faith and hope as well as rationality, and indeed the real issue is how we can best balance them against each other. Take the case of my own country: there were very many times in the past when it was rational to give up all hope for the future — to assume that the nation would decay into a racial holocaust that never happened. It did not occur because of the transformative actions of those marvellous leaders Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, confounding the calculus of rationality. This is a really important practical issue that I have only recently begun to consider. It is in a sense the theme of the book The Far Future Universe that I edited.


    However as well as being a highly practical issue, this also relates to the issue of reductionism and the way the mind functions. The reading and writing I have been doing on that topic have led to a very interesting appreciation: the fact that the rational mind is in a profound developmental sense based in the emotional mind. This is true both functionally and in evolutionary terms. So one of my latest projects is looking at this fascinating theme, and even writing about it in association with Judith Toronchuk of Trinity Western University. So I am now happy that though I am a cosmologist by trade, I have just had a paper on this theme accepted for publication by the journal Consciousness and Evolution. This paper shows that the tension between emotion and reason has a deep grounding in the neurological mechanisms underlying brain function.
  5. The science-religion-ethics triad, and the true nature of deep ethics. Finally, a theme in my writing, set out in detail in the book with Nancey Murphy, is the importance of including ethics in the science and religion debate. This is because ethics is causally effective, as outlined above, and provides the highest level of values that set human goals and choices. Consequently a crucial issue is the origin of ethics, on the one hand, and the nature of ethics, on the other. With Nancey I am a moral realist, that is, I believe that we discover the true nature of ethics rather than inventing it, hence the title of our book: On the Moral Nature of the Universe. Indeed it is only if ethics is of this nature that it has a truly moral character, that is, it represents a guiding light that we ought to obey. I am fascinated that Stephen Pinker too has been suggesting moral realism in his recent book The Blank Slate — he too realizes this must be the case if it is to have the normative status that true morality must have. If true, this is a very important feature of the nature of the universe.

But then the issue is what is the nature of true morality? Nancey and I have argued that it must be kenotic in nature, that is, it must be a kind of ethics involving letting go of one's own interest on behalf of others, being ready if necessary to sacrifice one's own interests for them, even on behalf of an enemy. This is of course very controversial, just as it was when Jesus in essence stated it in the Sermon on the Mount. However I am convinced it is a deeply transforming principle of fundamental importance, which is universally recognised by the non-dogmatic branches of all the great religions: it is held up in all of them as behaviour to aspire to. Indeed this is the theme of one of Sir John Templeton's books, called Agape Love: A Tradition Found in Eight World Religions. Furthermore this is the only basis for true security, for the deep foundation of security is based in transforming your enemies into friends. That can in the end only be achieved by the kind of sacrificial practices exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu, for this is the only way to touch the hardened heart. What seems rationally impossible can indeed become possible through the generosity and hope underlying and enabling kenosis and forgiveness: and this we experienced in South Africa. Nancey and I suggest this principle is deeply imbedded in the universe, both in ethics and in other aspects of our lives, and will thus be discovered by deeply moral beings in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri or the Andromeda galaxy, just as it has been discovered by all major religions here on Earth.

Overall, in these studies I have been working on developing a comprehensive integrative view of the world and the universe, in contrast to the simplistic reductionist views that so many hold from one standpoint or another; this view endeavours to take into account the most recent achievements of science as well as relevant philosophy and ordinary human experience. I believe that although these issues may at first seem somewhat abstract, they are in fact foundational in the ongoing Science and Religion debate, and have the capacity to help change the way we view things and to help develop a worldview with rich foundations and outcomes.

I have been much helped in thinking on these things by many colleagues, but particularly Bill Stoeger (Vatican Observatory), Nancey Murphy (Fuller Theological Seminary), Phil Clayton (Sonoma State University), George Coyne (Vatican Observatory), Bob Russell (Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences), Billy Grassie (Metanexus Institute), and Charles Harper (John Templeton Foundation); without them I would have blundered much more than I have. I thank them all for having encouraged me to travel on these risky paths. I am delighted that this work has been assessed by the judges as a useful contribution.

As regards the use I intend to make of this very generous prize: I will be following Sir John in trying for maximal strategic advantage. In South African terms the prize is about ten million Rand, which sounds a great deal (it could be a bit more or less, depending on the tax situation and the exchange rate). After much thought, rather than giving it to a single beneficiary I am planning to split it in two major portions:

Half to go to a trust fund, whose interest will support me in retirement and in my work for the rest of my life. On my death the capital of this fund will go towards a major project at my alma mater, the University of Cape Town — one of the great educational beacons in Africa, which has been a main focus of most of my life; its best strategic use is to be discussed with the University. A further strategic aspect of this donation will be that I will use it to try to help leverage a greater willingness of alumni of my university to support their alma mater — a tradition that is strong in the USA but weak in South Africa.

The other half will be used to support a varied set of excellent projects in South Africa. Substantial grants (about R1m each) will go to:

  • BIG: The Basic Income Grant Campaign. This is the project with potentially the greatest impact of all, for it will be used to try to persuade our Government to implement a universal basic grant of R100 per months to all South Africans. This is the only project in sight that could wipe out all destitution in our country in the next few years.
  • ASSET: The Association for Educational Transformation, an enormously effective project providing bursaries and extra lessons to black youth in the Cape Town area, and making a very substantial difference to the life prospects of many hundreds of them.
  • Quaker organizations in South Africa: the Cape Western Monthly Meeting (CWMM) and Central and Southern African Yearly Meeting (C&SAYM), to use for their own needs or for developmental projects.

Smaller gifts will go to some excellent local organizations where they will make a substantial difference, in particular:

  • The Michael Oak Waldorf School, our excellent neighborhood value-centred private school;
  • The Cape Town Life Training Centre of the Kairos Foundation, running transformatory Life Training weekends in Cape Town;
  • ASTI: the African Summer Theory Institute, an annual theory school for African physics and science students, organised by a coalition of overseas professors and some of my enthusiastic graduate students;
  • The Imagine Cape Town project that has invigorated several local communities in the Cape Town area with a transforming new vision of what developmental possibilities may;
  • A computer laboratory for an agricultural high school in the farming area of Viljoenskroon, Free State;
  • Hurdy Gurdy House: a home for autistic children near Cape Town; and
  • some individuals in need.

By spreading the prize money in this way, I believe I will achieve excellent advantage in developmental terms. It is a delight to be able to assist wonderful people who are doing so much for others. They do not do it for recognition, but they fully deserve our recognition for what they are doing, and whatever support we can give them. I am delighted to have the opportunity to use the award in this way, and it is with gratitude that I thank the John Templeton Foundation for this generous prize.

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George F. R. Ellis

is Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, recipient of the Templeton Prize, and the author of many books, including On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics.

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