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PRESS RELEASE: August 17, 2005

Vatican Observatory and CTNS: A New Collaboration on “Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Evil in Nature”

Vatican Observatory and CTNS: A New Collaboration on “Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Evil in Nature

The Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) have concluded a decade-long series of research conferences in theology and science. The overarching theme of this series was “scientific perspectives on divine action.” The series produced five published books with nearly one hundred chapters spanning a wide variety of topics in systematic and philosophical theology, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and the history of science and religion in relation to such areas in the natural sciences as special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum gravity, Big Bang and quantum cosmology, fine-tuning and the laws of nature, chaos and complexity, evolutionary and molecular biology, and the neurosciences. Summaries of all these chapters can be found on the CTNS website,

In the fall of 2003 the Vatican Observatory and CTNS held a conference to review and evaluate the series. Selected papers from this conference will be published as a book and in science and religion journals such as Theology and Science.

In light of these results, the Vatican Observatory and CTNS have embarked on a new series of research conferences. The general title of the series is “Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Evil.” The series moves ‘behind' and ‘prior' to the widely-discussed problem of theodicy in the context of moral evil to what is routinely overlooked: the problem of theodicy in the context of natural evil (i.e., suffering, disease, death, extinction, and so on). The series begins with the problem of natural evil at the level of physics and cosmology, where natural evil serves as a prefiguration of and precondition for moral evil in the underlying structure of the fundamental laws of nature. From there it will move to evolution, genetics and thus the biological roots of moral evil, it may include the neurosciences in relation to human free will and moral evil, and eventually it may extend to the theme of eschatology as a response to natural and moral evil and with it the challenge of cosmology to eschatology.

The first private conference in this new series will be held in Castel Gandolfo, September 12-16, 2005 . The theme of this conference is “Suffering and the Laws of Nature.” Its scientific focus is on physics and cosmology, including the apparent fine-tuning of the universe and the possibility of multiverses. A provocative way of exploring this theme in relation to the overall perspective of the series of conferences is with the claim that the existence of intelligent, free, morally responsible and loving creatures seems to depend as a precondition on the specific character of the fundamental laws of nature. Yet those laws are also a contributing cause of natural evil and seem to make natural evil inevitable. Hence natural evil can be seen as the unwanted by-product of God's creating a universe in which the evolution of creatures capable of a free and loving response to God is possible. In specific, literature on the so-called cosmological “fine-tuning” of the laws and constants of nature suggests that the universe, with all its perils, must be (almost) exactly the sort of universe it is in order for life to evolve. Is it, then, in Leibniz's terms ‘the best of all possible worlds'? If God chose to create life, did God have to create this universe with these laws?

The problem of natural evil is compounded in light of our preceding series on divine action. There the goal shared by many scholars was to give an account of non-interventionist objective divine action in light of contemporary science. Some argued on the basis of top-down causality in reference to the universe-as-a-whole or the mind-brain problem. Others argued for ontological indeterminism either on the basis of chaos theory or quantum mechanics. If any of these arguments is accepted, then the problem of theodicy is exacerbated: if God could act without violating or suspending the laws of nature, then why doesn't God act in certain specific events to alleviate excessive natural evil? Not surprisingly, the success of the previous series in making a convincing case for non-interventionist objective divine action was a major factor in our choice of theodicy for this new series.

The scholars invited to participate in this invitation-only conference are Philip Clayton, George Coyne, Denis Edwards, George Ellis, Don Howard, Brad Kallenberg, Steven Knapp, Nancey Murphy, Robert Russell, Christopher Southgate, William Stoeger, Terrence Tilley, Thomas Tracy, Kirk Wegter-McNelly, Michael Welker, Wesley Wildman and Mark Worthing.

The Vatican Observatory and CTNS intend to publish the results of these conferences in a new series of volumes beginning with this first conference. Visit the CTNS website at for news about summaries of the chapters in 2006.


Robert John Russell
Founder and Director, CTNS

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