With so many commencement addresses each year, it's easy to miss the less publicized but equally important honors given to those who are not keynote speakers.
One of the most important of such honors among Catholic schools is the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal. According to the University, "Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal is presented annually to an American Catholic in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and society. It is considered the oldest and most prestigious award for American Catholics." (For more about the history of the Laetare Medal, including past recipients and their speeches, see here.)
This year's Laetare Medal winner was Dr. Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown University. To anyone who has studied the relationship between science and religion, Dr. Miller's name is no surprise. He is a first-rate scholar and the author of numerous books, including Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. His Brown University faculty page notes:
His research work on cell membrane structure and function has produced more than 60 scientific papers and reviews in leading journals, including CELL, Nature, and Scientific American. Miller is coauthor, with Joseph S. Levine, of four different high school and college biology textbooks which are used by millions of students nationwide. He has received 6 major teaching awards at Brown, the Presidential Citation of the American Institute for Biological Science (2005), and the Public Service Award of the American Society for Cell Biology (2006). In 2009 he was honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for Advancing the Public Understanding of Science, and also received the Gregor Mendel Medal from Villanova University. In 2011 he was presented with the Stephen Jay Gould Prize by the Society for the Study of Evolution.
In his brief address at Notre Dame, Dr. Miller identified two common myths that people hold about science. It was the second one that caught my eye. According to Dr. Miller:
The second great myth about science holds it to be the antithesis of faith. Ironically, this is a myth that serves both the enemies of faith and science very well. Science, we are told, is reason based upon evidence. And faith, we are assured, is belief without reason. As such, the two are locked forever in conflict and cannot coexist.
But such assertions ignore the very history of western science, which has its roots in a faith that views the study of nature and its mysteries as a way to praise and understand the glory of God. It was in that tradition that Newton unwove the rainbow and revealed the laws of motion, that Father Gregor Mendel established the science of genetics, and that Father Georges Lemaitre developed the theoretical foundation for cosmic expansion. Yes, it was a Catholic priest who first described the physics of the real big bang.
As many of you may know, there are three great medallions emblazoned on the Jordan Hall of Science here at Notre Dame. The biology medallion features a DNA double helix, and the words of the great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Dobzhansky, like Asa Gray, Darwin’s first great advocate in America, was a Christian.
Both of these evolutionary biologists realized that faith, far from being the antithesis of reason, is actually the source of reason. Science is built upon two great elements of faith. The first is that the universe is rational, understandable and accessible to human thought. The second is that truth is to be preferred to ignorance.
And I will tell you frankly: A faith that would require one to reject scientific reason is not a faith worth having.
Dr. Miller's comment about the faith within science is, of course, not widely shared by his contemporaries, especially those in elite institutions. But brave souls are out there, including Paul Davies, a well known professor of physics at Arizona State University. In 2007, Davies wrote a controversial op-ed in the New York Times ("Taking Science on Faith") in which he argued that
science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
Dr. Miller has also written eloquently and with much conviction on the topic of God and evolution in responding to the ridiculous claims of University of Chicago biologist and Dawkinsesque atheist Jerry Coyne. Channeling themes of the Western philosophical tradition and even St. John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, Dr. Miller wrote:
One can indeed embrace science in every respect, and still ask a deeper question, one in which Coyne seems to have no interest. Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes itself accessible to our powers of logic and intellect? The true vow of a scientist is to practice honest and open empiricism in every aspect of his scientific work. That vow does not preclude the scientist from stepping back, acknowledging the limitations of scientific knowledge, and asking the deeper questions of why we are here, and whether existence has a purpose. Those questions are genuine and important, even if they are not scientific ones, and I believe they are worth answering. To me, those answers lie in faith. Others find their answers elsewhere, but our science is the same.
Congratulations to Dr. Miller. May his award inspire others to continue to their scientific explorations without having to deny the Creator who makes their work possible.