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Scientist and priest Michał Heller talks about the steam engine, theology, and physical problems with ...
2021-12-12 09:00:00

Faith in Imagination
A Conversation About Cosmology and Philosophy

Michał Heller. Photo courtesy of Grzegorz Jasiński
Faith in Imagination
Faith in Imagination

Contemporary science has revolutionized our imagination. Wojciech Bonowicz talks to cosmologist, philosopher, and Roman Catholic priest Michał Heller about the steam engine, theology, and the physical problems with materialism.

Read in 21 minutes

Wojciech Bonowicz: To start with, I would like to ask you about your earliest stirrings of the imagination—those of your childhood. What did they look like? Did you imagine the future, or perhaps other worlds?

Michał Heller: I will start with a more general observation. In childhood and youth, imagination plays a much greater role than anything else, because rational thinking is learned gradually, step by step, and imagination awakens with consciousness, or immediately afterwards. It is disobedient—it takes me where it wants, not where I would like it to go. What’s more, with time, a person becomes willing to go in the direction in which imagination leads them because imagination has something captivating about it. The surrounding world is at first quite impoverished. One of the first impressions I remembered was seeing the crossbar in the crib where I slept. The cot was surrounded by a net so that I wouldn’t fall out of it, and that net ended with the crossbar. When I looked towards the window, this crossbar was in my way and that was why I remembered it.

You were three-and-a-half years old when the war broke out and you had to flee with your family. Then there was deportation into Russia. Was the atmosphere of danger and the frequent changes of location conducive to escaping into the world of imagination?

I would be inclined to say that they were neither conducive nor unconducive; it was just as it should be. That is, for the adults it was a cataclysm, a crisis, but for me another event that everyday life brought with it. When Russian soldiers came to us in Lviv and told us to pack, the grown-ups packed things and I stared at the rifles because I liked them so much. As a child, I was quite effectively protected from the horror of what was happening.

What about the experiences that enter the body strongly, such as hunger? Do they make the imagination shrink, or on the contrary?

I remember the experience of hunger very well. I imagined a slice of bread that I would like to eat, but there was no bread. In Siberia, my grandmother took care of the kitchen. She came up with all sorts of substitutes. For example, scrambled eggs in which there were no eggs, only a little flour mixed with water. Something else was added and we got these liquid noodles, which my grandmother called scrambled eggs. It was the same with ice cream. Someone brought home frozen milk, you would chip off a piece and lick it, while grandma talked about the kinds of ice cream eaten before the war. I remember one scene from before the war: I must have had some stomach problems, because my mother took a banana, peeled off the skin, and served  its contents to me with a spoon. Throughout the war, that banana was for me a symbol of something extremely tasty, even luxurious. I still like bananas.

How is our idea of the world actually shaped? How does this world expand for us?

The starting point is very specific things. In my case, it was steam locomotives. The first profession I dreamed of was that of a train driver. It so happened that we often lived near a train station. A steam engine is something unique and inspiring. I was fascinated by those moving pistons, the steam coming out of the cylinders. In us boys, there was a cult of the machine at that time, and it was a machine par excellence. Sometimes I feel a little sorry that there are no more steam locomotives. Electric locomotives don’t have that aura.

Reading also played a very important role. At first it was fairy tales, but somehow they appealed to me less—I liked non-fabulous adventures. So initially I wanted to be a train driver, but right after that I wanted to be the hero of every book I read. As you know, in those days, books for young people had to have a positive hero, and I’ve always identified with one. As a teenager, my favorite character was d’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers. But what I was reading was not enough for me. Lying in bed before dozing off, I was already adding to my imagination the next adventure in which I took part. I know that it was evolving, depending on what books I was reading. But this custom of acting out dramas, big and small, before falling asleep lasted a very long time.

At what point do we begin to control our imagination? Is it when we go to school and learn that imagination isn’t just “walking around with your head in the clouds?” It is often said that the development of a particular person is a bit like the development of civilization, or vice versa. It starts with these very primal intuitions, perceptions and experiences, and then one enters into more complicated, systematized thinking. Do you think this comparison is accurate?

Quite early on, even before I began studying philosophy, based on the books I read at school, I came up with a thesis that human individual development “copies” the history of philosophy—at least in Europe. In the beginning, we have a period of mythology, fairy tales, an enchanted world. Then as we gain knowledge and everything is gradually rationalized. Then a period of positivism follows, involving challenging the authority and questioning the beliefs instilled in us, and then an attempt to overcome this positivism. As time goes on, we enter what might be called a contemplative period, when a person ventures into areas of thought that, until recently, they considered inaccessible.

However, an important caveat must be made here: we really do not know the past. We recreate or construct it, among other things, on the basis of our own experiences, but it certainly looked different—and not only in the details. First of all, it was more complicated. When we learn history, what we really remember is some kind of “average” drawn from what information we managed to collect. Often such an average is simply inadequate. Karl Popper wrote that true, unadulterated history should not be the history of wars, kings, and murders, but the history of every human being who gets up in the morning, puts on their shoes and does not know what a given day will bring. It is only the history of each individual person that makes up the real history of humanity.

This is why each generation must rewrite history from scratch for itself. Not to mention the fact that time passes, points of view change, and today history looks different to how it looked, say, twenty years ago. It should be added that various regimes consciously falsify history, persuade young people to believe their version, and something of this version always remains.

Over the centuries, the vision of not only history but also the world as such has changed. Which moments or stages have most influenced the shift in our ideas about the world?

The first important stage was the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, when philosophical thought was born in Greece. It can be considered the first intellectual revolution in human history. Greek thinkers challenged the world; they took the risk of understanding the world on their own account, without the help of myths, without the help of religion. To grasp the significance of this gesture, let us try to imagine that such a thing never happened. What would the next twenty-odd centuries look like? It was, therefore, an event that had no equal in history.

And then, if we agree to use very rough approximations, subsequent changes in the way of seeing and understanding the world somehow correspond to the generally accepted periodization: antiquity, the Middle Ages, modernity, contemporary times—such a division was adopted for a reason.

In Poland, this is represented by the sine wave of history showing the alternation of eras.

The Middle Ages were indeed different from antiquity and it was the same with subsequent eras. Except that, of course, we have to put on the aforementioned sine wave some small vibrations, which constantly appeared there. It was different in Europe, different in Asia, different in Greece, or among the Germanic peoples. We have—let me repeat it—something averaged out in our imaginations. Nonetheless, for a long time in the Middle Ages, the achievements of Greek culture were practically lost. I often recall this example, that at the turn of antiquity and the Middle Ages, not a single person remained alive who could fully understand Euclid’s Elements. There was no such person! The text remained, but it was copied without comprehension. It took a good few centuries to gradually develop an understanding of this work.

I’d like to go back for a moment to the Greek stage, when a human being decided that thinking, logos, would be the basic force by which they would try to cope with what surrounds them and what they experience. It was like a leap into a new reality.

The risk of taking responsibility for the truth, that’s what it was all about. It was about choosing a method that was later improved. In the Middle Ages, this rational method—the method of a rational search for truth—took the form of scholasticism, which consisted, roughly speaking, in the search for the first principles from which everything could result. The scholastic method, before it degenerated, was a major step forward in guarding the accuracy of reasoning.

Then there was a very important turn: the discovery that the world cannot be completely understood from some first principles, but that you simply have to open your eyes and look at the way it is. Without this experiential contact with the world, we will not go further, or we will go in a completely false direction. In this way, on the cusp of medieval and modern times, the empirical method was born, although the elements of such thinking had appeared already in antiquity. The experimental method has been perfected to this day and works perfectly well with the method of inquiry, except that mathematical methods have taken precedence in this inquiry. This is how the conditions for the colossal progress that we are observing were created.

This is one issue: the problem of the method. It polarizes cognition and makes a person perceive reality differently today than before. But another such element is reflection on the human being. What position does a person occupy in the way we imagine the world? Because inquiry automatically generates a certain image of the world and the place of the human in it. In medieval philosophy, two tendencies clashed at the beginning: inquiring into what the world is like, that is, the ontology of the world; and epistemology, which deals with how we as humans get to know and record reality. These two tendencies competed, but also complemented each other. Then came the Copernican Revolution and the problem of the human being came to a head: since the Earth has lost its central position, where exactly is our place?

In your publications, for example, in the book Nauka i Teologianiekoniecznie tylko na jednej planecie [Science and Theology—Not Necessarily Exclusively on One Planet], you often return to the problem of confronting the religious imagination with the scientific image of the world. What is the main point of contention? What makes these images fall apart, while conflict returns from time to time, with more or less force?

The key issue here is again the problem of method. In the scientific method—let’s say, since modernity up until today—when we deal with clearly defined standards, we count only on ourselves. We do not accept information that comes from elsewhere, it must be our achievement: we must state it, see it, examine it, derive it from certain assumptions. In religion, on the other hand, it is assumed that the basic truths are revealed, given from above. In the world of knowledge acquired by ourselves, these truths are some kind of a foreign body. This is a methodological difficulty, but it also causes a psychological difficulty, practically insurmountable, if one is accustomed and attached to only one of these methods.

In the aforementioned book you write, “The scientific image of the world must be the natural environment of theology.” However, someone could say there is no single scientific image of the world, that it is changing. Yes, we adopt a mathematical-empirical method that allows us to verify or refute individual hypotheses, but this method is constantly being improved. Perhaps it is better to stay with the 19th-century division, in which theology follows its own path of revelation, as do the natural sciences. One discipline does not enter the territory of the other, and that’s fine. What would you say to such a person?

I would answer that they are to a large degree right, but it is impossible to approach theology in isolation from the natural sciences. Because even if we assume that we do not associate theology with any image of the world, it’s still there. When theologians under the direction of Cardinal Ratzinger compiled a catechism of the Catholic religion in 1992, they clearly tried not to tie it in with any particular image. However, if we were to try to reconstruct this image that nonetheless appears there, we would see how much it differs from the image provided by modern science, if only because the catechism avoids certain topics or makes certain assumptions. I suggest to theologians that they carry out such an exercise.

Do you mean to say that theology is based on ideas that have long since been verified by science?

Because these ideas persist. It is impossible to practice a theology cleansed of any worldview. You just can’t. That’s why it’s better to do it in a controlled way. Today’s image of the world is not the same as it was in Newton’s time. The prototypes of the present catechism were developed in the post-Tridentine period [i.e., following the 16th-century Counter-Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church]. At that time, the image of the world was mechanistic, and in addition to this, there were strong remnants of the medieval image. All is all in these catechisms. Even if sometimes it is impossible to separate one thing from another—because perhaps these tissues have already fused together—one must be aware that such elements exist and they do not belong to the substance of faith, but to the substance of the packaging in which the wine of truth is served. This is an allusion to Bruce Marshall’s well-known saying: that as a Church our task is to give people the wine of truth, but we force this wine along with the bottle, and we are surprised that they cannot swallow it.

The only question is whether this certain anachronism of the perspective that we’re dealing with in the catechisms is not closer to our personal experience of the world, especially in childhood. Maybe religion has to stand out a little bit, otherwise it would simply become a science of religion? With the “scientification” of religion, wouldn’t we lose something that could allow an important dimension of humanity to come to the fore?

I will comment on your question, or your provocation, by attacking it a little from the side. Namely, in the 18th century, in theology, especially Protestant theology, there was a tendency to debunk biblical images. For example, the miracles described in the Bible were explained in a more rational way: it was said that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea not in some miraculous way, but because the winds were blowing just so... In this way, they wanted to make it easier for people to accept these images, to make them credible. It is probably indeed the case that many of the events described in the Bible as miraculous had their natural causes. On the other hand, taking each individual event and debunking it led to completely exotic ideas.

What do I mean? Well, one should be aware that such a process of demystifying is necessary, but in private piety one does not necessarily have to follow it. It is possible to preserve this, as you say, child-like image, while being aware that this image must be retouched. However, not on your own, because it easily leads to nonsense and absurdity. We can look at religious images as we did when we were children, if that helps our piety. However, one should be aware that they require really heavy retouching. Nevertheless, this cannot be done according to the criterion of “because I think so.”

Various biblical and quasi-biblical teachings come to our aid. Through them, we can find a path of criticism and revision that will not be destructive to religious experience.

If we have such opportunities, we must use them. Science and the scientific image of the world help enormously in the interpretation of the Bible. In this context, I always recall the example of Galileo, who was accused of misinterpreting the Bible, that is, of debunking it, when it must be understood literally. Galileo explained, citing the Fathers of the Church, that in some cases the Bible must be interpreted non-literally. What transpired years later? That Galileo was right when it came to interpreting the Bible. Today, official Church documents follow Galileo’s line. On the other hand, when it comes to the idea of whether the sun is moving or not, the Holy Office was right. Its representatives demanded that Galileo proclaim his views as a hypothesis and not a certainty. And they were right—in light of Einstein’s theory of relativity, whether the Earth moves around the sun or the sun around the Earth depends on how we choose the frame of reference. For example, when we calculate the trajectory of a rocket to Mars, we count according to the coordinate system in which the Earth rests, because it is more convenient. The paradox is that Galileo was theologically right and the Holy Office was scientifically right. It’s a lesson worth learning.

From your statements, it appears that you are a supporter of mitigating the religious imagination, of keeping it in check. You prefer cautious, apophatic approaches, with the proviso that everything we say about God is only an approximation. To what extent do you think we should tame our religious imagination? Because there is no denying that religiosity, not only Christian, feeds on images. It is even said that the modern crisis of religiousness rests on the fact that many of these images have been challenged and this religiosity is simply “hungry”—it needs an image that will appeal to the senses, not only to reason.

Indeed, for me, the best theology is apophatic theology, that is, one that does not so much say who God is, as who He is not. That is, it emphasizes that our knowledge of God is negative: whatever we say about Him, we should immediately deny it, because the reality probably looks completely different. Apophatism is, in my opinion, important in theology, and in fact every reasonable theologian recognizes it to some degree. But let us imagine the maximalist apophatism. After all, it is impossible to talk about something without saying anything. Well, because if you say nothing, you just have to be silent. In religion you can’t be silent, because life doesn’t allow you to be silent, so you have to use images. And if you are aware that theology is apophatic, it opens a huge space for the imagination. You can imagine whatever you want, you just have to remember that these ideas are primarily necessary for you, and in reality it is even more interesting. My thesis is that apophatism does not destroy the imagination—on the contrary, it creates unlimited horizons for it.

Would you agree with the statement that apophatism is to religious faith what the scientific method is to the image of the world in general, i.e. a kind of safeguard?

It is possible that it constitutes a safeguard, but above all it results from inner necessity. It is best to say of God that He is infinite. In this way, only in other words, we admit that we will never understand Him. Therefore, all theology is in some sense apophatic.

What does it look like in other cultural circles? Are these tensions between the scientific and religious images of the world similar?

One must remember that science is universalist. It is probably humankind’s first universal creation. If someone wants to send a rocket to the moon, whether it’s the Chinese or the Americans, they have to follow exactly the same methods. Similarly, if one wants to develop an effective vaccine against a virus. This, of course, does not mean that everyone has access to science. There are nations that cannot enjoy its benefits. Besides, not only does it bring benefits, it can also be used against humans. It is different from the interpretation of science. It depends, to a large extent, on culture. In addition to the Western interpretation of hard sciences, Eastern interpretations inspired by Brahmanism, Buddhism and so on, are quite widespread. However, I don’t want to say too much about the subject because I don’t know enough about it. I know a little more about the reception of science in the Orthodox theology.

As you know, Christian theology split into two parts—Western and Eastern. This happened quite early, even before the Church was divided. The theology of the Greek Fathers was different from that of the Latin Fathers, more oriented towards mysticism, while the Western theology was oriented toward rationality, logical argumentation, and so on. I remember that shortly after the fall of communism, when it was possible to discuss these subjects with Russian scholars, discussing the conflict between science and religion was something incomprehensible to them. One Russian physicist explained to me that if God is infinite, then conflicts must arise, because He thinks differently to us. However, this does not interfere with anything. In the Church it is this way, in science it is that way, and so be it. The principle of contradiction in the East is understood differently, more mystically.

What role does imagination play in the hard sciences? Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge has its limitations, while imagination does not. How does one accurately understand his words? Is it not the case that our imagination, also in science, actually works within the extent of our knowledge?

No, because knowledge works a little to match our imagination. In the methodology of the sciences, a distinction is often made between the so-called context of discovery and the context of justification. The context of discovery refers to everything that helps us to formulate a hypothesis. Whereas the context of justification refers to the way in which we then verify this hypothesis—how we derive the conclusion from the assumptions, how we solve the equation to show what results from what, and how we compare what we have calculated with the experience. Well, in the case of the context of discovery, imagination plays a dominant role. This is a game of imagination: we take into account different possibilities, we figure out which one is the most accurate. Actually, it doesn’t matter how we come to formulate the hypothesis—we can dream of it, we can invent it while drunk. As long as, in the context of justification, we stick strictly to the method that will verify it. This is probably how Einstein’s saying should be understood.

When a mathematical problem is being solved, some people are initially dominated by ideas, especially geometric representations. There is intuition, but it relates to the inner image, you can see a pattern of results, you can see where they lead. Then the point comes—eureka! It is a moment of imagination, a triumph of intuition. Then you have to translate this intuition into a precise language, which is when imagination interferes. We have to keep an eye on the rules. 

So the scientific imagination has within it an element of discipline.

Yes, but whoever has no imagination is unlikely to make any great discoveries in science. They can be someone who organizes, classifies, or justifies what others have come up with. Whereas, people like Einstein did so much because they had a tremendous imagination.

The German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote the poem “Questions for the Cosmologists.” I bring up this poem because it also raises a number of questions that are somehow related to the subject of imagination. Enzensberger asks about the future of science, for example, at how many dimensions of reality we will stop. Or for how many parallel universes our imagination still has to prepare. What would you say to him?

The questions we call metaphysical are at the heart of science. You may disregard them, you can deny their significance, but they are still there. Cosmology may seem more “metaphysical” because it deals with the universe, which is enormous. This staggering grandeur of the universe itself causes a metaphysical thrill. In addition, in cosmology we go back many billions of years, which in turn leads to the question of the beginning. As for how many of these dimensions and universes exist...

... Enzensberger asks how many we should prepare for.

There is no need to prepare because today we are talking about infinitely many dimensions. Superstring theory speaks of eleven or even twenty-three dimensions. Some say that there are over two hundred of them, but this is more speculation that has little to do with hard science. In mathematics, on the other hand, we can operate quite freely in spaces of infinitely many dimensions. This has already been mastered. If physics needed such a thing, then the formal foundations are ready.

What about parallel worlds?

Today, there are already those who speak of infinitely many universes. Of course, this is just a hypothesis, but it is quite popular among some cosmologists. It does, however, raise objections among more sober-minded physicists who oppose the dilution of the scientific method. It must be remembered that all the successes of physics were possible thanks to iron-clad adherence to this method. We can formulate any hypotheses, but we should only accept those that have been confirmed empirically. None of these great cosmological speculations, whether concerning multiverses or superstrings, has so far been verified, despite numerous attempts. They can be counted as scientific theories, but only by greatly expanding the idea of science, which is opposed by the majority for the time being.

Isn’t it the case that the achievements of modern science are simply too much of a challenge for the imagination of most of us? I’m not talking about hypotheses, but about what belongs to, as you say, hard science: quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity, the achievements of cosmology, etc. We are at home in the world of Newtonian physics, we more or less understand what is happening around us, the effects of our various actions. But how can we settle in a world that is so different from Newton’s?

Indeed, quantum mechanics in particular was quite a shock to our imagination. Classical mechanics helped us tame the world; it showed that the world works like a watch mechanism, and there is nothing mysterious there.

The table is hard, the chair does not float.

Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, has challenged all of this. The thought of the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead is very interesting: he claimed that the materialism of the 19th century was the result of the superstition of “simple location.” By simple location, Whitehead meant a piece of matter that is located in a specific place in space, and at a specific moment in time. Such a piece of matter is the basis of materialism—it is something real that we touch with our senses. Everything else is some unnecessary hypothesis.

I remember a gathering years ago in Kraków, where we discussed exactly these problems. Suddenly, a second-year physics student stood up and said something like this: “For me, all of this is an abstraction. The matter examined in physics is something real. This is concrete, this is what you have to hold on to.” To that Professor Jerzy Rayski, a theoretical physicist, stood up and said that it is not the case with physics, there is no piece of matter. Such a simply placed piece of matter is fiction, because what really exists are probability waves and quanta of various fields. These quanta only in a very complicated mechanism merge into something, which, in us, creates the impression of a piece of matter.

This is the crisis of imagination that quantum mechanics caused. We have a big problem—now perhaps less frequently discussed—of how to interpret these formulas of quantum mechanics so that our imagination can consume them. Some say that such interpretations are not needed at all because there are no contradictions in quantum mechanics. It’s a coherent, mathematical world, but just different.

And even if we can’t describe it in words...

... tough luck. Mathematics handles this well and that should be enough.

You asked if our imagination is shaped as science develops. When quantum mechanics, or the theory of relativity were created—in the case of the theory of relativity, this is certainly better studied historically—people had great difficulty understanding them. How to translate all these curvatures of space-time, temporal slowdowns, and other things into an understandable language, into images that would be acceptable. Heated debate ensued, but today third-year physics students no longer have a problem with it. Imagination became more malleable and has kept up with these discoveries. This is also an achievement of science, that it shapes our imagination.

What 19th-century scientist could have imagined a black hole? Well, one would have said it was madness and impossible. Today, we can see pictures of light bending, we’re told it’s a black hole, and nobody thinks it is madness.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Michał Heller. Photo courtesy of Grzegorz Jasiński
Michał Heller. Photo courtesy of Grzegorz Jasiński

Michał Heller:

Michał Heller is a scientist and Roman Catholic priest. A researcher of connections between philosophy, physics, and theology, he is recipient of numerous Polish and international awards, including the prestigious Templeton Prize.


Translated from the Polish by Agata Masłowska


This translation was re-edited for context and accuracy on November 17, 2022.

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