Profile of Michael Heller

Profile of Michael Heller (award Templeton 2008)

Author: Javier Sánchez Cañizares
Published in: Aceprensa
date of on-line publication: 25 May 2008

The award Templeton, which recognises a living person who has made particularly relevant contributions to the spiritual dimension of reality through his or her research, was awarded this year to the Polish priest Michael Heller.

Michał Kazimierz Heller (Tarnów 1936) is currently professor of Philosophy at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Kraków, where he has been working since 1972 and Dean the School of Theology in Tarnów. Since 1981 he has been an associate member of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory and since 1991 he has been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Born into a deeply religious family, Heller and his parents endured German and Russian domination, including deportation to Siberia for six years. Even after returning to Poland, his father suffered various persecutions by the communist authorities after his son decided to join seminar room.

Heller studied at the Catholic University of Lublin and was ordained a priest in 1959. He holds doctorates in theology (1959), Philosophy (1965) and physics (1966) from this university. From the 1960s onwards, he joined the archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, to participate in the group interdisciplinary discussion of science, Philosophy and theology created by the future John Paul II. Despite Heller's growing fame in Poland and abroad, he was not granted the opportunity to leave the country until the mid-1970s, when he received financial aid from the now Cardinal Wojtyła to finance his first trips.

Heller's father, an electrical and mechanical engineer with a lifelong interest in fundamental theoretical questions, had a great influence on the laureate's vocation for research. He undoubtedly inspired the love of science in his son, who for more than forty years has developed an original exploration of the origin and cause of the universe and has published several books and hundreds of articles on general relativity and cosmology, as well as Philosophy, theology and the relationship between science and theology.

Throughout his research degree program , the Polish priest has worked on issues such as the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics, multiverse theories and their limits and geometrical methods in relativistic physics, as well as on various aspects of Philosophy and history of science. However, his specific field of research is the singularity problem in general relativity. Heller tries to explain the mathematical nature of the various types of singularity that appear in cosmology and resorts to the use of non-commutative geometries in order to avoid the problem of an initial cosmological singularity at the origin of the universe. At the same time, he argues that non-commutative geometry would be a more fundamental level of physical structure, capable of providing a unified description of relativistic and quantum physics.

Nevertheless, his continuing concern with fundamental questions and his efforts to offer a unitary perspective on reality, known to the sciences and created by God, ultimately earned him the award Templeton Award.

Heller has always been in favour of doing Philosophy in the context of science. Well acquainted with the classical Philosophy from his early years of training , he became convinced that there could be no Philosophy of nature separate from the natural sciences and the philosophical consideration of the scientific method, to the point of considering that the Structures of current mathematical physics are not a mere theoretical construction in order to make certain predictions, but that they reveal the structure of the world.

According to Heller, the importance of mathematics in today's science is enormous. Basic physics turns out to be mathematical physics. It is a science of structure, of how particular elements of identical Structures can be deduced from each other and how Structures are related to each other by various kinds of inference. Through it, mathematics, we can penetrate the inner structure of the universe, which is otherwise inaccessible to the human eye.

Thus, "nature is modelled with the financial aid of formal Structures , and the essence of formal Structures (...) is that they are composed of a complete hierarchy of essential and non-essential connections. (...) One arrives at a relevant knowledge of nature not by thinking about the nature of existence but through mathematical models of what can be measured". Therefore, the current Philosophy of nature should today be Philosophy of relativistic cosmology. Because of the necessary extrapolations and interpretations of the different theories, cosmology challenges and involves Philosophy.

Heller rejects the dichotomy between theory and experience, as well as methodological isolation, which emphasises the dissimilarity of the areas of scientific, philosophical and theological knowledge , instead of emphasising their deep fundamental unity. For him, without prejudice to the autonomy of each science, the scientific method is not monolithic; we need to continuously reflect on it. It has its limits, but they can be overcome with epistemological progress. It is in cosmology today that the instability of the boundary between science, Philosophy and theology is most clearly manifested.

Starting from the supremacy of an ideal mathematical superstructure (a formal field or field of 'rationality') over the subject, his thought leads to the traditional idea of a transcendent God who, on the other hand, is the creative origin, the ground of being, from which the space-time of the created world arises. Heller explains his position thus in the lecture reception of award: "The processes of the universe can be visualised as a succession of states in such a way that the preceding state is the cause of the following (...). There is always a dynamic law that prescribes how one state generates another. But dynamic laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations; therefore, if we wonder about the cause of the universe, we should wonder about the cause of mathematical laws. In doing so, we return to the great project of God thinking the universe, the question of ultimate causality (...): 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' In asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like others. We are asking about the root of all possible causes".

With his work, the Polish priest has relaunched the discussion on the necessity of a cause for the universe and places the traditional Christian conception of the universe in a wider cosmological context. He is one of the initiators of what we can nowadays call the 'theology of science'. Heller has expressed his wish to devote the substantial financial endowment of the award to the establishment of the 'Copernicus' centre, together with the Jagiellonian University and the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow, for the research and Education in science and theology as an academic discipline of its own.