Exploring the History of Science and Religion: An Interview with Job Kozhamthadam

PhD student

Job Kozhamthadam at the University of Maryland in the 1980s

Few today acknowledge the role of religion in the development of modern science and technology. But scholars have shown that religion has actively contributed to the rise of modern science. Joseph Satish sat down to discuss this and other matters with the award-winning historian and philosopher of science, Job Kozhamthadam.

Kozhamthadam is one of a unique breed of scholars who specialize in the history and philosophy of science – unique, because he also happens to be a Catholic Jesuit priest. His journey from a young boy in a nondescript town in South India to being acclaimed as a pioneer in the history of science and religion in India is interesting and inspiring.

Kozhamthadam is a Professor of Science and Cosmology at Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, India. He was previously a Visiting Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science at Loyola University, Chicago. He completed his PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. His first book, The Discovery of Kepler’s Laws: The Interaction of Science, Philosophy, and Religion (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994) was named Outstanding Academic Book of the Year 1994 by Choice Magazine. His other books include East-West Interface Of Reality: A Scientific And Intuitive Inquiry Into The Nature Of Reality (2003), Science, Technology And Values: Science-Religion Dialogue In A Multi-Religious World (2003) and Science, Mysticism And East-West Dialogue (2016). He founded the Indian Institute of Science and Religion (IISR) in 1999.

Joseph Satish (University of Hyderabad, India)

JOSEPH SATISH: When did you first encounter the Jesuits in your life?

JOB KOZHAMTHADAM: My first encounter with Jesuit priests began around 1960 when I joined an apostolic school in Allepey (a town in the south Indian state of Kerala). This school was run by the Jesuits and I took a liking to them very quickly – they seemed very different from the Diocesan priests I knew previously. I think I liked them because of their depth of knowledge and breadth of information.

SATISH: When did you decide to become a Jesuit yourself?

KOZHAMTHADAM: I am inclined to say that many of the important decisions and events in my life came as surprises, which I believe were guided by the Holy Spirit. In the Syro-Malabar tradition of the Catholic Church in Kerala, it was very common for the first son in the family to become a priest. However, my family did not tell me to become one.

In primary school, I was good at my studies and one of my teachers in the fourth standard took a special interest in me. She used to call me after class and suggest to me that I become a priest because she felt that I had something within me which I could use to contribute to society. Incidentally, the teacher happened to be a niece of Blessed Kunjachen (a priest who worked for the welfare of oppressed Dalits in Kerala and who was beatified by the Pope in 2006).

When I was about to complete high school and had to decide about continuing my Jesuit training for the priesthood, I chose to remain with the Jesuits and joined the novitiate. I was instructed to join the Patna province in the north Indian state of Bihar to be trained by the American Jesuits who had come to India as missionaries from Missouri, Chicago and Detroit.

SATISH: When and how did you get interested in studying the history and philosophy of science?

KOZHAMTHADAM: The American Jesuits in Patna were strict alright, but they were open minded and liberal. They also helped me discover some of my talents. I was surprised to find I had leadership qualities when I was made the beadle (leader) of the novices, even though I was the youngest among them.

I also became more curious; whenever I saw something that I could not explain, I tried to understand and explain it. I think I always liked physics because I thought it helped to unlock the mysteries of nature. So I opted for Physics in my undergraduate degree and stood first in the University of Ranchi in 1969.

My superiors decided to send me for my Master’s in Physics, even before I did my training in philosophy. After finishing my Master’s and then philosophy training in Pune, I realized that I had an aptitude for physics – astronomy, in particular. Later, I went to Delhi for my training in theology and began exploring possibilities for pursuing doctoral studies in physics.

One of the priests who knew me well, and knew of my performance as a student of philosophy and of science, asked me if I had thought of blending the two. He suggested that merging these two could be a novel way to make a contribution as a priest. I did have an interest in exploring the interface between science and religion, but his suggestion got me thinking about whether I could pursue this. So I decided against pursuing a PhD in Physics.

In the meantime, the seminary in Pune was looking for someone to teach the philosophy of science and cosmology. So even as a scholastic, I began teaching basic science and the philosophy of science to my younger scholastic-companions in the seminary. Soon after I was ordained as a Jesuit priest, I was sent by my superiors to the United States to pursue a PhD in the history and philosophy of science in 1978.

SATISH: How was your experience of studying in the US?

KOZHAMTHADAM: I first did my Master’s in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame in the US. It was the 1980s and I encountered three main schools in the history and philosophy of science – logical positivism, historicism and historical realism – each with its own group of opponents and proponents. I was keen to pursue my PhD in a university department where the staff also had a background in physics like me. Given this criterion, my first choice was University of Maryland, College Park. I was selected and offered a generous scholarship. Those days, only a handful of universities offered a doctoral program in the history and philosophy of science and I was delighted to get in there. The university facilities and the department faculty helped me to do well in my studies, and also to maintain my interest in the interface between science and religion. Studying in the Washington, DC area was also a great learning experience.

SATISH: What led you to pursue your doctoral research on Johannes Kepler? (Johannes Kepler [1571-1630] was a German mathematician and astronomer best known for his laws of planetary motion, which were one of the foundations for Isaac Newton’s [1642-1727] theory of universal gravitation.

KOZHAMTHADAM: I was intrigued by Kepler and his discoveries. In one sense, Kepler’s laws were the first scientific laws to be discovered in the era of “modern science”. Besides being a pioneer of empirical science, he also had strong philosophical and religious interests. Around the time I was in Maryland, I read some brief papers which suggested that Kepler had to use all three – empirical data, philosophical ideas and religious inputs – to make his discoveries. This got me thinking and I began reading the many volumes of archived material about and by Kepler. As I was reading and reflecting on this, sure enough I realized that I had a good case to establish: that Kepler’s process of discovery was a result not just of his scientific abilities – he was a mathematical genius and had the most accurate observational data of the pre-telescopic observational genius Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) – but also his philosophical and religious ideas.

SATISH: How was your dissertation received?

KOZHAMTHADAM: In my research, I was able to identify all three elements (empirical, philosophical and religious) in Kepler’s process of discovery, and I divided these into a sequence of different steps. At each step, I was able to show the interplay between Kepler’s science, his philosophical and religious ideas, and that each step was crucial for him to proceed towards the climax of his discovery. Of course, I supported my thesis with quotes from Kepler and other archival evidence.

Kepler book

The Discovery of Kepler’s Laws (Univ of Notre Dame Press, 1994)

Logical positivists were still very strong in the eighties, and it was a great source of encouragement for me when my examiners approved the thesis and recommended it for publication. After the book was published, the book was named one of the Outstanding Academic Books of the Year 1994 by Choice Magazine (published by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association).  The book was reviewed favourably by many historians of science, including Richard Westfall. More than anything, this positive reception to my book confirmed that a commitment to science-religion dialogue was a mission worth pursuing.

SATISH: In your book, you refer to Kepler wanting to read the “mind of God”. How do you think scientists engage with this idea today?

KOZHAMTHADAM: Reading the mind of God is a metaphorical way of referring to the special role of science in revealing the hidden laws and facts of nature – and it can be understood in many different ways. Even the late Stephen Hawking, who did not believe in the existence of God, talks about the role of the scientist as one of “knowing the mind of God” in his book, A Brief History of Time.

The idea of a personal God continues to be controversial in science and for scientists today. But they understand their scientific work as a kind of mission to discover the secrets of nature. They may not want to talk about it as “reading the mind of God” in the way Kepler understood it, but many scientists seem to have faith in the idea of God as an ultimate cause of this universe. The scientists who believe in a personal God understand nature as a manifestation of God’s mind or God’s wisdom – of course, this comes through religious faith, which not all scientists may have.

SATISH: As a religious priest and a historian and philosopher of science, have you encountered any dilemmas whilst unravelling facts of history, particularly with regards to the history of the Catholic Church?

KOZHAMTHADAM: I would say yes and no to this difficult and personal query. As a Catholic priest, I have found things in the course of my academic work that have upset me – but they did not unsettle me. Even when I began my studies in the US, I was warned by several senior priests of the cases of gifted Jesuit scholars who began their pursuit in the history and philosophy of science, but ended, unfortunately, as agnostics or atheists.

I think some priests, particularly, in the Anglo-American world found this interdisciplinary approach difficult because they followed a two-valued logic: true/false, black/white. On the other hand, coming from an Indian philosophical and cultural background, I went by the logic of ‘Yes, but’ without looking for strict, logical compartments about matters of faith. Coming from a Syro-Malabar Catholic family background, a very observant bent of mind and deep faith-experience, all helped me to keep a balance between what the human can understand and what it has to concede as mysterious but real.

Yet, as I said, I did find many contradictions in the past history of the Church and in some current happenings but these did not unsettle me to the point of weakening my faith. I do believe that the Church is divine, but it is also made of a strong human element. I am committed to God and to Christ in my work as a historian and philosopher of science, and my mission keeps me convinced and committed to a healthy complementary relationship between the Catholic Church and modern science.

While writing academically, particularly on inter-religious relations or science-religion dialogue, some of my ideas may be considered unorthodox by certain groups of people. But I write mostly as a scholar in the field of the history and philosophy of science, not as an official theologian. And like the Jesuit geologist and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), some of my ideas may also be considered ahead of our time. That is why I feel so very happy and encouraged by some of the views of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), particularly those related to modern science.  In fact, I consider Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council and Pope Francis taken together, as divine providence asserting itself and enlightening the official thinking of the Catholic Church! Observations of this kind give me the strength – without in any way undervaluing the importance of other religions, to believe that of all the religious traditions in the world today the Catholic Church is best equipped to engage in a creative and constructive dialogue between modern science and genuine religion.

SATISH: Considering that you are trained in the history and philosophy of science in the Western tradition, how did you prepare yourself to explore Eastern traditions in science and religion?

KOZHAMTHADAM: I had my training to some extent in the history of science and religion in the Western tradition. And the West has engaged rather seriously with the interface between science and religion over the past few decades. Practically every month has seen a new book being published and bringing forth something new. While this is good and a wonderful contribution to the dialogue, I think it has remained too academic.

For me personally, science-religion dialogue is not just an intellectual exercise, it should touch and transform the life of a person. The dialogue could take an academic form alright, but that is only one aspect of it. One of my ambitions is to develop a methodology for an integrated version of science and religion dialogue – one that will touch and transform the person, and make a real difference in his/her life and interaction with fellow humans, not just strengthen one’s intellectual abilities. No doubt, this is a little too ambitious, even idealistic, but I am convinced, like the prophetic view of Alfred North Whitehead, that this will in a significant way determine the future of humanity and the cosmos.

To this end, I think that the Eastern traditions of science and religion need to be explored further. The Eastern wing of this dialogue has to be developed similar to the Western wing. In Indian Hindu philosophy, Aham Brahmasmi (“I am God”) refers to the unity of the self with God – that is a blending of the spiritual with the material. I think such traditional insights point the way towards a harmonious blending of the latest findings of science and the deepest insights of religion, towards building a more humane world.

SATISH: Given your focus on bridging science and religion, and being a Jesuit priest, would you differentiate between a “secular” and a Jesuit historian of science?

KOZHAMTHADAM: History is basically a reconstruction of past human heritage with the intention of benefiting from the wisdom of past experience to build up a better tomorrow. A “secular” historian would be focused with developing that reconstruction. In addition to doing that, I as a Jesuit, would also aspire to see what may be called the invisible hand of the divine in this. This is part of the “Jesuitness” in me because St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, intended that Jesuits should try to “see God in all things”. This has become a part of me and I think that this distinguishes the Jesuit historian from other historians. A Jesuit historian would try to discover the divine while reconstructing the past.

Job SJ

Job Kozhamthadam at a recent conference

SATISH: What inspired you to establish the Indian Institute for Science and Religion?

KOZHAMTHADAM: When Teilhard de Chardin introduced ideas that bridged science and theology, he was discouraged from doing so. Pursuing academic research on topics related to this science-religion dialogue remained unpopular when I was in the US (1970s-80s). But things started changing gradually when some historians began to explore the broader and deeper dimensions of science. I also participated in some initiatives that were being launched in the US to explore the possibility of a constructive confluence of science and religion. To mention a few: the Centre for Theology and Natural Sciences (CTNS) in Berkeley, the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology (ITEST) in Missouri, and the Annual Cosmos and Creation Conferences in Maryland.

When I returned to India to teach Basic Science, Cosmology and Philosophy of Science to the seminarians at Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth (JDV) in Pune, I developed a course on science and religion. The course was well received by students and received an award from the Templeton Foundation in 1997. With the collaboration of another Jesuit, Prof. Kuruvilla Pandikattu, I started the Association for Science, Society and Religion (ASSR) in JDV.

ASSR succeeded in its mission of promoting an interest in science and religion among the seminarians, but it was restricted to JDV and to Pune. In 1999, I received another award which helped to launch the Indian Institute of Science and Religion (ISSR) with a broader national agenda: To blend harmoniously and creatively the latest findings of modern science and the deepest insights of religions to build up a better humanity and a better cosmos, and for us Indians, a better India in the multi-religious, multicultural and multiracial fabric of India. IISR now has a nationwide network with regional centres, each with varying levels of success.

SATISH: Can you tell us something about your current project?

KOZHAMTHADAM: I am currently working on an ambitious multi-volume project on Jesuit contributions to modern science. Many books have been written on what has come to be known as “Jesuit science”, but so far a critical insider’s view is largely missing. For example, why did the Jesuits take up science in a spontaneous and widespread way so much so that William Ashworth calls it the “scientific order of the Catholic Church”? Why did Jesuit scientists continue to subscribe to the geo-centrism of Aristotle, though there is good evidence to suggest that many Jesuit scientists saw the merit and superiority of the helio-centrism of Copernicus? Again, it has been observed that in general, originality and creativity were relatively low in Jesuit science, although in several other fields the Jesuits were noted for their creativity. I hope to clarify these and related issues in the proposed book.

Finally, it is also my personal tribute to my Jesuit brothers because many of them have done wonderful work in the field of science but never spoke about themselves or their work. It is long overdue that the selfless, pioneering works of these men be made public. They will be a permanent source of inspiration to others, particularly younger Jesuits.

SATISH: As a pioneer of science-religion dialogue in India, what skills would you expect from a student exploring the history of science and religion?

KOZHAMTHADAM: Students in the history of science should first learn that there is no “pure” history. The logical positivist understanding of science, as a mere accumulation of facts and figures, is no longer tenable. Today, history is written with a perspective, and hence identifying it and responding to it appropriately is the distinguishing mark of a good scholar. Secondly, students need to develop a perspective of their own – a perspective that is developed in a responsible, well-informed and balanced way. Without such a perspective, students will find it difficult to connect a mass of scattered data from their research. One should also ensure that this perspective is as objective and as unbiased as possible. I say, ‘as much as’ because some personal bias will indeed come in. But being critical of one’s own work will help maintain balance. Thirdly, a good historian should be open-minded when it comes to the sources. The Upanishads (part of the Hindu philosophy) instruct that one should be open to the truth wherever it comes from, as long as it is truth. Such an openness also demands flexibility towards one’s own ideas. As science continues to reveal more details about our world, the scientist cannot afford to be rigid about what may be known tomorrow. In other words, I may be convinced of an idea today and subscribe to it, but tomorrow a new idea may come along. It is a sign of the richness of reality and the limitedness of humans to fathom it fully. It is important (for the historian of science) to note that this is not a sign of weakness, but of a readiness to be at the service of discovering the truth.

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