Some of the world's most renowned scholars, in fields as diverse as astrophysics, philosophy, and religious studies, will convene on the Yale campus October 6-9 to ponder the most fundamental existential question of all: "Why Is There Anything in the Universe?"
The idea for a conference to discuss a philosophical question that has perplexed great minds throughout the ages grew out of an informal conversation and debate over a cup of coffee between Yale professors Priyamvada Natarajan, a cosmologist in the Astronomy department, and Denys Turner, who teaches in the department of Religious Studies and the Yale Divinity School and is the author of "Eros and Allegory" and "The Darkness of God," among other titles. Michael Della Rocca, a metaphysician who teaches at the philosophy department, soon joined the effort. James van Pelt, who co-founded Yale's Initiative in Religion, Science & Technology, was enlisted to coordinate the ambitious, quintessentially trans-disciplinary program, which now includes a stellar roster of physical scientists, theologians and philosophers.
The conference is organized around four principal questions: How and why did this Universe come to exist? What is Time? Is the Universe unique? Is there a Creator, and if not what are the alternatives?
Among the speakers are Sir Martin Rees, Britain's most eminent cosmologist and astrophysicist; Bernard Carr, professor of mathematics and astronomy at Queen Mary, University of London, noted for his edited volume "Universe or Multiverse?"; George F.R. Ellis, University of Cape Town-based cosmologist and a leader in the emerging field of theology and science; Julian Barbour, British physicist and author, most notably, of "The End of Time"; and Michael Heller, a professor at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Cracow, Poland, and a staff member of the Vatican Observatory. The conference roster also includes the renowned philosophers of physics Tim Maudlin from New York University and David Albert from Columbia and the metaphysician and philosopher of religion Dean Zimmerman from Rutgers.
"Such a confluence of diverse and accomplished scholars presents a unique opportunity for conversations that may or may not converge," notes Natarajan, who is best known professionally for her work on exotica in the universe - dark matter, dark energy and black holes. While the Yale cosmologist, who also has a background in the history and philosophy of science, doesn't expect a consensus to emerge, even on whether the title question of the conference is answerable, she does hope it will clarify the "how," "what" and "why" questions we can ask about the Universe from different disciplinary directions. "We may all respectfully agree to disagree, but that's okay," she says.
Turner agrees. "This conference has an entirely open agenda," he says. "The question it addresses, ‘Why anything?' is open not only to a variety of answers. It is open to a variety of meanings, and the almost unique value of the conference lies in the willingness of eminent academics from our three disciplines, unused to such intense interaction with one another, to come together, without axes to grind, and simply to explore the possibilities of conversation."
Della Rocca welcomes the new-found attention to such fundamental questions in philosophy and related fields. "For far too long philosophers have avoided the truly fundamental questions such as ‘Why is there anything?' It is my hope that by bringing philosophers, scientists and theologians together we will be able to rejuvenate interest in these questions and, perhaps to discover new ones."
Although only the keynote session will be open to the public, the events will be streamed online. Go to the "Why Is There Anything?" website for more information.
The keynote session on Saturday evening takes place at Yale's Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall St., at 8 p.m. Following a public talk by Lord Rees, titled "From big bangs to biospheres — and beyond" there will be a moderated discussion. Responding from their diverse perspectives will be Kit Fine (New York University, Philosophy and Mathematics), Frank Griffel (Yale, Islamic Studies), Arvind Sharma (McGill, Comparative Religion), and Douglas Stone (Yale, Applied Physics and Physics). There will be an opportunity after the discussion for audience members to participate.
The conference is supported by Yale Divinity School and a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
Members of the press are invited to attend any or all of the sessions. Interviews with Professors Natarajan, Della Rocca or Turner may be arranged in advance.