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UA professor clashes with skeptics

By Evan Pellegrino
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
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A UA professor found himself in the hot seat over the weekend during a discussion about science and religion, a topic that spurred debate between audience members and eventually cut the talk short, officials said.

Richard Poss, associate professor of astronomy, lectured to 50 members of a local grass-roots group of rationalists, skeptics and humanists at the main branch of the Tucson-Pima Public Library on Sunday.

Poss, who admitted that discussing science and religion always lends itself to a debate, first addressed areas of science. The audience, which comprised members of the Southern Arizona Center for Inquiry, was calm as Poss outlined promising areas of space exploration.

These areas specifically include finding new planets similar to Earth. So far scientists have discovered 154 planets around nearby stars, Poss said, and the number continues to rise as telescopes improve.

Within 1,000 years, a planet similar to Earth may be discovered orbiting a nearby star, said Poss, who added that the UA's extensive research in optics and space exploration makes it a main horse in the race to find a planet similar to Earth.

"We can do the math, there are plenty of planets out there," said Poss, adding that a discovery of this sort would promote more resources to science.

We live on a "pebble in a sky full of wonders," with not enough emphasis on science, Poss said.

Many audience members nodded as Poss explained the process that creates a solar system, saying the formation was a "normal process, not a miracle."

When Poss shifted his lecture from science to religion, however, hands shot up from the audience as their stance on religion clashed with Poss' views. The result was 25 minutes of back-and-forth questioning that caused the talk to be cut off early, said Jerry Karches, a CFI program chairman who organized the lecture.

The controversy began when Poss brought up the origins of the universe.

One idea of how the universe began is known as the big-bang theory, Poss said, which resulted in the formation of all matter, galaxies and our own solar system.

The universe's origin 13.7 billion years ago shouldn't be called an event or birth because of the associations those words carry, Poss said.

As far as scientists know, neither space nor time existed before the big bang, which Poss described as a rich scientific and philosophical idea.

Some questions, however, can only be answered through religion, Poss said, and sometimes it's best not to "dance between religion and science."

Poss called science an "activity," not a religion, and said religion may hold a purpose in answering questions that cannot be solved using the scientific method.

At this point, the audience members darted their hands in the air and began questioning Poss' argument and defending their own.

Poss used geometry and a triangle as an analogy for the idea of God, saying a perfect triangle only exists in an abstract world, yet many will argue that the shape is very real and holds truth and meaning, Poss said.

The audience of skeptics attempted to discount Poss' example until the lecture was cut short by Karches.

Poss said he was "attempting to clarify the proper domains of science and religion," not to debate.

Gary Mechler, a member of CFI and astronomy professor at Pima Community College, said he enjoyed Poss' thoughtful comments but said the lecture seemed "unfinished" because of the debates that commenced.

Mechler said the audience prevented Poss from tying together a conclusion he would have liked to hear.

"Some members of CFI have a negative stance towards religion," Mechler said. The CFI members who argued with Poss are "contentious" and "had an axe to grind," Mechler said.

The group's mission, however, is not to argue but to "defend reason and science," Karches said.

Poss said the main theme for the talk was "good fences make good neighbors," quoting Robert Frost.

In other words, Poss said, he believes some questions are best answered through religion and other questions are best answered through science.

Trying to answer a religious question through scientific means would be "unprofitable" and vice versa, Poss said.

Richard Johnson, a local chemist, said he attended the lecture because he saw Poss at the Student Union Memorial Center about a year ago and found his ideas interesting.

He said he finds the debate between science and religion stimulating and likes to hear it whenever it's presented.

Poss will speak at the St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center at the University of Arizona Sept. 28 at 7:30 pm.

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