During most weeks during the academic year, the Tech Catholic Community holds some sort of educational event. We usually have a major lecture once a month, about which more below. On other weeks, we hold "Tech Catholic Talks" on Mondays after Mass, which are either student-led discussions on topics of interest (often a lecture held recently), or else Fr. Moloney or perhaps another guest speaker will give a talk on some topic chosen by the TCC Council, particularly the Education Chairs. Please contact the Education Chairs if you have any ideas for future talks.
TCC-Sponsored Lectures at MIT
The Tech Catholic Community tends to sponsor major lectures about once a month, in cooperation with the Thomistic Institute chapter at MIT and through the Catherine McLaughlin Hakim Lecture and Education Fund. Many of these talks are available online on the TI SoundCloud page. A playlist of MIT-specific talks can be accessed here.
We’ve curated a few of them here, that are perhaps especially applicable to MIT’s audience:
“God, Beauty, and Mathematics”
Speaker: Prof. Alexander Pruss, Baylor University
Professor Pruss gave a terrific talk at MIT asking the questions: 1) What are mathematical concepts such that they can apply to the real world outside our minds? and 2) How can mathematics be beautiful? and suggesting that the existence and creative activity of God is the best answer to both of these questions. You can tell this is an MIT audience when the speaker makes a joke about mathematical functions, and some people actually laugh…
“What’s So Special about the Universe? Multiverse theory and the existence of God”
Speaker: Dr. Stephen M. Barr, Bartol Research Institute
Dr. Barr gave a lecture at MIT on how the universe appears to be teleological, which is to say, that the universe’s laws and structure seem to have a purpose: that human life be possible. The chances of the physical constants of the universe falling within the narrow range necessary to sustain human life are impossibly small. This observation is often called “anthropic coincidences”, and is evidence from within particle physics strongly suggesting that the universe is designed for human life. The counter-suggestion is that there are multiple universes with different physical laws (or that our one universe has multiple “regions” with different physical laws), which means that it might be plausible that our part of the universe with its human-friendly physical laws did arise randomly. But, Prof. Barr argues, the multiverse theory in its most plausible forms doesn’t remove the anthropic coincidences, leaving it still likely that the most fundamental principles of the physical universe are organized so that human life might exist.
Human Distinctiveness Series on animal and machine “intelligence”
Classical philosophy and theology argue that rationality and intelligence makes us better than the animals and distinctive among all God’s creatures. Of all the rational beings, only man shares a material body with animals; while of all the material beings, only man shares an immaterial rational intelligence with the angels and with God. When Genesis says that we are made in God’s image, it refers to our intelligence. But today people want to argue that machines either are or can be intelligent, and that nonhuman animals already demonstrate intelligence. We sponsored two lectures which defended the distinctiveness of human intelligence from these two directions:
“Can Machines be Intelligent?”
Speaker: Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology
Fr. Ramelow argues that if we don’t just use the phrase “artificial intelligence” as a sales pitch or a metaphor, but actually think that machines can be intelligent in the way that humans are, that would create serious intellectual problems: 1) For many people, it would imply that the human mind (as the locus of intelligence and thinking and understanding) is nothing more than the human brain (the physical organ), and therefore we don’t have immaterial souls; 2) In any case, it would necessarily imply that there’s nothing in human thinking and understanding that cannot be reduced to the linear, mechanical computations of which computers are capable. If #2 is false, it gives good reason for thinking that #1 is also false. And few philosophers think that #2 is true.
- Audio (our recording was corrupted, but this links to an earlier version of the talk)
“Are Animals Intelligent?”
Speaker: Prof. Marie George, St. John’s University:
Many researchers working with (nonhuman) animals claim that they can learn to talk or make deductions or display other symptoms of higher intelligence. By carefully attending to such experiments, Prof. George shows that they don’t quite prove what they’re trying to prove. Animals can do many impressive things, but they remain only at the level of instinct, or of sense memories, or some level of mental activity short of true abstract thinking. Humans, on the other hand, have an innate capacity to abstract from what their senses tell them, which sets them apart by nature from the rest of animals.
“How are the creation accounts in Genesis compatible with science?”
Speaker: Prof. Sarah Byers, Boston College
The Nicene Creed says that God created all that is visible and invisible. The “invisible” part of God’s creation refers to the angels, who are immaterial beings and thus not visible. But the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention the creation of angels—or does it? In this fantastic lecture, Prof. Byers walks us through St. Augustine’s “literal” commentary on the creation account of Genesis 1. Augustine uses the traditional reading of the early Church Fathers that the creation of light and the subsequent separation of the light from the darkness (before the creation of the sun) refers: 1) to the creation of the angels and then 2) to the casting out of Satan and the other disobedient angels after their sin. From that premise, and with a whole lot of theology about angels, Augustine argues that the universe began in time, it was with something like a Big Bang, and with something like evolution.
“Just War Theory, Catholic Ethics, and the STEM Career”
Speaker: Prof. Joseph Capizzi, The Catholic University of America
A lot of researchers in science, technology, and engineering get their funding from sources, such as the Department of Defense, with which they might have moral disagreements. Professor Capizzi’s talk addressed how the traditional Catholic teaching about just wars affects the moral analysis for working with the Department of Defense, and how that in turn should affect researchers’ analysis about whether they are cooperating in evil. If not all wars are evil, then it’s not always evil to cooperate with the DoD. But does that mean it never is?
"Human Genome Editing with CRISPR: Ethical Considerations from a Catholic Perspective"
Speaker: Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP (MIT PhD ’96) Professor of Biology and Theology, Providence College
The CRISPR (Clustered Regular Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat)-Cas9 system is a technique (developed at MIT) that allows scientists to quickly and precisely change the DNA of nearly any organism, including humans. Unlike other gene-editing technologies, CRISPR is cheap, quick, and easy to use. In fact, do-it-yourself CRISPR genome editing kits are available online for less than $200, which will enable anyone, including so-called biohackers, to do genetic engineering at the kitchen table. It works on adult cells, and so doesn’t need to involve the destruction of embryos, thereby avoiding a bioethics problem typical of other gene editing techniques. So, it’s all good, right? Not so fast, says Fr. Austriaco; it turns out there are ethical problems built into the very idea of gene-editing. Why are we doing the editing? Is it a therapeutic reason (to correct imperfections in their genes or cure a genetic defect)? In that case, Catholic bioethics insists that we should treat people as intrinsically worthwhile, and so should make them as healthy as possible. But if is it for enhancement purposes (to augment human capacities, to make human beings talented in a particular way), then there might be a problem: the genetically-enhanced humans that CRISPR also makes possible would be valued extrinsically, for their enhancements, and that’s ethically problematic.
The TCC also has a subscription to FORMED.ORG.
Just visit TCC.Formed.org to enjoy access to a host of Catholic educational resources.