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Aug 11 Deep Ethics Cosmology - George Ellis

Today in 1939 George Francis Rayner Ellis was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is now the emeritus distinguished professor of complex systems in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and is considered one of the world's leading theorists in cosmology. A Cosmologist and Quaker, he was the inaugural president of the International Society for Science and Religion & has been awarded the $1.1 million dollar Templeton Prize for advocating balancing the rationality of evidence-based science with faith and hope.


Inspired by his first-hand experiences in South Africa as it peacefully transformed from apartheid to multi-racial democracy without succumbing to racial civil war (see pod of Apr 15). Ellis describes that history as a “confounding of the calculus of reality” that can only be explained as the causal effect of forces beyond the explanation of hard science, including issues such as aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and meaning. He became internationally famous for co-authoring The Large-Scale Structure of Space-Time with Stephen Hawking, which was very influential in the development of General Relativity Theory and a standard reference work on the subject. Using mathematics, it Includes their famous singularity theorems for classical relativity theory, and some important theorems on the nature of black holes. Because of its abbreviated presentation of difficult topics, students often referred to it as the Yellow Peril. Ellis has dedicated his academic career into exploring whether or not there was a start to the universe, and also if there is one universe or many, the evolution of complexity, and the functioning of the human mind, as well as the intersection of these issues with areas beyond the boundaries of science.

However, his experiences of Apartheid in South Africa took him out of this abstract realm of pure mathematics and cosmology. As a Quaker, he was deeply committed to social justice, involved in various projects supporting those suffering from the racist policies in South Africa and so was profoundly affected by the peaceful transition to a post-apartheid world. He used the term “kenotic ethics” to speak of a way of bringing wholeness to people, systems and nations. The Greek word, “kenosis” means “emptying, thus a “kenotic” God, is a God who empties Himself to suffer with, suffer for, and suffer through in a non self-preserving manner. For Ellis, a committed Quaker, Jesus Christ was the primary model of this ethic, and models the nature of God in his life, death and Lordship. In history, Gandhi, Mandela, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and many others have followed the way of kenotic ethics, and have shown it to be the most powerful form of healing available in the world. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote extensively about the kenotic character of Christology ( see pod of Aug 8)

He became more and more interested in what he called the ‘science-religion-ethics triad,’ and the true nature of deep ethics. A moral realist, he believed that we discover ethics rather that inventing it. However uniquely, linking this to his cosmology, he has argued that this deep ethics is embedded in the universe, and will thus be discovered by deeply moral beings in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri or the Andromeda galaxy, just as it has been discovered by all major religions here on Earth. Some of his recent books, develops this. Before the Beginning, an introductory book on modern science and cosmology, stresses the limits of science, the relation of humanity to the universe, and the various possible metaphysical foundations for cosmology. It considers the possibility of a religious understanding of the existence of the cosmos, and it emphasises the significance of self-sacrificial (kenotic) ethics. Followed up by another book, titled, On The Moral Nature of the universe: Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics, he related the science and religion debate to ethics, and continues to make a proposal for ‘realist kenotic ethics’ based on an underlying purpose or ‘telos’ in the universe. The book includes a useful summary of cosmology and of the scientific understanding of the hierarchical structure of complex systems, and an analysis of the ethical suppositions underlying the social sciences. His ability to bring together different academic disciplines is in many ways innovative and reminiscent of theological luminaries such as Aquinas. The difference is that the bodies of knowledge that he is linking are much more specialised than in the 13 century. One of his quotations that could sit comfortably with the classic Summa - Ethics is causally effective and provides the highest level of values that set human goals and choices. Consequently, a crucial issue is the origin of ethics, on the one hand, and the nature of ethics, on the other. I am a moral realist, that is, I believe that we discover the true nature of ethics rather than inventing it. Indeed, it is only if ethics is of this nature that it has a truly moral character, that is, it represents a guiding light that we ought to obey.

He was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2004 (see podcast of July 8) and in a statement on receiving the prize he said We have developed a cosmological model which is both observationally viable and eternal – it has existed forever, and so never had a beginning. We are still exploring whether it can meet all observational constraints. So far, it has passed these tests. With other colleagues, I have been examining the issue of multiverses: is there only one universe, or is our universe but one of many, as some have suggested? Cosmology is at a very active and fruitful stage, and there are still many fascinating puzzles to resolve.


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