Presidential Address

Are We Special? – Science and Theology Questioning Human Uniqueness

Invitation for the Sixteenth European Conference on Science and Theology (EXST XVI)

Łódź – Warsaw, Poland

Human beings are that species among all animals which asks about its own existence. We are self-interpreting animals, developing cultural traditions to find answers for our quest for meaning. Both science and religion contribute to this quest, and both can promote or challenge the idea of human uniqueness. Where do we stand today, when we ask for the distinctiveness of humankind? How do we understand human beings in relation to the cosmos, to their fellow creatures, to the process of evolution, to the divine? How can we become what we are? Our conference will be looking for answers from different perspectives, and we are confident that our main speakers who come from different fields and backgrounds will provide inspiring insights.

We are happy and proud that the great Polish philosopher, an early member of ESSSAT (organizer of the ESSSAT conference in Krakow, Poland in 1996) and winner of the Templeton Prize 2008 Michael Heller has agreed to speak at our conference. As philosopher of science and logic, and as Catholic priest, he has developed original philosophical concepts on the origin and cause of the universe. Drawing from a wide range of sources like mathematics, philosophy, cosmology, and theology he will reflect on the question of human uniqueness against the background of scientific world-views.

David Wilkinson, Professor at the University of Durham and Principal of St. John’s College, has a background in theoretical astrophysics. He has worked on star formation, the chemical evolution of galaxies, and terrestrial mass extinctions such as the event which wiped out the dinosaurs. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and has published a wide range of papers on these subjects. After studying theology in Cambridge, he is pursuing his long interest in the dialogue of science and religion, especially as it impacts the physical sciences. He will introduce us to the question of life in the universe and the significance of the factual existence of the human species with reference to the conference theme.

Being one of the few women holding chairs of Dogmatics and Systematic Theology, theologian Johanna Rahner is professor at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She is now director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Interreligious Research, a research institute founded by Hans Küng in the 1960s and led by him for many years. She has studied theology as well as biology and has worked on questions of theological anthropology in relation to scientific models and related to a conceptual inter-religious dialogue. She will reflect on the question of human specificity against the background of scientific anthropology from a theological perspective.

Psychologist Jonathan Jong is working at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford as postdoctoral researcher and research coordinator. Most of his work is on the psychology of religion and the philosophical issues associated with the scientific study of religion. He is interested in the interaction between emotion and cognition and especially in the role of negative emotions (e.g., anxiety) in belief formation and maintenance, as well as in interrelations between ritual, community, and conflict. He will talk on issues at the intersection of cognitive and evolutionary studies of human behavior with regard to human specificity.

Geologist Reinhold Leinfelder from Berlin, Germany, represents a field of study and research rarely found at ESSSAT conferences. He holds a chair of Paleontology and Geology at the Free University, Berlin and is Principal Investigator at the Working Group on Geobiology and Anthropocene Research as well as at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at Munich University. He is a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). His current research interest focuses on the concept of the Anthropocene, which combines natural, social, cultural sciences, and the humanities to study the present state and future development of the Earth. He will speak about the proposal of the “Anthropocene,” the epoch that began when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s ecosystems.

As president of ESSSAT, I cordially invite all ESSSAT members and everyone interested to join us in our sixteenth conference in Łódź and Warsaw, Poland, from 26 April to 1 May 2016. With this, ESSSAT returns to a country which hosted one of ESSSAT’s first conferences in Kraków in 1996. Our local organizing committee (colleagues from Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University (UKSW) in Warsaw, our cooperation partner, under the leadership of Grzegorz Bugajak) is working hard to provide a stimulating venue and interesting programme around our conference. For most of the conference we will stay at the city of Łódź, the third-largest city in Poland and 125 km south-west of Poland’s capital Warsaw. Here the conference will be hosted by the local theological seminary which, we hope, can serve as a convenient and central convention centre close to the inner city. During the conference, we will also spend a full day in Warsaw. Łódź is easily reachable from Warsaw international airport (local bus or train to Warsaw Central Station, then 70 min. by train), but has also a small local airport with a few international flights, e.g. from the UK.

Since the 19th century, Łódź has been a centre of textile industries and has been deeply influenced by Four Cultures: the Polish, Jewish, German and Russian inhabitants, who contributed to the rich and diverse cultural background of the city; the people of Łódź are beginning to appreciate this typically European diversity, and to celebrate it with many international festivals. With three universities, Łódź is now one of the centres for higher academic education in the country. It also hosts the Polish National Film, Television and Theatre School. Among the best known graduates are: Krzysztof Kieślowski, Roman Polański, Krzysztof Zanussi, Jerzy Skolimowski and Andrzej Wajda. Just as on Hollywood Boulevard, one can find the Polish Walk of Fame on Piotrkowska Street in Łódź. Our conference venue will be in walking distance from the inner city, with many pubs, restaurants, clubs, shopping centres and cafes.


Dirk Evers, University of Halle-Wittenberg (Germany)

ECST XVI Are We Special?

ECST XVI Are We Special?