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You Say Ontology, I Say Ontogeny

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 11, 2007

Don’t know what ontology is? How about ontogeny? Of course maybe you don’t care. But even those ill equipped by interest, aptitude or education to deal with these concepts can be glad that the Church is not ignoring them.

The Pontifical Council for Culture coordinates an ongoing project called Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest (STOQ). Ontology (did you say you didn’t know?) is the study of being, the nature of being, what it means to “be”. For example, the presuppositions of a materialist would suggest that “being” for humans is essentially the sum total of random material processes. A Christian, however, would give a very different account of being.

The STOQ project grew out of Pope John Paul II’s establishment of a pontifical commission to study the Galileo case (starting in 1981), and it gathered steam over the years as a means of bringing scholars together from around the world in a mutual exploration of vital human questions. One of the high points was the Jubilee of Scientists sponsored by the Vatican in 2000. Along the way, six pontifical universities in Rome as well as other European universities have participated heavily in the project, which is funded primarily by the John Templeton Foundation.

This week, the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Paul Poupard, unveiled the first four volumes published under STOQ auspices. These include:

  • Some Mathematical Physics for Philosophers by Michael Heller, an overview of the mathematical methods used in modern physics;
  • Life and Organisms by Pietro Ramellini, a collection of the various definitions of living organisms developed over the past 200 years since biology became a science;
  • A collection of essays by the participants in a workshop at the Pontifical Gregorian University on the relationship between science and philosophy;
  • A collection of essays by the participants in a workshop at the Regina Apostolorum university on the concepts of life and organism.

In addition, STOQ sponsors an exchange program among professors and students from various universities, which has drawn participants from 56 countries. STOQ has sponsored 70 conferences and a dozen workshops, along with an international congress in 2005 on “Infinity in Science, Philosophy and Theology” which brought together more than 3,000 participants. Some 1400 students are expected to participate in STOQ programs over the next three years, and another international conference is scheduled for November 2007 on “Ontogenesis and Human Life”.

Onto-what? Ontogenesis, otherwise known as ontogeny, is the process of organic development in a living thing from a simple to a more complex state. The ontogeny of an organism is closely related to its ontology. Applied to ourselves, both areas of study address the question of what it means to be human. The Church is trying very hard to both participate in and help shape this discussion. Whether or not you have any patience with the “O” words yourself, the Church does, which is not only fascinating, but a very good thing.

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