“What is Life? On Earth and Beyond” with Andreas Losch
by Ciara Reyes & Andreas Losch
Francis Crick wrote in his book Of Molecules and Men that “the ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is…to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.” Is life just physics and chemistry as Crick implied, and is there “nothing buttery” involved, as Andreas Losch would put it?
Andreas Losch is a theologian who has been employed by scientists at the Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern in Switzerland and who has diverse training in faith and science, which includes a fellowship at the Center of Theological Inquiry, on Astrobiology. Recently, he compiled and published a collection of essays from scholars in various disciplines exploring the question of what life is, not only here on Earth, but also beyond.
The book, titled, What is Life? On Earth and Beyond is the product of a two-year project at Bern featuring essays written by experts in the fields of science, philosophy and theology. The book ends with a conclusion, followed by an unusual, yet intriguing, skeptical afterword. “You know, something like astrobiology is highly interesting and quite a broad field; one can even discuss if it has a subject at all.” Andreas continues, “life on Earth is part of astrobiology, so there’s the issue of the origin of life. While it is obvious that life is existing here, we don’t know if life exists elsewhere for now.”
For Andreas, life is indeed physics and chemistry as Crick implied, but not only physical chemistry: “It’s true, but there’s more. Life has a historical dimension—there’s evolution, the key to understanding life…its physics and chemistry with a history, and additionally a special relationship of its individual constituents.” Andreas shares that for him as a theologian, “life on top of that needs a very special relation to its creator – which is of course a transcendent one. One can only believe (because) one cannot prove this, but true belief involves doubt as well anyways.”
As a theologian who has worked alongside scientists studying exoplanets, Andreas has a rich background when it comes to thinking about what two fields like science and theology can learn from one another, and even how they can work together to answer a question like, “What is Life?” Andreas believes that science can teach theologians like himself how to be “a bit more down to earth,” better connecting abstract with concrete, experience with experiment.
As for theology, Andreas believes that it can contribute to the “setting of science” as sort of a motivation. Perhaps it can even add some good ideas and unique perspectives to science, a discipline that relies heavily on good ideas and questions. In addition, theology can help to detect and identify the difference between science and ideology.
Andreas cautions that theologians like himself should be careful not to impose their ways on science because science has to be naturalistic. “You cannot use God as an explanation. Science has to work without God, else it wouldn’t be science. It has a very specific method and this method works without God, but it’s only the method, not the metaphysics. What comes after Physics, is philosophy of science: there, scientists and theologians can talk, and we should.”
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Andreas Losch is an award-winning theologian, specializing in the dialog between the sciences, philosophy and theology, and he coordinated the project 'Life beyond our planet?' at the Center for Space and Habitability, University of Bern, Switzerland. Losch is a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey and he serves in the councils of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology and in the Karl Heim Society. He is also editor-in-chief of a German forum for dialog between the sciences and theology: www.theologie-naturwissenschaften.de
Ciara Reyes is a scientist, singer-songwriter and freelance writer, who joined the God & Nature staff in June 2017 as Managing Editor. She has a Ph.D. in Cellular & Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan, and began training in theology at Vanderbilt Divinity in Fall 2016.