Last weekend, Notre Dame held its twenty-second Ethics and Culture Fall Conference.
The de Nicola Center’s website described the conference as an event that brings together “the world’s leading Catholic thinkers, as well as those from other traditions, in fruitful discourse and exchange on the most pressing and vexed questions of ethics, culture, and public policy today.”
The theme of this year’s conference, “And It Was Good: On Creation,” featured daylong programs with several presentations, colloquiums, discussion panels and plenary keynote lectures. Many explored the questions of whether it was plausible to believe in a created universe, the theological implications of creation or the role of humans within the created world. As such, the theological discussion centered mostly around the first three chapters of the book of Genesis.
However, this was not the only topic, as presenters also explored matters of philosophy, physics, mathematics and artistic, literary or creative expression.
Regarding this year’s theme, the de Nicola Center wrote, “In the created world, Pope Francis writes, we are able to perceive ‘a grammar written by the hand of God’ (Lumen Fidei). If creation is a language, what can we discern regarding the creator?” The conference explored “the many facets of the created world and the act of creation, including questions of cosmology, teleology, natural ends, natural law, the Imago Dei, creaturely status, ecology, stewardship, cocreation, recreation, redemption and more.”
Notre Dame students and faculty as well as guests from all over the country enjoyed a complimentary reception on all the days of the conference, meals and daily mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
“I think in particular for me it was a gift to be able to speak to the speakers and ask them questions,” said Aviva Lund, a Notre Dame senior who attended the conference. “One of my favorite talks was ‘Creating the Beloved Community,’ and it was really cool to see how they incorporated Catholic Social Teaching as well as the philosophy of agape to then go back to our communities and be present both on an individual and group level.”
She added, “With that, it was really exciting afterward to be able to talk to the speakers directly one on one and ask them for their advice on how I could incorporate that into my own life as a student here.” Lund said she was also grateful for the opportunity to listen to other students and scholars.
“Since the first conference in 2000, this annual event has become the most important academic forum for wide-ranging conversations that engage the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition from a variety of disciplinary points of departure,” the de Nicola Center wrote.
According to the website, past conference speakers have included Nobel Laureates and this year, speakers included Robert Pogue Harrison, Simon Conway Morris, Jacqueline Rivers, Kristin Collier and Alasdair MacIntyre, discussing subjects ranging from “Creating the Beloved Community” to “Neural Organoids and Chimeras.”
MacIntyre, of the de Nicola Center itself, has been a continual lecturer throughout all 22 years of the conference. He has made contributions to moral and political philosophy and is especially known for his book, “After Virtue,” in which he examines the historical roots of the concept of virtue.
This year, he presented on “The Apparent Oddness of the Universe: How to Account for It?,” which poses an argument against the notion that the universe is odd and unpredictable. Through what MacIntyre calls “singularities,” “humans are able to think, speak and act in an unpredictable manner.” Singularities are “unpredictable utterances; whoever predicts it is the author.”
According to MacIntyre, because we believe there is “no place for oddities within a law-governed, determined and probabilistic universe,” we tend to assume the universe is no such thing. However, because “God created humans in His image,” this therefore involves the “possibility for humans to act creatively,” and creativity itself can be either benign or malignant as Macyntyre defines. This includes, as MacIntyre boldly suggests, the ability to act in ways God cannot predict.
Because God’s omniscience involves knowing everything there is to be known, and singularities are necessarily expressions of thought and not physical occurrences in themselves, “God must respond to them as they happen,” MacIntyre said.
In addition, MacIntyre posits singularities are concurrent with the recent discoveries of quantum physics as well as the theory of “emergent properties of the universe.”
MacIntyre also argues against a strictly dualistic view of minds and bodies, claiming that the physical is constantly taking on new forms; “human beings are bodies informed by the soul, and not bodies containing souls,” he said. He added, “We are all the outcomes of decisions that could have been otherwise.”
Other prominent lectures examined the question of how mathematics came to exist in the universe, the role of the arts, lessons from C.S. Lewis for modern society, a new manifesto for contemplative realism and the question of whether there was a cosmic plan for the universe.
The closing plenary lecture by Elizabeth Lev, an art historian at Duquesne University, was titled “Creation, Complementarity and Saint John Paul II in Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling” and explored the masterpieces of the Sistine Chapel, revealing a detailed analysis of their surprises and mysteries.
Additionally, the de Nicola Center partnered with Stanford University’s “Boundaries of Humanity” project this year, which seeks to advance the dialogue on “human place and purpose in the cosmos, particularly with respect to conceptions of human uniqueness and choices around biotechnological enhancement.”
The speakers, schedule and recordings for this year’s lectures can be found on the conference website.
You can reach Marcelle Couto at firstname.lastname@example.org.