Logo: University of Southern California

Where Science and Religion Intersect

April 16, 2004 —

Firdaus E. Udwadia, left, professor of mathematics, who holds a joint appointment in civil engineering, aerospace and mechanical engineering, and Donald E. Miller, professor of religion and director of the USC Center for Religion and Culture, are co-principal investigators on the new research project.
Kaitlin Solimine photo
When Firdaus Udwadia read the proposal request for the Templeton Research Lecture Grant on the Constructive Engagement of Science, Philosophy and Religion, he immediately contacted Joseph Aoun, dean of the College of Letters,Arts and Sciences, who put him in touch with Religion Professor Donald Miller. Udwadia is a professor of civil and environmental engineering, aerospace and mechanical Engineering and of mathematics

“Firdaus’ enthusiasm impressed me tremendously,” says Miller, Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion. “I knew that if we pursued this jointly, my partner would be someone who really would enjoy the entire process.”

Turns out, the pair will be working together for the next four years.

In March, USC College received the 2004 Templeton Research Lecture Grant on the Constructive Engagement of Science, Philosophy and Religion.

The grant, made possible by the John Templeton Foundation, will offer up to $500,000 over four years for interdisciplinary studies. The grant will also support a Templeton Fellow and an annual distinguished lecture series. The foundation’s mission is to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science.

Udwadia and Miller are co-principal investigators of the grant proposal, entitled “Creativity: An Inquiry into the Nature of Innovation in Science, Art, Philosophy, and Religion.”

The project will examine how creativity is at work during revelatory moments that occur in the sciences and the humanities. The project brings together 21 faculty from engineering, business, medicine, gerontology, dentistry, fine arts, communication and policy, planning and development. Together, this network of scholars will create new perspectives and paradigms on insight, revelation and inspiration. It is expected that the project will raise broader issues about the human mind and human culture.

“I think there has to be a discussion between the humanities and science because creative behavior does not compartmentalize itself into one or the other,” says Udwadia, who is also a professor of information and operations management at the USC Marshall School of Business. “I believe we will have a very vibrant dialogue.”

Neurobiologist Michael Arbib, University Professor who holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Computer Science, will be an essential part of the project as he investigates the neuro-physiological basis for these moments. Arbib is a professor of computer science, biological sciences and psychology and has written extensively on the interaction between the brain and its linguistic abilities, including the ability to verbalize about religious experience.

The project will unfold schematically. The first year will attempt to understand and compare differing systems of inquiry, inspiration and revelation. Year two will consider a psycho-neurobiological approach, followed by a third year of more specific research into modes of inquiry that foster creativity. The fourth year will develop strategies for change, hoping to influence the intellectual debates and structures at USC and beyond.

“In the past, the study of religion has not been well integrated into most secular research universities. By relinquishing the academic study of religion, universities make possible a less intellectually rigorous hijacking of the topic by others,” said Joseph Aoun, dean of USC College. “In the College, we are bucking the trend and studying religion in a novel, interdisciplinary way."

Only two universities received the Templeton grants. The other school was the University of Arizona in Tucson, for its project, “Astrobiology and the Sacred: Implications of Life Beyond Earth.”

“The challenges of the 21st century require new interdisciplinary collaborations, which places questions of meanings and values on the agenda,” says William Grassie, executive director of the Metanexus Institute, a Philadelphia based organization that oversees the grant awards. “We need to put questions about the universe and the universal back at the heart of the university.”

—Kaitlin Solimine