Big-Bang Theology

Better ideas.
Feb. 12 1998 3:30 AM

Big-Bang Theology

God makes a cosmological comeback.

49000_49072_shaw_bigbangmain

Did God cause the big bang? That is what half a dozen new books about science and religion--whose authors range from a Reagan-administration official to an Israeli physicist to an elementary-particle-theorist-turned-Anglican-priest--are saying. The fact that the universe abruptly exploded into existence out of apparent nothingness some 15 billion years ago, they submit, means it must have had a supernatural creator. A couple of months ago the same claim was enthusiastically aired at a Washington conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center under the rubric "Beyond the Death of God," with eminent thinkers such as Fred Barnes, Mona Charen, and Elliott Abrams in attendance. And the idea received a sympathetic hearing on William F. Buckley's show Firing Line a few weeks ago.

The idea that only God could have caused the big bang is scarcely new. In fact, the big bang is probably the only idea in the history of science that was ever resisted because of its pro-God import.

For much of the modern era, scientists followed Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton in believing the cosmos to be eternal and unchanging. But in 1917, when Albert Einstein applied his theory of relativity to space-time as a whole, his equations implied that the universe could not be static; it must be either expanding or contracting. This struck Einstein as grotesque, so he added to his theory a fiddle factor called the "cosmological constant" that eliminated the implication and held the universe still.

It was an ordained priest who took relativity to its logical conclusion. In 1927, Georges Lemaître of the University of Louvain in Belgium worked out an expanding model of the universe. Reasoning backward, he proposed that at some definite point in the past it must have originated from a primeval atom of infinitely concentrated energy. Two years later, Lemaître's model was confirmed by the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, who had observed that the galaxies everywhere around us were receding. Both theory and empirical evidence pointed to the same verdict: The universe had an abrupt beginning in time.

Churchmen rejoiced. Proof of the biblical account of creation had dropped into their laps. Pope Pius XII, opening a conference at the Vatican in 1951, declared that this scientific theory of cosmic origins bore witness "to that primordial 'Fiat lux' uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation. ... Hence, creation took place in time, therefore there is a creator, therefore God exists!"

Marxists, meanwhile, gnashed their teeth. Quite aside from its religious aura, the new theory contradicted their belief in the infinity and eternity of matter--one of the axioms of Lenin's dialectical materialism--and was accordingly dismissed as "idealistic." The Marxist physicist David Bohm rebuked the developers of the theory as "scientists who effectively turn traitor to science, and discard scientific facts to reach conclusions that are convenient to the Catholic Church." Atheists of a non-Marxist stripe were also recalcitrant. "Some younger scientists were so upset by these theological trends that they resolved simply to block their cosmological source," commented the German astronomer Otto Heckmann, a prominent investigator of cosmic expansion. The dean of the profession, Sir Arthur Eddington, wrote, "The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me ... I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang. ... The expanding Universe is preposterous ... incredible ... it leaves me cold."

Even some believing scientists were troubled. The cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle simply felt that an explosion was an undignified way for the world to begin, rather like "a party girl jumping out of a cake." In a BBC interview in the 1950s, Hoyle sardonically referred to the hypothesized origin as "the big bang." The term stuck.

Einstein overcame his metaphysical scruples about the big bang not long before his death in 1955, referring to his earlier attempt to dodge it by an ad hoc theoretical device as "the greatest blunder of my career." As for Hoyle and the rest of the skeptics, they were finally won over in 1965, when two scientists at Bell Labs in New Jersey accidentally detected a pervasive microwave hiss that turned out to be the echo of the big bang (at first they thought it was caused by pigeon droppings on their antenna). If you turn on your television and tune it between stations, about 10 percent of that black-and-white-speckled static you see is caused by photons left over from the cosmogonic event. What greater proof of the reality of the big bang--you can watch it on television!

Since the '60s, scientists have been busy working out, and feuding over, the details of the big-bang cosmology. But God is not in the details--his existence is deducible from the mere fact that there is a world at all. So goes the cosmological argument, one of the three traditional arguments toward a Supreme Being. (Click to read the ontological argument and the teleological argument.)

The reasoning starts off like this:

1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3) Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence. (Click to learn more about the surprising Islamic origins of this argument and what Ludwig Wittgenstein had to say about it.)

There are many options for attacking the logic of this cosmological argument, and contemporary opponents of theism have tried them all.

If everything needs a cause for its existence, then so does God. (More frequently heard in the form "But Mummy, who made God?") This objection fails because it gets Premise 1 wrong. The premise does not say that everything needs a cause but that everything that begins to exist does. God never began to exist--he is eternal. So he does not need a cause for his existence.

Maybe the universe had a natural cause. But the big bang could not have been caused by prior physical processes. That is because it began with pointlike singularity, which, according to relativity theory, is not a "thing" but a boundary or an edge in time. Since no causal lines can be extended through it, the cause of the big bang must transcend the physical world.

49000_49075_shaw_bigbangspot

W ell, then, perhaps it had no cause at all. It is hard to think of a principle more amply confirmed by our experience than that things do not just pop into existence uncaused. No one can really pull a rabbit out of a hat. Ex nihilo nihil fit. Yet something of the sort does seem to happen in the quantum world, where, owing to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, tiny "virtual particles" spontaneously appear and disappear all the time. An entire universe could do the same, claim some cosmologists. Calling themselves "nothing theorists," they have produced models showing how the cosmos could have burst into being all by itself out of a patch of "false vacuum," or a 3-D geometry of zero volume, or--in the case of Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts University--literally nothing at all (this took Vilenkin four pages of math). So the universe is summoned out of the void by the laws of physics. But this can't be right. The laws of physics are just a set of equations, a mathematical pattern. They cannot cause the world to exist. As Stephen Hawking has written, "A scientific theory ... exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean)."

Just because the universe is temporally finite does not mean it had a beginning. Speaking of Hawking, this is his famous "no boundary" proposal. "So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator," Hawking wrote in A Brief History of Time. "But if the universe is completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning or end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?" In Hawking's quantum cosmology, the pointlike singularity of the big bang is replaced by a smooth hemisphere in which space and time are commingled. "Time zero" becomes an arbitrary point, not a true beginning; it is no more a boundary than the North Pole is.

Hawking's proposal is extremely popular with laymen who are hostile to the cosmological argument, judging from the mail I get. Apparently they enjoy being baffled by "imaginary time," a theoretical fiction Hawking uses to redescribe the big bang so that there is no beginning. In real time there still is a beginning. Sometimes Hawking says that imaginary time is "earlier" than real time, which is a logical contradiction; sometimes he suggests it might be more real than real time, which is an absurdity.

OK, so the universe had a beginning, and hence a First Cause, which is, moreover, transcendent. How does it follow that this cause is God, or even God-like? Now there is an acute question. Philosopher Thomas Nagel has suggested that something humanly inconceivable lies behind the big bang. What, if anything, can really be inferred about the First Cause? Well, suppose that it were something mechanical. An ideal machine produces its effect either always or never; it does not just suddenly start to operate at some moment, unless someone gives it a kick. If a mechanical cause produced the universe at time T, there is no reason it should not have done so at time T minus 1. The argument can be repeated to T minus infinity: A mechanical cause would have either produced the universe from eternity or not at all. But the universe was created at one moment out of an infinity of other indistinguishable moments. This implies that the moment was freely chosen, and hence that the creator had a will, and to that extent a personal nature. And power.

Yet the big-bang cosmology has one unwelcome consequence for theists. It seems to suggest that the Creator was a bungler. A singularity is inherently lawless. Anything at all can come out of one. It is exceedingly unlikely that a big-bang singularity should give rise to a universe whose conditions are precisely suitable for life, let alone the best of all possible worlds. As the American philosopher Quentin Smith has pointed out, "If God created the universe with the aim of making it animate, it is illogical that he would have created as its first state something whose natural evolution would lead with high probability only to inanimate states." The only way God could have ensured the appearance of creatures in his own image was by repeatedly intervening and making adjustments to steer the evolution of the world away from lifeless disaster. But "a competent Creator does not create things he immediately or subsequently needs to set aright," observes Smith. (Remember, we are talking about the universe's physical infrastructure, not sinners with free will.)

So did God cause the big bang? Overcome by metaphysical lassitude, I finally reach over to my bookshelf for The Devil's Bible. Turning to Genesis I read: "In the beginning there was nothing. And God said, 'Let there be light!' And there was still nothing, but now you could see it."

Jim Holt writes frequently about science and philosophy.