|The four chapters of this book
are like four interconnected experiments carried out with the intention of discovering
whether Christians can still believe today.
Christians believe in a personal and loving God who created the universe. Have the discoveries of modern scientific cosmology undercut or eliminated the rational foundations for this belief?
The noted scientific cosmologist, P. James E. Peebles, summed up the current state of this field by saying that at its heart is the solidly established big bang theory. But Peebles immediately cautioned, "That the universe is expanding and cooling is the essence of the big bang theory. You will notice I have said nothing about an "explosion" the big bang theory describes how our universe is evolving, not how it began."1 To the big bang, he tells us, scientists are trying to add the theory of inflation, that is, that early in its life the universe expanded rapidly. There is also strong evidence that most of the mass of the universe cannot be accounted for by the things we see, but there must be some sort of unknown dark matter. Further, it appears that something, some dark energy or quintessence, is making the universe accelerate.
It is remarkable not only how quickly this field is changing today, but how our picture of the universe has been transformed in less than a century. When Einstein was writing his theory of general relativity in 1916 the prevailing feeling that the universe was static was so strong that when his equations indicated that the universe should be expanding, or contracting, he introduced a cosmological constant to produce a universe at rest. Not only was there a consensus that the universe was static, but it was also equated with our own galaxy.
By 1929, however, the picture was changing. Edwin Hubble was discovering other galaxies, and found that the farther away they were, the more the light from them was shifted towards the red end of the spectrum, indicating that they were moving away and the universe was therefore expanding. And physicists like Alexander Friedmann and George Lemaître and others had uncovered Einsteins apparent mistake. In 1965, two Bell Laboratory scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, while trying to eliminate radio interference, discovered cosmic background microwave radiation left over from the big bang.
Now we are faced with a universe so big and so old that it defies our imaginations to grasp it. It appears to have begun 15 billion years ago. Our galaxy, alone, has some 100 billion stars, and it is just one of perhaps a 100 billion galaxies, and this immense universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate.
This is an awe-inspiring picture, but what does it say about the origin of the universe? Lets imagine that the scientific cosmologists have been creating an ever more detailed and vivid movie of the structure and movement of the universe, and this film, when it is played backwards, makes the universe appear as if it is coming together and beginning in an intensely hot and dense state. But the real question is whether this movie takes us back to the absolute beginning, or very origin of the universe. It doesnt appear to do so because the basic laws of nature, as described by Einsteins relativity, break down as we approach this beginning. It is as if the film runs out and just before we reach the beginning we are dazzled with a blinding white light. And we are faced with the very difficult question: can science find a way to talk about the very beginning of the universe, or is this simply outside its scope?
The scientists, themselves, are divided about the matter. The physicist Charles Townes writes: "I do not understand how the scientific approach alone, as separated from a religious approach, can explain an origin of all things. It is true that physicists hope to look behind the big bang, and possibly to explain the origin of our universe as, for example, a type of fluctuation. But then, of what is it a fluctuation and how did this in turn begin to exist? In my view, the question of origin seems always left unanswered if we explore from a scientific view alone."2 But other scientists are less reluctant to put science to the task and to try to develop a scientific theory of the beginning of the universe. Lets look at some of these attempts.
Quantum Cosmology and Inflating Universes
Since relativity appears to break down as we approach the beginning of the universe, scientific cosmologists have turned to the other great pillar of modern physics, quantum theory, in order to overcome this limitation, and to create a quantum cosmology that can answer the question of the origin of the universe. Lets try to get a general sense of this quantum cosmology, not in the scientific particulars of this or that theory, but rather, how scientists present these theories with philosophical and religious overtones.
In 1983, James Hartle and Stephen Hawking proposed that a cosmic wave function be applied to the entire universe similar to the wave function that quantum mechanics had applied to elementary particles. "According to this approach, the usual distinction between future and past breaks down in the very early universe; the time direction takes on the properties of a spatial direction. Just as there is no edge to space, there is no identifiable beginning to time."3
Hawking writes elsewhere: "the quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no boundary to space-time and so there would be no need to specify the behavior at the boundary. There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time. One could say: "The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary." The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE."4
And a little later he adds: "So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"5
The Russian cosmologist, Alexander Vilenkin, now at Tufts University, has his own version of the beginning based on the aspect of quantum mechanics in which a particle can appear and disappear in a vacuum like outer space. An account of this theory which appeared in Discover magazine gives us the flavor of how these theories of the beginning of the universe are reported in the popular scientific press not only uncritically, but with a certain sense of awe:
"If a particle can pop into existence from nothing, why not a whole universe? Vilenkin wondered. If space can be thought of as an energy field with an average value of zero, why not think of pre-creation nothingness as a sort of space-time field whose average value is zero? Rather than a virtual particle popping into existence, a whole universe, along with matter and energy and space and time and everything else, pops into existence from nothing. Once he started to think about the universe in this way, he raised the possibility of not just one universe but many. Proto-universes could be popping into existence all the time The pre-universal nothingness he described was the purest form of nothingness imaginable. Since matter and energy create time and space, Vilenkins nothingness had neither. There was no countdown to the Big Bang, because time did not yet exist. In a stroke, he reduced creation from a metaphysical event to a physical one. What had seemed unknowable was suddenly reduced to a set of equations."6
More recently, Vilenkin, together with Jaume Garriga of the University of Barcelona, developed a "many worlds in one" theory in which our universe contains an infinite number of other universes, or O-regions, where alternate histories play themselves out. There is one, for example, where Elvis Presley is still alive. Alan Guth, himself a noted cosmologist, thinks that this idea has profound philosophical implications. "We already know that our planet is merely a tiny speck in a vast cosmos," Guth told UPI, "but now we are being told that we do not even hold a unique copyright of our own identities. Instead, each of us is actually only a single copy of an infinite number of beings that are completely identical to ourselves."7 Elsewhere Vilenkin said that he created this theory as a "metaphysical diversion." "Physicists usually want to make predictions and see if their theory is correct. This paper was not of that kind, although, in principle, we could travel to one of those other parts of the universe, although we wont be able to do that anytime soon," he says. "To a large degree, eternal inflation is not accessible to observation."8 He doesnt plan to explore the matter further, he tells us. It was a "metaphysical exercise."
Vilenkins compatriot, Andrei Linde, now at Stanford University, has proposed an inflationary universe which he hopes will address some of cosmologys outstanding questions including the biggest question of them all, "the very existence of the big bang." 9 He describes an "eternally existing, self-reproducing inflationary universe"10 in which quantum fluctuations in a scalar field are looked at as waves. These waves freeze and decrease the field in some parts of the universe and increase it in others. These increasing fields are soon bigger than the other parts of the universe: "In essence, one inflationary universe sprouts other inflationary bubbles, which in turn produce other inflationary bubbles. This process, which I have called eternal inflation, keeps going as a chain reaction, producing a fractal-like pattern of universes. In this scenario the universe as a whole is immortal. Each particular part of the universe may stem from a singularity somewhere in the past, and it may end up in a singularity somewhere in the future. There is, however, no end for the evolution of the entire universe.
"The situation with the very beginning is less certain. There is a chance that all parts of the universe were created simultaneously in an initial, big bang singularity. The necessity of this assumption, however, is no longer obvious. Furthermore, the total number of inflationary bubbles on our "cosmic tree" grows exponentially in time. Therefore, most bubbles (including our own part of the universe) grow indefinitely far away from the trunk of this tree. Although this scenario makes the existence of the initial big bang almost irrelevant, for all practical purposes, one can consider the moment of formation of each inflationary bubble as a new "big bang." From this perspective, inflation is not a part of the big bang theory, as we thought 15 years ago. On the contrary, the big bang is a part of the inflationary model."11
When a reporter from Discover magazine went to visit Alan Guth, the originator of the idea of an inflationary early universe, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the reporter rhapsodized, "Now that inflation theory is approaching dogma, it is bringing science to the brink of answering one of the largest questions of all: Why is there something rather than nothing?"12 And Guth certainly didnt discourage this type of approach. "Its not a coincidence," he said, "that the Bible starts with Genesis Most people really want to know where we came from and where everything around us came from. I like to strongly push the scientific answer. We have evidence. We no longer have to rely on stories we were told when we were young."13 We are told that at the beginning of the universe there was nothing, a pure vacuum with no space or matter, a vacuum which is subject to quantum uncertainties so that things can come out of it and vanish back into it. And what came out of it was a false vacuum, a particular kind of matter which has never been observed. From this false vacuum, one billionth the size of a proton, the universe emerged and the stuff in it "out of nowhere."14
Along similar lines, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory had long proposed that subatomic particles were in more than one state at a time in a sort of superimposition of possible states, and somehow these possibilities had to collapse to give us the one world we see around us. This led to the question of what caused this collapse, and it was proposed that it was the interaction of these superimposed states with an observer. This, in turn, led to the famous paradox of Schrödingers cat sealed inside a container. The cat was conceived of as both alive and dead until we looked inside, and then it was either alive or dead. But there was another solution proposed by Hugh Everett in 1957. In his interpretation the possible states do not collapse, but the universe somehow divides, and accommodates each possibility in a new world. This many worlds, or multiverse, view is still seriously proposed by some cosmologists like Bryce DeWitt and David Deutsch, and it is even claimed that it is the majority view among scientific cosmologists. We have to be clear about what this many universe theory is actually saying. It means that each time we do something, or each time something, no matter how small, changes in the universe, a new universe is created, and therefore millions and billions of universes are being created at every moment. Deutsch says: "I dont think there are any interpretations of quantum theory other than many worlds The others deny reality."15
It would be misleading if citing these remarks of the scientific cosmologists on the origin of the universe left us with the impression that metaphysical style reflections occupied the forefront of the attention and energy of the majority of todays cosmologists. They no more do so than do esoteric interpretations of quantum theory. Alan Guth, some of whose philosophical forays we have already seen, illustrates this situation with the structure of his book, The Inflationary Universe. It starts and ends with musings about the beginning of the universe, but the bulk of the book deals with the physics about and underlying the theory of the inflationary universe. In short, thoughts about the beginning of the universe are the speculative icing on the cake.
But it is certainly worth looking at Guths beginning and ending pages to help us sum up what some of the cosmologists have been saying. He recalls the initial paper of Edward Tryon who first suggested that the universe might be a vacuum fluctuation, "essentially from nothing at all," as Guth puts it.16 Part of the reasoning that undergird this assertion was that although the mass of the universe represented a large amount of positive energy, it was canceled out by gravity which was represented as negative energy, leaving the universe at zero so that its creation would not be a violation of the laws of the conservation of energy.
Physicists objected to Tryons theory because the empty space from which the universe was supposed to have come was still something. So Alexander Vilenkin suggested that it would be better to start with "literally nothing," which was not matter, space or time, but a total empty geometry of absolute nothingness from which the universe made the transition to a non-empty state by quantum tunneling.17
A Philosophical Evaluation of Quantum Cosmologies
What can we make of these fascinating but rather bizarre-sounding theories? Are we really on the brink of a scientific explanation for the absolute beginning, or origin, of the universe? Lets take a more critical look at what is going on. First of all, from the scientific side of things, these are highly speculative and controversial theories, and they rest on problematic foundations since there is as yet no theory that embraces both quantum mechanics and relativity, and thus there is no well-substantiated theory of quantum gravity. Christopher Isham has spelled out some of these difficulties in his "Quantum Theories of the Creation of the Universe."18 And added to these technical difficulties, he finds general conceptual problems including various difficulties with the Copenhagen and many worlds interpretations of quantum theory: "These are so severe," he writes, "that a number of professional physicists believe that the entire quantum cosmology program may be fundamentally misguided."19
But the philosophical problems these theories face are just as severe. Timothy Ferris, for example, suggests that quantum cosmologists look at three fundamental problems: that of a first cause, that of something coming from nothing, and the issue of infinite regress. In essence, he is asking that scientific cosmology address properly philosophical questions, and in doing so he is simply following in the footsteps of the scientific cosmologists we have been listening to. Lets see how successful his own attempts are to deal with these philosophical issues.
"There can be no effect without a cause."20 This he calls a noble and venerable argument, but finds that it is now more problematical. Quantum physics have shown us that there are, indeed, events without causes, i.e., radioactive decay, or vacuum fluctuations. "So strict causation may break down both in quantum physics and in considering the origin of the universe."21
"You cant get something from or for nothing."22 This philosophical challenge, he feels, can be overcome, as well, if we imagine that matter and energy in the universe are positive, and the force of gravity is negative, as we saw, so that the total energy of the universe is zero so we are not really getting something from nothing.
In the final philosophical challenge we are told the universe must have originated from another system which, in turn, had to have an origin, and so "we are caught in infinite regress."23 But if the very early universe was a quantum space-time foam there would be no arrow of time, and so the issue would be meaningless. The problem of logical regress in contrast to this kind of temporal regress, he admits, is harder to overcome. "Certainly it is very difficult to imagine a theory in which the universe originates out of absolutely nothing.24 Even if we say it comes from some kind of scalar field, we are left asking where the field came from. Ferris questions are good ones, but his answers are less than satisfactory.
It is natural for scientists to want to pursue the story of the universe as far back to its beginning as they can, and it is also natural for them as men and women to want to know its ultimate origin. The real problem arises when scientific cosmologists give their theories a philosophical or ontological meaning, and act as if science possesses the only genuine way to know about these matters.
Stephen Hawking, for example, writing about his approach to how one can understand the universe, says: "There is a real problem here. The people who ought to study and argue such questions, the philosophers, have mostly not had enough mathematical background to keep up with modern developments in theoretical physics."25 The implication is clear. Philosophers need to be theoretical physicists because physicists are the people who can really address the question.
His former wife, Jane, comments: "Theres one aspect of his thought that I find increasingly upsetting and difficult to live with. Its the feeling that, because everything is reduced to a rational, mathematical formula, that must be the truth. He is delving into realms that really do matter to thinking people and in a way that can have a very disturbing effect on people and hes not competent."26 And later she adds: "I pronounce my view that there are different ways of approaching it (religion), and the mathematical way is only one way, and he just smiles."27
Another example of this same kind of mentality comes from the physicist Frank Tipler in his book The Physics of Immortality: "Either theology is pure nonsense, a subject with no content, or else theology must ultimately become a branch of physics. The reason is simple. The universe is defined to be the totality of all that exists, the totality of reality. Thus, by definition, if God exists, He/She is either the universe or part of it. The goal of physics is understanding the ultimate nature of reality. If God is real, physicists will eventually find Him/Her."28 This is an amazing assertion that crumbles as soon as we reject the gratuitous premise that the universe is identical with all that exists.
Lets pursue these philosophical issues further by looking at two interconnected questions: the interpretation of quantum theory, and the epistemological type of modern physics. From the very beginning of the creation of quantum theory scientists have been divided about what kind of interpretation to give it. The mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics works extremely well, but there is no universally accepted understanding of what it means. The Copenhagen interpretation has shed an aura of quantum weirdness over the whole field with its paradoxes like Schrödingers cat, which is both alive and dead until we look, and particles which go through both slits of our apparatus until we decide to measure them. And it has become somewhat of a truism to imagine that quantum theory has demonstrated that causality does not hold sway in the microworld. In actual fact there is no reason to believe that this is true, or that quantum theory, itself, demands quantum weirdness. That is not to say that quantum theory is not surpassingly strange in its own way. It appears that nonlocality, i.e., the instantaneous interaction of distant particles, is an intrinsic part of it. But there is no reason to believe that something like radioactive decay takes place without a cause, or that we need an observer to collapse the superimposed states in order to decide whether the cat is alive or dead. I have looked at these issues in some detail in The Mystery of Matter. Unfortunately, this kind of reasoning that has always existed in quantum theory is now being applied to the universe as a whole, and we will have to look at how much sense it makes to imagine particles popping out of nothing, still less the universe itself.
The epistemological type of modern physics simply means that it has its own distinctive way of knowing things. It measures things and submits these measurements to the formal rule of mathematics, and in the best of cases, makes predictions that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by further measurements. It has its own distinctive way of grasping things in a web of measurements and mathematics that gives us a genuine knowledge of the world around us, but a knowledge that is somewhat indirect in the sense that the physicist does not fully understand just what he or she is capturing with this net of physico-mathematical constructs.
The physicist faces two temptations. The first is to imagine that physics is the only way to know things. We have seen the remarks of Hawking and Tipler that end up strongly leaving that impression. If we accept them in an absolute and literal way, then all we would have would be physics. Art and poetry, philosophy and theology, literature and history, would all be reduced to wishful thinking. Even if we dont go to this extreme, any philosophical understanding of cosmology would be ruled impossible.
William Craig in an interesting article called, "Design and the Cosmological Argument," writes: "Remarkably, Hawking has recently stated explicitly that he interprets the Hartle-Hawking model nonrealistically. He confesses, "Im a positivist I dont demand that a theory correspond to reality because I dont know what it is." Still more extreme, "I take the positivist viewpoint that a physical theory is just a mathematical model and that it is meaningless to ask whether it corresponds to reality." In assessing the worth of a theory, "All Im concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements."29
Some physicists even seem to go further and imagine that physics has given them a privileged seat from which to discern a lack of meaning in the universe. Steven Weinberg, for example, was flying over the U.S. and saw a beautiful sunset and reacted like this: "It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."30
To his mind, religion is an obvious "adversary" of science because it "teaches that we are actors playing a part set up by God. I dont agree with that."31
The second temptation is more subtle. What are we to make of the mathematical results that the physicists have come up with to explain the origin of the universe? First, we need to ask about what measurements they are based on, and what predictions they make. In short, they have to undergo genuine scientific scrutiny. But even if the starting point of these statements in the form of measurements are anchored in reality, we still need to ask whether there is a point-to-point correspondence between this or that mathematical symbol found in the equations of these scientific cosmologists and the universe, itself. This is a more philosophical question that does not directly interest the physicist. Kip Thorne, echoing some of the remarks of Hawking we just saw, writes: "Is spacetime really curved? Isnt it conceivable that spacetime is actually flat? What is the real, genuine truth? To a physicist like me this is an uninteresting question because it has no physical consequences."32
But it is a critical one from a philosophical perspective. Hawking, for example, will use a number of mathematical techniques including imaginary numbers to create his no boundary view of the universe. But it is quite another matter to discover what, if anything, these imaginary numbers tell us about the actual universe around us.33 Or we may say that the wave function applies to the universe as a whole, and points to the existence of a multitude of universes. But this kind of physical assertion cannot be demonstrated by the mathematics alone, and there is no physical evidence for more than one universe.
This problem of how to go from mathematical symbols to the actually existing things around us has become much more acute since the creation of quantum theory. Physics, itself, has over the last century become more mathematical, and this trend shows itself in a particularly acute form when we come to quantum cosmology. If before mathematics served the measurements we made of the world around us in order to try to come to some sort of understanding of this world, now the mathematics seems to take the lead and impose a certain view on the universe rather than let it speak to us. Clearly it speaks in some way to us through mathematics, but not mathematical symbol by symbol.
What can we conclude from these two points? Quantum theory and the quantum cosmologies built on them come to us freighted with all sorts of baggage that cannot be uncritically accepted. And the mathematical constructs of the scientific cosmologists cant be directly transposed into a view of how the universe really is in itself.
The Question of a Philosophical Cosmology or Something from Nothing
The central question of the origin of the universe is whether something can come from nothing. But this is a very philosophical, or even metaphysical issue and brings with it the question of whether science is equipped in virtue of its own methods to deal with it, and whether there can be a philosophical cosmology at whose heart this question would be found.
First some clarifications are necessary. We have to clearly distinguish the different "nothings" that are being talked about. There is what we could call a philosophical nothing which is the absence of all being or existence, an absolute nothingness. Then there is a scientific nothing, a vacuum like outer space, or some sort of quantum vacuum that fluctuates, or a primordial scaler field, etc. But from a philosophical point of view these things are not nothing, but something. Unfortunately, however, scientific cosmologists and their commentators sometimes slide from one kind of nothing to another, and dont even notice they are doing so.
What we are going to be talking about here is absolute nothingness, and from that perspective the various scientific nothings are somethings which, in turn, need to have their origin explained, and even an infinite series of inflating universes giving birth to each other may obscure, but does not answer the question of an absolute beginning.
The quantum cosmologists theorize that the universe, or universes, have popped out of nothing, but, as we have just indicated, this nothing is really something, and even if we could demonstrate particles popping out of a vacuum, the vacuum, itself, has a certain existence, and is far from being the nothingness that philosophy talks about, and is even conceived of by physicists as being supremely full.
And even a more fundamental aspect of this problem is whether science is capable of talking about this absolute nothingness at all. If absolute nothingness simply does not exist in any way, then it cannot be measured, or observed, and therefore it does not fall under the scope of scientific inquiry. But if science cant deal with absolute nothingness, is there a discipline that can? The questions we saw Timothy Ferris asking, and attempting to answer, are not really scientific questions, but philosophical ones. Here we arrive at the issue of whether there can be a philosophical cosmology which would address the question of the origin of the universe, itself, and even have a distinctive view of matter, space and time. A philosophical cosmology would not be an alternative science. It would not be able to tell us about quasars or black holes, or the acceleration of the universe, but it would have to address the magnificent and startling fact that the universe exists, and it would have to ask about its origins.
In todays world where we hear so much about scientific cosmology, the very idea of a philosophical cosmology is difficult to imagine, and may even appear ridiculous. The very words cosmology and cosmologists are reserved for the physicists, and the word metaphysics conjures images of new age pronouncements, and even sometimes the remarks of the scientific cosmologists, themselves. But a genuine philosophical or metaphysical cosmology could exist in harmony with todays scientific cosmology. It would not compete with science, but complement it, and have its own distinctive way to look at the universe.
Lets outline some of the features it would have and how it would proceed. It could take the most basic findings of scientific cosmology as its starting point. We live in an immensely large universe which appears to have begun some 15 billion years ago, and is still expanding. Such a view delivers to philosophical cosmologists two undeniable facts, facts that were already accessible to us, but which science now presents in a more detailed and dramatic way. First, the universe exists. And secondly, it exists in a distinctive way. Lets look at this second fact first. Scientific cosmologists insist that if the fundamental physical constants of the universe were different, our universe, itself, would be very different. It is not my intent here to examine where they go with these sorts of arguments in terms of the purpose and design of the universe. We will look at those issues later. All I am saying is that we find the universe existing in one way, but it could conceivably have existed in another. We live in a particular kind of universe.
The first fact, that the universe exists, appears at first glance to be an obvious assertion of no particular value to us. It is what science implicitly accepts, and then goes on to examine how it exists. But for a philosophical cosmologist it is not an unexamined premise, but a mystery that it must try to fathom. An immensely large and beautiful universe exists, but why does it exist rather than not exist? Existence is not a brute fact. It is the most fundamental and wonderful of facts.
So a philosophical cosmology is founded on two undeniable facts: the universe exists, and it exists in a distinctive way. These facts could be rephrased in a more general way by saying that things exist, and different kinds of things exist. We can accept that we are surrounded by many different existing things. The sun exists and warms us. And the moon exists and circles the earth. And the sun is not the moon. The sun has a certain kind of existence, and the moon a different kind. But the next step in the creation of a philosophical cosmology is much harder. Neither the sun nor the moon represents the totality of what it means to exist. Indeed, our universe, itself, is a distinctive kind of universe, and is only one of many possible universes, so our universe cannot be equated with the fullness of existence. The things around us, and the universe as a whole, therefore, are partial reflections, or refractions, of Existence, itself.
There is another line of reasoning that leads to the same conclusion. Everything we experience changes. The stars have their own life cycles, as does the universe as a whole. But to change means that something becomes something that it was not before. Things become more or less, or cease existing altogether. Things have a more or less precarious grip on existence, and they modify each others existence. But what does this imply? It means that what they are is not the same as that they are. The sun came into existence, but we can imagine a time when it is no more. It does not have to always exist.
The kind of philosophical cosmology that I am outlining categorically denies that something can come from absolutely nothing. In scientific cosmologies we have things coming from nothing that are really somethings, that is, fields, vacuums, etc. Or we have something coming from nothing based on certain kinds of interpretations of quantum theory that are not intrinsically connected with its mathematical formalism, but are philosophical interpretations of it. And we have some rather bald assertions on the part of some scientific cosmologists and their popularizers about something from nothing, but all in all, I can see no real scientific evidence that something emerges from absolutely nothing.
Something from nothing defies common sense, and by common sense I mean the deep pre-philosophical sources of the working of our intelligence that we rightly rely upon in our daily lives. I dont expect my banker, for example, to be content when I explain that my overdrawn account will be remedied by money popping into it from absolutely nowhere. Nor do I expect a parking spot to miraculously pop out of nowhere in Berkeley or Cambridge. The scientific cosmologists dont expect these things to happen, either, so why should we expect it to happen in the case of a single proton, or an entire universe? Something existing is not the same as it not existing. If we deny this, then all hope of reasonable discourse disappears. Then why does scientific cosmology sometimes have a predilection for a universe popping out of nothing? First of all it is for the reasons we have just seen, that is, that their nothings are really somethings, because of particular interpretations of quantum theory, and so forth. But there may be another reason, as well. When faced with the question of the origins of the universe there are two possible options. We can say it came from nothing, or we can say that it came from something, a something when posed leads to all sorts of philosophical and religious questions. It would be entirely reasonable for scientific cosmologists, precisely as cosmologists, not to deal with these philosophical and religious issues. But the distinction between a person and his or her profession are usually not drawn that clearly, and so we sometimes have scientific cosmologists attempting to slam the door on these kinds of philosophical and religious questions. Some of them even appear at times to go out of their way to oppose science to philosophy and religion. The end result is to have the universe popping out of nothing where this nothing is not some conclusion arrived at by science, but is equivalent to saying that there is no role for philosophy or religion in cosmology, or in life, itself.
The other fundamental option is to develop a philosophical cosmology in which effects have causes, and something is not nothing, and the universe had an absolute beginning. It came from something. This something, however, cannot be a something like the things around us with their fragile hold on existence. It must be conceived as the source or foundation or fountain of Existence. If we go in this direction, a very different view of the universe begins to emerge. We begin to see the universe as a beautiful iridescent rainbow floating on a sea of Existence. The limited existence of the things around us rests on unlimited Existence. The universe as a specific kind of universe is a reflection of the fullness of Existence. By way of analogy we can liken this fullness to the vacuum of the quantum theorists from which particles appear and disappear. This vacuum, instead of being empty, is supremely full. It is nothing only in the sense that it is not like the usual matter and energy we encounter, but rather, some deeper and richer matrix from which they emerge. If we translate this image into a properly philosophical arena, we can say that the universe truly and marvelously exists as the partial expression of a deeper and richer ocean of Existence from which it has come.
The universe, for example, not only originates from this ocean of Existence, but continually rests upon it and unfolds and evolves in relationship to this dynamic ground, this immense ontological field of Existence. If the universe is a partial and limited reflection of Existence, itself, it is contingent. It does not have to exist. Therefore we would be mistaken to conceive the universe as some sort of necessary emanation from Existence itself, for if it were, it would somehow share in the intrinsic nature of Existence and not have the limited contingent existence that we experience.
Further, while this universe could have been made out of the matter of a previous universe, ultimately this contingent matter must have been made without any such matter, that is, without the use of some contingent pre-existing material. It has to flow directly from Existence, itself, because only Existence has the power to make things exist. Once existing things are created, they enter into causal relationships with each other, that is, relationships of giving and receiving existence.
Existence and the things it creates are never static. Existence makes something to be in a certain distinctive way, and this very distinctive kind of existence acts in a distinctive fashion. This kind of action could be called a law of nature. These laws are not imposed from without, but are simply the expression of the particular kind of existence that things have. A proton, for example, has certain essential qualities, not because those qualities are decreed by some outside agency, but because they flow from the very being that makes the proton to be what it is. My point here is not to try to set out in detail such a philosophical cosmology, but simply to indicate that it exists.
A Christian Cosmology
Now lets turn to the kind of cosmology that exists within Christianity. When we think of the Christian doctrine of the origin of the universe, we first usually think of Genesis, but while it certainly finds one of its foundations there, we need to avoid two misunderstandings from the outset.
The first is that of the creationists who imagine that the Scriptures were written by God dictating its words into the ears of its human authors, and thus every word must be literally true in some eternal, immutable, and even scientific sense. Thus if Genesis speaks about the universe created in six days then it must be so because God certainly knows his science. Therefore their job is to find the science to back up what he said, and sometimes they can be quite ingenious in attempting to do so. But they are driven, not by their love of science, but their love of God, and the result is that they end up opposing not only the anti-religious biases of some scientists, but science itself, by twisting what it has discovered to fit into their understanding of Genesis which, in turn, is motivated by their particular view of biblical inspiration.
Ironically the creationists and their arch foes the scientists who imagine that their science justifies their disdain of philosophy and religion are really mirror images of each other, for neither can peacefully and intelligently embrace both science and religion. Most Christians do not hold to the narrow view of the creationists about how the Bible is inspired, and dont look to Genesis for a scientific account of the origin of the universe. But this does not stop them from appreciating the central message of Genesis which clearly and graphically portrays God as the creator of the universe. And many Christians have a genuine interest and appreciation of modern science either as scientists, themselves, or as well-educated people in other fields.
The second difficulty in reading Genesis is similar to the first, but is more subtle. We would be putting an interpretive strain on Genesis if we wanted to find in it in some explicit way a philosophical cosmology. According to some commentators, for example, it might not even be possible to find in the first verses of Genesis a clear enunciation of the doctrine of the creation of the universe out of nothing. Bruce Vawter, who is of this opinion, renders its first verses like this: "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland "34 And he suggests that the priestly author could very well have been saying that Gods creation of the world is a process of organization of the unformed chaos. Questions like where this unformed wasteland came from would not have entered the authors mind. If the priestly author was not writing science, he was not writing metaphysics, either. He is trying to describe the saving works of God, so creation has to be seen in the same line as the exodus and all the rest of Gods saving deeds. There is no contradiction between this kind of approach and the philosophical cosmology we have begun to become acquainted with. Indeed, later in the book of Machabees, it appears that the doctrine of creation out of nothing is more clearly articulated, but we need not, and should not, read into the biblical texts a fully developed Christian doctrine of creation, for it only slowly evolved in the Scriptures and in the writings of the Fathers and theologians of the Church. While a Christian doctrine of creation has much in common with a philosophical cosmology, or better said, is compatible with such a cosmology, indeed, this philosophical cosmology grew up in a Christian context, a philosophical cosmology is the fruit of human reason, and not of faith. The Christian doctrine of creation could be called a theological cosmology, and has quite a different tone to it. There the God of creation is certainly Existence, itself, but much more to the point, the God of creation is the God of Genesis and Exodus, and all the saving deeds in the Old and New Testaments. In short, God as the Creator is a personal, loving God who spoke through Jesus and who watches over the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields. So Christians affirm their belief by saying, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth " A distillation of the long development of the Christian doctrine of creation can be found in these kinds of definitive statements and could be summed up as follows:
God is conceived as a loving Father who is the Creator of everything out of absolute nothingness. There is no prior matter or field of energy out of which God makes things.
Gods creative act is free. Things do not necessarily emerge or emanate from Gods nature, but God decides what to create.
God is the Creator of everything, and everything that God creates is good.
God is not completed or perfected by creating the universe. God acts not out of need, but freely out of love. God created the universe and everything in it because God wanted us to have a chance to enjoy it, and each other, and God.
We are thus confronted with three distinctive kinds of cosmologies: a scientific one, a philosophical one, and a Christian one, which has much in common with that of Judaism and Islam. They all talk about the same universe, but in different ways. We could say that each of them with its own way of knowing cuts a certain intelligible cross-section of the universe out and examines it. A Christian cosmology, using faith illuminated by reason, sees the universe in the light of a personal God who created it out of love. A philosophical cosmology sees the universe in relationship to Existence, itself, and a scientific cosmology looks at the universe as observable and measurable.
These three approaches do not contradict each other. It is entirely possible to hold all three of them simultaneously, and to do so gives us an even richer sense of what the universe is like. Science, philosophical reasoning and faith are not at odds here. The challenge is to understand the distinctive way of knowing of each one. This theme of their distinctive ways of knowing is something we are going to encounter over and over again. To conclude, lets look at a case study of what happens when Christians rush to build their theologies and spiritualities upon sciences latest findings without first scrutinizing what these findings really mean.
Christian Spirituality and the New Cosmology
If the creationists fend off science to protect religion, other Christians are much more open to it, but this openness is not without its challenges. They can imagine, for example, that the kind of scientific speculation we have been seeing about quantum theory and the origin of the universe is scientific fact and be over-hasty in trying to build a philosophy, theology, or spirituality upon it. Or seeing the unfortunate resistance to science by Christianity, they not only try to redress the balance, but by way of reaction go too far and appear to leave some essential aspects of Christianity behind.
"The quantum theory in physics pushes both the scientific imagination and the religious fascination to new frontiers unknown by previous generations," a recent book cover tells us, and goes on to cite its author to the effect: "Theology has no choice but to submit to it, but in the very process it becomes one of the most exciting fields of exploration today, meriting the title of Quantum Theology."35 A well-respected journal echoes this sentiment and introduces an article: "We no longer experience the world as Plato and Aristotle did. The new physics has seen to that. And its new epistemology leads to a new theology one from which fresh truths emerge."36 If a new theology is, indeed, emerging from the new cosmology, can we go a step further and say that we are on the threshold of discovering a new spirituality, a Quantum spirituality?
Christian spirituality, aided by the work of people like Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry and others, has rediscovered a deeper sense of the beauty and wonder of creation, and the magnificent scientific discoveries of this century tell us of the explosive beginning of an evolving universe which is filled with a myriad of galaxies and vast beyond imagining. Ecologically sensitive spiritualities are helping us see the challenges presented by the dark side of human technology which has wrought such havoc upon the earth. The importance of these insights can hardly be overestimated. And if that is what those quantum quotations we just saw had in mind, we could, in fact, conclude that we are on the brink of an age of Quantum spirituality, that is, a spirituality receptive to modern science and sensitive to its ecological responsibilities.
But this vitally important message appears to carry along with it some disturbing tendencies. At first glance, some of these tendencies appear to be merely a question of style, or a certain oversimplification for the sake of pedagogy. Thomas Berry, for example, will call himself a geologian instead of a theologian, and Matthew Fox will tell us that on one side we have a fall/redemption spirituality, and on the other, a creation-centered one. The fall/redemption spirituality has Augustine as its champion, while the creation spirituality has Jesus and Teilhard. The fall/redemption spirituality urges us to control our passions, and talks about original sin, while the creation-centered spirituality is in favor of ecstasy and original blessing.37
It would certainly be ungracious to complain too much about this kind of oversimplification if that, indeed, was all it was. But it can give us pause and make us ask an important question: Just what is the relationship between this new kind of cosmologically inspired spirituality with Christian theology and spirituality on the one hand, and with the findings of modern science on the other?
Lets look at the first part of this question. Just how does this new style of spirituality relate to Christian spirituality? Obviously, it is critical of some of the tendencies of the past, as Matthew Foxs dichotomies indicate. There can be no objection to that. Christian spirituality is always in need of renewal. But legitimate criticism in this kind of cosmologically inspired spirituality has a tendency to grow to the point of rupture.
We are told, for example, that Thomas Berry "offers a comprehensive interpretation of the universe, one that goes beyond both science and theology in and of themselves."38 If we are not immediately sure of what that means, a little later we read: "For Thomas Berry the universe is primary. He enters with no distracting agendas drawn from conciliar documents. He does not attempt to see the universe as a gloss on the Bible. From his point of view, to attempt to cram this stupendous universe into categories of thought fit for scriptural studies or systematic theology is to lose the very magnificence that stuns us in the first place."39 Theology and science are somehow being superseded by a higher synthesis, and if theology is being surpassed, so is what we have known up until now as Christian spirituality. The old Christian spirituality was built on faulty cosmological foundations, we are told, and now must be reconstructed on the basis of the new cosmology. "The insights of all thinkers previous to our time are, to varying degrees, conditioned by spatial cosmologies, all of which have been surpassed. Thomas Berrys insistence is that until we begin our thinking in this time-developmental universe, we condemn all our thoughts to conceptual frameworks in the midst of collapse. How convincing are theologies that are framed by worldviews no longer regarded as real?"40
We are left with the rather chilling impression that we are not simply renewing Christian spirituality, but well on the way to replacing it, and this impression is reinforced, on occasion, by Berry, himself. We are in need of a new story, he tells us, and the universe is the primary revelation, or primary expression of that story. But then, are we to conclude that Christian revelation is somehow a secondary revelation? "I sometimes think that we worry too much about Jesus Christ. We have a great literature on the Scriptures, we have a great literature on Jesus, but we have no literature on the natural work and the Christ-universe equation. I suggest we might give up the Bible for a while, put it on the shelf for perhaps twenty years. Then we might have a more adequate approach to it. We need to experience the divine revelation presented to us in the natural world. Excessive concern with the historical Christ is presently just not that helpful."41 Am I reading too much into these kinds of statements? I certainly hope so. But the language used is a bit too intemperate, and so it makes dialogue with classical Christian theology and spirituality more difficult.
The fundamental issue of whether a cosmologically inspired spirituality is being presented as a way to renew or even expand our Christian vision, or as a replacement for it cannot be sidestepped. Lets look at a more egregious example. In the past, writes Diarmuid OMurchu, "only those who believed in God (as described by formal religion) could be theologians. Quantum theology seeks to dismantle this exclusivity and open up the theological exploration to everybody, to all who are prepared to engage with their lived experience of the universe as a quantum reality."42 Is the next step a quantum spirituality in which we no longer have the need to believe in God? What we have here, I think, is a quantum theology that does not seem to hesitate to substitute itself for Christian theology and spirituality as we have known them. "God is first and foremost a propensity and power for relatedness, and the divine imprint is nowhere more apparent than in natures own fundamental desire (exemplified in the quarks) to relate interdependently and interconnectedly. Questions arise which become immensely disturbing for orthodox theologians. "Does God, then, have no independent existence?" "Is God somehow dependent on evolution?" These questions arise from a certain mode of patriarchal consciousness, characteristic of our mechanistic age, needing certainty, precision, and authoritative clarity. They are valid questions, but of no real interest to a quantum theologian."43
Once God has disappeared into some evolutionary process, then historical Christianity is bound to soon follow. The story, we are told, is more important than the facts: "Whether or not there was an empty tomb, whether or not anybody actually saw the Risen Jesus, is not of primary significance. If through modern archaeological research we were to rediscover the remains of Jesus, thus establishing that he never rose physically from the grave, that discovery would not undermine the faith of a genuine believer. It would create immense doubt and confusion for millions who follow a dogmatic creed rather than a spirituality of the heart. (It could also be a catalyst for a profound conversion experience.)
Theologians in general and guardians of orthodox religion will find the above comments quite disturbing; some will consider them to be blatantly heretical."44 Frankly, I do find them "quite disturbing." This kind of Quantum theology and whatever kind of Quantum spirituality that could be erected on it has lost its moorings in genuine Christian faith.
As Robert Brungs writes in a review of OMurchus book, "Unfortunately OMurchus agendum is much more directed to a new spirituality, one that replaces religion altogether. He says: "Spirituality is inherent to the human condition also to planetary and cosmic growth; in my estimation, religion is not. Spirituality has an enduring quality, coterminous with human evolution; religion serves a transitory and temporary purpose." And "as a human species we are outgrowing our need for formal religion." With such ease he wipes out Judaism, Christianity, and Islam."45
But arent these cosmologically inspired theologies and spiritualities resting on the firm foundation of the new cosmology? Dont they have the impressive weight of modern scientific discoveries behind them? This brings us to the second part of our central question. What is the relationship between these spiritualities and modern science? We need to immediately make a distinction between the basic discoveries of the sciences and their interpretation. We are on solid ground when our spirituality is inspired by an expanding and evolving universe, or the insights of ecologists on the web of life that nourishes us and how that web is being torn apart by our thoughtlessness. But it is quite another matter when we are dealing with the interpretation of scientific discoveries either by the scientists, themselves, or by those who would like to use them to create a new theology and spirituality.
We have looked at some of the things that the scientific cosmologists have been saying. But what are we to make of them? Are we faced with a genuine solution to the question of the creation of the universe which, because it just popped into existence from nothing, has eliminated the need for a Creator? Are we to build a cosmological spirituality based on this? Of course not. William Craig notes that, "It is sobering to note how eagerly and uncritically these theories have been adopted by popular science writers, even long after their demise (among the physicists). For example, referring to the quantum vacuum as "the originating power (which) gave birth to the universe," Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry of the so-called Center for the Story of the Universe substitute for the Genesis story what amounts to a scientific mythology for our time: "In the beginning was a flashing forth of evanescent beings," particles that dissolve back "into the same night that had given them forth, into non-existence, absorbed back into that abyss, that originating and annihilating power that is the marrow of the universe."46
OMurchu, following Swimmes, "being itself arises out of a field of fecund emptiness," comments, "The ground of the universe then is empty fullness, a fecund nothingness," and "fecund emptiness is the source of everything that exists." It predates the big bang, or compared with the traditional doctrine of creation from nothing, "does little to open us up to the wonder of the quantum vacuum."47 This way of proceeding is to put science, philosophy and religion into a blender where they lose their distinctive natures and then can be made to say just about anything we would like.
The need for an explanation for the origin of the universe still confronts us, and we dont need to run about frantically trying to fathom the theological and spiritual implications of the universe popping into existence from nothing. The nothing of the physicist is the vacuum of empty space, not the nothing of the metaphysician, as we saw. The sure findings of physics must be carefully distinguished from this kind of speculation, and even these sure findings have to be subjected to a careful philosophical scrutiny before we can determine exactly what they mean and how they can be used in theology and spirituality.
Another example is in order which illustrates the unfortunate consequences of an over-hasty attempt to build a new theology and spirituality on the basis of the new physics. Here we are directly confronted with the "facts" of quantum physics and their supposed theological and spiritual implications. Heisenbergs uncertainty principle states that you cannot measure both the velocity and position of an electron at the same time. This, in turn, indicates that the electron is "intrinsically indeterminate,"48 and sometimes mysteriously manifests itself as a particle, and at other times as a wave. And this indeterminacy, we are told, leads to a revolution in epistemology that bears fruit in all sorts of new theological truths.
These strange qualities of the electron help us understand the origin of consciousness, and if we are bold enough, they lead to revolutionary theological conclusions. "Divine revelation," for example, "in an indeterminate universe can neither be complete nor closed."49 "There is no distortion of human nature that leads to wickedness. We are not a "fallen race" in any sense of "original sin."50 "We need not wonder why the early Christian church in a static universe yearned to divinize Jesus literally, but in our time we can recognize the greater opportunity for the incarnation of all self-reflective creatures, while renewing the human role of Jesus."51
These conclusions would certainly be revolutionary if they could be shown to be the direct consequence of the indubitable findings of quantum physics. But they cannot be. It has become almost commonplace to be told of the indeterminacy of the microworld in which causality has failed, and to be confronted with the supposedly strange wave/particle nature of the electron. But, to repeat again, while quantum theory has produced superb experimental results, physicists from its very inception have disagreed about what it means. There is no unanimity among them today that says that some sort of intrinsic indeterminacy reigns in the microworld, or that it is demonstrated by the wave/particle nature of the electron. Therefore, it is premature, to say the least, to erect philosophical and theological structures on such shaky foundations. What is needed is the development of a deeper philosophical understanding of quantum theory, and even then it is hard to imagine that it would have much to say about consciousness, still less revelation, original sin and the historical Jesus.
"I happen to think that the religious conservatives are wrong in what they believe," writes Steven Weinberg, no fan of religion as we saw, "but at least they have not forgotten what it means to believe something. The religious liberals seem to me to be not even wrong.
"Very strange, that the existence and nature of God and grace and sin and heaven and hell are not important! I would guess that people do not find the theology of their own supposed religion important, because they cannot bring themselves to admit that they do not believe in any of it."52
But Weinbergs remarks leave out two other kinds of participants in the dialogue between science and religion. One is a small but vocal number of high-profile scientists who seem to take a certain almost adolescent glee in claiming that science is irreducibly opposed to Christianity. The other category which I hope is far larger than all the previous ones is made up of both Christians and scientists who actually believe that science and Christianity can live in harmony.
What are the results of Experiment 1? There is nothing in the genuine findings of modern cosmology that makes it more difficult, still less impossible, for Christians to believe in God as the Creator of the universe. Indeed, cosmology, itself, seems to point in the direction of the universe having a beginning.
Chapter 2: Evolution and Human Origins
Chapter 3: Original Sin
Chapter 4: The Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith