Creation, Cosmology, and the Insights of Thomas Aquinas
Today's entry was written by Dr. William E. Carroll. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.
Developments in cosmology are often used to argue that contemporary science has eliminated the need to appeal to a creator to explain the origin and development of the universe. Recent books by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow [The Grand Design (2010)] and Lawrence Krauss [A Universe From Nothing. Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (2012)] illustrate well the theme that the origin of the universe, indeed the very ancient philosophical question of why there is something rather than nothing, now falls within the explanatory grasp of cosmology and quantum physics. Hawking and Mlodinow deny the intelligibility of a "beginning" to the universe, since time itself has emerged in the very early universe. Embracing a version of the multiverse hypothesis, they conclude: "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God . . . to set the Universe going."1 Famously, they remark that "philosophy is dead,"2 and when interviewed by Larry King on CNN, Hawking opined that "theology is irrelevant."3
For Lawrence Krauss, the sense of "nothing" employed by those who speak of creation out-of-nothing can now be adequately explained in terms of contemporary physics. As a result, he thinks that the question, why there is something rather than nothing "is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question."4 No divine cause is necessary.
Claims by authors like Hawking and Krauss about the explanatory reach of science are ostensibly made on the basis of developments in science, but they are really metaphysical judgments, frequently advanced without a sound philosophical foundation. If there is a metaphysical assumption lurking behind this view, it is that the mere existence of things needs no explanation.
Whether we speak of explanations of the Big Bang itself (such as quantum tunnelling from nothing) or of some version of a multiverse hypothesis, or of self-organizing principles in biological change (including, at times, appeals to randomness and chance as ultimate explanations), the conclusion which seems inescapable to many is that there is no need to appeal to a creator, that is, to any cause which is outside the natural order. Nature is self-sufficient, not only with respect to the effects which it produces, but in that it somehow generates its very own existence. Thus, the traditional notion of God's creative act disappears; it becomes a mere artefact from a less enlightened age.
The use of insights from cosmology to deny the need for a creator are, at times, countered by scholars who use traditional Big Bang cosmology in support of the doctrine of creation. William Lane Craig is perhaps the most famous proponent of such a view. But we can add the recent work of Robert Spitzer who, in New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, claims that modern physics shows us that the past time of the universe is finite. The general argument is that an initial "singularity" [the Big Bang], outside the categories of space and time, points to a supernatural cause of the beginning of the universe.5 Even Pope Pius XII once remarked (in 1951) that this cosmology offered support for what the opening of Genesis revealed. If the universe has such a beginning, it must be created.6
Thus, we have some cosmologists who deny the intelligibility of the very notion of a beginning and others who argue for variations of an eternal universe. Since there is no real beginning to the universe, there is no need to speak of a creator. On the other hand, we have others who say that science affirms an absolute beginning to the universe, which serves as a warrant for the doctrine of creation. Despite fundamental differences as to what contemporary cosmology tells us (beginning or no beginning), all these views tend to identify what it means for the universe to be created with its having a temporal beginning. This emphasis on beginnings leads to confusion about creation.
In order to disentangle much of the confusion evident in contemporary discussions about creation and cosmology, it is useful to reprise the clear distinctions Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) draws between creation and the natural sciences. For Thomas, creation is a topic for metaphysics and theology. The doctrine of creation affirms that all that is, in whatever way or ways it is, depends upon God as cause. The natural sciences have as their subject the world of changing things: from subatomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a change there must be something that changes. Whether these changes are biological or cosmological, without beginning or end, or temporally finite, they remain processes. Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. Creation is not a change. To cause completely something to exist is not to produce a change in something, is not to work on or with some existing material. When God's creative act is said to be "out of nothing," what is meant is that God does not use anything in creating all that is: it does not mean that there is a change from "nothing" to "something."
Cosmology and all the other natural sciences offer accounts of change; they do not address the metaphysical and theological questions of creation; they do not speak to why there is something rather than nothing. It is a mistake to use arguments in the natural sciences to deny creation. Similarly, it is a mistake to use arguments in cosmology to seek to confirm the doctrine of creation.
Thomas does think that reason alone can lead us to a recognition that all that is is caused by God, but the path to such a conclusion is in metaphysics, not in the natural sciences. Arguments for God as Creator are different from arguments in natural philosophy for God as the source of order and intelligibility in the universe. Explanations of order and design in nature are different from accounts of why there is something rather than nothing.
Creation is not primarily some distant event; rather, it is the on-going complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns first of all the origin (source of being) of the universe, not its temporal beginning. Thomas thought that, in principle, reason alone cannot conclude definitively as to whether or not the universe had a beginning. He did believe, as a matter of faith (confirmed by the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215), that the universe had a temporal beginning, but for him there is no contradiction in the notion of an eternal, created universe: for were the universe to be without a beginning it still would have an origin, it still would be created, it still would depend upon God for its very existence. Whether the universe is eternal or temporally finite concerns the kind of universe God creates. The fundamental sense of what it means for the world to depend upon God as its cause ought to be distinguished from whether or not what God causes has a beginning. Otherwise, we might be led into the error of thinking that to deny a beginning is to deny that dependence upon God.
It was the genius of Thomas Aquinas to distinguish between creation understood philosophically, with no reference to temporality, and creation understood theologically, which included, among other things, the recognition that the universe does have an absolute temporal beginning.
God’s creative power is exercised throughout the entire course of cosmic history, in whatever ways that history has unfolded. God creates a universe in which things have their own causal agency, their own true self-sufficiency—a nature that is susceptible to scientific analysis. No explanation of cosmological processes, nor biological change for that matter, regardless of how radically random or contingent such an explanation claims to be, challenges the metaphysical account of creation, that is, of the dependence of the existence of all things upon God as cause.
1. Hawking, S. & Mlodinow, L. The Grand Design, New York: Bantam Books (2010): p. 180.
2. ibid., p. 5.
3. This was Hawking’s answer to a query about theology in a television interview in the United States [The Larry King Show on CNN], 10 September 2010.
4. Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe From Nothing. Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, New York: Free Press (2012):
5. Spitzer, R.J. New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans (2010), esp. chap. 5, pp. 177-215.
6. Pope Pius XII, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 22 November 1951.
William E. Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford and member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford. He is the author of Creation and Science; Galileo: Science and Faith; La Creación y las Ciencias Naturales: Actualidad de Santo Tomás de Aquino; and co-author with Steven Baldner of Aquinas on Creation. A longer version of this essay will be published in the April 2012 issue of Science & Christian Belief, and Carroll’s recent lecture on the topic for the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion may be viewed here.