For this installment of our online discussion of Francis Collins’ The Language of God, we’re on chapter three, “The Origins of the Universe.” Find the Book Club page here, where there is a reading schedule as well as downloadable discussion questions and supplemental resources.
The twentieth century saw an “explosion” (pardon the pun) of information about the cosmos. (See some of the more recent of these along with fantastic photos in President Haarsma’s series Recent Discoveries in Astronomy, found in the supplemental resources for this chapter.) It has become mind boggling to consider the universe on the grandest scales. Part of the wonderment comes from the implications of the expansion we’ve detected: run time backward, and everything there is in the universe must have originated from a point. Collins gives the famous Robert Jastrow quote about “the band of theologians” who have been contemplating this “creation” for centuries before the cosmologists got there (p. 66). For a while it looked as though science might be conceding the need for a supernatural origin to the universe.
But recently there has been a spate of cosmologists arguing that natural explanations might do just fine in describing how the Big Bang could have gotten started. Besides Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene (The Hidden Reality, 2011) and Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, 2012) offer scientific explanations for how things might have gotten started. Of course these are hugely speculative right now, but the mathematics is at least suggestive of some of their claims.
- What if they can develop an empirically sound explanation for how our universe originated? Does this rule God out of the picture? Or does it merely push things back one more step? And what about the natural laws on which those explanations (e.g., quantum vacuum states) depend?
In another section of the chapter, Collins addresses the Anthropic Principle (p. 71), which is admitted by almost all cosmologists to cry out for an explanation. The chances that everything came out the way it did are far beyond what anyone can attribute to blind chance. But the multiverse option does have some traction now. Perhaps this is just one more step in our discovery of the vastness of God’s creation. (See Gerald Cleaver’s blog series on the multiverse.)
- Would the discovery that there are not just other stars, other galaxies, and exo-planets, but also other universes challenge your understanding of our cosmos and God’s role in it? Does that really help to answer the Fine Tuning problem, or just push it back another level too?
Finally, this line of reasoning leads us to ask the question about life on other planets. Collins seems undisturbed by this prospect (p. 71), and we’ve listed several works of fiction in the supplemental resources which explore some of the theological implications of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
- What about you? How might the discovery of intelligent life on other planets affect your belief system? Are there theological problems with this, or would it be similar to the discovery during the 1500s of civilizations which didn’t come from the cradle of Western civilization described in the Bible?
In all of these topics, Collins sees not “proofs” for God’s existence, but pointers toward God. We might say that such cosmological discoveries are consistent with the data.
Our goal for this online discussion is to get you interacting with the book and with each other. Feel free to give your answers to one or all of the questions, to respond to what others write in the comments, or to ask your own questions.