Note: This series is adapted from a presentation given at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, IN.
History should have taught us that science has a way of figuring out things we once thought only supernatural intervention could explain. We might still pray for rain, but we can trace back the cause of thunder without invoking bowling gods. Similarly, sudden outbreaks of disease or an individual’s return to health were once so poorly understood that it seemed God must have been directly responsible for superseding the natural order of things to cause those phenomena. As such, God was counted among the otherwise natural causes of events. We see this clearly in the history of cosmology.
The nineteenth-century British mathematician and philosopher Augustus de Morgan published the famous story (probably embellished a bit) in which Emperor Napoleon asks one of the leading scientists of the day, Pierre-Simon Laplace, why he has not mentioned the Creator in his new book, “Systeme du Monde”. Laplace answers, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” This story is often used in the service of naturalism: we don’t need God anymore to fill in the gaps in our understanding, so why believe in God? But I wonder if there is a better way to understand God in relation to advancing scientific explanations. Even for Laplace, it is incorrect to think he was advocating atheism with that claim. Rather, it is a statement about the comprehensiveness of his scientific explanation. Newton’s remarkable achievement in mathematical physics the century before Laplace had left some gaps. Newton gave very precise formulas to account for some of the empirical evidence—like why gravity causes both cannonballs and the moon to trace out the paths they do. But to account for other observable phenomena—like why the “fixed” stars don’t collapse together because of this newly found gravity—he could only say, “. . . and then a miracle happens.” Laplace (and scientists generally) were not satisfied with leaving a miracle in the scientific explanations. His equations and scientific explanations were better than Newton’s and didn’t need to appeal to supernatural intervention to make the system work.
Did that squeeze God out and threaten to undermine a theistic view of the cosmos? If God is one who needs to reside in gaps in the natural order that we can’t explain scientifically, then God was running out of places to hide. But perhaps his fortunes changed in the twentieth century, because natural explanation of the cosmos had run up against a brick wall called the Big Bang. It implied an absolute beginning, a time before which there are no further times—no earlier events that could be appealed to in order to explain it. The cosmologists needed a self-explaining event to get things started, which sounds a lot like a First Cause or an Unmoved Mover. In 1978 the agnostic cosmologist Robert Jastrow wrote:
“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” (God and the Astronomers, p. 116)
It seemed to Jastrow that theologians had found a permanent seat at the table of scientific explanations for the cosmos. There was an inability to provide a purely natural explanation to bridge the gap between the present state of things in the cosmos and how it all might have gotten started. So it seemed reasonable by many to appeal to something supernatural. But the times, they are a changin’. Scientists are no longer embarrassed when questions about the ultimate origin of the universe arise. They are working very hard to “raise the curtain on the mystery of creation” and provide natural explanations for how the matter, energy, space, and time of which our universe consists could have sprung into existence.
For most of the history of science, there was no problematic beginning to the universe. Scientific orthodoxy held the cosmos to be eternal. There would always be an earlier state of things to which science could appeal. But that is what changed dramatically in the twentieth century. Einstein’s equations for general relativity implied that the universe could not stand still; it must always be expanding or contracting. Just like an object propelled upwards will eventually either escape earth’s gravity or succumb to that gravitational force, so too the enormous masses of the universe must be moving apart from each other or collapsing together. Einstein initially resisted this implication and added a fudge factor to his equations to prevent it (a move he later called the greatest blunder of his scientific career). But Edwin Hubble soon found empirical evidence that the newly discovered galaxies were indeed receding from each other as we progress through time. So if we were to run time backward, we’d eventually get to the spot at which all matter, energy, and space itself are condensed into one point. Other empirical evidence, like the incredible confirmation of cosmic microwave background radiation, eventually convinced even the staunchest critics of the Big Bang model of our universe’s evolution.
The Big Bang proved to be a big boon for the science and religion dialogue. It is no coincidence that the significant rise of science and religion as an academic discipline came in the wake of the cosmological discoveries just after the midpoint of the twentieth century. Many theists saw unmistakable evidence of God’s involvement in the natural world. They took the Big Bang to be scientific proof of the theological doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Even biblical concordists (once they got over their literal reading of the Bible’s timeline) decided the true meaning of “Let there be light” was to be found in the explosion of our universe into being some 13.8 billion years ago. This was fantastic stuff. Even now we imagine the moment of creation using a film clip of the Big Bang in which the camera’s viewpoint is stationed a safe distance away and we see an incredible explosion. But that is a popularized and cartoonish version.
In its scientific guise, the Big Bang is not some fiery explosion that came out of nothingness; the term really just names a placeholder for we know not what. Current scientific theories can’t penetrate to time zero and describe what was going on. By about one second after the Big Bang, we have very precise theories backed up with impressive empirical evidence. At that point the universe was already about 1000 times the size of our solar system, and our physics works for describing its further development. Before that first second, though, things are a bit sketchy.
It’s not quite so bad from about 10-43 seconds after the beginning up to one second. During that period cosmologists believe that our current understanding of physics (quantum mechanics and general relativity) is capable of describing the development of the universe. The problem is that we don’t know how these two highly confirmed theories fit together, so we are left with one way of describing the world on large scales (general relativity) and another on small scales (quantum mechanics). But then before 10-43 seconds—the era known as Planck Time in honor of physicist Max Planck who was a pioneer of quantum theory—these two scales have to be integrated for us to make sense of things, because the whole universe was only the size of an atom. So our current inability to articulate a unified physics precludes anything more than speculation during that period.
Such speculation has become a cottage industry these days. A spate of popular level books has been written by scientists who claim to solve the mystery of the origin of the cosmos without having to appeal to God. Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design (2010) speculates that time folds back on itself in the earliest moments of the universe, just like direction folds back on itself on the surface of the globe at the north and south poles. It becomes meaningless then to ask what came before the Big Bang, just as it is meaningless to ask what is north of the North Pole. You can travel north for only so long before you’re forced to start heading back south. If the analogy is correct, on Hawking’s model we can go back in time only so far with our explanations before we’re forced to move in the other direction. Echoing Nicea’s condemnation of Arius, we cannot say of the universe, “There was when it was not.” So according to Hawking, there is no need to invoke a Creator to bring it about.
Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss takes a different approach to render appeals to God obsolete in cosmogony. He argues in A Universe from Nothing (2012) that a natural explanation of something coming from nothing can be given in quantum theory. There are no material particles or energy, no space or time, in a relativistic quantum field vacuum. But according to the highly confirmed laws of quantum physics it is to be expected in such a vacuum that little packets of space can pop in and out of existence in a kind of random flux. Some of these will undergo massive inflation and develop into full-blown universes complete with matter and energy. Nothingness, Krauss argues, is inherently unstable and will naturally develop into something—or perhaps many somethings.
It has become popular to speculate on this subject of multiple universes. Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality (2011) details some nine different kinds of “multiverses” that have been postulated. The most promising version for our topic intimates that rapid cosmic inflation and some versions of string theory would give rise to an astonishing number of universes, each with different laws of physics. Such a scenario undermines the appearance of cosmic “fine tuning” according to which some think we must invoke God to explain why our universe defies the odds and is hospitable for life. Out of the possible 10500 universes the theory predicts, it is no mystery that we find ourselves in one where the laws are in our favor.
None of these theories is without its critics on scientific grounds. They all reach well beyond the currently available empirical evidence and so remain in the arena of speculation. But it should also be mentioned that they are consistent with the currently available empirical evidence and in some cases suggested by the mathematics. And so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one of them, or something similar will eventually succeed in giving a complete and fully natural description of the origin and development of the cosmos. Objections might be made on philosophical grounds as to whether science could ever give an ultimate explanation of the universe—a topic explored engagingly by Jim Nolt in a recent book called Why does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story (2012). But regardless of how that part of the story plays out, we Christians should learn something from the science of the past hundred years.
Judging from the past, it seems to be a risky business to bet on God standing in the gaps in our understanding of scientific theories. Whether the gap is why the stars don’t collapse, how bacterial flagella could have evolved, or how all this matter and energy got here, science has proven to be remarkably successful at explaining things on its own terms. Does that success come at the expense of God? Too many people—both Christians and atheists—have seemed to think that the completeness of scientific theories obviates any role for the divine. But when some scientists or news reporters trumpet the latest scientific discoveries as rendering belief in God obsolete, I say that I’m already an atheist with respect to the kind of god they’re talking about. That god is just one of the causes in and amongst the otherwise natural causes. If we’re looking for God in those kinds of gaps, we’ll soon be left with Napoleon wondering what happened to God.