Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?

Week 4: Are humans insignificant in the vast cosmos?

February 26, 1999

Loren and Deborah Haarsma

This is an extended version of the handout that was distributed at the seminar.

Did God start the Big Bang?

Hindu --> universe is eternally existing
Buddhist --> universe is an infinite cycle
Materialist --> universe is eternally existing, or an infinite cycle
Jewish, Christian --> universe has a definite beginning and end

"Some foolish men declare that a Creator made the world. The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected. If God created the world, where was he before creation? Know that the world is uncreated, as time itself is, without beginning and end."
-- Jinasena, India, c. 900 A.D.

"The Dalai Lama was also very interested in the Big Bang theory, according to which the world had a start and probably will have an end. This appears to be somewhat contrary to Buddhist scripture, which emphasizes eternal recurrence: things happen again and again. I pressed him on that. Of course, I insisted that the Big Bang was a fashion in science that could change. But if science did become committed to a one-time universe, how could that be reconciled with Buddhist scriptures? He listened through his interpreter and replied, 'Well, it is perhaps not part of the Buddhism to which we are completely committed. We would have to study our scriptures very carefully, and usually, there is some room for maneuver.' 'Some room for maneuver' was the phrase the translator used. I like that very much."
-- John Bell, quantum theorist

"Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of Nature is repugnant ... I should like to find a genuine loophole." "We must allow evolution an infinite time to get started."
-- Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)

"The biggest problem with the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe is philosophical -- perhaps even theological -- what was there before the bang? This problem alone was sufficient to give a great initial impetus to the Steady State theory; but with that theory now sadly in conflict with the observations, the best way round this initial difficulty is provided by a model in which the universe expands from a singularity, collapses back again, and repeats the cycle indefinitely."
--John Gribbin, physicist, 1996

Astronomical evidence has convincingly disproved the steady state and oscillating universe theories. The convincing evidence that the universe has a definite beginning strongly supports the Christian worldview. However, our faith should not rest only on this piece of scientific evidence:
- Other worldviews are finding ways to adapt to the scientific evidence for a beginning.
- The scientific picture isn't finished yet.

Claim: Science can explain the beginning ---> no need for God

"The idea that space and time may form a closed surface without boundary also has profound implications for the role of God in the affairs of the universe. With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started -- it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. 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?"
-- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

Hawking assumes in his argument that God's interaction with the universe is limited to starting it off. In past weeks we've argued for a very different understanding of God's role in the universe: God sustains and upholds the universe continually. Scientific explanations do not rule out God's role, but rather reveal to us His handiwork and design.

"If Hawking is right, and [the cosmos is] without a singular point at which it all began, that is scientifically very interesting, but theologically insignificant. ... God is not a God of the edges, with a vested interest in boundaries. Creation is not something he did fifteen billion years ago, but it is something that he is doing now."
--John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist

Claim: Science says nothing was around before the big bang --> God didn't exist before the big bang

"All of the God theories collapse when three serious questions are asked: Where did God come from, where did God exist before the universe existed, and how did this God learn how to create?"
-- Milton Rothman, plasma physicist

If God lives in space and time as we do, then God couldn't have existed before the Big Bang. But the God of the Bible is eternally existing, outside of time and space (yet chooses to interact with time and space occasionally). The problem comes when you think that the only real things are those that can be measured by science.

How much choice did God have in making the universe?

Claim: Science can explain the beginning only one way ---> God didn't have a choice in making the universe.

"Christians claim that this particular universe can be explained as God's choice, taken from an infinite range of alternatives, for reasons that are unknown to us. But even an omnipotent God cannot break the rules of logic. God cannot make 2=3 or make a square a circle. The hasty assumption that God can create any universe must be qualified by the restriction that it be logically consistent. Now if there exists only one logically consistent universe then God would effectively have had no choice at all."
-- Paul Davies, God and the New Physics

"What I'm really interested in is whether God could have made the world in a different way; that is, whether the necessity of logical simplicity leaves any freedom at all."
-- Albert Einstein

Physics is far from having only one possible theory to describe the early universe. We haven't come up with any yet, and it will be much harder to prove that what we come up with is unique.
Even if there is only one way to build a mathematically self-consistent theory which can produce matter and forces similar to what we observe, that doesn't mean we can explain it all without God:

Why should the universe look like ours at all? God's imagination is larger than ours.
Why does the universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why is the one possible universe also able to bring about intelligent life?

Claim: Human life couldn't exist without certain fine-tuning ---> God designed the universe for us.

Of the many possible universes, not all could have produced life. For life, we need:
Time: The universe has to last long enough for stars to form; life needs stable star-planet systems.
Variety of atoms: The big bang produces hydrogen and helium; heavier elements are produced in stars. Various forces have to balance in order to convert some, but not all, of hydrogen into heavier elements.
The right molecules: The complexity of life would seem to require atoms that can form long chain molecules with metastable bonds, i.e. carbon, and liquid substrate of polarized molecules, i.e. water.
In addition, there are a few curious things that don't obviously arise from the above constraints:
- Liquid and gaseous water is transparent at the same wavelengths that long-lived stars are brightest.
- Nuclear reactions in stars make lots of carbon, but do not easily convert carbon into heavier elements.

"Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say "supernatural") plan."
-- Arno Penzias, cosmologist

"At whatever level we examine the building blocks of life -- electrons, nucleons, atoms, or molecules -- the physics of the universe must be very meticulously fine-tuned. The universe ... must be exquisitely crafted to produce he protons and neutrons required. ... Such precise balancing of all these factors is truly beyond our ability to comprehend."
-- Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos

Possible worldview explanations for fine-tuning:
Blind coincidence -- no reason, it just happens to be that way (unsatisfying).
Anthropic principle -- if universe wasn't this way, we wouldn't be here to study it. But this doesn't explain why the universe is exactly this way (unsatisfying).
Divine design -- God foresaw the whole system, and designed the universe to produce complex life.
Unknown scientific mechanism --ex. The theory of inflation may explain some fine-tuning, but not all.

Further reading on fine-tuning: The Creation and the Cosmos, by Hugh Ross, gives a detailed list of physical parameters and laws that seem fine-tuned to produce the building blocks for life. Keep in mind, however, that Ross assumes all the parameters are independent when they are in fact related. We don't agree with the extreme form of his argument, that Earth is the only place in the universe where life could happen, or that the evidence for fine-tuning proves the existence of God.

Are humans insignificant in the vast cosmos?

The scientific evidence:
Humans are made from stardust: all the atoms in our bodies except hydrogen were produced in stars that later exploded in supernovae.
Humans are very young: human recorded history is about one millionth the time of the universe.
Humans are VERY small: the observable universe is 1026 times larger than a human being
Humans are probably not alone: there are about 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe, with about 10 billion stars each. It seems likely that intelligent life has happened elsewhere.
It will all end someday: Our current theories predict that either the universe will ultimately collapse on itself, or that it will expand forever with all matter merging into black holes.

Science IS saying something here that needs to affect our worldview, we can't just ignore it.

The materialist response:

The First Ten Million Millennia or So
Don L. Anderson

In the "beginning," nothing
No time, no space, no matter.
No energy, no strings
nothing.
not even a point, not even a void
nothing

No laws of physics
no myths, no gods;
nothing, absolutely nothing

Then, a singularity ...
Call it a bang, call it a Big Bang, call it light, call it God.
Perhaps a thought.
In the beginning, the Laws of Logic begat the Laws of Physics.
The rules.
From Nothing, expansion,
false vacuums, phase changes, beginning of time, and space.
Potential for something, Everything.
Energy, potential.
Waves, strings;
vibrating strings
monopoles, sheets, threads
webs.

From the void, chaos
out of vacuum, Genesis.
...

"It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. ... It is very hard to realize that [the earth] 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 hear. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. ... The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy."
--Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes

The Christian response:
Remember that God is not made insignificant by the vastness of the universe. We're surprised to find that the earth is just one small piece of God's creation, but that just reminds us how much bigger God is.

He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love fro those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
--Psalm 103:10-12

For the original audience, heavens-to-earth and east-to-west were the complete extent of the cosmos. So we should read this as from one end of the universe to the other, beyond distant galaxies, further away then you could travel in a thousand lifetimes.

The question of significance was around long before science:
O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
above the heavens.
From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the God
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet;
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

O LORD our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
--Psalm 8

We are significant because:

God chose to speak to us: He chose to speak to small, stardust humans in one corner of his creation.

God has given us a special place in his universe: he has made us care-takes of Earth.

God himself became human: The all-powerful God chose to become one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The incarnation shrinks the immensity of God into an approachable human baby.

God, as a human being, died to restore humanity to himself: We are significant because the God of the huge universe thinks we're worth dying for.

Our actions are significant: Yes, the universe will all end one day, but God will reward and punish us based on how we live our lives here and now. We look forward in hope to the new heaven and new earth.


Copyright 1999 Loren and Deborah Haarsma


Return to outline of the series:
"Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?"
dhaarsma@haverford.edu, Last updated February 26, 1999