09.12.16 | God and Science

The centerpiece of the last Member Monday lunch discussion — How the Arab World Came Apart — will be overtaken next week (9/12) by a topic even grander in scope:  God and Science.

The subject matter initially gave me some pause. My honest retort to the question about belief in God goes something like, “Well, define God and let’s go on from there”. Sometimes the discussion widens and a handle appears. Sometimes the discussion narrows into what seems pre-hardened orthodoxy. That’s my confession. Pater Noster (and I was raised Presbyterian-lite).

Per Joseph Campbell let us behold religion in terms of poetry and not prose as we take on the most fundamental existential question of all — the very creation of the universe. The lead discussion piece is an essay that took my breath away when I first read it more than thirty years ago (as did so many other essays written by Lance Morrow at the time), “In the Beginning: God and Science”.

Among the discussion participants will be our very own Roger Briggs who literally wrote the book on the science of creation (Journey to Civilization) and Kevin Townley our master guide on applied mysticism.

In the Beginning: God and Science

By Lance Morrow

Sometime after the Enlightenment, science and religion came to a gentleman’s agreement. Science was for the real world: machines, manufactured things, medicines, guns, moon rockets. Religion was for everything else, the immeasurable: morals, sacraments, poetry, insanity, death and some residual forms of politics and statesmanship. Religion became, in both senses of the word, immaterial. Science and religion were apples and oranges. So the pact said: render unto apples the things that are Caesar’s, unto oranges the things that are God’s. Just as the Maya kept two calendars, one profane and one priestly, so Western science and religion fell into different conceptions of the universe, two different vocabularies.

This hostile distinction between religion and science has softened in the last third of the 20th century. Both religion and science have become self-consciously aware of their excesses, even of their capacity of evil. Now they find themselves jostled into a strange metaphysical intimacy. Perhaps the most extraordinary sign of that intimacy is what appears to be an agreement between religion and science about certain facts concerning the creation of the universe. It is the equivalent of the Montagues and Capulets collaborating on a baby shower.

According to the Book of Genesis, the universe began in a single, flashing act of creation; the divine intellect willed all into being, ex nihilo. It is not surprising that scientist have generally stayed clear of the question of ultimate authorship, of the final “uncaused cause.” In years past, in fact, they held to the Aristotelian idea of a universe that was “ungenerated and indestructible,” with an infinite past and an infinite future. This was known as the Steady State theory.

That absolute expanse might be difficult, even unbearable, to contemplate, like an infinite snow field of time, but the conception at least carried with it the serenity of the eternal. In recent decades, however, the Steady State model of the universe has yielded in the scientific mind to an even more difficult idea, full of cosmic violence. Most astronomers now accept the theory that the universe had an instant of creation that it came to be in a vast fireball explosion 15 or 20 billion years ago. The shrapnel created by that explosion is still flying outward from the focus of the blast. One of the fragments is the galaxy we call the Milky Way—one of whose hundreds billions of stars is the earth’s sun, with its tiny orbiting grains of planets. The so-called Big Bang theory makes some astronomers acutely uncomfortable, even while it ignites in many religious minds a small thrill of confirmation. Reason: the Big Bang theory sounds very much like the story that the Old Testament has been telling all along.

Science arrived at the Big Bang theory through its admirably painstaking and ideologically disinterested process of hypothesis and verification—and, sometimes, happy accident. In 1913, Astronomer Vesto Melvin Slipher of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Ariz., discovered galaxies that were receding from the earth at extraordinarily high speeds, up to 2 million m.p.h. In 1929, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble developed Slipher’s findings to formulate his law of an expanding universe, which presupposes a single primordial explosion. Meantime, Albert Einstein, without benefit of observation, concocted his general theory of relativity, which overthrew Newton and contained in its apparatus the idea of the expanding universe. The Steady State idea still held many astronomers, however, until 1965, when two scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, using sophisticated electronic equipment, picked up the noise made by background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. What they were hearing, as it turned out, were the reverberations left over from the first explosion, the hissing echoes of creation. In the past dozen years, most astronomers have come around to operating on the assumption that there was indeed a big bang.

The Big Bang theory has subversive possibilities. At any rate, in a century of Einstein’s relativity, of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (the very act of observing nature disturbs and alters it), of the enigmatic black holes (“Of the God who was painted as a glittering eye, there is nothing now left but a black socket,” wrote the German Romantic Jean Paul), science is not the cool Palladian temple of rationality that it was in the Enlightenment. It begins to seem more like Prospero’s island as experienced by Caliban. Some astronomers even talk of leftover starlight form a future universe, its time flowing in the opposite direction from ours. A silicon-chip agnosticism can be shaken by many puzzles besides the creation. Almost as mysterious are the circumstances that led, billions of years ago, the creations of the first molecule that could reproduce itself. That step made possible the development of all the forms of life that spread over the earth. Why did it occur just then?

A religious enthusiasm for the apparent convergence of science and theology in the Big Bang theory is understandable. Since the Enlightenment, the scriptural versions of creation or of other “events,” like the fall of man or the miracles of Jesus Christ, have suffered the condescension of science; they were regarded as mere myth, superstition. Not the faithful are tempted to believe that science has performed a laborious validation of at least one biblical “myth”: that of creation.

But has any such confirmation occurred? Robert Jastrow, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has published a small and curious book called God and the Astronomers, in which he suggests that the Bible was right after all, and that people of his own kind, scientists and agnostics, by his description, now find themselves confounded. Jastrow blows phantom kisses like neutrinos across the chasm between science and religion, seeming almost wistful to make a connection. Biblical fundamentalists may be happier with Jastrow’s books than are his fellow scientists. He writes operatically: “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.”

Isaac Asimov, the prodigious popularizer of science, reacts hotly to the Jastrow book.  “Science and religion proceed by different methods,” he says. “Science works by persuasive reason.  Outside of science, the method is intuitional, which is not very persuasive.  In science, it is possible to say we were wrong, based on data.”  Science is provisional; it progresses from one hypothesis to another, always testing, rejecting the ideas that do not work, that are contradicted by new evidence.  “Faith,” said St. Augustine, “is to believe, on the word of God, what we do not see.”  Faith defies proof; science demands it. If new information should require modification of the Big Bang theory, that modification could be accomplished without the entire temple of knowledge collapsing.  Observes Harvard University Historian Astronomer Owen Gingerich:  “Genesis is not a book of science. It is accidental if some things agree in detail.  I believe the heavens declare the glory of God only to people who’ve made a religious commitment.”

 A number of theologians concur that the apparent convergence of religious and scientific versions of the creation is a coincidence from which no profound meaning can be extracted. “If the last evidence for God occurred 20 billion years ago,” asks Methodist W. Paul Jones of Missouri’s St. Paul School of Theology, “do we not at best have the palest of deisms?” Jesuit Philosopher Bernard Lonergan goes further: “Science has nothing to say about creation, because that’s going outside the empirical. The whole idea of empirical science is that you have data.  Theologians have no data on god.”  There comes a point, somewhere short of God, at which all computers have no data either. With the Big Bang theory, says Jastrow, “science has proved that the world came into being as a result of forces that seem forever beyond the power of scientific description.This bothers science because it clashes with scientific religion — the religion of cause and effect, the belief that every effect has a cause. Now we find that the biggest effect of all, the birth of the universe, violates this article of faith.”

 Some scientists matter-of-factly dismiss the problem of creation. Says Harvey Tananbaum, an X-ray astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory: “That first instant of creation is not relevant as long as we do not have the laws to begin to understand it. It is a question for philosophers and religionists, not for scientists.” Adds Geoffrey Burbidge, director of Kitt Peak National Observatory: “Principles and concepts cannot be measured. A question like ‘Who imposed the order?’ is metaphysical.”  Still, virtually everyone — both scientists and laymen—is taken by the sheer unthinkable opacity of the creation and what preceded it.  Says Jastrow: “The question of what came before the Big Bang is the most interesting question of all.”

One immense problem is that the primordial fireball destroyed all the evidence; the temperature of the universe in the first seconds of its existence was many trillion degrees. The blast obliterated all that went before. The universe was shrouded in a dense fog of radiation, which only cleared after 1 million years, leaving the transparent spangled space we see in the night sky now. The first million years are as concealed from us as God’s face. There are many forms of knowing: science, experience, intuition, faith.  Science proceeds on the theory that there is method in all mysteries, and that it is discoverable.  It obeys, reasonably, what is called the “first law of wingwalking”:  “Never leave hold of what you’ve got until you’ve got hold of something else.”  Faith, by definition, is a leap. It must await its verification in another world.

If it has done nothing else, however, the new coincidence of scientific and theological versions of creation seems to have opened up a conversation that has been neglected for centuries.  Roman Catholic Theologian Hans Kung detects the beginning of a new period, which he calls “pro-existence,” of mutual assistance between theologians and natural scientists.  People capable of genetic engineering and nuclear fission obviously require all the spiritual and ethical guidance they can get.  As for theologians, the interchange between physics and metaphysics will inevitably enlarge their ideas and give them a more complex grounding in the physically observed universe. The theory of the Big Bang is surely not the last idea of creation that will be conceived; it does suggest that there remain immense territories of mystery that both the theologian and the scientist should approach with becoming awe. 

And thus the lead discussion question, as we walk our own respective wing, becomes what is it that we’re holding onto.

Steve SmithComment