“IN THE beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” we read in the opening of Genesis. St John’s Gospel tells us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Built into the Christian understanding of ourselves, of God, and our relationship with God is the idea that there was a “beginning” — a single moment when the universe came into being. In recent decades, it has been scientific orthodoxy to believe in the Big Bang. It was, the theory runs, a single moment in or at the beginning of time, when the universe spontaneously erupted into being.
This Genesis moment was extrapolated from the work of the American astronomer Edwin Hubble and others, who observed that the universe was in a state of continual expansion. If it was growing bigger as time went on, then, it was concluded, it must have been smaller a long time ago. Some time, 13.7 billion years ago, it would have been infinitesimally small.
AS PICTURES of Pluto beam their way back to Earth, giving us unimagined glimpses of the outer reaches of the solar system, in the vast subterranean laboratory beneath the Swiss Alps, the scientists of the CERN Large Hadron Collider project are conducting experiments that push the horizons of our imagination even further, and fundamentally challenge the way we perceive reality.
Contemporary theoretical physics deals in ideas that are counter-intuitive and appear to defy terrestrial logic. The Collider is testing the plausibility of some of them.
The work has attracted some excitable headlines: “The search for the God Particle” is how one of the experiments has been described (News, 7 September 2011). The elusive Higgs boson particle was given that nickname as it was conjectured to be the fundamental building block of the universe.
Dr David Charlton, Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Birmingham and team leader of the ATLAS experiment at CERN, uses more measured terms: “We are recreating the conditions just after the Big Bang on a very small scale, to study the physics and processes that went on at the time.” He has acknowledged, however, that “We’re heading for unexplored territory. It’s going to be a new era for science.”
Besides the experiments being carried out at CERN and in other locations, which are designed to test the theories of the new physics, there are theoretical cosmologists at work dreaming up even more exotic ideas. Cosmology is currently in a state of creative turmoil.
The physicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science Sir Roger Penrose has cautioned against “fashion, faith, and fantasy in the new physics of the universe”. Nevertheless, the willingness in the world of theoretical physics to think the amazing and the seemingly absurd is, in many research institutes, unrestrained.
THE idea of the Big Bang is being re-examined; it is no longer being thought of as a unique event. Dr Param Singh, of Louisiana State University, cites mathematical objections to the standard hypothesis: “As the clock is wound back, and Hubble’s zero hour is approached, all the stuff of the universe is crammed into a smaller and smaller space.
“Eventually, that space will become infinitely small. And, in mathematics, invoking infinity is the same as giving up — or cheating.”
Dr Singh surmises that, as scientists work backwards towards the supposed moment of the Big Bang, something happens to gravity. Instead of being a force of attraction, it becomes one of repulsion. The point at which everything is reduced to nothing is never reached.
“Our universe”, he says, “owes its existence to a previous one that had the misfortune to collapse in on itself, then, thanks to some clever maths, rebounded to become what we see today. So the Big Bang was not a bang at all. It was, rather, a big bounce.”
Another physicist from the United States, Dr Lee Smolin, has imagined what might happen when a star collapses and becomes a black hole of infinite density, so that, theoretically, time stops. Yet, he says, “that moment when time stops is deferred by quantum mechanics, by quantum uncertainty; and, rather than collapsing to infinite density, the star collapses to a certain extreme density, and then bounces back and begins to expand again. And that expanding star becomes the birth of a new universe.”
Other explanations may be possible if the universe is thought to have multiple dimensions. As earthbound humans, we are aware of, and exist within, four dimensions, but there might be up to 11. There is also, it is surmised, Dark Matter, which appears to warp gravity, but is currently undetectable.
Or, the Russian physicist Professor Andrei Linde says, there might be a mind-boggling number of expanding universes that branch off an eternal cosmic tree. He calculates that there could be ten to the power of ten to the power of ten to the power of seven versions of the universe in total.
COSMOLOGY might all be an illusion of mathematics, and yet the early indications are that several hypotheses are being confirmed by observation, both through experiments, such as those being conducted under the Swiss Alps, and the measurement of light and radio waves from deepest space. But, as Professor Charlton notes, the theoretical constructs of cosmologists’ “parallel universes and multiple big bangs are not directly testable in the laboratory by the experiments we do”.
Whatever theories emerge as the new orthodoxy, the result will not only be huge for science, but will also have enormous implications for Christian theology. If the universe stretches infinitely back in time, and thus there was no beginning, then a belief in God as creator might need to be expressed differently.
If this universe, too, is one of many, existing in parallel, then a concept such as transcendence presents a whole range of exciting possibilities.
The question will need to be explored whether transcendence is some kind of awareness of other universes or dimensions. Similarly, the notion of an afterlife would require re-examination, and prayer might acquire more scientific plausibility.
ARGUABLY, new developments in cosmology will trigger a re-examination of the Christian understanding of the natural world as great as — or greater than — when Copernicus proposed that the Earth orbited the sun.
When the works of Aristotle and other classical writers were rediscovered in medieval times through Latin translation, St Thomas Aquinas was at the forefront of the theological re-examination of the relation between faith and reason.
The philosopher and Vatican adviser Professor John Haldane, of St Andrews University, writes: “When Aquinas and others in the Western natural-theology tradition argued from the character of the universe to the existence of its transcendent cause, they were acute enough to describe that original source of the being and character of things as an uncaused cause, and not as the cause of itself.
“That was a matter of logical coherence, since the idea that something could create itself from nothing simply makes no sense — be that something God, or the universe. In order to create, one first has to exist.”
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in their book The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010), declared that philosophy was dead. It had not, they argued, kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”
In a similar vein, they reported the death of natural theology. “At any rate, the traditional argument from the order apparent in the structure and operations of the universe to a transcendent cause of these, namely God, is wholly redundant.”
YET the question persists: why is there order rather than chaos? “One might say that, if there had been chaos, the question would not arise, because we would not exist,” Professor Haldane says. “In a sense, that is true, but it leaves untouched the central question, which is that of the preconditions of the possibility of order.
“Cosmic regularity makes our existence possible; the underlying issue concerns the enabling conditions of this order itself. . . The basic components of the material universe and the forces operating on them exhibit properties of stability and regularity that invite explanation.”
Given an infinite, or at least an inconceivable, number of universes, existing either sequentially or simultaneously, the existence of order might be explainable by chance. In the same way as the monkey typing on a keyboard for eternity will one day write the works of Shakespeare, so conditions will be right in at least one of the multiverses for intelligent life to emerge.
But the chance consolidation of energy and matter to form this world, and everyone and everything in it, is an unsatisfactory explanation that leaves many questions unaddressed. Human self-awareness is ignored, as is the human capacity for love, evil, wonder, creativity, and transcendence.
The philosophical principle of Ockham’s razor might be applicable. Should there be competing explanations for an occurrence, the simpler one should be preferred. God is a simpler explanation than the intricate mathematics of the cosmologists.
The Christian understanding of God is more than a cosmological explanation. The Christian God, as expressed through the story of the incarnation, addresses the contradiction of significance. As individuals, humans are aware of their utter insignificance within the context of space and time. Yet they are also self-aware, and, as such, perceive of themselves as the most significant part of, and at the centre of, their own universe.
This contradiction is addressed in the idea that God himself became, and suffered as, a human being.
COSMOLOGISTS are living through exciting times, in which they are challenging each other to think the unthinkable. Christian thinkers need to catch the excitement of the age, and not act as the medieval Church did, and deny all new ideas until they became irresistible.
Of the new ideas, the most challenging will not be the concept of there having been no beginning. That was anticipated by Aquinas. It will, arguably, be the suggestion that God’s relationship with humankind may not be unique — perhaps that Christ has redeemed others in alternative universes.
For most lay people, the mathematics of contemporary physics is beyond comprehension. Cosmology can be explained only in parables. Jesus would say the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, or a fine pearl; the cosmologists talk of the big bang or bangs as being like bubbles in a Swiss cheese, or like a bounce, or like two multi-dimensional membranes touching.
Analogy is the language by which we contemplate the ultimate in terms of origin and purpose, as it has always been. One recent BBC documentary on the subject suggested that cosmologists were on the verge of astonishing discoveries, producing not only the biggest picture yet, “but the biggest picture possible”. Or, as Archbishop Anselm defined God in the 11th century, God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”.
Dr Ted Harrison is a writer and artist, and a former BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent.