“Science Finds God,” runs the recent lead story in Newsweek. “Are there other universes?” asks the cover of U.S. News and World Report. Suddenly, the educated public is preoccupied with cosmology. Cosmology is the study of the totality of all things. This intellectual fad is good news for religion, because, as these articles show, once you start asking questions about the nature of the universe, you invariably start to ask questions about God. Modern scientific cosmology began with Einstein, who gave us the sort of universe which Catholic theologians anticipated all along. We live in a cosmos that is finite, highly specific and which seems to have had a beginning. It started (we think) with an “initial singularity”: all matter was packed into an infinitely dense space.
The Big Bang, which may have occurred 12 billion years ago, must not be pictured as the expansion of matter within already existing space. Rather, space, time, and matter came into existence simultaneously, a fact which would not have surprised St. Augustine.
What Stanley Jaki calls the “specificity” of the formation of the universe is breathtaking. If the cosmic expansion had been a fraction less intense, it would have imploded billions of years ago; a fraction more intense, and the galaxies would not have formed.
Picture a wall with thousands of dials; each must be at exactly the right setting — within a toleration of millionths — in order for carbon-based life to eventually emerge in a suburb of the Milky Way. You cannot help but think of a Creator.
Einstein's universe presents an enormous opportunity for the re-articulation of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. And this is where modern post-Christians with open minds get intrigued and where modern atheists get cagey.
Daniel Dennet, who writes best-selling books and has an ultra-Darwinist explanation for everything, is an example of a thinker who will perform intellectual cartwheels rather than admit the possibility of a Creator.
In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, he makes the claim that the universe began with “next to nothing.” What is that again? Either the universe began with something or it began with nothing. Neither alternative is comforting to an atheist like Dennet. So, he presents us with a category of being — “next to nothing” — which Aristotle would have found highly amusing. No scientist can tell us why there is something rather than nothing.
This is worth keeping in mind when reading books by people like Stephen Hawking, who create whole universes out of mathematical formulae or tell us that the universe began as a fluctuation in the quantum void — whatever that means. All they are doing is sidestepping the simple truth that matter cannot create itself and that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. In other words, the universe must have its genesis in a non-material reality, which we call God.
Although the universe points strongly to its contingency on a Creator, Catholics have to be careful not to fall into the trap of “creation science.” Creation is a strictly philosophical concept; it has nothing to do with science, which deals only with quantitative nature. It's difficult to say who turns themselves into the biggest pretzel: creationists trying to fit science into a biblical template, or atheistic scientists trying to avoid the existence of a personal God.
Francis Bacon wrote that while a little science takes one away from God, more science brings one back again. Modern atheism rests its case on the “little science” of 19th century thinkers like Darwin, Marx, and Freud. All three were ideologues masquerading as scientists. They slipped their materialist philosophies in the back door at night and passed it off as science in the daylight. While all three thinkers had valid insights — even the Pope uses the Marxist term “alienation” to describe the predicament of modern consumerist societies — it is now clear that all three got the big picture wrong. There is no way, for example, that Darwinian selection, which simply eliminates what doesn't work, can create from scratch highly complex organisms. (This does not mean there wasn't evolution or that natural selection did not play a secondary role.)
These “science finds God” stories are generally plagued by a confusion about the proper realms of science and faith. Science cannot “find” God. Scientists can supply data; they can describe the inner constitution of things and make educated guesses about the origin of the universe. But non-material reality will forever elude their recording instruments. A good scientist will admit that certain questions are outside the scope of his methods and hand his data over to philosophers and theologians, who may then talk about design and creation.
James Clerk Maxwell, the great British physicist, said that the test of a first-rate scientist is to recognize the limits of the scientific method. Catholic thinkers can do their share by reminding everyone that science and religion are two different orders of knowledge which need to respect one another's turf.
George Sim Johnston is a writer based in New York. His book, Did Darwin Get It Right? will be published in the fall.