National Catholic Register


The Staggering Implausibility of What Is

BY Donald DeMarco

December 5-18, 2010 Issue | Posted 11/29/10 at 4:05 PM


In 1927, Georges Lemaître, a Catholic abbé and astronomer, was the first to hypothesize that the universe began when a “primeval atom” of infinite density exploded. Some of his contemporaries ridiculed him, arguing that this theory was nothing more than a transparent ploy to make the Book of Genesis look scientifically credible. Can science provide any evidence that is consistent with the command “Let there be light”?

Lemaître was well aware of the controversial nature of his theory and offered a testable prediction, namely the observation of receding galaxies. If the distance between galaxies is increasing, Lemaître postulated, then everything must have been closer together in the past, and perhaps all together in the beginning. Some fellow scientists scoffed at this idea as well.

But in 1929 Edwin Hubble presented to the world evidence that galaxies were indeed rushing away from each other. From that time to the present, most scientists, on the basis of comprehensive and accurate explanations gleaned from empirical observations, have become convinced that some sort of Big Bang scenario must have occurred. It is now estimated that approximately 13.3 to 13.9 billion years have elapsed since the initial megaexplosion occurred. Lemaître has been fully exonerated.

The Hubble Space Telescope, named after the prestigious astronomer, has confirmed the existence of some 50 billion galaxies. This figure is truly astonishing and has suggested to some that the universe may be so large as to be infinite. No one knows what lies beyond the farthest galaxies. Some could be more than 12 billion light years away. And since light travels at 186,000 miles per second, it travels 6 trillion miles per year. Thus, the furthest known galaxies may be 12 billion times 6 trillion miles away or 72,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles (72 sextillion).

Gregg Easterbrook makes even more astounding observations in his fascinating book Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in a World of Doubt. If the Big Bang had been slightly less violent, he points out, the expansion of the universe would have been less rapid, and all would soon have collapsed back on itself. Conversely, if the initial detonation had been slightly more violent, the universe might have dispersed into a cosmic soup too thin for the aggregation of stars. There was little “margin for error.”

The ratio of matter and energy to the volume of space at the moment of the Big Bang had to be, scientists tell us, within about one quadrillionth of 1% of the ideal. In addition, space, at the time of the Big Bang, had to be astonishingly flat for the universe to develop. Otherwise the universe would have come to an end in a small fraction of a second or would have expanded so rapidly that the universe would have been too cold for stars to form and life to evolve.

Despite the overwhelming odds against the universe forming as it did, it nonetheless did happen. George Will has commented on this unlikely occurrence by stating that “what is is staggeringly implausible, and that is theologically suggestive.”

A good companion to Easterbrook’s work is Stephen M. Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. “Why is the universe so big?” Barr asks. Thinking on a cosmic scale is indeed mind-boggling. It takes 1.5 billion years for the most primitive forms of life to emerge, he informs us. In that time, the universe has been expanding at a colossal rate. In terms of space, life comes at an enormous price. Man himself, Barr states, however, is just the “right size,” which is to say that he is the geometric mean between the size of planet Earth and the size of an atom. 

It has been famously asserted that a half dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, given enough time, reproduce all the books in the British Museum. But this statement, wrongly attributed to Thomas Henry Huxley and often used to justify how pure “chance” could bring about the wonderfully ordered world we see, actually tells a very different story. The scenario in fact assumes that an extraordinarily high degree of order already exists, namely the monkeys and the typewriters. The former are highly complex organisms that are presumed to be indefatigable and unswervingly dedicated to their mission. The latter are presumed to function endlessly without ever needing repair, while producing an uncountable number of typed pages.

The oft-repeated monkey-and-typewriter hypothesis does not begin to explain how order came about but, rather, presupposes it. (The English actor Ian Hart quipped: “There’s a statistical theory that, if you gave a million monkeys typewriters and set them to work, they’d eventually come up with the complete works of Shakespeare. Thanks to the Internet, we now know this isn’t true.”) The assertion represents a good illustration of the logical fallacy known as “begging the question,” where the conclusion one is trying to prove is simply assumed.

The prevailing narrative holds that swirling clouds of gas and dust gradually formed galaxies, stars and planetary systems; atoms combined into larger and larger molecules; simpler organisms evolved into more complex ones; sensation and thought finally appeared through some kind of natural selection. But there is no accounting for how the “gas and dust” came to be in the first place. Even so, the scientific evidence moves in the opposite direction, not from chaos to order, but from profound principles of order that operated from the very beginning. According to Stephen Barr, the “laws of chemistry are themselves the consequence of the beautifully elaborate laws of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, which in turn come from the even more profound structures studied in ‘quantum field theory.’”

The very intelligibility of the word “chance” depends on a previous grasp of the notion of order. This is a point Aristotle made when he defined chance as the “intersection of two lines of causality.” For example, two friends meet by chance at a grocery store. This chance occurrence presupposes that each one came to the store with a particular intention in mind — one to buy milk, let’s say, the other to purchase butter. They meet at the checkout. Their meeting is a chance occurrence. But the “chance” aspect was not primary. What was primary, or prior to the chance meeting, was order and purpose: the two friends coming to the store for clear and precise reasons.

Order precedes chance. The intrinsic order of an atom precedes one atom combining with other atoms. Chance proceeds from order. The question “What are the chances that life could have evolved from chaos?” is not so much a question as a contradiction. Order, however subtle and small, existed at the outset.

Psychiatrist Karl Stern finds it delusional to believe that “random occurrences of large clusters of molecules” led to the formation of life and that “through processes of natural selection, a being finally occurred which is capable of choosing justice over injustice, of writing poetry like that of Dante, composing music like that of Mozart and making drawings like those of Leonardo.”

More sane is the distinguished conductor Georg Solti’s remark: “Mozart makes you believe in God — much more than going to church — because it cannot be by chance that such a phenomenon arrives into this world.”

The great mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl avers that, in our knowledge of physical nature, “we have penetrated so far that we can obtain a vision of the flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason.”

Finally, as astrophysicist Sir James Jeans has remarked, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Order precedes chance, thought precedes matter, and God the Creator precedes creation. In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Just so.

Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor

at Holy Apostles College & Seminary.