Cosmology and Faith

Feb. 7, 2022 by Rev. Jacques Nel

At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists were not debating the origins of the universe. It was assumed that either the universe was always there, or its origins will be forever a mystery.

It was left to theologians and philosophers to debate such metaphysical matters. Einstein’s theories already then suggested that the universe is unstable and not static, but no one came up with a definitive answer why this is so. Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician developed a cosmological model, indicating an evolving and expanding universe. A Belgian priest and physicist by the name of George Lemaitre was the first to suggest that the universe started with an exploding primeval atom. Lemaitre said, there are two ways of arriving at the truth and I decided to follow them both.

The size of the universe

andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy

Up until about 1928, no one knew what those faint patches of light in the night sky were. Very descriptively they were called the nebulae. Then with the newly built Hooker telescope, Edwin Hubble discovered that the nebulae were in fact giant star cities. At present it is estimated that there are approximately 200 billion of these star cities or galaxies in the observable universe. Our home the Milky way galaxy contains 250 billion stars. Our nearest neighbor the Andromeda galaxy, is 2.5 million light years distant and it contains roughly a trillion stars. The most distant galaxy we can see lies at a distance 13.4 billion light years.

The Big Bang

With the aid of the known absolute luminosity of Cepheid variable stars, Hubble and his assistant measured the distance to the nearest galaxies. With light travelling at 186,000 miles per second (that is circling the earth seven times in a second) even the nearest galaxies are immensely distant. Not only that, Hubble discovered that the more distant a galaxy was, the more red shifted it was in the electromagnetic spectrum. This meant that all the galaxies were speeding away from one another and the more distant a galaxy was, the faster it was receding from every other galaxy. This became known as the expanding universe hypothesis. Space itself is expanding and we now know that the acceleration is speeding up, driven by a mysterious property known as dark energy. At present we have no idea what this dark energy is, and some speculate that it might be a property of space itself.

If everything was shooting away from everything else, then at some point in time it had to be much closer. How close? The obvious answer was a bit of a shock. The universe exploded out of state so close, the physics thereof cannot be described. It is called the singularity. This event became known as the big bang. If we rewind back the clock at the rate of the present expansion, it happened some 14 billion years ago. At that point in time this universe and with-it space and time, literally exploded into existence. The name Big Bang itself came from one of the opponents of the theory, Fred Hoyle. It was meant to be a sarcastic remark, but it stuck. The Big Bang has since been confirmed by the discovery of a background radiation in every direction of space. It is the standard model of modern cosmology, and its opponents are no longer considered to be serious scientists.

big bang
The Big Bang

The discovery of the Big Bang was arguably the greatest scientific event of the last century. We landed on the moon but here before us was now a window on the beginning of our universe. Hubble became a bit of a celebrity and he and his wife were often seen at Hollywood parties of the time. The work itself was a lonely quest like all similar achievements. Driving the giant Hooker Telescope night after night with frozen fingers took a lot of stamina. Staying for weeks on end in what was known as the monastery up on Mount Wilson was not an easy life. But it paid off. Hubble once remarked, astronomy is like ministry. No one should go into it without a call. Talk of God was now going to be the next thing on the table.

On a road trip out west, we once visited Mount Wilson. The place is a shrine of modern science. On the outskirts of LA in a very ordinary looking neighborhood, we found the winding road going up the San Gabrielle Mountains - speak of angels. When after an hour long drive up that mountain we finally came to the famous observatory, there was not a soul in sight. The Hooker telescope was locked behind glass. There were a few old photos, one with Einstein and Hubble on it. High up in the pine trees there was the sound of a soft breeze. There came a feeling of peace over me. Our God is an awesome God.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

Turtles all the way down
Turtles all the way down

The discovery of the Big Bang was seen by several Christians as a confirmation of Genesis 1:3, where God says: Let there be light and there was light. Here finally we had the evidence for creation and a beginning that needed an uncaused cause (God). The medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas (following Aristotle) held that we cannot proceed infinitely in a series of beings or events. We cannot be here now if time goes back infinitely or if the universe is eternal. If the world sits on a turtle and that turtle sits on a world that sits on a turtle, there cannot be an infinite regress of turtles all the way down. Somewhere it got to stop and there must be a beginning. Speaking of the infinite can only be a reference to God, who is the Alpha and the Omega. A finite universe with a beginning requires a creator.

An 11th century Persian Muslim scholar Al-Ghazali first came up with what is now known as the Kalam cosmological argument. Somewhat rephrased it goes like this. Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefor, the universe has a cause, and that cause can only be God. Pope Pius Twelve in a 1951 address delivered before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, strongly endorsed the theological implications of the Big Bang. Even someone like Stephen Hawking seemed to agree that such a beginning of the universe inevitably pointed to a Creator. But Hawking had absolutely no plan to side with the church. This was more like the proverbial red flag for a bull.

A spanish matador
A Spanish matador

The No-Boundary Proposal

History often showed how fatal it can be to build theological arguments on scientific theories. By simply assuming that the Big Bang had to be the first moment of creation, a flood of responses coming from the scientific world were invited. The best known of these responses was Stephen Hawking’s no boundary proposal. In his characteristic dramatic way, Hawking proposed that there is no singularity in what he called imaginary time. The universe is finite in time, but it has no beginning he said. At an imaginary time, the universe has no boundary, it just curls around itself like the earth. Hawking was basing all this on a complicated mathematical argument using imaginary numbers. According to Hawking then, if the universe had no beginning, we must conclude that it simply exists. The brute fact of its existence has finally done away with God.

Hawking argued that if time is defined by this universe, then it makes no sense to talk of a time before the universe began. In general relativity it became meaningless to talk about space and time outside the limits of the universe. To even begin to understand what Hawking is saying, at least some insight into quantum mechanics is needed. On an almost infinitely small-scale space and time is nothing like the way we experience it. Hawking wanted to figure out what will happen when gravity is so strong, that it will reveal its quantum nature.

The inability of light to escape from a black hole is due to the extreme curvature of space and time. A black hole is the final stage of a massive collapsing star. Hawking did considerable work in this field. It is postulated that inside the event horizon of a black hole, the values of any matter and energy that are falling into it are raised infinitely. It results in what is called a singularity, which is precisely what was postulated to be at the very beginning of the Big Bang. There is now however some doubt whether singularities exist, since no one knows what happens to the laws of physics as the infinite values are approached. It was precisely here that Hawking did his theorizing about the early stages of the universe where a singularity was proposed.

Once over the event horizon of a black hole, nothing giving us any information what lies beyond ever emerges. Singularities are protected from outside observers. Values are raised infinitely as we approach the singularity so we have no way to know if any of the laws of physics still operate or what other conditions may exist. When we theorize about a singularity, we can only imagine catastrophic conditions. Hawking speculated about these extreme conditions, and he wondered how it could be applied to the early universe.

When we look at a model of the earth, we see the longitude lines converge at the North Pole and it looks catastrophic. But when you are at the pole you don’t see anything unusual. Hawking proposed something similar for the Big Bang. From our perspective there is a singularity but at the point of the bang there is not. From our perspective the universe has a beginning but at the point of the beginning there is no beginning. The curvature of space and time becomes infinite and like the surface of the earth time and space has no edge, yet it remains finite.

Hawking reasoned for high densities of matter it is not to say that the concepts of gravitational field and matter will still be separate. In a unified theory of quantum gravity there might not be a singularity. Hawking was interested to see how all these ideas could be applied to the problem of the Big Bang singularity. All along he worked with the likes of Roger Penrose and others on these problems. It was now obvious that we can only understand the earliest moments of the Big Bang through a theory of quantum gravity. But we have no such theory. Our understanding of the Big Bang breaks down at Planck time which is about 1×10-43 seconds after the Big Bang itself!

The no boundary thesis is best formulated in Hawking’s own words. In this theory time loses the characteristics that separates it from space and the concept of a beginning in time becomes meaningless. Space-time with this signature has no boundary. There is no big bang, no singularity, just another direction in space (and time?) So long as the universe had a beginning that was a singularity, one could suppose that it was created by an outside agency. But if the universe is completely self-contained, having no edge or boundary, it would be neither created nor destroyed. It would simply be. Hawking asked what place then for a creator?

Hawking now wanted to be the matador taking on the church. This can only be a red flag for believers. Hawking is now deceased, but his books sold in the millions. I suspect very few people understand what he said but the faith of millions is undermined, when they hear the famous scientist denying creation by God. We are in the marketplace of ideas, and we cannot avoid this dialogue with science.

The end of God or the end of science?

Let’s assume for the moment that Stephen Hawking had it right, saying the universe had no beginning. Should such a universe without beginning automatically do away with the need for a Creator God? Hawking said that his no boundary proposal implied a universe that simply is. But is the brute fact of existence not something mystical? Must we now be content with the shallowness of a materialistic society. For Hawking the final victory of science had to exclude God from the universe and with that all mystery.

Hawking based his no creator argument on a fuzzy period (1×10-43 seconds) where time gets swallowed by space. But does belief in a Creator God require a definite specific first event of creation? The answer is absolutely no. God is not bound by time. With respect, God is all over the place, God is the Alpha and the Omega. Hawking was trapped in a very outmoded deistic understanding of God. That somewhere before the world was made, there was God. Fact of the matter is, an eternal God can also make a universe that is finite in time, yet it has no beginning. And that would be Hawking’s universe. Hawking’s no boundary proposal proves nothing about a creator God either way. If in Genesis it says in the beginning, that is merely as seen from our perspective. That the earth was a formless void before there was light sounds a bit like Hawking. Genesis saying that God created the world and Hawking’s description of the process should not be juxtaposed.

Hawking seemed to think that finally explaining how everything works (I doubt it is possible) is the equivalent of understanding why everything is. Willem Drees, a Dutch physicist and theologian considered Hawking’s proposal interesting and elegant. Drees however added that no argument against God can claim completeness. The mystery of existence is unassailable. It remains possible therefor, to understand the universe as a gift, as grace. That can certainly also apply to Hawking’s universe which is finite in time, yet it has no edge, boundary or beginning. If there is any evidence for God or not (coming from cosmology) it must lie elsewhere.

Reflecting on quantum fluctuations in the vacuum, Hawking in fact went much further than his no boundary proposal. He said because there is such a thing as the law of gravity the universe will create itself from nothing. Hawking literally argued that the universe bootstrapped itself into existence. I don’t think his use of the word nothing was legitimate. Nothing is nothing. If I understand him correctly his nothing was still quantum fluctuations in the vacuum. But that aside, a universe that literally created itself had to be very smart to give us the outcome that is before our eyes. Gravity then was an artist, giving us mountains, flowers, sunsets and seasons so perfect. In fact, gravity had to be a genius that all of this can be described by the logic of Math. Gravity gave us love and hate, joy and sorrow! That gravity can be so all encompassing, that is truly amazing.

John Polkinghorne is a Cambridge Quantum Physicist who became an Anglican priest. For Polkinghorne the belief that the universe was created by an act of God, can be backed up by two arguments. Both arguments spring from the findings of modern science. None offer conclusive proof that God is the creator of the universe. Both however are strongly supportive of such a view. They are meta- questions (questions going beyond) simply because the findings of science from which they flow offer us no comfortable resting place. According to Polkinghorne these two meta-questions that arise from science are: 1) The amazing rational transparency of the physical world. 2) The remarkable fine tuning of this universe that makes human life possible. Personally, I find myself in agreement with Polkinghorne on this.

The rational transparency of the universe

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

Although he was not a believer in the Biblical sense of the word, Einstein famously said the universe is a set up job. The only in incomprehensible thing about the universe is, that it is comprehensible. Polkinghorne thinks our amazing ability to understand the physical world cannot so easily be explained away. Why does reason so perfectly fit the physical world? This physical world is rationally transparent to an astonishing degree. What is more is that mathematics plays such a key role in that transparency. The physical world is shot through with mind, which in fact is the mind of the Creator. There is congruence between our minds and the universe, between the rationality experienced within and the rationality experienced without. The true explanation for this congruence must surely lie in a more profound reason, which is the ground of both. Such a reason would be provided by the rationality of a Creator. And we are made in God’s image.

E = mc²
Einsten's famous equation E = mc²

A fine-tuned universe

For Polkinghorne the belief that we live in a world created by God, flows also from the second issue raised by science. This is what we might call the anthropic principle. The fact is that a delicate balance seems necessary in the universe’s make-up, like what we find and evolving systems like ourselves. This universe could have evolved into an almost infinite number of states. The fundamental forces of nature (gravity, strong and weak nuclear, electromagnetic) had to be in a very specific balance during the first moments of the bang, to give us this specific state of the universe. The probability of this universe arising by chance is so small, no one in his or her right mind can think our universe is the product of the mere blind forces of nature. The fine tuning of those cosmic knobs was necessary to make humans. This is known as the fine-tuning argument of standard Big Bang Cosmology. Polkinghorne strongly propagates fine-tuning as an argument for the theistic origin of this universe.

spiral of numbers
Perfectly tuned cosmic knobs

During the first moments after the Big Bang the universe was placed on a very specific track. For life to be on this earth, everything in that first split second had to be in the right balance. Otherwise, the universe could have evolved into an almost infinite number of states. A physicist Paul Davies says the fact that those relations were necessary for our existence, is one of the most fascinating discoveries of modern science. A deviation in the ratio between the competing effects of the explosive expansion and gravitational contraction of one part in 1× 1060 would have led to a different outcome. It was more than a slippery slope. It was God who brought us to this place. That’s the argument.

Late-stage stars collapse when the outward push of the nuclear furnace is overcome by the inward pull of gravity. When the star is above a certain mass it will keep on collapsing until it hits what can best be described as something like a brick wall. At this point the star will explode in what is called a supernova. One supernova can shine with the light of a billion suns, and it is the most violent event known to us. The element carbon is produced by these supernovas. Were the value of gravity different, there would have been no supernovas and no carbon-based life on this planet. We are stardust and our birthday, like that of the universe was the most violent event you can imagine. What’s more, the whole thing is now beginning to look pre-planned. Not because there was a beginning. Maybe there was no beginning as Hawking wants us to believe. No, it looks pre- planned because when it happened all the knobs were tuned to right values.

George Ellis, who for many years taught applied math at Cape Town University, said there is absolutely no way we can escape the conclusion that fine tuning is a pointer to intelligent design (God?) UCT is my alma mater and that is one more reason why I agree! Of course, that is just my bias. Fine tuning is due to either design, change or some other necessity not known to us now. Even Stephen Hawking had to ask, what then is breathing fire into the equations (if it was not God)? And for Hawking this fine-tuning argument for God, it was once again the proverbial red flag. Like most cosmologists petrified by even the mention of God’s name, they all sought solace in the multi-verse hypothesis.

Cambridge cosmologist Martin Rees said, our emergence from the Big Bang was sensitive to six numbers. Had these numbers not been well tuned, the gradual unfolding of the complexity of this universe would have been quenched. He then asks the vital question. Are there a multitude of sterile universes and just ours happen to be an oasis? The deadly logic of this is obvious. Either this universe is designed by a higher intelligence (God?), or we are just lucky to be in the right universe out of uncountable zillions of universes, where change couldn’t get the numbers right.

The Multiverse

Are we just lucky?

The primordial sphere of total chaos that preceded the Big Bang is called a Planck sphere (no longer a singularity?) It was not long before cosmologists came up with the idea of a mirror universe emerging from the same Planck sphere as our universe. While the mirror universe exists in our past, its arrow of time points opposite to ours. The mirror universe is expanding in the direction opposite to ours. Since the Planck sphere contains no information or structure, it is functionally indistinguishable from nothing (so goes the argument) and we have two universes tunnelling from nothing.

The mirror universe is dominated by randomness like ours. It will not be identical to ours. It may in fact be so different, we cannot dream it. Ours was the lucky throw of the dice. So here I am, how lucky I am! And that’s you over there, that smiling yellow face! Whatever is in that opposite universe, it is not the place to be. And if two universes are possible, why not three or five or an infinite number that is now called the multiverse. Hence the many grumpy blue faces. The multiverse is then the ultimate lottery and carbon-based life is nothing but a lucky throw of the dice. That one universe (ours) out of zillions of other less fortunate universes, that couldn’t get the numbers right (at least for life as we know it).

So, we are the lucky throw of the dice (?) thank God for that! No, you are not supposed to mention God in this quest to unravel the secrets of our existence! Some of us suspect that the sudden enthusiasm for the multiverse came at a very convenient time, as a denial of fine tunings most likely conclusion (a creator God). On July 7, 2005, Christoph Schörnborn, Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna wrote, in the New York Times: The multiverse hypothesis in cosmology was invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science. Others like William Lane Craig expressed similar sentiments. The proponents of chance have been forced to postulate the existence of other universes, preferably infinite in number and randomly ordered, so that life-permitting universes will appear by chance somewhere in this multiverse.

In fairness, this is vehemently denied by the scientists who favor the multiverse idea. They argue that the multiverse is the conclusion of our best current models of cosmology. And true, the multiverse thesis is based on complicated mathematical reasoning and many of the current theories in theoretical physics. Yet many non-believing scientists have joined the theists in arguing that the multiverse is not a proper scientific theory. There is absolutely no way to verify this hypothesis (falsify it, if you want to follow Karl Popper here!) We have no way of observing a universe outside of our own and we will never have it. All information is lost in the chaos of the Planck Sphere (and that is putting it mildly).

The proponents of the multiverse insist it is an unavoidable consequence of eternal inflation, the current model of the early universe. And that we are just lucky to be in the right universe. To my mind something is missing here. I know that I’ve been lucky sometimes in my life (I suspect that was also God at work). But such a stroke of luck? One in zillions? Tell me another story.

The Apostle Paul

If some of us struggle to see it in the details, we saw it long ago in the big picture. Ever since the creation of the world his (God’s) eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. (Romans 1:20). That was Paul. I am not saying there is no multiverse. The verdict is still out on that one. I am saying with Paul, God made it all.

Little people under a big sky

Milky Way Galaxy
The Milky Way Galaxy

By now contemplating all of this, we will be pardoned for feeling very small and insignificant. Compared to the vastness of the cosmos we are nothing. This is often used as an argument against faith in God. Even if there is a creator God it is said, why would such a God be interested in us? We are just a speck of dust on a pale blue dot in space. Remember those famous photographs, coming back from Voyager as it was leaving the solar system. Our faith in a God who cares about us, that is just our own inflated opinion of ourselves. At least that is the argument.

Fact of the matter is, we are not so small. We are exactly halfway between all possible sizes in the universe. If the observable universe is roughly 46 billion light years across and if superstrings indeed exist as the smallest imaginable something, we are size wise located dead centre in the middle. Size wise we are at the centre of the universe. More important, we were made with minds that can contemplate in absolute awe the magnificent beauty of the cosmos. Looking up into the night sky the Psalmist ask in wonder, what are humans that you are mindful of them God? Indeed, who are we that the maker of the universe was thinking of us, when He made the Orion and the seven stars?

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