LM Archives
  6:53 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

God and the Big Bang

A major scientific breakthrough is being twisted into an argument for religion. John Gibson and Manjit Singh reply to the mystics

'If you're religious, it's like looking at God', said George Smoot, leader of the Cosmic Background Explorer (Cobe) research team, unveiling its sensational findings in April.

Cobe had peered back across the universe to within 300 000 years of creation. There they had detected the 'ripples' that would one day lead to galaxies and stars. The discovery was called the find of the century by the scientific establishment. In the media, it was used primarily to heat up the debate about the relationship between science and religion.

Time and space

The Cobe satellite was launched in November 1989, after years of delay due to the Challenger disaster, to investigate cosmic radiation without the interference of terrestrial phenomena such as man-made radio noise. Studying radiation gives us a clue as to what the universe was like far back in time, because it takes time for the radiation to reach us. So, for example, in looking at the sun we see it as it was approximately eight minutes ago. By using this method Cobe has managed to look back in some detail to over 14 billion years ago.

In April, eager scientists packed into the meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington to hear Smoot announce the discovery of 'evidence for the birth of the universe'. Michael Turner of Chicago University believed that Smoot's team had found nothing less than the 'holy grail of cosmology'. They had shown that the 'Big Bang' model of how the universe began is consistent with the way in which the universe is structured today. (How?--see box, page 36)

Designed by deity

But 'what caused the Big Bang?' is the obvious next question. And the most striking feature of the public debate around the latest findings has been the increased willingness of commentators to invoke God as the initiator. The Vatican has long argued that the Big Bang was the work of God. In a sense, the latest findings have added weight to a related 'scientific' argument for the existence of God: the argument from design.

The shorthand version of the argument goes like this. Of all the unimaginable ways in which the universe could have developed, it just so happened that it developed in a way which has led to human life. That is a highly unlikely occurrence, statistically speaking, according to current theories. This is taken as evidence that the formation of the universe must have been an act of design. Top physicist Paul Davies argues the case in his book, The Cosmic Blueprint:

'The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to emerge and develop to the point of consciousness - in other words, that the universe has organised its own self-awareness - is for me powerful evidence that there is "something going on" behind it all. The impression of design is overwhelming. Science may explain all the processes whereby the universe evolves its own destiny, but that still leaves room for there to be a meaning behind existence.' (p203)

Elsewhere Davies has gone even further: 'It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion.' (God and the New Physics, pix)

Destroyed by Darwin

The argument from design is of course far from new. The most famous example of the argument in modern times was put forward by the Anglican priest and naturalist William Paley in his book Natural Theology (1802). Paley drew the analogy that if you found a watch while walking across a moor, you wouldn't think it was an accident equivalent to finding a stone. You would be certain that somebody had made it. Yet everywhere in nature we see things much more complex than a watch. For example, the human eye. From this Paley deduced the existence of God, the grand designer.

Charles Darwin destroyed the arguments of Paley and others in the mid-nineteenth century with his explanation of natural evolution. Darwin established that chance mutation and natural selection were all that was needed to explain the complexity and diversity of life on earth.

Darwinism still poses problems for theologians. It asks very difficult questions about any notion of a personal God, and certainly shatters any claims that the Bible can be taken as literal truth. But the problems are not insurmountable for theologians with a creative streak. Since Darwin, supporters of the design argument have retreated further back in time (and so further away from anything that can be definitely disproved), in order to defend their case. And you can't get further back than the Big Bang!

It may seem fantastic that the development of the universe was such that human life could emerge, but then it seemed fantastic to Paley's generation that the human eye existed until Darwin showed the way. The development of science has always tended to explain the fantastic.

Even without the assistance of further scientific advances in cosmology, however, it is possible to ask which is more fantastic: the fact that we are here to ponder retrospectively the probability of our own existence on the basis of natural laws, or the notion that a supreme being outside of space-time went to so much trouble to create a universe with planet Earth tucked away in one corner just for us?

For the moment, the beauty of the Big Bang for the theologians is that, according to modern science, it does not make sense to talk about what happened before the Big Bang. In scientific terms, it is literally a meaningless question.

This illustrates that there will always be questions concerned with first causes which are not susceptible to definite scientific answers. In order to accept any explanation of such matters, an act of faith is required. As Paul Davies puts it: 'In the end it all boils down to a question of belief.' (God and the New Physics) You either believe in God or you don't.

And there, we might think, the issue should rest, to be discussed along with 'how many angels can you fit on a pin-head?' and other such questions. But that would be to misunderstand the debate between science and religion as it takes place in the Western world in 1992. Many believers insist that only religion, rather than science, can provide a meaning for life. Unfortunately, in this weary and confused time, they are being taken more seriously than they might have been in the recent past.

Souls and slugs

According to Rev John Polkinghorne, president of Queen's College, Cambridge, and a scientist: 'God is not the answer to who lit the blue touch paper which set off the Big Bang, but why it was lit. He is the answer to the meaning and purpose of the world. Therefore religion has nothing to fear from science.' (Sunday Times, 26 April 1992)

In his new book, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times takes this a step further. According to Appleyard, all science tells us is that people are 'meaningless accidents in a cold universe'(p67). In his caricatured account, science tells us that we are born, we die, and are of no more significance than a stellar nebula or a slug. For Appleyard, if humanity is to regain a sense of purpose in life, and so save itself, it must return to the centrality of religious faith.

There is an alternative view of 'the meaning of life'. In terms of cosmic evolution, humanity is an accident. This is the unmistakable message of modern science. But our humanity does not lie in our accidental origins, our biological make-up. It lies in that which distinguishes us from all other living things: our rationality, our consciousness, and our capacities as social, purposive creatures to understand, change, and control the world around us.

Modern humanity is unique in possessing consciousness and the capacity for rational choice. This capacity separates us from everything else that we are aware of in the universe. But it is not a result of some divine plan, nor is it the result of our biology; that last has remained unchanged for 50 000 years and more, during which time mankind's capacities have developed beyond all recognition.

Self-made mankind

Instead, human consciousness is a product of our own history, our own development out of the animal kingdom. This has been the result of a social process which we are now in a position to begin to understand, and take control of for the future. Humanity has made itself.

Faith in the human potential, and in our own capacity to make a difference to the world around us, is the only faith we need. Science is not the answer in and of itself. But science allied to a rationally organised social system subject to human control has the potential to transform our lives for the better.

By contrast, faith in God belittles mankind. It places a barrier to rational scientific enquiry. It encourages people to fear experimentation, to have less faith in their own potential.

The current debate about God and the Big Bang raises several important questions. For example, why are the religious mystics now able to influence the public discussion of modern science? And why is contemporary culture so suspicious of scientific advance?

Many scientists are aware that there is a strong non-rational element in contemporary attitudes to science. A Royal Society working party reported on this problem in 1985, and this year has brought the launch of a new journal, Public Understanding of Science. In his article, 'How to think about the "anti-science" phenomenon', Gerald Holton poses an interesting question:

'Could it be, at this end of the century, that the widespread lack of a proper understanding of science might itself be either a source, or a tell-tale sign, of a culture's decline?'

The more likely answer is that the lack of understanding of science is a sign of, rather than a source of, our culture's decline. Contemporary society is stagnant economically, politically and culturally. In such a situation, science fails to live up to its promise, and fails to excite. It can also become prey to the irrational interpretations of the mystics.

The dominant attitudes towards science and religion are always decided by the overall social and intellectual climate of the times, rather than by scientific breakthroughs in and of themselves. For instance, the challenge to established religion during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century did not result narrowly from science. It reflected the wider development of an expanded sense of what was possible through human reason and action. Natural science played only a supporting role in the optimistic movement which dragged society into the modern era. In the nineteenth century, the profusion of social histories on the role of religion and of radical political tracts undermined religious faith more than did science in itself.

In the same way, we can see current trends in the discussion of God and the Big Bang as a sign of our pessimistic, irrational times rather than a product of scientific discovery.

Faith by default

It is not that contemporary Western society can afford to reject science - any more than Islamic states can reject banking. But science is no longer seen as something beneficial with the potential to change our lives radically. And at a time when society is in decay, but when the old alternatives to the status quo have become discredited, faiths of one sort or another can gain support by default. This trend is being encouraged by conservatives because it is easier to justify the existing social order on the basis of faith than it is on the basis of reason.

What we are witnessing today in the discussion of God and creation is only a revival of faith in a negative sense. The key issue is disenchantment with science and a broader lowering of expectations about the future. This is the reason why a brilliant scientific breakthrough like the discovery of the 'ripples' in the universe has sparked off endless articles about the miracles of God rather than about the wonders of modern science.

The moral of the story is that optimism and enthusiasm for the potential of science can only develop as part of a wider optimism about the future of society. Science can knock some holes in the irrational religious interpretations of the universe. But the ultimate solution will have to be political, not scientific.

The briefest history of time

In the 1920s Edwin Hubble found that the light from distant galaxies was stretched towards the red end of the visible spectrum. This effect, known as the redshift, was found to be greater the further away the galaxy. The redshift of light from distant galaxies is evidence that they are moving away from us. The static model of the universe was now replaced by an expanding one. Looking backwards, this led theorists to propose that the universe exploded into being in a Big Bang, from a point known as a singularity, about 15 billion years ago.

That was the theory. The search for the 'holy grail of cosmology' really started accidently in 1964, when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey discovered a weakly hissing radio noise wherever they pointed their telescope. Unable to get rid of it, even after they removed the pigeons living in their peculiar horn-shaped radio telescope, they had to conclude that it was a natural phenomenon of cosmic origin. They had found the 'cosmic background radiation' - the echo of the Big Bang.

One problem remained. The cosmic background radiation was smooth and uniform. But according to the theory, lumps and holes in the early universe should have manifested themselves as areas of hot and cold in the distribution of the cosmic background radiation. They did not. This suggested that matter in the universe was uniformly distributed after the Big Bang. The fact is, however, that we exist on planet Earth in a solar system in the Milky Way, our galaxy. So the universe is not smooth and uniform.

How did galaxies arise if, after 300 000 years, the universe was smooth and uniform and showed no sign of lumpiness? Gravity would have been unable to pull matter into the clumpy formations in which it exists in the universe today, structures which were the precondition for the development of humans among other things. Cobe's observations of ripples have at last suggested a solution.

After the Big Bang, the model predicts, the universe was filled with a hot 'soup' of charged particles permeated by radiation. It was only after 300 000 years, when the expanding universe had cooled sufficiently (to 6000 kelvin), that the atoms of hydrogen, deuterium, helium and lithium were created. This period is called the time of recombination. At this stage, the universe is no longer opaque to radiation and light; it is this period that Cobe has observed. The models had suggested that some areas would be denser than others, that there would be lumps and holes. The fluctuations which Cobe was looking for were approximately 30 millionths of one degree centigrade in the temperature of cosmic background radiation from different areas of space.

Time was beginning to run out for the Big Bang model. Jasper Wall of the Royal Greenwich Observatory summed up the situation: 'If Cobe hadn't found the fluctuations, we would have had to rethink a lot of our basic theories - including general relativity.' There was enormous relief among astronomers and theorists when the results from Cobe agreed with the theoretical predictions. These ripples from the edge of time confirm that 300 000 years after the Big Bang there existed gargantuan clouds, hundreds of millions of light years across, from which, over billions of years, under the influence of gravity, galaxies emerged. And that created the possibility for life to emerge in a corner of the Milky Way.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk