Monday, May 28, 2012


Much of the argument made by the so-called new atheists is actually against the church and religion; they ironically offer little material proof of the non-existence of God. (Christopher Hitchen’s book God is Not Great would more accurately have been titled Religion is Not Great.) I am sympathetic: The history of religion and the church is rife with one screw-up after another, and includes some very despicable characters. But no matter how much the Dawkins-Hitchens crew shares my antipathy for “religion,” this gives them no more evidence that there is no god than I have that there is.[1]  Richard Dawkins is straightforward enough to title one of the chapters in his God Delusion, “Why There Almost Certainly is No God” (emphasis mine). I don’t think Dawkins et al. realize the degree to which people of faith harbor doubts of our own. (“Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief.”) This is why I prefer the word “faith;” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, “Jesus didn’t come to make us religious.” You want a slam on religion? Read the Bible! But don’t let the misbehavior and hypocrisy of the folks you find there distract you from the question of whether there is a god.[2]

I agree with Stephen Jay Gould, the late evolutionary biologist and science writer (and agnostic) who, in his book Rocks of Ages proposes that faith and science are not opponents but partners in the search for truth.  Some on both sides, however, insist on turning the conversation into an argument, and the red herring at the center of the debate is evolution.  For the person of science to say, “Evolution proves there is no god,” or the religious creationist to warn, “We must not subscribe to evolution, because if it were true it would prove there is no god,” are equally ignorant statements. Evolution is simply a theory of organic development (and a fine one) and does not touch on the primal questions of the existence of god, or creation out of nothing.

Gould the scientist taught that, by definition, science is unable to have the final word about ultimate matters of meaning, purpose, and “what was there before…?” According to Gould, “Why is there something and not nothing?” and “What was there before there was something?” are not scientific questions. Science can only work with “something.”

But in a recent book, A Universe From Nothing, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss claims to prove that quantum mechanics can, in fact, cross the bridge between nothing and something, and answer the age-old question purely scientifically. In reading his thesis, however, it turns out that what Krauss means by “nothing” is more like “nothing much.” In a clever and elegant New York Times Book Review article, the philosopher David Albert muses:

Well, let’s see. There are lots of different sorts of conversations one might want to have about a claim like that: …Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? The laws of relativistic quantum field theories (on which Krauss bases his case for an “eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world”)… have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place.

I have often wondered why most cosmologists are apparently so incurious about the meaning of “nothing” and the question of “what was there before…?” It is often, to use an over-used phrase, the elephant in the room. I’m impressed that David Albert has tackled the elephant.

Krauss, by the way, protests that his philosophical and religious critics have co-opted the meaning of nothing. He takes issue with the fact that they apparently intend it to mean “nothing.”

In an essay entitled The Origin of the Universe, the theoretical physicist (and self-described atheist) Victor Weisskopf provides an intricate description of the instant of the primal explosion – the “Big Bang” – using mathematics and the quantum mechanics vocabulary of energy fluctuations, false vacuums, and inflation. Then he concludes,

We now come to the more philosophical question: What existed before the primal bang? …The origin of the universe can be talked about not only in scientific terms, but also in poetic and spiritual language, an approach that is complementary to the scientific one…. A remarkable musical description of the primal bang is found at the beginning of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. A choir of angels sings darkly and softly, “And God said, ‘Let there be Light’.” The entire choir and the orchestra burst into a fortissimo C-major chord with  “And there was Light.” There cannot be a more beautiful and impressive artistic rendition of the beginning of everything.

I agree with Weisskoppf that this is poetry – poetry that is not an opponent but a partner with science in the search for truth. Why is there something rather than nothing? And what was there before there was something? The questions remain.

[2] The use of “God” in this conversation is not a reference to the Judeo-Christian divinity, but to an uncreated, infinite, non-material force or being that brought everything that is – material, energy, time – into existence. I am, of course, interested in Christianity but this is not an essay on my personal faith, and it has nothing to do with the issue at hand.


Keith Homstad said...

I bless my high school English teacher, Miss Naomi Schoville, MA for instilling a wee bit of appreciation for the poetic use of language, because as I grow older I find more and more that the poets of the world express what the scientific explorers encounter. For me then, poetry = reality, and literalness = grave dangers of unreality. Hopefully, high school English teachers all over the world give their students the keys to poetry so that, they too in their later years, will open doors to wisdom.

So, my take on the question, "What was before the BIG BANG?" is simple ... that was the overture leading up to the first lyric ... "LET THERE BE LIGHT!" Joseph Hayden got it right!

Warren Hanson said...

We seem so afraid to say simply, "I don't know."