The effectiveness of contemporary objections to Christian belief derived from the discoveries of natural science depends on misunderstanding or distorting science’s domain, scope and competence. In the last two weeks I’ve worked on clarifying these misunderstandings and distortions. As I said last week, modern science attempts to explain data derived through the five senses by creating theories that predict future empirical states that, if they occur, support the explanatory theory. I realize this oversimplifies things a bit, because for different natural sciences—physics, chemistry, biology—the particular intermediate theoretical languages differ.
Physics and chemistry are highly mathematical, whereas biology, while still mathematical, adds other types of relationships among the things it studies, specifically function. The category of function is needed in biology because this science deals with organisms, which are obviously organic wholes in which molecules, cells and organs contribute their part to the proper functioning of the organism. Hence biological explanation involves showing how each part functions in relation to the higher systems and finally to the total organism. However, in all natural sciences a transition from one state of the empirical world is related intelligently to a future (or past) state of that same empirical world by means of an explanatory theory that explains why the transition took place as it did.
In modern natural science, all the explanatory theories used to explain transitions from one empirical state to another appeal to the physical properties of the prior state to explain the change in form that is manifested in the subsequent state. There is nothing objectionable in this restriction. This is what empirical science does. But when thinkers claim that everything real and every event that occurs must be explained by the physical properties of the things involved, that empirical method is the only way to truth, and that all truth can be stated in empirical terms, they are grossly distorting science’s domain, scope and competence. Given this false assumption about science, objections to Christian belief based on particular scientific discoveries (Big Bang, biological evolution) are redundant; for the objectors have already ruled out belief in divine action in their presuppositions. But if you do not accept the assumption that everything real and active is physical and empirical, you need not accept the conclusion that the big bang and biological evolution compete with belief in God and God’s all-pervasive action in the world.
The Big Bang
The Big Bang theory relates the present empirical state of the universe to earlier states and ultimately to the earliest state to which accepted physical laws apply (between 15 and 20 billion years ago). The theory accounts for certain empirical observations of the present universe: the universe appears to be expanding; the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away from us; the uniform (or near uniform) background radiation in every direction; and much more. These observations are combined with the theory of relativity and quantum physics to conclude that at some finite time in the past the universe was so compact that everything in it was in one place (the singularity), that space and time had not yet emerged, and that the temperature was virtually infinite.
Let’s not get hung up in a discussion of the Big Bang’s scientific truth right now. Instead let’s remind ourselves that even if its empirical claims are true, it cannot rightly claim to be the whole truth. The Big Bang is not a theory of everything. It does not cover the same ground as the Christian doctrine of creation. It does not even speak the same language. It is a theoretical account of the development of the present cosmos from a previous state. It begins with an already existing universe, and it describes and accounts for the changes from earlier to later stages of the cosmos with theoretical articulations of the physical properties of the elements within the observable world. On a theoretical level it speaks the language of mathematics. That is the secret of its explanatory power but also of its poverty. It cannot speak or understand another language. There is absolutely nothing in the Big Bang theory that explains away or rules out the action of God in calling the universe into existence, giving it the form it has, guiding it to the place it is, or leading it on to the destination God has in mind. The Big Bang cannot explain or rule out the reality of the qualities we experience or the mind we possess or the freedom we exercise. It cannot explain or rule out meaning, truth, beauty or moral law. It cannot tell you who you are or why you are here. If you have other grounds on which to believe in the reality of God, our minds, the intelligibility of nature, the moral law, human freedom and creativity, and the meaning of cosmic history, the Big Bang theory of cosmological development poses no rational threat at all to those beliefs. It’s simply a non sequitur, irrelevant, beside the point. As a cosmological theory, it’s elegant. As an objection to Christian belief, it’s lame.
I find it profoundly sad that in many Christian settings—such as my own childhood high school—the Big Bang is taken to be a rival in some sense to the doctrine that God created the Universe. Often, a [rhetorical] question similar to the following would be posed: “Some people believe that the Big Bang created the Universe; as for me, I believe that God created it.” The horrifying factor to me is that we have been persuaded by the irrational fear of anything that is new and, worse, the fear of the deliverances of the Natural Sciences into willingly spurning our greatest Apologetic weapon against Atheism. Instead of seeking to learn more and more about Big Bang Cosmology, many Christians have simply dismissed it with hand-waving indifference.
This misses the robust Apologetic and Theological richness that Big Bang Cosmology can infuse into Christian practice and dialogue with non-believers. We’ve had Cosmological arguments ever since Aristotle’s Prime Mover arguments, but now the Cosmological has a brand new set of fangs as it is verified by the very empirical science that the secular side loves to tout. In Big Bang Cosmology, we now have arguably the most powerful argument pointing to the existence of God. Known these days as the “Kalam Cosmological Argument,” I cringe to think of how many Christians still continue to rebuff talk about the Big Bang today…
I think one of the most impactful moments of my recent life was getting to discuss about the Kalam argument with my Father for the first time. Until recently, he would’ve been one of the hand-wavers tossing Big Bang Cosmology in the same bin as Evolution (i.e. “threats to Christian belief brought forth by Secular Science,” which of course isn’t true anyway). It was actually due to watching The Theory of Everything focusing on Stephen Hawking’s life that he came to realize the significance of the Big Bang for Christian belief. Specifically, I wonder how Christians would react if they knew how much non-believing Physicists and Cosmologists have squirmed to try to restore an eternal universe in recent decades… as Hawking strives to riposte his wife Jane’s questions about the Theological implications of the Big Bang in the film by expressing an optimistic hope in future science, so too are secular speakers and writers now crying “It’s too soon to call!” while the Christian can firmly take the reins of the most recent deliverances of the Natural Sciences.
I think the Big Bang theory helps undermine certain false metaphysical conclusions drawn from other imaginary models of the universe, just like the theory of relativity and quantum theory undermined the mechanical model, from which many bad metaphysical ideas were spun. But I think we need to be careful in using it in direct support of creation. There is no comprehensible transition from nothing to being. As Thomas Aquinas argued, even if we cannot prove that the universe had a beginning in (or with) time, it is still dependent on God for its being and form, And is not this the essence of the Kalam argument?
There certainly is no comprehensible transition from nothing to being, which is why models in which the universe creates itself (“bootstrapping”) are philosophically incoherent and absurd. But it is surely comprehensible for an agent to bring about an effect caused by his/her own choice. Thus, the Kalam Cosmological argument can, once an absolute beginning of all things physical has been established, point to the species of explanation that will be adequate for the case in question. Explaining the existence of physical and material reality by appealing to more creative physical models of the universe/multiverse simply can’t step up to the plate.