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Friday, June 08, 2007

In the Beginning: God and Science

By Lance Morrow

Sometime after the Enlightenment, science and religion came to a gentleman’s agreement. Science was so real world: machines, manufactured things, medicines, guns, moon rockets. Religion was for everything else, the immeasurable: morals, sacraments, poetry, insanity, death and some residual forms of politics and statesmanship. Religion became, in both senses of the word, immaterial. Science and religion were apples and oranges. So the pact said: render unto apples the things that are Caesar’s, unto oranges the things that are God’s. Just as the Maya kept two calendars, one profane and one priestly, so Western science and religion fell into different conceptions of the universe, two different vocabularies.

This hostile distinction between religion and science has softened in the last third of the 20th century. Both religion and science have become self-consciously aware of their excesses, even of their capacity of evil. Now they find themselves jostled into a strange metaphysical intimacy. Perhaps the most extraordinary sign of that intimacy is what appears to be an agreement between religion and science about certain facts concerning the creation of the universe. It is the equivalent of the Montagues and Capulets collaborating on a baby shower.
According to the Book of Genesis, the universe began in a single, flashing act of creation; the divine intellect willed all into being, ex nihilo. It is not surprising that scientist have generally stayed clear of the question of ultimate authorship, of the final “uncaused cause.” In years past, in fact, they held to the Aristotelian idea of a universe that was “ingenerated and indestructible,” with an infinite past and an infinite future. This was known as the Steady State theory.

That absolute expanse might be difficult, even unbearable, to contemplate, like an infinite snow field of time, but the conception at least carried with it the serenity of the eternal. In recent decades, however, the Steady State model of the universe has yielded in the scientific mind to an even more difficult idea, full of cosmic violence. Most astronomers now accept the theory that the universe had an instant of creation that it came to be in a vast fireball explosion 15 or 20 billion years ago. The shrapnel created by that explosion is still flying outward from the focus of the blast. One of the fragments is the galaxy we call the Milky Way—one of whose hundreds billions of stars is the earth’s sun, with its tiny orbiting grains of planets. The so-called Big Bang theory makes some astronomers cutely uncomfortable, even while it ignites in many religious minds a small thrill of confirmation. Reason: the Big Bang theory sounds very much like the story that the Old Testament has been telling all along.

Science arrived at the Big Bang theory through its admirably painstaking and ideologically disinterested process of hypothesis and verification—and, sometimes, happy accident. In 1913, Astronomer Vesto Melvin Slipher of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Ariz., discovered galaxies that were receding from the earth at extraordinarily high speeds, up to 2 million m.p.h. In 1929, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble developed Slipher’s findings to formulate his law of an expanding universe, which presupposes a single primordial explosion. Meantime, Albert Einstein, without benefit of observation, concocted his general theory of relativity, which overthrew Newton and contained in its apparatus the idea of the expanding universe. The Steady State idea still held many astronomers, however, until 1965, when two scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, using sophisticated electronic equipment, picked up the noise made by background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. What they were hearing, as it turned out, were the reverberations left over from the first explosion, the hissing echoes of creation. In the past dozen years, most astronomers have come around to operating on the assumption that there was indeed a big bang.

The Big Bang theory has subversive possibilities. At any rate, in a century of Einstein’s relativity, of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (the very act of observing nature disturbs and alters it), of the enigmatic black holes (“Of the God who was painted as a glittering eye, there is nothing now left but a black socket,” wrote the German Romantic Jean Paul), science is not the cool Palladian temple of rationality that it was in the Enlightenment. It begins to seem more like Prospero’s island as experienced by Caliban. Some astronomers even talk of leftover starlight form a future universe, its time flowing in the opposite direction from ours. A silicon-chip agnosticism can be shaken by many puzzles besides the creation. Almost as mysterious are the circumstances that led, billions of years ago, the creations of the first molecule that could reproduce itself. That step made possible the development of all the forms of life that spread over the earth. Why did it occur just then?

A religious enthusiasm for the apparent convergence of science and theology in the Big Bang theory is understandable. Since the Enlightenment, the scriptural versions of creation or of other “events,” like the fall of man or the miracles of Jesus Christ, have suffered the condescension of science; they were regarded as mere myth, superstition. Not the faithful are tempted to believe that science has performed a laborious validation of at least one biblical “myth”: that of creation.

But has any such confirmation occurred? Robert Jastrow, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has published a small and curious book called God and the Astronomers, in which he suggests that the Bible was right after all, and that people of his own kind, scientists and agnostics, by his description, now find themselves confounded. Jastrow blows phantom kisses like neutrinos across the chasm between science and religion, seeming almost wistful to make a connection. Biblical fundamentalists may be happier with Jastrow’s books than are his fellow scientists. He writes operatically: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

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