This commentary appears in the Winter-Spring 2011 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Champagne and strawberries at the headquarters of CERN1 near Geneva and hyperbole in the media greeted the news at the end of March 2010 that the Large Hadron Collider began to function as expected. Two beams of protons, each with an energy equivalent of 3.5 trillion electric volts, smashed into one another in a tunnel seventeen miles in circumference. Physicists have great hopes that this huge particle accelerator, built three hundred feet underground on the Swiss-French border, will provide new and fascinating insights into what the universe was like shortly after the Big Bang. One goal is to discover elusive Higgs bosons, particles reputedly responsible for the conversion of the energy of the Big Bang into the mass of the nascent universe. Some in the media have already dubbed the accelerator the “Genesis Machine,”2 and it has been easy for them to reach the conclusion that experiments conducted using it will, as one author in Le Monde put it, permit us “d’éclaircir le mystère de la création de l’Univers.”3 Almost a decade earlier, a science journalist for the New York Times predicted that high-speed particle accelerators would help scientists to work out “a mechanistic, gears-and-levers theory of the Genesis moment itself—the hows, if not the whys of creation ex nihilo.”4
Fascination with origins is commonplace in the natural sciences. The cover of the September 2009 issue of Scientific American announced the theme for a wide variety of essays on “Understanding Origins.” Topics included: the origins of teeth, of cooking, of chocolate, of paper money, of the internal combustion engine, and of intermittent windshield wipers. Most prominently displayed on the cover, however, were origins of life and of the universe. Michael Turner of the University of Chicago was the author of the essay on the origin of the universe and he optimistically claimed that “cosmologists are closing in on the ultimate processes that created and shaped the universe.” Turner drew a compelling picture of the many advances in cosmology over the past one hundred years that have radically transformed our understanding of the universe and its development, from a kind of “formless soup of elementary particles” into “the richly structured cosmos of today.”
Developments in cosmology and particle physics have long encouraged flights of fancy about what the natural sciences can discover about the world. Perhaps one of the more extravagant claims about what contemporary science can tell us about the origin and nature of the universe can be found in an essay, “The Limitless Power of Science,” written by the Oxford physical chemist, Peter Atkins, several years ago. Atkins claimed that the domain of scientific discourse is truly limitless; there is no corner of the universe, no dimension of reality, no feature of human existence, which is not properly the subject of the modern natural sciences! Atkins has little use for philosophy as a guide to truth, but it is religion that is the special object of his ire:
Theologians, incidentally, have contributed nothing [to the understanding of the Universe]. They have invented a world and language of their own. . . . In so doing they have contaminated truth, and wasted the time of those who wish to understand this world. Scientists have had and are continuing to have to scrape away the detritus of religious obfuscation before they can begin their own elucidation.
Scientists liberate truth from prejudice, and through their work lend wings to society’s aspirations. While poetry titillates and theology obfuscates, science liberates. The grave responsibility of scientists is to use their voices to blow back the fog that shrouds the minds of those who have not yet seen.5
The science embraced by Atkins truly knows no limits. Creation itself falls within its grasp. Science, he writes, must be able to account for the “emergence of everything from absolutely nothing. Not almost nothing, not a subatomic dust-like speck, but absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. Not even empty space.”6 Following in Atkins’s footsteps, Christopher Hitchens, in his popular book God Is Not Great, contends: “Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”7 In fact, as the subtitle of his book urges, he thinks religion “poisons everything.” It is a view widely shared in the circles of the “new atheism.”
“The Right Question to Ask”
Even if we were to reject the overly exuberant rhetoric of Atkins and Hitchens, it seems easy to draw connections between developments in cosmology concerning the beginning of the universe and theological reflections about creation. Nevertheless, we ought to be alert to what it is that cosmology explains, or seeks to explain, and what creation means. What can cosmologists tell us about the “mystery of the creation of the universe”? An answer to this question requires us to be clear about the explanatory domains of the natural sciences, philosophy, and theology.
Stephen Hawking once famously remarked that his cosmological model, which denied a beginning to the universe, “left nothing for a creator to do.” Theories concerning what happened “before the Big Bang” as well as those that speak of an endless series of big bangs are often attractive because they too deny a fundamental beginning to the universe and thus appear to make a Creator irrelevant. But others have embraced traditional Big Bang cosmology, which seems to affirm an absolute beginning to the universe, as providing scientific support for, if not actual confirmation of, the Genesis account of creation. The argument is that an initial “singularity,” outside the categories of space and time, points to a supernatural cause of the beginning of the universe. In a way, the debate is about whether or not cosmology discloses a beginning of the universe and thus whether cosmology rejects or embraces the idea of creation. Despite fundamental differences as to what contemporary cosmology tells us, all these views tend to identify what it means for the universe to be created with its having a temporal beginning.
News of the experiments to be conducted at CERN provide renewed interest in questions concerning the relationship between physics and creation, but, unfortunately, much of the discussion contains old errors concerning what physics, philosophy, and theology tell us about the world and its origin. This is true even when more careful commentators remind us that the Large Hadron Collider can offer at best only insights about the very early history of the universe, shortly after the Big Bang.
One part of the confusion between creation and the natural sciences has its source in a broad commitment to a kind of “totalizing naturalism,” which we have already seen in the analysis of Atkins. This is the view that the universe and the processes within it need no explanation beyond the categories of the natural sciences. The claim is that contemporary science is fully sufficient, at least in principle, to account for all that needs to be accounted for in the universe. Whether we speak of explanations of the Big Bang itself (such as quantum tunneling from nothing) or of some version of a multiverse hypothesis, or of self-organizing principles in biological change, the conclusion which seems inescapable to many is that there is no need to appeal to a creator, that is, to any cause which is outside the natural order. Here is how one cosmologist, Lee Smolin, has put it:
We humans are the species that makes things. So when we find something that appears to be beautifully and intricately structured, our almost instinctive response is to ask, “Who made that?” The most important lesson to be learned if we are to prepare ourselves to approach the universe scientifically is that this is not the right question to ask. It is true that the universe is as beautiful as it is intrinsically structured. But it cannot have been made by anything that exists outside of it, for by definition the universe is all there is, and there can be nothing outside it. And, by definition, neither can there have been anything before the universe that caused it, for if anything existed it must have been part of the universe. So the first principle of cosmology must be “There is nothing outside the universe.” . . . The first principle means that we take the universe to be, by definition, a closed system. It means that the explanation for anything in the universe can involve only other things that also exist in the universe.8
Thus, whatever kind of “creation” science can disclose, or be used to deny, through particle accelerators or elaborate mathematical models, it would be a scientific account of origins employing, as Smolin would say, principles drawn from within the universe. But such a conception of “creation” is not what philosophers and theologians mean when they speak of creation. The distance between minute fractions of a second after the Big Bang and creation is, in a sense, infinite. We do not get closer to creation by getting closer to the Big Bang. Since, as we shall see, creation is not really an event at all, it is not within the explanatory domain of cosmology; it is a subject for metaphysics and theology. Similarly, the “nothing” in some cosmological models which speak of the Big Bang in terms of “quantum tunnelling from nothing,” is not the nothing referred to in the traditional sense of creation out of nothing. The “nothing” in cosmological reflections may very well be nothing like our present universe, but it is not the absolute nothing central to what it means to create; it is only that about which the theories say nothing.
Confusions concerning creation and cosmology, as I have suggested, run the gamut from denials of creation because the universe is conceived as having no beginning, to explanations of a beginning in exclusively scientific terms which avoid any appeal to a Creator, to opposing claims that the Big Bang itself offers a kind of scientific warrant for belief in God’s creation of the universe. Contrary to all these claims, we need to recognize that creation is a metaphysical and theological affirmation that all that is, in whatever way or ways it is, depends upon God as cause. The natural sciences have as their subject the world of changing things: from subatomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a change there must be something that changes. Whether these changes are biological or cosmological, without beginning or end, or temporally finite, they remain processes. Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. Creation is not a change. To cause completely something to exist is not to produce a change in something, is not to work on or with some existing material. When God’s creative act is said to be “out of nothing,” what is meant is that God does not use anything in creating all that is: it does not mean that there is a change from “nothing” to “something.” Cosmology and all the other natural sciences offer accounts of change; they do not address the metaphysical and theological questions of creation; they do not speak to why there is something rather than nothing. It is a mistake to use arguments in the natural sciences to deny creation. It is also a mistake to appeal to cosmology as a confirmation of creation. Reason (as well as faith) can lead to knowledge of the Creator, but the path is in metaphysics not in the natural sciences. Discussions of creation are different from arguments from order and design to a source of order and design. Creation offers an explanation of why things exist at all.
To avoid further confusion, we need also to recognize different senses of how we use the term “to create.” We often speak of human creations, especially with respect to the production of works of art, music, and literature. What it means for God to create is radically different from any kind of human making. When human beings make things they work with already existing material to produce something new. The human act of creating is not the complete cause of what is produced; but God’s creative act is the complete cause of what is produced; this sense of being the complete cause is captured in the expression “out of nothing.” To be such a complete cause of all that is requires an infinite power, and no creature, no human being, possesses such infinite power. God wills things to be and thus they are. To say that God is the complete cause of all that is does not negate the role of other causes which are part of the created natural order. Creatures, both animate and inanimate, are real causes of the wide array of changes that occur in the world, but God alone is the universal cause of being as such. God’s causality is so different from the causality of creatures that there is no competition between the two; that is, we do not need to limit, as it were, God’s causality to make room for the causality of creatures. God causes creatures to be causes.
Already in the thirteenth century the groundwork was set for the fundamental understanding of creation and its relationship to the natural sciences. Working within the context of Aristotelian science and aided by the insights of Muslim and Jewish thinkers, as well as his Christian predecessors, Thomas Aquinas provided an analysis of creation and science that remains true. As Thomas wrote: “Over and above the mode of becoming by which something comes to be through change or motion, there must be a mode of becoming or origin of things without any mutation or motion, through the influx of being.”9
Creation is not essentially some distant event; rather, it is the ongoing complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns first of all the origin of the universe, not its temporal beginning. Indeed, it is important to recognize this distinction between origin and beginning. The former affirms the complete, continuing dependence of all that is on God as cause. Whatever is created has its origin in God. But we ought not to think that to be created must mean that whatever is created has a temporal beginning. It may very well be that the universe had a temporal beginning, as the traditional interpretation of the opening of Genesis acknowledges, but there is no contradiction in the notion of an eternal, created universe: for were the universe to be without a beginning it still would have an origin, it still would be created. This was precisely the position of Thomas Aquinas, who accepted as a matter of faith that the universe had a temporal beginning but also defended the intelligibility of a universe, created and eternal. It is the failure to recognize that to be created does not necessarily entail a temporal beginning which causes considerable confusion in contemporary debates about the implications of cosmology for arguments about whether or not the universe is created.
Thomas also thought that neither science nor philosophy could know whether the universe had a beginning. He did think that metaphysics could show us that the universe is created,10 but he would have warned against those today who use Big Bang cosmology, for example, to conclude that the universe has a beginning and therefore must be created. He was always alert to reject the use of bad arguments in support of what is believed. The “singularity” in traditional Big Bang cosmology may represent the beginning of the universe we observe, but we cannot conclude that it is the absolute beginning, the kind of beginning which would indicate creation. As some contemporary cosmologists recognize, there could very well be something before the Big Bang. Indeed, Gabriele Veneziano, a theoretical physicist at CERN and one of the fathers of string theory in the late 1960s, observes that “the pre-bang universe has become the latest frontier of cosmology.”11
When it came to how to read the opening of Genesis, Thomas Aquinas observed that what is essential is the “fact of creation,” not the “manner or mode” of the formation of the world.12 Questions concerning order, design, and chance in nature refer to the “manner or mode” of formation of the world. Attempts in the natural sciences to explain these facets of nature do not challenge the “fact of creation.” A world with a temporal beginning concerns the kind of world God has created. It may very well be easier to accept that a world which has an absolute temporal beginning is a created world, and such a world may be especially appropriate for understanding sacred history, important as it is for believers. But an eternal world, one without a beginning to time, would be no less a created world.
The Ultimate Cause
Cosmological theories are easily used, or rather misused, to support or to deny creation. Each time, however, as I have suggested, “to create” has been joined inextricably to temporal finitude such that to be created necessarily means to begin to be; thus, to deny a beginning is to deny creation. It was the genius of Thomas Aquinas to distinguish between creation understood philosophically, with no reference to temporality, and creation understood theologically, which included the recognition that the universe does have an absolute temporal beginning.13
There is a wider confusion at work here as well: the failure to distinguish between creation and change, and hence to recognize that the natural sciences, including cosmology, have nothing to tell us about the ultimate cause of existence of things. God’s creative power is exercised throughout the entire course of cosmic history, in whatever ways that history has unfolded. No explanation of cosmological or biological change, no matter how radically random or contingent such an explanation claims to be, challenges the metaphysical account of creation, that is, of the dependence of the existence of all things upon God as cause.14 When some thinkers deny creation on the basis of theories in the natural sciences, or use cosmology to confirm creation, or reject the conclusions of science in defense of creation, they misunderstand creation or the natural sciences, or both. The experiments now beginning at CERN may very well offer new and spectacular insights into the nature of the very early universe, but they will tell us nothing about the creation of the universe. ♦
William E. Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science at Blackfriars, University of Oxford.
- In 1954 the European Organization for Nuclear Research replaced the original Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, but the acronym CERN was kept.
- Physicist Michio Kaku of City College of New York told the Associated Press: “This is a huge step toward unraveling Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 1—what happened in the beginning. This is a Genesis machine. It’ll help to recreate the most glorious event in the history of the universe.” See Alexander Higgins and Seth Borenstein, “Atom Smasher Will Help Reveal ‘The Beginning,’ ” Associated Press, March 30, 2010.
- Pierre Le Hir, “Big Bang en Sous-sol,” Le Monde, 30 mars 2010.
- John Glanz, “On the Verge of Re-Creating Creation,” New York Times, January 28, 2001.
- Peter W. Atkins, “The Limitless Power of Science,” in Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, ed. John Cornwall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 121–22.
- Ibid., 131.
- Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great. How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve Books), 282.
- Lee Smolin, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 17.
- Thomas Aquinas, On Separated Substances, c.9.
- The argument involves a recognition that the difference between what things are (their essences) and that they are (their existence) must ultimately be resolved in a reality (God) in whom essence and existence are identical. Thus, what it means to be God is to be, and God is the uncaused cause of all beings. One need not accept the validity of Thomas’s claim to demonstrate that the universe is created in order to understand his distinction between creation and science and that “to create” is not to produce a change.
- See his essay “The Myth of the Beginning of Time,” Scientific American, April 2004.
- In II Sent., dist. 12, q. 1, a. 2.
- See Steven E. Baldner and William E. Carroll, Aquinas on Creation (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1997).
- See my essay “At the Mercy of Chance? Evolution and the Catholic Tradition,” Revue des Questions Scientifiques 177:2 (2006), 179–204.