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Three twists and a turn for science and faith Print
Guest column

Word on Fire
Brandon Vogt

This is the second article of a three-part series based on Brandon Vogt's discussion of text from the book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003) by physics professor Stephen M. Barr.

Twist #1 -- The Big Bang and the beginning of the universe

Jews and Christians have always believed that the world, and time itself, had a beginning, whereas materialists and atheists have tended to imagine the world has always existed. Modern skeptics have generally followed suit.

In their minds, the idea of a beginning of time is associated with religious conceptions, not with scientific theory, and those scientists who believe in a beginning, do so for religious reasons, not scientific reasons. Indeed, by the 19th century almost all the scientific evidence seemed to point to an eternal universe.

But that all changed with the discovery of the Big Bang, which came as a profound shock to the scientific community. According to Barr, "the Big Bang was as clear and as dramatic a beginning as one could have hoped to find" (22).

When you combine that discovery with research built on top of the model, you have an overwhelming amount of support for a universe that began in the finite past.

In fact, the esteemed, non-religious cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin concluded at a conference in Cambridge celebrating the 70th birthday of Stephen Hawking:

"All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning . . . It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man.

"With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning."

Now to be clear, the discovery of the Big Bang didn't itself prove the Jewish and Christian doctrine of Creation. Nevertheless, as Barr explains, "it was unquestionably a vindication of the religious view of the universe and a blow to the materialist view" (22).

Twist #2 -- The questions  behind the questions

In the materialist story above, the world is governed not by a personal God but by impersonal laws. Science looks to physical "mechanisms", processes, and laws to explain events in the world.

But as we've deepened our understanding of these empirical laws, we've found that they flow from deeper laws and principles, such as the fundamental laws of atomic physics.

And those laws flow from the laws of quantum electrodynamics. And so on, and so forth. Physicists began to look not only at physical effects themselves, but for the mathematical laws that underlie them and for a single, harmonious system that could unite them all.

Barr notes the consequence of these trends: "It is no longer just particular substances, or objects, or phenomena that physicists ask questions about, it is the universe itself considered as a whole, and the laws of physics considered as a whole . . .

"When it is the laws of nature themselves that become the object of curiosity, laws that are seen to form an edifice of great harmony and beauty, the question of a cosmic designer seems no longer irrelevant but inescapable" (24).

In past centuries, atheists and materialists took certain facts for granted such as the existence of a single universe or the three dimensions of space. Indeed, few people, if any, in the 19th century would have wondered why there are three spatial dimensions.

But today, those beliefs are not taken for granted. Physicists speak of many universes and many dimensions of space. Yet if we can't even take for granted the very number of universes, it becomes harder to avoid asking, "Why is there any universe at all?" A new openness to these deeper-level questions about reality has also opened many people to the possibility of God.

Twist #3 -- The startling  coincidences that permit life

In the materialist story of the world, science has definitively shown that we were not meant to be here. We were a fluke, our existence the result of "a fortuitous concourse of atoms." Science dethroned man in the cosmos.

Except now, science is telling a different story. Beginning in the 1970s, people started talking about "anthropic coincidences", certain features of the laws of physics which seem -- just coincidentally -- to be exactly what is needed for the existence of life to be possible in our universe.

As Barr writes, "The universe and its laws seem in some respects to be balanced on a knife-edge. A little deviation in one direction or the other in the way the world and its laws are put together, and we would not be here. As people have looked harder, the number of such 'coincidences' has grown" (25).

This is exactly what we might expect if human beings were meant to be here, and if the universe was created with us in mind.

It doesn't mean the materialist view of the world is certainly false. In fact, skeptics have proposed other ways to explain this apparent fine-tuning for life (though Barr refutes the most popular in his book.)

In any event, what is clear is that the materialists may have prematurely ended their story with the dethroning of man. It looks very much now like the story may turn out the other way.


Brandon Vogt is a best-selling author, blogger, and speaker. He is the content director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He's the founder of ClaritasU, an online community for Catholics who want to get clear about their faith.