Some Religious Implication of Modern Cosmology
We’re in Wonderland:
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Tales filled with seemingly impossible ideas about of the creation, evolution and ultimate fate of our Universe have been told and re-told for centuries. How can scientists reconcile the mythos, religion and faith that are so vital to our humanity with the awesome power of our human capacity for logic, reason and science.
The key to our ability to study the evolution of the Universe is the fact that we are able to look back in time. Light moves at a finite speed. Thus we see our Sun as it was 8 minutes ago, the next nearest star as it was 4 years ago, and so on.
In addition, knowledge is greatly enhanced by data sent to us from space by new instruments such as the Hubble Deep Space Telescope and the WMAP Probe that is mapping the intensity of 13.3 billion year old electromagnetic energy. Scientists also use particle accelerators here on Earth to learn about the interactions of high-energy fundamental particles.
The latest story of our origin and ultimate fate, known as the standard big bang model, is based on new data and theories that are not yet in popular books on Cosmology.
How Did We Arrive at the Present?
At the dawn of time, 13.7 billion years ago, our Universe was unbelievably small and hot. The Big Bang started with a quantum era that lasted only one 10 million billion billion billion billionths of a second (or 10-43rd seconds). This ridiculously short era cannot be investigated or explained by science. This is because our tiny expanding ball was less than 10-35 meters in diameter -- below the limit of knowability set by quantum theory. So, like the Earth in the Genesis story, the very early Universe is without form. Would Alice or the Queen call this an impossible idea?
The next 13.7 billion years of evolution involved continuous expansion and cooling. As particles in the Universe cooled, on average, they moved more slowly. As the Universe expanded, its density decreased and particles encountered each other less often. Even if particles attract each other they cannot stick together if they are moving too fast or if they are too far apart. The rate at which various types of new particles evolve depends on the average temperature and density of the universe. We can demonstrate the reason for this dependence by observing whether or not particles that are magnetically attracted to each other can stick together when they are moving rapidly.
The first known era of cosmic evolution starts when a soup of quarks, gluons, electrons and other fundamental particles began interacting. This set off a continuous sequence of processes that led to the formation of nuclei and electrons, then atoms, then clouds of atoms, then stars and galaxies and then combinations of atoms into both simple and complex molecules, and finally living organisms.
During the 1st second most of the quarks cooled enough so that gluon forces caused them to form into nearly indestructible electrons, protons and neutrons—the stuff eventually needed to form the atoms that we’re made of.
After about 3 minutes strong nuclear forces caused neutrons and protons to combine and become atomic nuclei.
Then 380 thousand years later electrons and the nuclei combine to form atoms.
In the next 13.3 billion years gravitational forces between electrically neutral atoms caused them to form clouds of matter. These clouds eventually condensed into stars, galaxies and solar systems. When large stars, called supernovas, accreted too much matter, they exploded and dispersed heavy elements throughout the Universe. Supernova fragments gave birth to new stars and solar systems containing the heavy atomic elements needed to produce complex molecules.
About 5 billion years ago our solar system began forming into a spiraling system containing debris from earlier supernova explosions. Atoms combined into increasingly complex molecules both on Earth and on comets and asteroids that bombarded the Earth.
Early forms of life date back 4 billion years with the creation of self-replicating molecules which started the process of biological evolution. Modern homo sapiens emerged in Africa about 100 thousand years ago-- an intelligent, self-aware species capable of pondering who they are and how they came to be. Another impossible idea for Alice?
Simple calculations show that we have occupied an essentially infinitesimal fraction of a vast Universe for a tiny proportion of the time the Universe has existed.
Some Theological Implications of the Big Bang
A theological question raised by scientists and others who understand the Big Bang model centers around whether on not the model supports the existence of a creator who assembled the matter and energy with an initial set of particles and developed a set of interaction laws to govern its evolution.
One view expressed by British philosopher William Craig is: “Since whatever begins to exist has a cause, there must exist a transcendent cause of the Universe.”
A second view is articulated by the well known astronomer, Stephen Hawking, who writes that although there must have been a big bang, at present the quantum limit prevents us from knowing the precise moment when time began. Hawking believes that without this knowledge there is no role for a creator. Nonetheless, Hawking proceeds to conclude his book with the statement:
“…If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by every one. . .Then we shall all …take part in the discussion of…why it is that we and the Universe exist. .. the answer to that, … would be the ultimate triumph of human reason –– for then we would know the mind of God.”
But wait, the God that Hawking describes is an impersonal God who has defined the laws of nature. The well-known cosmologist Stephen Weinberg objects to this use of the term God when he says:
"If language is to be of any use to us, we ought to try to preserve the meanings of words. And God historically has not meant the laws of nature, it has meant an interested personality."
At this point in time there is no agreement as to whether the Big Bang Model allows us to prove or disprove the existence of a creator.
What will Happen in the Future?
The poet Robert Frost writes “Some say the world will end in fire, others say in ice.” What do scientists think could happen? At 4.6 billion years our Sun is middle aged. In another 5 billion years it will swell, swallow the Earth and die. By then, if we don’t annihilate ourselves, we may be able to establish colonies in other solar systems. But what is the long-term future of the Universe?
Ever since it’s beginning the Universe has been expanding – though not at a constant rate. The first few hundred million years are called the inflationary period because the expansion rate was more rapid than it is now. The present expansion rate is 1 part in 14 billion per year. Predicting the future of the Universe requires us to predict the expansion rate based on our knowledge of the present density of matter in our Universe. Just as some people have strong emotional responses to theories about the evolution of life, people also have emotional responses to theories about cosmic evolution. Here are three of the many scenarios for our future that have been proposed.
The Cyclic Universe: If the density is greater than a critical value, the Universe will continue to expand for another 10 billion years at a diminishing rate until gravitational forces prevail, and then start collapsing under its own weight. After about 25 billion years it once again becomes a tiny hot dense ball. Then it might start another 35 billion year cycle of expansion and contraction.
This scenario should be theologically appealing to those who believe in re-incarnation, a concept with Hindu and Buddhist roots.
A Steady State Universe: If the density of our Universe is below a critical density, the expansion might slow down and possibly stop. So, even though there might be a continuous process of star and solar system deaths and rebirths, the overall structure of the Universe would not change much at first. Eventually a heat death would occur and the Universes evolves toward a constant temperature.
The Steady State Universe is very compatible with Christian notions of eternity.
An Inflationary Universe (a.k.a Endless Expansion): For some reason the rate of expansion and cooling of space accelerates to the point where the speed of expansion exceeds the speed of light. Stars will die and we will lose communication with them and won’t even be able to see their cold dark remnants.
This scenario depicts an ultimate death that many people are not comfortable with.
Which model is currently in favor with cosmologists and why? The most recent WMAP cosmic radiation data and supernova explosion data point strongly to a Universe that is currently expanding at an accelerating rate. This doesn't seem to make any sense. In fact is appears to be another one of the Red Queen's impossible ideas. The only plausible explanation offered by scientists is that space is filled with dark energy -- an “anti-gravitational” repulsive force, and that as space expands, this repulsive force is becoming stronger and stronger. Although there is other evidence for the existence of dark energy that fills space, for now it is poorly understood.
When Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, is used to calculate the amount of energy from different sources in the universe, the observational evidence for runaway expansion has led cosmologists to estimate that there is:
5% normal matter –protons, planets, stars, galaxies, etc.
25% dark matter – stars that have collapsed into ultra dense black holes, etc.
70% dark energy – a poorly understood invisible property of space
As always with science, the prediction that we will accelerate into a vacuous oblivion is not certain. Nonetheless, this prediction of ultimate death raises the question, if humanity and our Universe are ultimately going to die, what is the meaning of life? What is the point? Nobel Laureate Stephen Weinberg expresses my answer to these questions beautifully when he says:
"If there's no point in the Universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the Universe, by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art …”