Religious and Scientific Cosmologies

It may seem that we have moved a very long way from the Babylonian, Hindu, and Genesis stories of the beginning of the universe to a rather abstract hypothesis about a pure consciousness that acts on purely rational principles. Such a hypothesis would have been incomprehensible in early human history, and the religious accounts tell a picturesque story in a way that can convey a profound spiritual message. Acceptance of modern cosmology does mean that all the ancient religious stories of origin are literally false. Yet they may still point to the important truth of the primacy of Spirit and to the possibility of finding human fulfillment by appropriate relation to Spirit. Stories may be the best way of affirming such a truth, especially in a prescientific age. But they must now be complemented by our more accurate knowledge of the physical history of the cosmos, with which they were never primarily concerned.

It is time to draw some conclusions about what religions and the sciences have to say about the origin of the universe. As to the physical beginning of the universe, there is general (though not quite universal) scientific agreement that the universe began with a state of extreme physical simplicity—a minute state of infinite mass and density—but also of enormous complexity and mathematical elegance in the laws governing its expansion into the universe we see today.

In the light of this discovery—less than 150 years old—all ancient stories of the origin of the universe have been rendered obsolete as literal accounts. The book of Genesis, for example, which sees the earth as a disc floating on a great sea; the sky as a bowl on which the stars, sun, and moon are hung as lamps; and the first humans as living in a garden in which God takes an afternoon stroll and in which apples are forbidden fruit, can clearly be seen to be a prescientific story that is literally false but may still have a deep spiritual meaning. That spiritual meaning is well worth exploring in detail, for what it can tell about the relations of God, humanity, and the created order. But it does not compete with cosmology. It is not in the same ballgame.

Nevertheless, in science, the question remains of what, if anything, came before the big bang or of what, if anything, accounts for it. It is not clear that science can answer this question or if this question can have any answer at all. Some cosmologists seek a theory of everything, some ultimate mathematical system that is necessarily what it is and necessarily gives rise to this universe, and perhaps to other universes too. Among such mathematical physicists, some are materialists, perhaps better called naturalists, since we are no longer sure of what "matter" is. They see the universe as arising without any purpose or design. The universe may arise by some inner necessity, as a quantum fluctuation in a vacuum, perhaps. It then assembles structures of great integrated complexity by a quasicomputational process, pulling itself up gradually by its own bootstraps into complicated and interesting arrays of events.

Others find in the intricate order and integrated complexity of nature evidence of intelligence, though they rarely speculate further on this or see it as having any religious implications. Some mathematicians and quantum physicists, like John Wheeler, Roger Penrose, and Henry Stapp incline to such a view, and Einstein famously spoke of the "Old One" as the great Intelligence underlying the universe. But that intelligence, at least as far as physics goes, does not necessarily show any particular interest in human beings, who have just been thrown up inevitably in the cosmic process.

Many cosmologists refrain from indulging in such speculations. They think there just have to be some ultimate brute facts that cannot be explained. Such facts should be as simple as possible (though, to be honest, no one knows why they should be simple), but appeal to mathematical realities and objective necessity is much too Platonic, too metaphysical, for them. There is quite enough to do, without getting into all that. And there, scientifically, the matter rests.

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