And then I wrote… the conclusion of my mystery article (where did it get published?) about cosmology and how what we think about the universe shapes the way we study it…
Newton’s immense deterministic system seemed unshakeable. And the only role left for God in such a system is to set the initial conditions, to be (in the Aristotelean sense) the “Prime Mover,” the Great Watchmaker who perhaps built the watch, wound it up, and set it running in its inexorable course.
What is a “Rational” Explanation? Beyond the obvious fallacies of such a system in the light of contemporary physics (according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the “exact knowledge” of a particle’s position and momentum, for example, is meaningless because they cannot both be determined at the same time), there was a more subtle problem with this cosmology. It insisted that every unexplainable experience must have a “rational” explanation, where “rational” was quickly limited in practice to mean the common experience of the one doing the explaining.
G. K. Chesterton, the early twentieth-century British writer who was no fan of Enlightenment rigidity, did not deny the importance of looking for rational explanations. That was, after all, the plot device of virtually all of his Father Brown mystery stories. (In these stories, the self-effacing priest sees through any number of New Age con men who expect that, because he is a priest, he must be gullibly open to various “supernatural” experiences.) By contrast to the Catholic Chesterton, his contemporary mystery writer (and creator of the ultra-rational Sherlock Holmes) Arthur Conan Doyle was happily deluded by any number of spiritualist frauds in his later life.
And yet, in Chesterton’s classic book Orthodoxy, he poses the question of whether one should in principle believe in ghosts. The argument of the Enlightenment, after all, was to accept the evidence of one’s senses over a blind credulity in received dogma. But what about the testimony in favour of ghosts by those – usually unlettered peasants – who insisted that they had actually experienced them? Chesterton writes, “You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism [the impossibility of ghosts]… You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.” (Orthodoxy, Chapter 9)
By being so certain that ghosts cannot exist, one winds up rejecting a priori any evidence to the contrary. How is this rational?
The question is not merely academic. It is fair to say that to this day most people (including the present writer) are extremely skeptical of ghost stories, and yet this Enlightenment attitude also resulted in the rejection of the reality of other natural phenomena which today we must admit are indeed true.
My own field of meteoritics is a classic example. Who among us has actually seen a rock fall out of the sky, and collected it on the ground? Almost no one… almost. And yet, albeit rarely, it does happen. One such fall occurred in 1803 near L’Aigle, France, a hundred miles west of Paris (and many hundreds of miles from any mountains or rocky outcrops). When the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot collected samples of these meteorites from the local peasants and reported on them to scientists back in Paris, many of his colleagues were extremely leery. The American philosopher-president Thomas Jefferson wrote thus about these meteorites to his friend, the surveyor Andrew Ellicott: “the exuberant imagination of a Frenchman… runs away with his judgment… it even creates facts for him which never happened…” But today we have in our collections many pieces of the fall from L’Aigle, and any number of repeatable laboratory tests can convince us that this rock did not form on earth, and, furthermore, that it spent many millions of years exposed to cosmic rays in space.
Yet Jefferson did have a point. Our experience of the physical world…
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is mediated by our human senses; and our senses can be fooled. Our understanding of what we see is mediated by what we expect to see, which is to say, by our personal cosmology. There is nothing wrong with this. It is a necessary way of dealing with the universe. We cannot use up our time and energy testing every claim on our senses.
As a meteoriticist, I am constantly brought bits of rock by people who think they might have a meteorite. Almost all of them are not – they are what we jokingly call “meteor-wrongs,” not meteorites. But in one case, a sample someone brought me really was identifiable as a piece of extraterrestrial rock. So I test every piece, even knowing the chances of success are rare.
On the other hand, I also hear many tales of UFOs. I give no credence to any of them; life’s too short to waste my time on untestable, unverifiable reports. There are, alas, no artifacts from any UFO that we can test in a lab. I am not alone in this skepticism; most astronomers agree with me. (I find it telling that amateur astronomers, those who spend large amounts of their free time outdoors with telescopes and are actually well practised at looking at the sky at all hours under the best of conditions, are among the most skeptical of UFO reports.)
Does this mean that, at some future date, a real extraterrestrial spacecraft might show up and we’ll all miss it? That is distinctly possible. The person who does find such evidence of an alien visitor (should it be there to be found) will be someone who has approached the problem with the passion to do so, and an irrational faith that “the truth is out there” waiting to be found. Such irrational belief is, in fact, the hallmark of a fanatic. Such fanatics do on occasion succeed in convincing the rest of us. The vast majority of them, however, wind up wasting their lives on falsehoods that blind themselves to the truth that actually is out there.
The “Big Bang”: This is the price we pay for our cosmology. But it means that, even today, the separation between what we study in the physical world and what we believe when we begin that study is much closer than most of us would like to admit. The physical and the metaphysical may be separate; but the metaphysical controls the way we choose to understand the physical.
Perhaps the most ironic modern example of how our assumptions about the universe colour the degree to which we are willing to accept the evidence of science is in the history of the idea that the universe is expanding from an initial point in time.
Newton’s insight that the falling apple and the orbiting moon obey the same laws of physics has been extrapolated into what is now called the cosmological principle: there is no privileged place in the universe. The laws of science are the same everywhere, and at every time. Indeed this has long been extended to imply that the universe was without bounds in space or time.
Thus, when a Belgian mathematician, Georges Lemaître, suggested in the late 1920s that a universe described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity might in fact be expanding, his suggestion was treated with great scorn in many quarters. A universe where the space between galaxy clusters was actually growing, implied that there must have been a time when that space was much smaller and the total energy density in the universe much higher. Indeed, Lemaître had postulated that one could calculate a specific time at which the space between all matter was zero and the energy density infinite, a point that could be identified in some way as the “beginning” of the universe.
Speaking for the majority of cosmologists at that time, the English astronomer Fred Hoyle recognized that having such a special time in the universe was a direct violation of the cosmological principle. Even when the American astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that distant galaxy clusters were in fact visibly moving away from us, in a manner completely in agreement with Lemaître’s suggestion, Hoyle responded by inventing an alternative model for the universe (involving the continual creation of space) rather than accept what he sarcastically referred to as Lemaître’s “Big Bang” theory.
We know the result, however. The overwhelming evidence from astronomy over the last fifty years has supported the predictions of the Big Bang, and has ruled out Hoyle’s alternative model. We now recognize that, in one sense at least, there was a time (if not a location) that was singular in the history of the cosmos.
God and the Physical Universe: Why did Hoyle feel so uncomfortable with a universe that had a given starting point? And why didn’t Lemaître feel the same unease? It may be that Hoyle, who was not a religious believer, was suspicious of a theory that might be viewed as consistent with the Genesis version of a create, especially since Lemaître, a scholar with two doctorates (in mathematics and in astrophysics) was also a Catholic priest!
Perhaps Lemaître’s religion made him more comfortable considering the possibility of a universe with a beginning point, yet he himself rejected any theological significance to his theory. Lemaître realized that all cosmologies, including his own, are human approximations to a universe much greater and richer than any theory can ever encompass. As such cosmologies are shaky grounds on which to base one’s faith. (It is also worth remembering that, in spite of their scientific and religious disagreements, Hoyle and Lemaître were best of friends.)
In fact, this is the same message we read in those passages from St. Paul cited above. St. Paul was arguing that his followers should not try to squeeze their religion into their contemporary cosmology. Of course, that was a hopeless request. We can’t help but think about the universe except with the terms and the assumptions that make up our own, current, view of how the world works. All of our understanding of our life and our place in it is based on the assumptions of what this life is all about – on our own personal cosmology.
But understanding that point leads us to a deeper insight. If a cosmology is our human attempt to come to know the Creator, then we should not be surprised to find that it is forever incomplete. The physical universe is God’s way of revealing his infinite Self to us. We should never fear what truths we learn about the physical universe. But we should never expect to come to the final word on that topic.