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God and the Astronomers, Revisited

“A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.” Guess who said that?

The speaker was none other than the world’s most eminent cosmologist, Stephen Hawking. Was he attacking proponents of intelligent design? No; he was lamenting his latest birthday presents.

For Hawking’s 70th birthday celebration, Lisa Grossman wrote in New Scientist, cosmologists got together to discuss the “State of the Universe.” Hawking prepared a recorded statement for the occasion that included the comment quoted above. Good thing he didn’t have to attend. His friends gave him “the worst presents ever,” Grossman noted. Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts University presented evidence that “the universe is not eternal, resurrecting the thorny question of how to kick-start the cosmos without the hand of a supernatural creator.”
The article explains why none of the proposals for an eternal universe are workable: eternal inflation, a cyclic universe, and the “cosmic egg” hypothesis. In each case, the mathematics and the laws of physics can’t eliminate the need for a starting point. This forces the community of naturalistic astronomers to face what they have been trying to avoid: a beginning.

The article is headlined, “Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event.” Astronomers wanted to “dodge this problem” Grossman explains, but they couldn’t. What problem, exactly? An editorial in the same issue of New Scientist is forthright: it’s titled, “The Genesis Problem.” Grossman writes that the three alternative models provided hope for a universe without a starting point, but “that hope has been gradually fading and may now be dead.”

The point to ponder is how this relates to the intelligent design controversy. Opponents of ID routinely argue that a designer for the universe would necessarily be a supernatural God. That makes ID religious by definition, they say. Well, who is talking about the supernatural now? Guess what: Stephen Hawking does not work for Discovery Institute. Nor does Lisa Grossman, Alexander Vilenkin or the organizers of Hawking’s birthday bash.
And what a “bash” it was. It bashed one of the leading arguments against intelligent design. If philosophical and methodological naturalists can accuse ID proponents of appealing to the supernatural, then what is the man in the street to think if Hawking and the other characters in Grossman’s article are doing the same thing? The leading cosmologists of the world have just agreed that the facts require a beginning to the universe, and a beginning to the universe implies an “appeal to religion and the hand of God,” or “the hand of a supernatural creator.”

It’s nothing new, really; just an extra inning that many astronomers had demanded to try to keep an beginning-less universe in the game. The first inning was early in the 20th century, when it dawned on astronomers that the laws of thermodynamics ruled out an infinitely old universe, and cosmic expansion implied an explosive starting point in the finite past. Astronomer Robert Jastrow was struck by the emotional resistance among astronomers to the idea of a beginning, as he documented in his 1978 book God and the Astronomers. Jastrow was startled that his intelligent, dispassionate colleagues suddenly became indignant when, in their desire to rid science of the supernatural, they climbed the final peak of knowledge only to find a bunch of theologians already sitting there for centuries.

Fred Hoyle had requested an extra inning in the mid 20th century: a “steady-state” universe that could account for the observations, provided one imagine the continuous creation of matter out of nothing (just common sense, right?). But then the discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1964 seemed to support the competing “big bang” model (Hoyle’s derisive term that stuck), while making the steady-state theory less credible. Once again, cosmologists were taken kicking and screaming back to the Beginning.

History repeated itself in 1981 when Alan Guth proposed “inflation” as an ad hoc mechanism that he believed might resolve long-standing problems in big bang cosmology. Eternal-universe lovers leapt onto this new idea, extending it to include “eternal inflation” (and other episodes fit for The Outer Limits).

models Grossman wrote about. The inning is over, and the anti-beginning team struck out. “All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning,” Vilenkin concluded.

Jastrow.jpgFor the DVD version of The Privileged Planet, Dr. Jastrow was interviewed at the end of his long, productive career. Commenting on God and the Astronomers, he agreed that the expansion of the universe “is a remarkable thing, because it has a very strong theological flavor to it.” He acknowledged that a beginning implies a creation. A self-avowed materialist and agnostic, though, he realized he “cannot accept that.” As an agnostic, he knew that “if there was a beginning, a moment of creation of the universe, then there was a Creator. And a Creator is not compatible with agnosticism.”

Jastrow then went on to say that he could not accept that the world was the product of chance, either — just atoms and molecules. “So you see, I’m in a completely hopeless bind,” he remarked, “and I’ve stayed there.” His materialistic philosophy prompted him to believe that the universe can be completely described by material substances and the forces that act on them. “But I find that unsatisfactory,” he said; “In fact, it makes me uneasy. I feel I’m missing something… but I will not find out what I’m missing within my lifetime.” He died four years later (see the New York Times tribute).

Notice again, in these citations, who it is that did all the injecting of religious arguments into science. It wasn’t the ID community. Intelligent Design proponents acknowledge that ID has implications, just as Darwinism does and any other theory of origins you can think of. ID theory limits itself, however, to the evidence for design, and how it is detected, using techniques that are commonly employed in the sciences, like archaeology and cryptography. Critics are wrong to confuse ID with its implications.

Now that cosmologists are forced by the evidence to arrive at similar conclusions with similar implications, it’s leaving them “in a completely hopeless bind” if they try to accuse ID of bringing theology, religion, and the supernatural into science. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.