Astrophysicist Dr Rodney Holder gave the annual Science and Faith in Norfolk lecture in Norwich Cathedral Nave on October 15, saying that cosmology seems to confirm Christian belief.
by Patrick Richmond
Dr Rodney Holder [pictured below], astrophysicist and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society as well as a theologian and author of several books about science and religion, including “God the Multiverse and Everything” and “Big Bang, Big God” (just released) spoke on the topic God, the Multiverse, and Everything: Does Recent Cosmology Help or Hinder Christian Belief?
Modern cosmology tells us that our universe began as an incredibly concentrated fireball of energy some 13.8 billion years ago “the Big Bang”, and that the physics had to be incredibly “finely tuned” so that the Big Bang eventually gives rise to complex beings like us. Both the idea of a beginning and the appearance of fine-tuning for life seem to fit with important Christian doctrines and have caused a lot of argument.
Famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking said in a message at his 70th birthday celebrations last year, “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.” A beginning seems to pose a problem for Hawking and other atheists, like Cambridge Cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle, who in 1948 proposed the now discredited ‘Steady State’ alternative to the Big Bang. Cosmologists today have also produced theories that try to avoid a beginning. Right now, these attempts all look unsuccessful in the light of theorems proved by leading Cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin and his colleagues. At Hawking’s birthday celebrations, Vilenkin concluded: “All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning.”
But, even if Hawking or others were successful in producing a cosmological theory without a real beginning, that would leave untouched the main point of the Christian doctrine of creation, which is not so much to answer questions about beginnings as to answer the much deeper question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Why is there a universe at all, whether it had a beginning or not? Hawking has suggested, "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." Dr Holder noted that such claims are misleading at best, since what Hawking and others call “nothing” is in fact a very real something, a physical entity with very real physical properties, and we can certainly wonder why this exists, rather than absolutely nothing, and find God to be a better answer.
Moving on to the second connection between cosmology and Christian belief, we now know that physics needs to be “finely tuned” for anything like us to evolve. If physics were very slightly different, there would be no life at all. Modern cosmology explains how elementary particles from the Big Bang spread out to yield hydrogen and helium. Gravity acts on this to form stars. Stars produce the heavier elements like carbon and oxygen necessary for life. Stars exploding in supernovae allow later stars to have planets, on which life can evolve.
Over the last 40 years, cosmologists have discovered that very special conditions are required if the above sequence of events is to proceed this way so that life does indeed come about. The constants that go into the laws of physics, such as the strengths of the fundamental forces of nature like gravity and the masses of elementary particles, need to be ‘fine-tuned’, that is, to take values very close to the values they do in fact take. Similarly, the conditions at the beginning of the universe, such as the expansion rate, also need to be fine-tuned.
For example, unless the mean density of matter-energy a mere one second after the Big Bang was within one part in ten to the power of fifteen (1 with 15 noughts after it) of its actual value, the universe would have no life in it. Outside this razor-thin range, the universe will either re-collapse too quickly or expand too quickly for anything interesting to happen at all.
Fred Hoyle, who had earlier proposed the Steady State theory, discovered an effect essential to forming carbon and oxygen in stars. These elements form in just the quantities needed for life. Unless the strong nuclear force, the force which binds atomic nuclei together, is within 0.4 per cent of its actual value, either no carbon will made, or all the carbon will be turned into oxygen. Since both elements are necessary for life, the result in either case would be a lifeless universe. Even atheist Hoyle remarked that common sense suggests a ‘super intellect’ has monkeyed with physics.
We have a new form of design argument for the existence of God.
The main alternative to design is the suggestion of a multiverse. This is a vast (even infinite) collection of universes in which the constants, etc., take all possible values. We exist in a universe where the values are right for us but there are vastly many others where the values aren’t right. This idea turns out to be full of problems. It is not clear that it removes the need for design. Don’t we still need the right kind of multiverse or mechanism to produce all the different universes so we can exist?
A devastating problem for multiverses is that there should be vastly more universes that can have observers in them than there are universes with all the order we see. Supposing a multiverse, we would expect to see a universe with merely enough order for observers to exist in it, perhaps a solar system in a sea of chaos, but how do we explain that we actually observe a universe with vastly more order than is necessary for observers to exist in it?
So, Dr Holder concluded, if anything, modern cosmology seems to confirm Christian belief. Of course, it only gets us so far in terms of the picture of God we glimpse in it. At most, we see signs of a powerful and majestic Creator. To fill out a Christian picture of God we need to go far beyond cosmology, and delve into the historical and documentary evidence for Jesus Christ and his resurrection, and into the experience of the Church that he brought into being.
Patrick Richmond is Chair of the Science and Faith in Norfolk group.