I’m not going to pretend that I understand Einstein’s theories of relativity or quantum mechanics. I read a little bit about physics as I am curious about what can be known from science about the universe and its beginnings. Related to this field, I have to read books that aren’t purely mathematics or theory, as I really have no mind for understanding the universe in that way. So I began with hopefulness reading Janna Levin’s HOW THE UNIVERSE GOT ITS SPOTS because some reviewers saw it as an accessible book on astrophysics and cosmology. I thought I was following her ideas for the first half of the book but eventually I was in over my head. By the end of the book it was all I could do to pull individual ideas out of the whole – just like I might recognize individual items in an abstract collage, the whole of which makes no sense to me. Levin starts concretely enough:
“Space is not just an abstract notion but a mutable, evolving field. It can begin and end, be born and die. Space is curved, it is a geometry, and our experience of gravity, the pull of the earth and our orbit around the sun, is just a free fall along the curves in space.” (p 6)
This part of physics I can be comfortable with – a description of the empirical universe based in current theory. Levin’s question is whether the universe is infinite or finite and just very large. Yet by my understanding, as soon as you limit the universe to the empirical and natural you already have accepted and defined a finite universe. For at least in my understanding you are limiting your thinking to creation, and different from creation (beyond, outside, whatever language you want to use) is the Creator. Levin argues
“… if an ultimate theory of everything is found, a theory beyond Einstein’s, then gravity and matter and energy are all ultimately different expressions of the same thing. We’re all intrinsically of the same substance. The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space, and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.” (p 7)
When you limit your frame of reference to the natural, meaning empirical, you have already accepted a finite universe. Theism accepts a notion that there is something beyond the empirical universe no matter how very large the cosmos may be or even if we can find no end to it. If we look to the finite to understand the universe – and apparently a theory of everything would tie together everything with a finite nature – then we have already concluded something beyond the empirical is not possible. It is an issue of faith – can there be something ‘outside’ or beyond or other than the empirical universe? A belief in God accepts that not only as a possibility but a reality. Levin in looking only at nature sees no evidence of infinity, though she allow the possibility of things beyond our ability to discover including an end to things. But if we look only to nature for our clues we are already limiting our thinking to finite things, at least in my understanding of theology. It should be no surprise then to discover a finite universe. It is not unlike the effects the observer has on things at the quantum level – it depends on what you are looking for which then determines what you ‘see.’ But we might find that on the grand macro level of the universe the uncertainty principle applies to our observation – the observer becomes part of the equation. There are however points at which, at least I think, I agree with Levin and find physics and theology on the same page.
“There is no sense to the question: how long was it before the big bang happened? Time started with the big bang. There is no sense to the question: where did the big bang happen? It happened everywhere.” (p 90)
I want to acknowledge that Levin has a good sense of humor, and also I appreciate her way of questioning things – she does not simply rule out things that don’t agree with her thinking. She may be uncomfortable with ambiguity in dealing with free will, but the universe as revealed in physics has ambiguity in it: probability in physics. There are some things which don’t totally make sense – for which we cannot currently completely give account, yet the physicist has to cope with the limits of science.
“With general relativity we have a scientific theory of genesis. Here is how the story of our early universe goes. In the beginning there was nothing. And I kid you not when I say nothing. I mean nada, zero, zip. No space, no time, no matter. Nothing.
From nothing, a universe generates spontaneously.” (p 94)
Creation ex nihilo sounds the same to me in Einstein’s theory of general relativity and in traditional claims of God creating the universe. Of course the difference is for theists God is not part of the empirical universe and brings creation into being when and where before nothing existed. That something (empirical) comes to exist is more a mystery for those who cannot accept something beyond the empirical. For those believing in God, creation is still a mystery but it has a cause – namely God the Creator who is not part of the empirical universe. Why is there something rather than nothing? That is a question physics cannot answer, or they may say “yet”. [You can watch Stephen Colbert ‘stump’ Jana Levin with this question.]
[Whether or not it really answers the question why there is something, Physicist Dave Goldberg in THE UNIVERSE IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR says the reason there is something is that the universe is asymmetrical and there was more matter than anti-matter following the Big Bang and, voila, we exist as part of the surviving matter of the universe. That’s all that matters, in his thinking at least.]
A belief in God does not counter or contradict what we can measure and know about the empirical universe. So the Christian and any theist still has to consider the mysteries of the universe for which our current knowledge and theories cannot account. The work of cosmologists and theoretical physicists is as relevant to theists in a desire to know the universe as it is to scientists who may not believe in a God. The new theories governing physics and the discoveries of science about the universe have raised a challenge for science itself. There appears to be things we cannot know within this universe. There are structures in the universe that are and will remain beyond our ability to enter or measure or experience in any meaningful fashion.
“Einstein’s revolution remains incomplete. General relativity signals its own failure. The Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems prove that essentially all big bang models and all black holes will possess singularities, although a singularity has never been directly observed. Singularities are regions of infinite curvature. They mark an unholy end to spacetime where matter and energy just terminate. We cannot predict the fate of a path that ends there and strict determinism is lost. Information, matter, and energy can fly in and out of a singularity with abandon. In other words, the laws of physics themselves are violated by this ugly edge.” (p 110)
So our universe testifies to things which cannot be put to scientific methods to understand. This seems to me to be less problematic for theists for whom knowledge is not limited to the empirical universe. That one would have to get out of this empirical universe to have the perspective to understand such things, is a real possibility for theists whose understanding of reality is not limited to the empirical. Having to consider getting outside of the empirical universe, suggests the possibility of God – someone or something which is not limited by nature and measureable cosmos. Additionally, God becomes the great observer of the universe. And, as in quantum mechanics, the role of the observer is crucial and means something specific.