Starting with a Bang
- 2010 5 Aug
The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.
~ Arno Penzias (astrophysicist and Nobel laureate) in The New York Times, 12 March 1978
If you do an internet search on ‘Huxley Memorial Debate' (don't forget the inverted commas) you should get around 500 citations—which is a bit surprising considering that the debate took place over twenty years ago and is now history (in whatever sense you choose!).
The debate was held at the Oxford Union on 14 February 1986 on the motion that ‘The doctrine of creation is more valid than the theory of evolution.' Under the Oxford Union's arcane rules, I spoke first as seconder of the motion, followed by Richard Dawkins who seconded for the opposition. The proposer, Dr A. E. Wilder-Smith, followed and the opposer, Prof. John Maynard- Smith, spoke last. The debate was then thrown open to the floor and the motion was eventually defeated. But we ‘creationists' lost by a surprisingly small margin considering that many students came to the debate seeking entertainment at our expense. Unfortunately, the relevant Oxford Union minute book was subsequently and mysteriously lost or stolen, and no written record remains of the actual result. However, the whole debate was recorded on tape (CD recordings are still available; see link below) and the result was read out none too clearly by the moderator as 198 against the motion and either 115 or 150 in favour. The final vote was taken very late, long after I had retired to bed, so I can't confirm the matter one way or another. However, to avoid arguments I am content to settle for 115, meaning that significantly more than one third of those voting were persuaded by the case for creation.
My own speech centred on the thesis that, by their very nature, certain things cannot be explained by purely material causes. If we want to explain such things, I argued, we must look beyond and behind science to God, and this applies not only to the physical world but even more strongly to the human spirit and human experience. The four scientifically inexplicable things I raised were: (a) the origin of the universe; (b) the origin of the laws of nature; (c) the origin of life; and (d) the origin of mind and thought. As recently as 2007 Richard Dawkins on his web site accused me of ‘duplicity' at the debate because, instead of presenting the arguments he had expected, I set out my stall on this higher philosophical ground. I think it rather put him off his stroke — though at the time, I must say, he was quite nice about it all (which may surprise those familiar with his more recent utterances). At various stages in the chapters that follow we are going to revisit my four points, beginning with the origin of the universe itself.
If the God of the Bible does indeed exist, the first consequence we would expect is that the ultimate origin of material things will never be explicable in material terms. In chapters 2 and 3 I fed you with the seeming impossibilities of modern physics, but we must now start looking at some things that really are impossible to explain without invoking non-scientific causes.
Of course, atheists (and even some theists) will immediately cry foul, declaring that just because scientific explanations are not currently available it doesn't mean they never will be. Science is progressive and new discoveries are being made all the time, so that what seems scientifically impossible today may be scientifically explicable tomorrow. I recognize the force of this argument but intend to stand my ground. The claim that, given time, science will explain everything is simply the atheist's version of the God of the gaps. The gaps in our knowledge can be plugged, they say, by future (but as yet unknown) scientific advances. Thus the ‘God of the gaps' is simply replaced by the ‘future science of the gaps' — same gaps, different deity. It's what philosopher of science Karl Popper called ‘promissory materialism.'
Credentials of a creator
As I pointed out in chapter 6, the Bible consistently identifies God as the one who ‘created the heavens and the earth'. This identification runs like a refrain through both the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps the best known example is St Paul's speech to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill (the Areopagus) in Athens, recorded for us in Acts 17:22-31. It warrants repetition in full:
‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very
religious; for as I was passing through and considering the
objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this
inscription: "to the unknown God". Therefore, the One
whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to
you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since
He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples
made with hands. Nor is He worshipped with men's
hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to
all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one
blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the
earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and
the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek
the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and
find Him — though He is not far from each one of us;
for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also
some of your own poets have said, "For we are also His
offspring." Therefore, since we are the offspring of God,
we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold
or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's
devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked,
but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because
He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world
in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He
has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the
Clearly, there is much more here than we need in discussing the origin of the universe but we shall have cause to return to Paul's statement later in the book, so it does no harm to put the whole thing in context here. The claim of immediate interest is, of course, that ‘God ... made the world and everything in it ... [and] is Lord of heaven and earth'.
It might seem unkind to compare Paul's trenchant theology of two thousand years ago with the waffle of today's atheists, but I'll do it just the same. Victor Stenger's alternative credo runs as follows: ‘In short, the natural state of affairs is something [by which he means the universe] rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention — not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God.'(Victor Stenger, God, the Failed Hypothesis, New York, Prometheus Books, 2007, p. 133). This is philosophical (not to mention scientific) candyfloss — in terms of substance, Paul wins hands down. But quite apart from that, Dr Stenger fails to recognize the inanity of his ‘scientific' reasoning.
He begins by utterly confusing the pre-creation ‘nothing' that lies outside of space-time with the ‘nothing' of a vacuum within space-time. Next, without making it clear which ‘nothing' he is talking about, he claims that ‘the transition from nothing to something is a natural one, not requiring any agent'. He then argues that ‘nothing' would be evidence for God's existence but the existence of ‘something' requires the non-existence of God.
His implied (but unavoidable) conclusion is that when ‘nothing' became ‘something', God — who until then had striven manfully to maintain ‘the state of nothingness' — somehow ceased to exist, having become surplus to requirements. Like the ill-fated baker in Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, Victor Stenger's God ‘softly and suddenly vanished away' at the very moment of triumphant creation.
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away —
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
(Sidney Williams and Falconer Madan: Handbook of the Literature of the Rev. C. L. Dodgson, as quoted in Martin Gardiner: The Annotated Snark (Penguin Books, 1974).
There Was a Beginning
Chapter 6 of this book (Who Made God?) demonstrated that the biblical hypothesis of God predicts that the universe did indeed have a beginning, by which I mean: (1) that it is not eternally old; and (2) that before its beginning nothing of a material nature existed — neither matter nor energy, neither space nor time. To put it another way, we are talking about ex nihilo creation — creation out of nothing — a real beginning rather than something happening in or to some prior physical order.
Over the last 100 years, cosmologists have reluctantly come to terms with the fact that this prediction is strikingly borne out by their observations and cosmological models. For some, like Arno Penzias cited at the head of this chapter, this came as no surprise. But for many others it has become a source of huge discomfort.
The reason is not hard to find. Stephen Hawking puts it thus: ‘So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end; it would simply be. What place then for a creator?'(Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, (Bantam Press, 1988, pp. 140-41). This quote, triumphantly reproduced in a variety of atheistic writings, comes at the end of chapter 8 of A Brief History of Time and suggests superficially that Hawking has finally locked God out of the universe. But not so fast! Let's remember that the concluding chapter of Hawking's book ends rather differently with the following paragraph:
‘However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in
time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just
a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and
just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the
question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find
the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human
reason — for then we would know the mind of God.'
I remember hearing astrophysicist Fred Hoyle speak at a debate on creation at University College, London, when I was a student there in 1952. At that time he and others (specifically, Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold) were exciting much interest in cosmological circles by proposing a ‘steady state' theory of the universe involving ‘continuous creation'. This theory — which suggested that the universe remains the same for all time — was an extension of the accepted ‘cosmological principle', namely, that the universe looks roughly the same from every point within it. To explain how this could happen in an expanding universe, Bondi, Gold and Hoyle suggested in 1946 that matter was being created continually, so that its average density throughout the universe remained the same in spite of the expansion. (Hoyle's paper was published in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1948. His Nature of the Universe (Blackwell, 1950) introduced the theory to a wider audience.) To achieve the required balance, matter would have to be created at the rate of about one atom of hydrogen for every litre of space every billion years — not something the casual observer is likely to notice.
Hoyle and his colleagues were motivated at least in part by a reluctance to accept that the universe had a beginning. For entirely philosophical reasons, they were allergic to the idea of a ‘big bang' origin. In fact, when Fred Hoyle coined the term ‘big bang' he intended it as a term of derision. Eventually, the force of evidence persuaded him to abandon ‘continuous creation' but he was never entirely happy with the idea that the universe actually began.
So let's take a look at this idea that no one really wanted to know about — the big bang theory of the origin of the universe, also known as the ‘standard model' of cosmology. Having done so, we shall then return in the next chapter to the strenuous attempts that are still being made by theoreticians to get around its theological implications.
Anyone for tennis?
It is a striking fact that even at the start of the twentieth century the book of Genesis was something of a lone voice in proposing that the universe did have a beginning. Although the heavens had always displayed frenetic activity in terms of local celestial motions (the sun, moon, planets, comets, asteroids and meteorites or ‘shooting starts') the more distant ‘fixed stars' didn't seem to move at all. Scientists generally believed that, taken as a whole, the universe was static and unchanging. This did not entirely rule out a beginning of some kind but it certainly didn't lend any support to the idea. Indeed, the prevailing belief in an unchanging cosmos was dramatically demonstrated by Einstein himself when he produced his theory of general relativity in 1915. Much to his dismay, he found that his equations were incompatible with a static universe. Picture it like this. When a tennis player throws the ball into the air in the process of serving, the ball rises, stops momentarily at its highest point, and then begins to fall. It is stationary for a split second at the top of its trajectory but this is an unstable state — it can't last. Stability requires that the ball is either rising or falling.
In a similar way, the equations of general relativity said that the universe could be either expanding or shrinking but it could not be static. But instead of accepting this, Einstein's belief in a static universe was such that he added to his equations a fudge factor which he called the ‘cosmological constant' and which had the effect of balancing the gravitational attraction that would otherwise cause the universe to collapse. When, later, it was found that the universe actually was expanding, Einstein discarded the cosmological constant, describing its inclusion as his ‘biggest blunder'. Ironically, cosmologists have since fished it out of the rubbish bin, dusted it down and put it back on the mantelpiece. There are now reasons to believe that the cosmological constant could play a significant role in cosmology after all, but that's another story.
The expanding universe
In one sense, as we have seen, the idea of an expanding universe began with Einstein's general relativity theory in 1915 but the elephant in the room was deliberately ignored until Aleksandr Friedmann in 1922 and Georges Lemaître in 1927 independently found solutions to Einstein's equations that described evolutionary as opposed to static models of the universe. This implied a beginning which could be represented mathematically as a ‘singularity' in Einstein's equations. (A singularity is a point where some physical quantity becomes infinite — in this case the density and temperature of the universe, implying a ‘hot big bang' beginning.) Much later, George Gamow, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman developed the big bang theory of the early universe in a paper titled ‘The origin of chemical elements' published in the Physical Review on 1 April 1948. In spite of the date it was no ‘April fool' spoof and turned out to be one of the most celebrated scientific papers ever.
Even before Friedmann and Lemaître published their ideas, the foundations were being laid for a spectacular experimental demonstration of cosmic expansion. During 1908-1912 Henrietta Leavitt, one of America's first women astronomers, found that within a given stellar ‘cloud', certain stars (called cepheid variables) fluctuated periodically in brightness in a rather special way — those with greater intrinsic luminosity (light output) also had longer periodicities. The relationship was so precise that the periodicity could be used as a measure of the intrinsic luminosity.
Now, for a given intrinsic luminosity, the apparent luminosity or brightness of a star depends on its distance from us, just as a distant car headlight looks dimmer than one close up. So the distance to a cepheid variable star could be measured by comparing its true luminosity, obtained from its periodicity, with its apparent luminosity as recorded on a photographic plate. This, of course, gave only a relative distance — a calibration was needed to find the actual distance. Such a calibration was provided by Ejnar Hertzsprung who used a method called parallax (a form of triangulation applicable only to nearby stars) to measure the distance of several cepheids in our own galaxy. Using this calibration, the distance to any cepheid could be determined, no matter how far away it is. Astronomers had found a tape-measure to the stars.
The next actor in the drama was Edwin Hubble (who gave his name to the modern Hubble Space Telescope). Hubble — who was once tipped as a prospective boxing champion — began working in astronomy in 1919 at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, where the world's largest and most advanced optical telescope had recently been set up. Back in chapter two I mentioned that the spectral lines (discrete colours) in light from a distant source get shifted in frequency if the source is moving relative to the observer. If the light source is approaching us, we observe a shift towards the blue end of the spectrum (that is, to shorter wavelengths); if it is receding from us the shift is towards the red (to longer wavelengths; the so-called ‘red shift'). Between 1912 and 1922, Vesto Slipher, working at Arizona's Lowell Observatory, had discovered that the light spectra from many distant galaxies were systematically red-shifted, but it was Hubble who in 1929 first realized that the red shift of some cepheid variable stars was directly related to their distance from us. Not only were the galaxies containing these stars moving away from earth (like a starburst, equally in all directions) but the more distant galaxies were receding faster. In fact, the relationship was linear, the recession speed being proportional to distance. Astronomers found themselves in an expanding universe and modern cosmology was born!
The final piece in the jigsaw puzzle was provided in 1963, when Arno Penzias (cited earlier) and Robert Wilson working on a satellite designed to measure microwave radiation, found that microwaves were beaming in on us from space, equally from all directions — the very thing that Gamow, Herman and Alpher had predicted in their theory of the big bang. (Their results were published in The Astrophysical Journal, vol. 142 (1965), p. 1149. Dubbed ‘the cosmic microwave background' it is believed to represent the cooled-down radiation left over from an earlier ultra-hot universe and it convinced most astronomers that the big bang theory was correct. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery. By the way, don't worry. These microwaves are far too weak to zap you.
Evaluating the Big Bang
From Einstein in 1915 to Penzias and Wilson in 1963 is less than fifty years, but this period saw a revolution in man's perception of the cosmos. Scientists were at last convinced that the universe had a beginning, just as the book of Genesis had always said. But ever since this unavoidable conclusion was reached, there have been tireless efforts to avoid it! I examine some of these evasive strategies in chapter eight of Who Made God?
But we need to understand just what is implied by big bang cosmology, and this is what I will cover in part two of this article series.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy receiving email newsletters like Christianity.com Foundations Weekly, a select assortment of thought-provoking articles on the foundational principles of the Christian Faith. Sign up here.
Professor Edgar H. Andrews (BSc, PhD, DSc, FInstP, FIMMM, CEng, CPhys.) is Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London and an international expert on the science of large molecules. In 1967 he set up the Department of Materials at Queen Mary College, University of London, and served both as its Head and later as Dean of Engineering. He has published well over 100 scientific research papers and books, together with two Bible Commentaries and various works on science and religion and on theology. His book From Nothing to Nature has been translated into ten languages.
Edgar Andrews was an international consultant to the Dow Chemical Company (USA) for over thirty years and to the 3M Company (USA) for twenty years. He was a non-executive director of Denbyware PLC throughout the 1970s and for five years a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Neste Oy, the national oil company of Finland. He also acted for many years as an expert scientific witness in a variety of cases in the British High Court and in courts in USA and Canada.
In September 1972 he was one of four specially invited speakers at the dedication symposium of the Michigan Molecular Institute, two of the others being Nobel Laureates Paul Flory and Melvin Calvin.
For more information about Dr. Andrews and the book Who Made God? visit his website, http://www.whomadegod.org/.
Click to purchase Who Made God? , written by Professor Edgar H. Andrews, published by EP Books, Darlington, England © 2009.
At the Oxford Union ‘Huxley Memorial Debate' in 1986 he debated with Richard Dawkins on the motion, ‘That the doctrine of creation is more valid than the theory of evolution'. (Recordings of the debate are available here).