Science and Spirit: Bang! – We Have a Universe

Science and Spirit: Bang! We Have A Universe

Rev. Anthony David

Oct. 7, 2012


“It was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich,” says science writer Bill Bryson. “From nothing, our universe begins. […] In the first lively second [of the Big Bang]… is produced gravity and the other forces that govern physics. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast. There is a lot of heat now, ten billion degrees of it, enough to begin the nuclear reactions that create the lighter elements–principally hydrogen and helium, with a dash … of lithium. In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe.”

And it all begins, say scientists, from what’s called a singularity. Every atom, every particle that dances in our universe today came from that singularity, which itself was so compact that it had no dimensions at all. “It is natural but wrong,” says Bill Bryson, “to visualize the singularity as a kind of pregnant dot hanging in a dark, boundless void. But there is no space, no darkness. The singularity has no “around” around it. There is no space for it to occupy, no place for it to be. We can’t even ask how long it has been there–whether it has just lately popped into being, like a good idea, or whether it has been there forever, quietly awaiting the right moment. Time doesn’t exist. There is no past for it to emerge from.”

This is what we are exploring today, in the first installment of our year-long Science and Spirit sermon series: the singularity that went Bang in a Big Way, and voilà: we have a universe. What else do we know about this? And where does it take us in our spiritual search for truth and meaning?

Now, let me ask if you happen do you know that ancient and wonderful story of the blind men and the elephant? How a mysterious thing called an elephant one day came round to where a group of blind men were hanging out, and each of those blind men had an opportunity to feel the elephant for himself, and each got a clear but only partial picture, and then they started to talk about what they experienced … and it goes on from there. Know the story? That’s the plot for the sermon today, except our elephant is the singularity that goes Bang. And our blind men … well, you’ll see.

Our first blind man: He’s a character from a TV show called (wait for it) Big Bang Theory. Do you know this screamingly funny show? Imagine two physicists, an astrophysicist, an aerospace engineer, and a waitress and aspiring actress all together. Guess who has social skills, and who doesn’t. Guess what the level of geekdom in the room is, when the physicists and the astrophysicist and the aerospace engineer come together. One of my best friends, who happens to be a NASA scientist, swears up and down that that show accurately portrays what he sees daily at work.

Our first blind man is Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is one of the physicists, and he is simply brilliant. “You are not Isaac Newton,” another of the characters in the show tells him, and Sheldon replies, “No, no, that’s true. Gravity would have been apparent to me without the apple.”

So Sheldon (as one of our blind men) reaches out to get a feel for our mysterious singularity elephant, and here’s what he says, in classic homage to Spock from Star Trek: Fascinating (with elevated eyebrow). And he’s right, because, logically speaking, in a universe in which the range of possibilities is infinite, any specific, finite kind of order has almost zero probability of occurring. When anything’s possible, specific somethings are truly amazing. Especially the specific somethings of our universe. The general orderliness, to begin with: there are endless ways in which the universe could have been chaotic, without any laws at all, or with crazy laws, for example, laws that dictate that everything changes from moment to moment—why not? Logically speaking, it’s possible, it could have happened.


And the evidences for fine-tuning just keep on adding up. There’s the fact that the laws of nature dovetail together in a mutually supportive way which gives nature a wonderful stability and harmony. Beyond this, the laws of nature apply as much here as they do in different galaxies, millions of light years away—there’s spatial uniformity to the universe.

And then, what about the mathematical simplicity of the laws? (Sheldon is reeeally starting to geek out by now.) Once again, it could have been otherwise; the laws of physics might have required incredibly clumsy and convoluted mathematics to be described. But they don’t require this. Elegance, instead, turns out to be a mark of mathematical truth. And furthermore, such laws, simple as they are, do not lead to a boringly simple universe but permit the existence and development of extremely complex forms—like stars or ecosystems or families or you and me.

But again and again, it could have been otherwise. “If the universe had formed just a tiny bit differently–if gravity were fractionally stronger or weaker, if the expansion had proceeded just a little more slowly or swiftly–then there might never have been stable elements to make you and me and the ground we stand on. Had gravity been a trifle stronger, the universe itself might have collapsed like a badly erected tent, without precisely the right values to give it the right dimensions and density and component parts. Had it been weaker, however, nothing would have coalesced. The universe would have remained forever a dull, scattered void” (Bill Bryson).

Sheldon, by this point, is so worked up, he starts to spout poetry. He can’t help himself. It’s definitely one way in which science and spirituality go hand in hand. Science reveals a world so amazingly wondrous that you can’t help feel reverence and awe towards it all. “Out of the stars in their flight,” says Sheldon the physicist,

out of the dust of eternity,

here have we come,

Stardust and sunlight,

mingling through time and through space.

Out of the stars have we come,

up from time.

Out of the stars have we come. (Robert Terry Weston)

Can you blame Sheldon for going all misty-eyed? But suddenly he becomes self-conscious. Coughs in some embarrassment. Quoting poetry? Not so good for his hard-core science geek image…Nevertheless, it IS hard to remain emotionally neutral about all this stuff. Science invokes spirit. Facts cry out for interpretation. What does it all mean?

And now we turn to our next blind man, whom I personally wish was a fictional character on some TV sitcom, but he is not. He is very real. He sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, in Washington D.C. He is Georgia Representative Paul Broun. He reaches out to get a feel for our mysterious singularity elephant and then, just as soon as he’s touched something, he jerks his hand back like he’s touched fire, he slaps the feeling of it away from his hands, he says (and I quote) that Big Bang theory (and other scientific theories) are “lies straight from the pit of hell” meant to convince people they do not need a savior. I am not kidding.

Yesterday’s newspaper tells me that this Republican lawmaker “made those comments during a speech Sept. 27 at a sportsman’s banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell. Broun, a medical doctor, is running for re-election in November unopposed by Democrats.”

“God’s word is true,” Broun said, according to a video posted on the church’s website. “I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”

Now what do you think about that? Definitely this is one way in which science and spirituality do NOT go hand in hand, and unfortunately this is the version that gets a lot of press. Unitarian Universalists and other liberal religious communities have affirmed the basic compatibility of science and spirituality ever since Darwin, for almost 150 years now. But the media love to highlight the car crash version of spirituality that is fundamentalist and highly allergic. I mean, most religious fundamentalists will not turn down the latest medical technologies that science produces. But whenever a theory appears to touch on questions of ultimate reality—“lies straight from the pit of hell!”

But DO such theories as evolution and Big Bang theory actually disprove the existence of a God?

Our third blind man says yes, they do.

He is Jacques Monod, Nobel Prize-winning biologist. He turns to our mysterious singularity elephant to feel it. He stays perfectly still for a moment, as if he’s meditating, and when he withdraws his hand, this is what he says to Sheldon (our first blind man, you may remember): “Sheldon, what you were saying earlier—it was indeed fascinating, and I have thought long and hard about the cosmic order that you took such great pains to describe. But here is what I honestly think: my philosophy, my theology—and I know my friend Rep. Paul Broun will claim it as straight from the pit of hell, but frankly, I am too humble to claim that any theory of mine was authored by Lucifer the greatest of all evil spirits. It is just from imperfect human me, my experience, my reason, my best knowing: We are all alone. We are all alone in the unfeeling immensity of this universe. We have emerged out of it only by chance.

“I say this, first of all, as a biologist. Darwin demonstrated decisively that complex organisms efficiently adapted to their environments could arise as a result of purely random mutation and natural selection—‘survival of the fittest.’ But if this is where you and I came from why not the entire cosmic order? None of it requires a designer God. Just the operation of ordinary natural processes.  God does not exist.

“And yes, Sheldon, I heard you when you suggested about how the universe is fine-tuned for life, how it’s biocentric to the core. That is correct. Yet it proves nothing. We are just very, very lucky that it turned out this way—and if it had not been like that, well, we would not be here to argue the matter.

“In fact, these days I am wondering just how lucky. My physicist friends tell me that one important interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that there is not just one universe in existence but every time there’s a choice between two possible alternative states of anything, no matter how small the choice, even if it’s between an electron’s spin being up or down, both possibilities become actual in different universes. What this means is that there are stupendously many versions of ourselves in existence. Stupendously many versions of everything all in different universes. Sounds bizarre, I know, but a lot of physicists endorse the theory. My point being, if reality is like this, then it’s more likely for universes like ours to happen. Perhaps we are not so lucky after all.

“In the end, I stand with my physicist friend Stephen Weinberg, who once said ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.’ Where it’s all going … is nowhere. That’s my theology. That’s my philosophy.”

And with that, Monod goes silent. For a moment, everyone is silent, all the blind men … but then Sheldon can’t help himself. He cracks a joke he’s heard before from another wise guy—Woody Allen—says, “Well I’m just astounded by people who want to know the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown!”

And this takes us to our fourth blind man. Paul Davies. Davies is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who in 1995 won the prestigious Templeton Prize for his work on science and religion. He reaches out to feel the mysterious singularity elephant, and just like Jacques Monod before him, he pauses for a moment, is still, then takes back his arm, and says to Monod, “It strikes me that your science is at odds with your philosophy and theology. I mean, your science is animated by the purpose of proving that you and the rest of the universe are fundamentally purposeless. Your purpose is to prove purposelessness. That is strange. What keeps you going?

“My experience and reason and best knowing lead me to a different conclusion about the order that you spoke of a moment ago. I have come to believe that the physical universe was put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as brute fact. There must be a deeper level of explanation. Whether one wishes to call this ‘God’ is a matter of personal taste and definition, but there is no doubt in my mind: something deeper is going on (See Davies’ Mind of God).

“You speak of Darwin, and yes, his theory explains the emergence of biological creatures, but it does this by making a very important presupposition. It presupposes that when a random mutation happens it happens to one organism in a larger group, and this is how the one gains advantage over the others and survives them all to pass on its genes. But when it comes to the laws of physics, there is no group of competitors. Our universe starts out with one and only one set of laws. That’s it. That’s all. Darwinianism explains biological order, but it doesn’t help us understand cosmic order.

“Furthermore, Monod, you talk about luck, about chance. Sometimes I wonder if your theory of chance is patently unscientific. I mean, for a theory to be truly scientific, it must be falsifiable. There must be a way to at least imagine what evidence to the contrary might look like.  But what if the world were littered with pieces of granite stamped Made By God, after the fashion of the watchmaker’s mark…. Surely this would prove something!  Yet how would you respond? I suspect you might shrug it off and say, ‘Well, with the reality of multiple universes, of course it could have happened just by chance! In short, you could shrug off anything that appeared to be evidence for God, and that makes your theory of chance at least in my opinion never open to being wrong and thus patently unscientific.”

At this point, Rep. Paul Broun sniggers, but Paul Davies tells him point blank to shut up. Davies, a God-believer, is committed to science through and through. Science and spirit for him are inextricably interwoven in his search for truth.

But now Davies has one more thing to say: “Jacques Monod, I do appreciate how you brought up the theory of multiple universes. I know that a lot of physicists endorse it. I know a lot of those physicists personally. Yet I respectfully point out that every ‘multiple universe’ theory I know of presupposes that every universe will have the same set of natural laws. You don’t get universes with different natural laws. They may look different, but the same basic laws are always in play. So where do these laws come from? The multiple-universe theory still doesn’t answer the basic question of where the initial order came from!” And with that, Davies grows silent. Our fourth blind man.

Now there are plenty more blind men we could hear from, but the science and spirit conversation has already been complicated and thick enough. By now Rep. Paul Broun has lost all focus and he is chatting up Paul Davies in the hopes that he’ll get his vote in the upcoming election. Jacques Monod has turned all moody. And Sheldon—Sheldon is looking for someone to play Rock-Paper-Scissors with him, Sheldon-style. As in: “Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitates lizard, lizard eats paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock, and as it always has, rock crushes scissors.”

Our blind men are ready to move on, and perhaps so are we.

But I will leave you with this thought. Whatever the source of the singularity—whatever the cause of the Big Bang and all the fine-tuning that Sheldon talked about—what’s absolutely true is that here we are…. And what are we? Biologist Julian Huxley says it like this, “We are the universe becoming conscious of itself.” Jacques Monod may see the universe as pointless, but I disagree. The universe in each of us finds a point. It is a wondrous thing. We look up a telescope, and we are the universe looking at itself. We look down a microscope, and we are the universe looking at itself. Isn’t that amazing?

Ponder this thing in your heart,

life up from sea:

Eyes to behold, throats to sing,

mates to love.

Life from the sea, warmed by sun,

washed by rain,

life from within, giving birth,

rose to love.

 This is the wonder of time;

this is the marvel of space;

out of the stars swung the earth;

life upon earth rose to love.

 This is the marvel of life,

rising to see and to know;

Out of your heart, cry wonder:

sing that we live.

(Robert Terry Weston)