Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 2

Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 2

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Metanexus: Views 2001.12.18 2743 words

According to the Dutch theologian Willem Drees,

“A creation story begins with the beginning. But we do not know our realityas a film shown to us from the first scene onwards. Our situation resemblesthe predicament of archaeologists. We find traces and clues – and seek tounderstand the past. In that process, we answer questions and pass on otherquestions.”

And, sometime it seems that we forget this temporal finitude of ours. For”in the beginning” we were not there, and every story about that beginningis a story, a narrative, whose content depends heavily on the narrator. Andeven after the story has been told, Drees observes that “two types ofquestions remain. [They] are persistent questions about fundamental rules:Why does matter behave the way it actually behaves? Why are the laws ofnature the way they are? What is matter? And there are persistent questionsof an historical kind: Where does everything come from? How did it allbegin? Such questions arise again and again when a sequence of questions ispursued. They are questions at the boundaries of science, ‘the horizon ofnot knowing’. Scientists can explain much, but that does not get one aroundthese questions. The horizon moves, but is not removed.”

No, and as a matter of fact and experience, it would seem that the more youknow, the more you know you don’t know. It’s not for nothing that WillemDrees concludes today’s selection from his book Creation: From Nothing Unti=lNow (Paperback or Library Binding, 128pp; ISBN: 0-4152-5653-4; Routledge;December 2001) with a reference to Nicolas of Cusa’s text “On learnedignorance”. However, I suspect that what really remains in the end for ever=yhuman being is not learned ignorance but the very subject at issue heretoday: mystery. For it is this sense of mystery that lures us all on “theroad to find out” as Cat Stevens might say. Or, as the physicist CharlesMisner is quoted as saying in today’s column:=20 “Saying that God created the universe does not explain either God or th=eUniverse, but it keeps our consciousness alive to mysteries of awesomemajesty that we might otherwise ignore, and that deserve our respect.”

Willem B. Drees is professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at LeidenUniversity, the Netherlands. He has an advanced degree in theoreticalphysics (Utrecht, 1977) and doctorates in theology (Groningen, 1989) andphilosophy (Amsterdam, 1994). He is the author of a variety of books andarticles in Dutch, German and English, including Religion, Science andNaturalism (Cambridge UP, 1996) and Beyond the Big Bang: Quantum Cosmologie=sand God (Open Court, 1990).

–Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 2From: Willem B. DreesEmail: <>

Scene 2. Mystery

The timewhen there was no timeis a horizon of not knowinga mist where our questions fadeand no echo returns. Then,in the beginning,perhaps not the beginning,in the first fraction of a second,perhaps not the first fractionof the first second,our universe beganwithout us.

Will we ever be able to answer all questions concerning the early universe?The way I see it, science will be able to move back the horizon. We will se=efarther, and hence differently. Our horizon might shift, but I believe thatscience will not remove this ‘horizon of not knowing’. There will always be’a mist where our questions fade, and no echo returns.’

A creation story begins with the beginning. But we do not know our realityas a film shown to us from the first scene onwards. Our situation resemblesthe predicament of archaeologists. We find traces and clues – and seek tounderstand the past. In that process, we answer questions and pass on otherquestions.

An architect who constructs a building, decides to use concrete. He has=,we hope, knowledge of the forces that this concrete will be able towithstand. If someone would ask why the forces are as they are, thearchitect might refer us to an engineer who studies material sciences. Thisengineer should be able to inform us about experiments and the relevanttheory, about the wear and tear of the materials concerned, and theirrelations to chemical bonds between the various materials. Perhaps theengineer even knows from which geological deposit the sand and cement havebeen taken. However, if you go on asking how those layers came to be there,the engineer will refer to a geologist. The geologist can tell a story abou=tthe erosion of mountains and sedimentation of sand and stones by rivers.Perhaps the geologist can discover that the sand used was part of aparticular mountain range, and perhaps even that the same material wasalready deposited on a sea floor before. However, if one continues by askin=gwhere the silicon and oxygen come from, the chemical elements making upsand, the geologist will have to say that these were there when the Earthformed. For further questions, he will refer to the astrophysicist. And theastrophysicist can answer many questions, about the formation of elementsout of hydrogen in the interiors of stars and during supernova explosions,and the way these elements are distributed in the universe and may getincluded when a solar system forms (see below, scene 4). However, thisexplanation assumes that there is already hydrogen as the material out ofwhich stars are formed. When we go on with ‘historical’ questions we come t=otheories about the earliest stages of the universe, to the turf of thecosmologist.

This, in a nutshell, is typical of science. Scientists answer questionsbelonging to their province of expertise, while passing on other questions,about the things they take for granted in their own work. In the end, twotypes of questions remain. There are persistent questions about fundamentalrules: Why does matter behave the way it actually behaves? Why are the lawsof nature the way they are? What is matter? And there are persistentquestions of an historical kind: Where does everything come from? How did i=tall begin? Such questions arise again and again when a sequence of question=sis pursued. They are questions at the boundaries of science, ‘the horizon o=fnot knowing’. Scientists can explain much, but that does not get one aroundthese questions. The horizon moves, but is not removed.

Some people have attempted to answer such questions in a different way, byreferring to our own existence. If we had not been there, we could not posesuch questions. The universe is as it is, since that is the kind of univers=ein which we can exist. If the universe had been slightly different, life aswe know it could not have come into existence.

That life would not have come into existence in a universe which weredifferent seems to follow from various thought experiments. If one makes amathematical model, one can also see how the universe would have developedif certain conditions and parameters had been different. What if theuniverse had slightly larger mass, or a slightly higher velocity at theonset of the expansion? What if the electron were a tiny bit heavier thanthe actual one? An electrical force which is smaller, or stronger comparedto gravity? Why not space with two dimensions rather than three? And so on.All kinds of variations can be tried in our models. Such modifications, eve=nsmall ones, can be shown to have major consequences, at least in the contex=tof such models.

An example. The universe as we know it seems much larger than we needfor our kind of life. We do not need much more than a solar system. And ifwe want to be generous, one galaxy with some hundred billion stars is largeenough for us. Could the universe, then, not have been much smaller? Thesize of the universe seems pointless, wastefully abundant for a creatorinterested in life, and especially in conscious and responsible life such a=shumans. But is the size really pointless? If there is to be enough time forthe formation of the heavy elements (see below, scene 4) and for theevolution of life (scene 5 and 6), the universe has to exist long enough –
but then it also has to be large enough, since the longer the universeexists, the farther light has traveled. And in order to be big, the univers=eneeds sufficient mass. According to current scientific models, a universewith the mass of a single galaxy would expand for only one month beforecollapsing again. Life could not have developed.

Let us assume that our universe is indeed ‘just right’ for our kind of life=.Does that have a deeper meaning, for instance a conscious choice pickingthose conditions that allow for humans? Does this provide a clue for faithin a creator intending humans to be?

In discussions on the universe there has been talk of ‘anthropicprinciples’. The choice of terminology is problematic, for it is notspecifically about a universe in which humans (Greek: anthropoi) can exist,but about a universe in which a planet such as ours with the right kind ofmaterials has sufficient time to bring forth life through evolution. Thus,it might be more appropriate to speak of a ‘biotic principle’ rather than o=fan ‘anthropic principle’.

Besides, humans also experience all kinds of misfortunes in thisuniverse. A classic example is the buttered toasts falling upon the floorwith the buttered side down. A colloquial expression for the pessimisticmood is Murphy’s Law: If things can go wrong, they will. Careful analysisshows that the same conditions which allow for the emergence of human life,which optimists have appealed to in speaking of ‘anthropic principles’, arealso those that make buttered toast fall from human tables upside down.Thus, perhaps there is an ‘anthropomurphic principle’ at work.

Upon closer inspection, we are not dealing with a well-defined’principle’, but rather with the realization that there might be a mix ofcircumstances hospitable to us. Thus, one might speak of ‘bioticcoincidences’. The question then is what significance might be attached tothose biotic coincidences.

Perhaps it is a matter of selective observation. If we were to live in =
atrain and look out of the window, we would notice that railroad barriers ar=ealways closed. What a pity for those that stand waiting there; those carswill never get across. That is of course nonsense; we see closed barrierssince we look at the world from within the train. That the conditions in ou=rpart of the universe are just right for us could be a claim of a similarkind, a consequence of selective observation. Where and when the conditionsare different, we will not be and hence we will not observe such regions.

Another possibility is that coincidences that seems as if they couldhave been different, will be shown to be a consequence of a furtherdeveloped theory. Since the discussion on ‘anthropic coincidences’ emerged,this has happened already to some extent. A new model was proposed, theinflationary universe. According to this model, the early universe wentthrough a phase of extremely fast expansion. This model combines wellstandard insights about matter and the Big Bang theory, and explains somefeatures which are otherwise arbitrary, such as the homogeneity of matterand radiation in the observable universe – a feature previously object ofexplanations based on an ‘anthropic principle’.

Thus, even with respect to properties of the Universe our puzzlement an=dour current questions may well be answered by future theories. At the sametime, new questions emerge in the context of new theories. For instance, th=einflationary model does not explain why the universe is such that inflationhappens; some assumptions are always made. The reach of explanation isimpressive, but explanatory successes do not exclude further questions.Again and again, questions emerge at the limits of scientific understanding=.

Questions remain even if physics and cosmology agree one day on a completetheory, a theory explaining all known phenomena in a unified, coherent way.Imagine, a single article, a single formula answering all our questions. Bu=tthe article is on a piece of paper; the formula consists of symbols. Thus,there is no answer to the question: Why does reality behave as describedhere? It is as with a drawing of the Belgian artist Ren=E9 Magritte. It is acareful drawing of a pipe, a pipe used for smoking tobacco. Underneath it,he has written ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ – ‘This is not a pipe’. And he isright. It is an image of a pipe. One cannot fill the image with tobacco andif one would attempt to light the image, something else happens than whenone lights a pipe. There is a difference between an image, how accurate itmay be, and reality. This is also the case for a good scientific theory.However accurate the theory, the question remains why reality behaves as itdoes (and as described in the theory).

There is a traditional philosophical question: Why is there somethingrather than nothing? And there are similar philosophical questions thatarise due to science, but are not answered by science. Why is mathematics s=oeffective in describing reality? Why is reality such that we can work wellwith wrong, or at least incomplete theories? For this is our predicament,since we do not have a theory integrating quantum physics, gravity andspace-time. It is a mistake to inflate problems and puzzles to mysteries,which would perhaps only be open to a religious answer. Such an approachwould be forced into further retreats again and again. However, the successof science in solving puzzles and problems can itself evoke questions. Howcan science be so successful? What does that say about humans and aboutreality?

There are various ways of dealing with such persistent questions. It is tol=dthat the American president Truman had a sign on his desk saying ‘The buckstops here’. In a company or administration one can pass on hard decisionsto persons higher up, but the president cannot avoid responsibility; he hasto make a choice. Scientists, however, do not have to make a choice. Theyhave to live with the insecurity of unanswered questions. A politicaldecision or dogmatic answer is neither necessary nor adequate. Religiouspeople do not have to cut this Gordian knot either. They ought to be willin=gto recognize that our explanatory quest is open ended. The physicist Charle=sMisner expressed this well:

“Saying that God created the universe does not explain either God or th=eUniverse, but it keeps our consciousness alive to mysteries of awesomemajesty that we might otherwise ignore, and that deserve our respect.”

Perhaps we will never come to a final explanation. We always work within th=elimitations of our concepts and ideas and within the limitations of ourexistence. We never see the universe ‘from outside’, from the perspective o=feternity, but always from within. That is also a problem when we speak ofGod; we are within the universe while we attempt to speak about somethingmore encompassing. Our language about a ‘beyond’ need not be meaningless,but our theology does require agnostic restraint if we are not to fall intoan arrogant and unwarranted religious certainty.

The more we know, the more we may become aware of the limitations of ou=rknowledge. De docta ignorantia (About learned ignorance) was the title of abook of Nicolas of Cusa, a cardinal in Europe in the fifteenth century. Thescientific road to knowledge has shown itself to be very successful; we hav=elearned more than Nicolas of Cusa and his contemporaries might ever haveexpected. But that does not need to result in the arrogant conviction thatwe can explain everything without any residue. To the contrary; throughscience we are confronted with fundamental questions concerning the natureand ground of our reality. Why is there a reality? Why is reality the way i=tis? Thunder is no longer a voice of the gods, nor a mystery. But that doesnot exclude wonder regarding the reality of which both we and thethunderstorms are part. To the contrary, in the end existence remains amystery.

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