The Gospel from Science

by George F. Will; Newsweek, November 9, 1998.

Soon the American Civil Liberties Union, or People for the American Way, or some similar faction of litigious secularism, will file suit against NASA charging that the Hubble Space Telescope unconstitutionally gives comfort to the religiously inclined. For people so inclined, science, especially cosmology, is augmenting, not subverting, the sense of awe that undergirds religious yearnings.

Hubble recently sent back to earth–to this strangely lush speck in one of perhaps 50 billion galaxies–infrared images of the faintest, most distant galaxies ever seen. They could be more than 12 billion times 6 trillion miles away. (That is 12 billion light-years away, a light-year being the distance light travels in a year–approximately 6 trillion miles, at 186,000 miles per second.)

Someday, if Congress thinks spaciously (thinks of things grander than ethanol subsidies), even better telescopes can peer into the remotest–what? edge?–of the universe and see galaxies being born. Looking deep into space is looking back in time. Hubble may have seen light emitted when the universe was 5 percent of its present age (it is approximately 13 billion years old), light cast by stars materializing in the formless dark that prevailed after the instant of bright light cast by the Big Bang.

Sometime–perhaps half a billion years–after that explosion, the first stars formed and light returned. Abraham Loeb, a theoretical astrophysicist, says, "Suddenly the universe lit up like a Christmas tree." How? That is an interesting question. Why? That is a really interesting question.

One that interests Gregg Easterbrook in his fascinating, elegant new book, Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt. By noting the relevance of today's astronomers to ancient theologians, he invests the timeless question of life's meaning with distinctly contemporary pertinence.

In the late 1920s astronomy established that numerous galaxies near ours are racing away from us and each other at millions of miles per hour. This, and the fact that the universe is bathed in radiation, suggested that matter and motion originated rather as Genesis suggests, ex nihilo, out of nothing, in a stupendous explosion of light and energy.

For extravagant implausibility, writes Easterbrook, nothing in theology can hold a candle to what science says about the Big Bang. From a pinpoint of compressed potential–"a microscopic, transparent, empty point in primordial space-time"–it sent a cosmos hurtling outward at an unimaginable speed. The forces loosed were–are–remarkably (miraculously?) balanced:

If the Big Bang had been slightly less violent, the expansion of the universe would have been less rapid, and would soon (in a few million years, or a few minutes–in any case, soon) have collapsed back on itself. If the explosion had been slightly more violent, the universe might have dispersed into a soup too thin to aggregate into stars. The odds against us were–this is the right word–astronomical. The ratio of matter and energy to the volume of space at the Big Bang must have been within about one quadrillionth of 1 percent of ideal.

The good news–that is the meaning of "gospel"–from science suggests, Easterbrook says, "a buoyant view of our being." Life is so improbable it must somehow be favored by something. By some First Cause, "to which," said Aquinas, "everyone gives the name of God."

The idea of purposefulness, an idea that science seemed, for a while, to drain from life, may be making a comeback. Science no longer suggests a meaningless mechanics of mere genes and whirling atoms. If the universe seems to desire life, it is odd to say that life is an automated artifice arising from an accidental cataclysm that was full of sound and fury but signified nothing.

What stance should humanity take toward a poignantly welcoming universe? One of gratitude for life, which begins to look less like a chemical fluke and more like what one Nobel biologist calls "an almost obligatory outcome," given the conditions caused by the First Cause.

At about the time Hubble, one of the world's most advanced scientific instruments, was reporting in, the world's oldest institution was weighing in. In his 13th encyclical, "Fides et Ratio," Pope John Paul II aims to close the "fateful separation" of faith and reason. To that end, he defends reason against its cultured despisers, many of whom are, strange to say, philosophers.

A tenet of fashionable philosophy is that humanity has progressed far enough intellectually to know that intellectual progress has never been possible. That is, truth is unattainable–a chimera, in fact–because all truths are "social constructs," culturally conditioned, etc. Pope John Paul II summons the faithful to the barricades against postmodernism's belief that all truths are merely perspectival"–matters of points of view.

It may seem that the times are indeed out of joint when it falls to the Bishop of Rome to issue a ringing defense of belief in reason's capacity to encompass the most important truths. But then, do the world's religions contain tenets more difficult to believe than what science is suggesting about the origin and trajectory of the cosmos?

One of the most impressive results of the "meaningless accident," the "chemical fluke" that produced life was the man who wrote: "Take but degree away, untune that string. And hark! what discord follows." Shakespeare was writing about society. What he wrote is even more true of the universe. Take but degree away (see above, the one quadrillionth of 1 percent of margin for error), untune that string, and what follows is not just discord but eternal entropy and ice. So what–who?–was the great Tuner?

Science increasingly validates a heartfelt–and rational–"Eureka!" in response to the (literally) cosmic surprise of life. As playwright Tom Stoppard puts it, "The idea of God is slightly more plausible than the alternative proposition that, given enough time, some green slime could write Shakespeare's sonnets." To say no more (but this is saying a lot), what is, is staggeringly implausible, and that is theologically suggestive.