ESSSAT-News 17:2, May-June 2007, 17-19
Initial Mystery in Science and Theology
Sjoerd L. Bonting
“It seems clear to me that we face initial mystery, both in science and theology, when confronting the origin of the cosmos as well as that of life. This does not mean that we should halt our scientific and theological endevours, but that we must not expect to obtain in this world a 'Theory of Everything' or an explanation of the final mysteries of life. Physicists are beginning to admit this, but biologists engaged in the rapidly advancing fields of molecular biology and molecular genetics are not yet ready to acknowledge this.”
Both science and theology encounter problems when trying to approach the initial moment of the creation of the universe (or its "origin" as the scientist might say). The same is true for the origin of life. In this brief essay, which I dedicate to the memory of Arthur Peacocke, pioneer of the science-theology dialogue who died on 21 October 2006, I shall consider "initial mystery" in the two disciplines.
Science on the cosmic origin
Current cosmological theory can provide a rather detailed account of cosmic evolution from the present back to t=10-43 sec, the so-called Planck time, but there it stops. Further extrapolation leads to a 'singular point' at t = 0 with infinite density and temperature and zero dimension. It was thought that incorporation of gravity into quantum theory would lead to a 'Theory of Everything', which will allow us to "know the mind of God" as phrased by Stephen Hawking.1 It was hoped to achieve this by means of string theory in which the elementary particles are considered to be minute vibrating strings. During the past 40 years at least five variants of string theory have been developed. It is purely theoretical work, using complex mathematics, that leads to a 'multiverse' with 10 or 11 dimensions and up to 10500 universes. Over the years the string theorists have been rather successful in popularizing their theories for a wide public. Their claim that string theory is the most important topic in physics has led to the situation that 20 of the 22 chairs in theoretical physics at the top universities in the United States are now occupied by string theorists.
However, in the past few years string theory has met with increasingly severe criticism. Leonard Susskind, one of the originators of string theory, notes that in 40 years no novel, testable predictions have been generated, nor has a mathematically unique version of string theory been found.2 Lisa Randall dislikes the many dimensions in string theory and its inability to explain why gravity is so weak compared to the other forces of nature.3 Lawrence Krauss says that unless the theorizing about extra dimensions and multiverse landscapes helps to resolve fundamental physical questions, it is all just mathematics.4 Lee Smolin, promotor of loop quantum gravity theory, also states that string theory "has failed to make any predictions by which it can be tested", and that some of its proponents "are seeking leave to change the rules so that their theory will not need to pass the usual tests we impose on scientific ideas."5 It is not a well-defined theory, but just a broad program of research. It disagrees with established facts of our world, e.g., in presupposing unbroken supersymmetry. There is no evidence for the existence of the extra dimensions. Peter Woit concentrates on the inability of string theory to provide testable predictions (hence the book title: Not Even Wrong), and he critically analyses counter-claims of the stringtheorists.6 And the desired incorporation of gravity into quantum mechanics has not been achieved.
As a result, many physicists have become skeptical about the possibility of finding a 'Theory of Everything'.7-10 Stephen Hawking has in 2004 distanced himself from his earlier optimism, basing himself on the Gödel theorems.11 Chaitin argues that even if such a theory can be developed, it would only represent a deeper level of 'reduction' of science, but it certainly would not mean that we would know the mind of God.12 In other words, science can always try to find an earlier cause in the chain of events, but it can apparently never reach the First Cause.
Theology on the cosmic origin
The biblical creation stories in Genesis 2 and 1 pose a primordial chaos from which God creates. The same is true for virtually all non-biblical creation stories.13 However, in each of these stories the primordial chaos is described differently, indicating that the authors did not have knowledge of its actual nature and origin. Although the First Cause is clearly recognized as the one God of Israel, there remains initial mystery about the primordial chaos from which God creates.
The creatio ex nihilo doctrine, invented by Theophilus of Antioch around 180 AD, does not have the ambiguity of a primordial chaos; God is thought to create from nihil. However, creatio ex nihilo lacks a biblical basis; science does not know nihil and so cannot work with it; a satisfactory theological explanation of creation from nihil has proved to be difficult, if not impossible; it makes God responsible for the presence of evil in the world; and it has played no role in the development of the major Christian doctrines.14 The defense of the creatio ex nihilo doctrine is weak, which leads theologians either to omit a defense or to fall back on the philosophical argument that it expresses the thinking that cosmos, time and space owe its existence to God alone and not to any other cause (e.g., Hans Küng15). I would think that a philosophical argument that is not based on biblical or scientific grounds has little validity.
It seems to me that the theologian, whether assuming creation from chaos or from nihil, meets with initial mystery. In neither case is there an answer to the question where chaos or nihil came from. Thus both theology and science meet initial mystery when trying to understand cosmic origin.
Science and theology on the origin of life
The theory of biological evolution informs us about the bodily development of humans via numerous ancestors from the early bacteria. Consciousness of the environment is present in a primitive form in microbes as chemotaxis, and the development of the central nervous system begins already in the invertebrates. The development of mental and moral qualities is traceable in the higher species, particularly monkeys, primates and hominids. So it would seem that evolution can explain all aspects of life.
The origin of the first living cells remains, however, a problem.16 Microfossils in ancient rocks suggest that the first living cells have arisen 3.5 billion years ago. At that time the Earth's atmosphere, formed from gases emitted by volcanoes from the hot Earth's interior, lacked oxygen and thus there was no ozone layer to keep the ultraviolet solar radiation from reaching the Earth's surface. It is, therefore, thought that the first living cells developed around hot hydrothermal vents in the ocean bottom, where they were protected from ultraviolet radiation. The gases erupting from these vents, hydrogen. hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia and carbon monoxide, could provide the chemical elements and energy for the formation of the building blocks of proteins and nucleic acids. Clay or pyrite minerals may have served as reaction catalysts. Model experiments in the laboratory have provided some tentative support for these assumptions. Artificial cells, containing a mixture of DNA and all biomolecules needed for protein synthesis, could indeed produce protein. When pores were made into the membrane of these cells through which ATP (the energy source for living cells) could enter, protein synthesis continued for some days.
It is clear that these artificial cells are still a far cry from the first living cells, as they are lacking the possibility of cell division. Further improvements of the technique may be possible. Yet, it may well be that the biologist is also facing initial mystery. Furthermore, we must consider that life originates at the birth of each individual, whether it is a lowly microbe or a human.
The biblical account for the origin of life is that the breath of God, ruach, instills life, as in the case of Adam (Gen.2:7) and of the bones in the valley (Ezek. 37:1-14). Breath of God stands for the life-giving action of the Spirit, but no explanation is given for its mechanism.17 Thus the theologian also faces initial mystery in the origin of life.
It seems clear to me that we face initial mystery, both in science and theology, when confronting the origin of the cosmos as well as that of life. This does not mean that we should halt our scientific and theological endevours, but that we must not expect to obtain in this world a 'Theory of Everything' or an explanation of the final mysteries of life. Physicists are beginning to admit this, but biologists engaged in the rapidly advancing fields of molecular biology and molecular genetics are not yet ready to acknowledge this.
1. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam, New York, 1988, 175.
2. Leonard Susskind, The Cosmic Landscape: String theory and the illusion of intelligent design, New York: Little Brown, 2005.
3. Lisa Randall, Warped Passages: Unraveling the mysteries of the universe's hidden dimensions, New York: Ecco, 2005.
4. Lawrence M. Krauss, Hiding in the Mirror: The mysterious allure of extra dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and beyond, New York: Viking, 2005.
5. Lee Smolin, The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
6. Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong, New York: Basic Books, 2006.
7. Chet Raymo, A Spin on Spin Foam, Scientific American, 285 (no.2):80-81, 2001 Aug. He calls these theories "the modern equivalent of calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin."
8. Graham P. Collins, Fractional Success; a new theory of everything?, Scientific American 286 (no.1):19, 2002 Jan.
9. Sean Carroll, An astrophysical constraint, Nature 424, 1007-1008, 2003 Aug.28.
10. Freedom J. Dyson, The World on a String (review of Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Knopf, New York, 2004), The New York Review of Books, vol. 51, No. 8, May 13, 2004.
11. Stephen Hawking, Gödel and the end of physics, lecture at Cambridge Uni- versity, England, 2004 <www.dampt.cam.ac.uk/strtst/dirac/hawking>
12. Gregory Chaitin, The limits of reason, Scientific American 294 (3), 54-61, 2006 March.
13. Ellen van Wolde, Stories of the Beginning, SCM Press, London, 1996.
14. Sjoerd L. Bonting, Creation and Double Chaos, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2005, 69-75.
15. Hans Küng, Der Anfang aller Dinge: Naturwissenschaft und Religion, Piper Verlag, München, 2006, 139-140. However, on p.55 Küng writes that the discussion about creation should be based on a historic-critical exegesis of Old and New Testament, and on p. 135 he concludes that both creation stories in Genesis assume a primordial chaos, to which creatio ex nihilo thinking is foreign.
16. Sjoerd L. Bonting, ref.14, 27-30.
17. Sjoerd L. Bonting, Spirit and Creation, Zygon Journal of Religion & Science,
41 (nr.3), 709-722, Sept. 2006. 1747 words, 19/5/07