Augustine and 20th Century Cosmology

Dr. Robert B. Sheldon, MA Religion Westminster Seminary, PhD Physics UMd, © 2003

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Materialism
  3. Lucretius
  4. Augustine
  5. Gassendi
  6. 19th Century Materialists
  7. Augustine Redux
  8. Einstein and Death of Matter
  9. Einstein and Beginning of Time
  10. Interlude: Physicists Respond
  11. Anthropic Principle
  12. An August Conclusion

  1. Introduction
  2. As I was teaching a course on the origins of Enlightenment thought, I wanted to track down a proper reference to ex nihilo, picked up Augustine and fell into a deep well. So much of what we read is 2nd and 3rd hand. Often the original manuscripts had far more beauty and depth than the summaries. Thatís why we donít carry commentaries to church. This was true of Augustine as well. I had underestimated the richness of this thought, and the power of his arguments. For Augustine had presaged the entire body of 20th century cosmology in 400AD, as he point-by-point refuted the materialist metaphysics of his day. His contributions lasted 1500 years, but were ultimately rejected by 19th century physics, who viewed his defeat as a defeat for Christianity. However, 20th century physics vindicated Augustine point-by-point, making physicists very uneasy. This leaves 21st century physics in a crisis, unable to stand on materialism, and unwilling to accept Augustine. What will replace materialist metaphysics? Augustine shows how.

  3. Materialism
  4. We need a brief introduction to Greek philosophy to appreciate Augustine's contribution and stand against materialism. Plato had argued for a God-like figure who created the world out of pre-existent matter, the Demi-Urge. Aristotle was less enamored of the "Forms" of Plato, and saw no need to anthropomorphize the ideals, nonetheless, he argued for the necessity of a beginning point in the chain of causation. That is, everything that happens has a cause, so tracing backwards, there must be a first cause. This made God into a rather abstract concept compared to Plato, but nonetheless a being who was the First Cause, the Prime Mover. So we see that for perhaps different reasons, both Plato and Aristotle postulated a God-like being at the beginning of it all.

    To review briefly, then, Aristotle's categories of causation, we list his four types of causes. The terminology is ancient, though perhaps not very informative. We quote from Aristotle's Physics II.3:

    1. Material: In one sense, what is described as a cause is that material out of which a thing comes into being and which remains present in it. Such, for instance, is bronze in the case of a statue, or silver in the case of a cup, as well as the genera to which these materials belong.
    2. Formal: In another sense, the form and pattern are the cause, that is to say, the statement of the essence genera to which it belongs; such, for instance, in the case of the octave, are the ratio of two to one, and number in general; and the constituent terms in a definition are included in the wider class of a definition.
    3. Efficient: Then there is the initiating source of change or rest: the person who advises an action, for instance, is a cause of the action; the father is the cause of his child; and in general, what produces is the cause of what is changed.
    4. Final: Then there is what is a cause insofar as it is an end (τελοσ): this is the purpose of a thing; in this sense, health, for instance, is the cause of a man's going for a walk. "Why," someone asks, "is hegoing for a walk?" "For the good of his health," we reply, and when we say this we think that we have given the cause of his doing so. All the intermediate things, too, that come into being through the agency of something else for this same end have this as their cause: slimming, purging, drugs, and surgical instruments--all have the same purpose, health, as their cause, although they differ from each other in that some of them are activities, others are instruments.

    So we see how Aristotle's four categories of causation, especially the last two, absolutely require a personal motivation, a First Mover, a Creator. It wasn't that Aristotle had some sort of moral commitment to finding a God, rather the necessity for a God was bound up in his idea of causation. Of course this is a deep subject, and is the origin of Hume's skepticism, Kant's idealism and modern agnosticism. But we want to emphasize it is a truly ancient conundrum. In a slightly different guise, these same arguments for causation lead to Aquinas' proofs of God's existence. So persuasive are Aristotle's arguments that the ancient philosophers found they had to reject Aristotle's categories of causation if they were to avoid his conclusions about God.

    Now Democritus, around 500BC, preceded Aristotle, and suggested that all of nature was made up of atoms, and all senses and actions were accomplished by atoms, which themselves had no particular purpose or direction. He rejected the last two of Aristotle's causes, he efficient and final causes. Aristotle was aware of this philosophy, and ridicules it for lacking τελοσ, a cause, a reason for being. He feels that these Materialists have missed the point, that intelligence or νουσ is required to explain purpose, which is what Materialists ignore. For how can a self-respecting philosophy not address the meaning of existence? But the real development of Materialism came with Epicurus who lived after Aristotle, around 400BC.

    Epicurus developed this atomic theory of matter into a full-blown philosophy, especially as an alternative to Aristotle/Plato's Creator. Why bother? Because belief in the pantheon of gods had ceased to be practical, it produced onerous ethical laws, and destroyed what little enjoyment that was attainable by human beings. As the old Scot put it: This led to Epicurus' point, that purpose was a bad thing, and to be avoided at all costs.

    Most of what these men wrote has been lost to us, but we do have a long Latin poem, written by Titus Lucretius Carus (100-50BC), who as the translater explains, "was a disciple before he was a poet". He carefully framed Epicurean philosophy in a remarkable form, poetry. His motive was clear, setting humans free from superstition, from religion, and all the vices caused by them. In a word, atheism. We know well the consequences, for the epithet "epicurean" in the New Testament stood for all that was licentious, "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die". Yet strangely, this was not the original point of the philosophy. The best way to understand Epicurus is to read him, through the eyes of Lucretius.

  5. Lucretius (99-55BC) De rerum natura

  6. So we see from these quotes several very important principles of Epicurean thought. The long introduction gives us a strong sense of the purpose of the whole enterprise--to set men free of religion. The first principle we are given, is that nothing comes from nothing. That is, matter has existed eternally, barring the need for a creator. This is one solution to Aristotle's Prime Mover, and that is the endless regress. If the universe had no creation, it had no need of a creator. In case we missed the point, Lucretius emphasizes it again, not only is there no need for divine creation, but the imperfections we see would preclude any tendency to think a creator had done it. The second principle, emphasized by Lucretius himself, is that atoms are indestructable. Why is this needed? Because it is the counter-part to the eternity of matter. If we lose even the minutest fraction of our matter every century, then in eternity we will have lost all of it. And if we lose all of it, we will need a Creator-God to start us back again. Not only is Epicurus eager to remove the Creator-God, he wants to make sure he has also removed the Sustainer-God. Finally we are given the third principle, that there is no contingency to creation, there is no God-of-the-gaps. Not only is there no Sustainer-God, there is no Higher Authority, nothing beyond the rules of nature and chance, e.g., nature is free and uncontrolled. We summarize these 3 points as: No beginning to time, an indestructable matter, and a self-determined nature. In more colloquial terms: matter has no beginning, no end, and no messing about in-between.

    On Magnets

    Since this introduction to Epicurean thought has been somewhat philosophical, let us take just a few examples from Lucretius to see how these principles work out in practice. Magnets are a good starting point, because they seem to violate the dictum that all of nature is made up of particles and particle interactions. Instead, magnets seem to obey Aristotle's principle that there is a desire or attraction between certain substances. So in Lucretius treatment of magnetism we will see atomism put to the test.


    What is so remarkable about this passage, is not only that Lucretius manages to force his atomic theory to fit something so contrary to the idea that particles repel and not attract, but that very similar arguments have been presented in nuclear physics in the past 40 years to explain such phenomena as superconductivity or "effective mass". In all cases, both ancient and modern, the difficulty has been to find a way to get particle-particle interactions to achieve an attraction without resorting to "spooky action-at-a-distance", which smacks of Aristotle. Of course, we know now that Lucretius' explanation was wrong, and the current explanation rely on the Christian, Michael Faraday's explanation of fields, as developed by another Christian, James Clerk-Maxwell's development of electromagnetism. What is perhaps not so readily appreciated is that it was their willingness to consider invisible "fields" in direct opposition of atomism and materialism that permitted their development of the field of electromagnetic theory.

    Biological Teleology

    A second argument supporting Aristotle against the Materialists concerned the apparent purpose of biological organisms and functions. How could atomists explain the perfect match of eye to seeing, tongue to speaking, ear to hearing if they had only random motions of the atoms through the void? Of course, this is a long-standing problem, notwithstanding Darwin's important contributions. And clearly Lucretius had to address this issue if he wanted atomism to be compelling in an Aristotelian world. Here's his reply.


    So we see, without actually proving anything, Lucretius makes the fiat claim that there was no purpose to life, despite all appearances. Over and over again, this is repeated in the modern era. We are told that despite all appearances, there is no purpose to evolution, no purpose to life, no purpose to any biological system, only apparent purpose. So we see in Lucretius the predecessor to Darwin and all modern materialists. To avoid Aristotle's proofs of God, we must banish the last two of his causes, we must banish all τελοσ from our thought.

    On Love

    Even if we grant Lucretius the previous two assumptions, there is the universal plea to the arts and the emotions. What is the point of living, after all, if one has banished art, and love, and passion from our vocabulary? Thus it is not without some irony and wry humor that Lucretius writes passionately on the need to avoid passion. I quote a short part of a several page diatribe.


    Such advice is fascinating for what it implies. Somehow, Lucretius is advising us, promiscuous attachments destroy true love and the fidelity, loyalty, and purposeful relationships that are antithetical to a proper materialistic view of the world. And even more scary, is this not exactly what our colleges and universities have become, places where we lance our romances with "promiscuous attachments"? Perhaps we are training up a generation of materialists following Lucretius' advice better than we had imagined?

    On Darwin

    As Matthew Arnold, whose poem, "Dover Beach" is quoted later on, said of Darwin, "Why, it's all in Lucretius."

  7. St Augustine (354-430) and Materialism
  8. Augustine was trained in philosophy before becoming Bishop of Hippo. Thus his careful exposition of Genesis that appears in his "Confessions" was undoubtedly intended to counter the errors he saw in Greek philosophy, especially as they appeared in the "new age" Manichean sect. In particular I focus on his philosophy/theology of Genesis, of beginnings:
    1. time and space creation
    2. creatio ex nihilo
    3. contingent creation
    Each of these statements, which appear in the final 3 chapters of his "Confessions" were intended, I propose, to oppose Epicurean materialism. Each is extremely relevant for scientists today who attempt "integration of faith and learning". For today, the pre-eminent philosophy of science (and yes, Virgina, there is a philosophy of science) has been called methodological naturalism or scientific materialism, with great debt to the Greeks. This was the philosophy that bore the brunt of 20th century physics. Yet 1500 years ago, Augustine undercut the very foundations of materialism so effectively, that materialism went underground for 1000 years. So the correlation between Augustine and modern physics is more than remarkable, it is miraculous.

    The place that Augustine develops this argument is surprising, it in his Confessions. I discovered this fact when I went tracking down his phrase ex nihilo. Now the first 10 chapters were autobiographical, but 11-13 are confusingly philosophical. We quote directly from the chapters.

    Augustine's victory

    Thus we see that materialism in every form is denied (as well as Plato's demi-urge) because the Creator is affirmed / proved / demonstrated by his creation. Note that Augustine's attack comes at the root of materialism, not at the branches or the fruit. That is, materialism is wrong not because of its excesses, but because of its essences. Note that this arises from the last three chapters of the Confessions which have a trinitarian structure. That is, it is Trinitarian theology that becomes the substance of this refutal of materialism.

    1. Existence / Eternal / Father
      The universe had a beginning. Only God did not. It was an absolute beginning. Not just matter was created but space and time itself. (A radical view of time, not understood very well in the succeeding centuries until Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.)
    2. Knowledge / Begotten / Son:
      Therefore matter is not eternal. God created it out of nothing. There is no other substance from which He created. He spoke, and it was so. Matter exists at His bidding, and matter vanishes at His bidding also.
    3. Will / Contigency / Spirit: Matter, space, and time were created and remain in existence by his sustaining will. They are not necessary, nor independent but contingent, dependent, reliant on His Spirit. The creation did not require God, shape God, or inform God, but is the very expression of His will, His personality, His purpose, now and forevermore.

    WIth the triumph of the Church, and the resulting renaissance of science (as Jaki argues, Christianity was essential to the rise of modern science), materialism didn't resurface for 1000 years. But when it did, the Church had a fight on its hands...

  9. Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655)
  10. The resurrection of materialism has often been attributed to Pierre Gassendi, so we give a little biographical information on this somewhat obscure scientist.

    Pierre Gassendi, who has been called the "Bacon of France" attended school at Digne from 1599-1606 then continued his education at home, supervised by his uncle. Then in 1608, he entered the University of Aix where he studied philosophy for two years then theology for a further two years. Gassendi was Principal at the College of Digne from 1612-1614, then he received a doctorate in theology from Avignon and was ordained in 1615, one year later. He had already been appointed canon at a church in Digne in 1614. He held this post until 1634 when he was elevated to dean.

    In addition, Gassendi was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Aix in 1617. However this position only lasted until 1623 when the Jesuit order took control of academic posts until 1645 when he was appointed professor of mathematics at the College Royale in Paris. He was the first to observe a transit of Mercury predicted by Kepler to occur in 1631. He wrote on astronomy, his own astronomical observations and on falling bodies.

    Gassendi first work published on philosophy was Exercitationes paradoxicae (1624), basically his lecture course at Aix written up for publication. In 1649 he published Animadversiones containing work on Epicurus, evidently an important influence in his later work. His Philosophical Treatise was responsible for making atomism respectable in European intellectual circles of the 17th century. Since atomism was incompatible with Christianity, Gassendi had to make it respectable by modifying it so that it did not conflict with Augustine. So instead of insisting on the eternity of atoms, Gassendi has God create the atoms. Connected with his efforts to make atomism respectable was his rejection of Aristotelianism. There had been, from the Renaissance on, a philosophical revolt against Aristotelian philosophy, perhaps intensified by his treatment at the hand of the Jesuits. Since Aristotle had rejected atomism, this may partially have motivated Gassendi. Likewise he advocated a moderate skepticism preferring the inductive method to Descartes deductive method, viewing both as probabilistic. All in all, a thorough-going modernist in many of his preferences.

    Now considering Augustine's three-pronged attack on materialism, it is rather surprising to find a rescusitated materialism with such inconsistent support. Nonetheless, it can be seen that there were multiple issues about Aristotle, induction, Enlightenment skepticism, anti-Jesuit feelings, recovered Greek science and so on, that made even this watered down materialism intriguing and palatable to an intellectual elite. Alas, the pursuit of intellectual respectability has been the downfall of many a fortress of orthodoxy.

  11. Late 19th Century Materialism
  12. By the late 19th century, not only was materialism becoming respectable, but it was gaining increasing support from chemistry and physics. Such was the impact of this scientific support that poets were writing as if Christianity had died in the materialist revolution. I quote a few lines of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach,
    As a physicist, I concentrate on the physics support for materialism in the late 19th century, which was substantial. Even more intriguing were the number of well-respected Christians who gave materialism their support, despite it's bad reputation with the Church. Gassendi might be forgiven for intellectual elitism, but not so these scientists. Let's begin with James Clerk-Maxwell.

    James Clerk-Maxwell (1831-1879)

    In 1872 when he was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAS), Maxwell gave a lecture on the subject of atomism in physics, where it was considered still a relatively novel idea. Maxwell was at pains to showcase its advantages, having derived some important properties of gases that depended upon treating gases as atoms. Now Maxwell was a devout Scottish Presbyterian, so he was not unaware of the bad press that attended atomism and materialism.


    So we see here Maxwell attempting to rehabilitate the bad reputation of atoms by anthropomorphizing them and then engaging in a bit of equivocation. He makes explicit reference to Biblical imagery in this process, both proclaiming his Orthodoxy, and attempting, like Gassendi, to sprinkle a little holy water on his Augustinian-like Genesis hermeneutics. We have to admire his cleverness, even if we disagree with both his tactics and conclusions. So how did Maxwell solve the problem of Augustine's rejection of atomism?


    Thus, like most Deists, Maxwell places the action of God (which in Lucretius cannot have any effect on the material realm) at the "utmost limit" of science, i.e. the creation act itself. Now skipping over the consequences of this "God-of-the-gaps" theology that will within 2 years find itself under direct attack of materialists, we might question whether such "scientific agnosticism" is ever a proper response either philosophy and theology. When all other areas of science are legitimate areas of scientific inquiry, why suddenly do we rope off one section of science and declare that it is off-limits? Yet not only Maxwell has attempted this approach, but the whole modern field of "Interpretations of QM" seems to suffer from such scientific agnosticism. But let us look at the immediate response.

    John Tyndall (1820--1893)

    In 1874, John Tyndall, a popular lecturer and contemporary of Maxwell became president of BAS and gave an inaugural speech in Belfast, Ireland. The talk raised the ire of preachers all across the island. The theme of the lecture was very similar to Maxwell's, a short history of materialism, but the conclusion was far different. Perhaps his most famous quote that day was:


    So Tyndall is directly confronting both his predecessor and the whole history of church thought since Augustine. He is self-consciously claiming that the "limits of science" that Maxwell reserved for faith would fall to materialism, and like Lucretius, he would return victorious from his voyage through infinity. The challenge did not go unnoticed, and every pulpit in Ireland flashed with rhetoric. Whose approach won out, the lukewarm agnosticism of Maxwell or the ardent atheism of Tyndall? We have only to read Dover Beach to see the immediate effect. Over and over we see this consequence of accommodation, the godly Maxwell merely laying the foundation for the godless Tyndall. But it was Boltzmann who built the ediface.

    Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906)

    No one doubts that it was Boltzmann who put the atomic theory of matter on concrete physical and mathematical foundations, founding the discipline of "statistical mechanics". If you read Maxwell's lecture to the BAS in 1872, you will read a who's-who of 19th century scientists, with some grudging admiration for the man who in the first 5 years after his doctorate "greatly developed and improved" upon Maxwell's own work on atoms. By calculating the dynamics of single atoms, he was able to show very precisely the heat capacity, pressure and similar relations which derived from these quantities. In short, Boltzmann was able to take the pinnacle of 19th century science, the empirical theory of heat, and place it on firm physical foundations, just by assuming that atoms exist and obey laws of statistics.

    What happened to these men? Maxwell died at 48, in the same decade as his rehabilitation of materialism. Tyndall died of an overdose of sleep medication, unfairly blamed on his wife. Boltzmann hung himself. Materialism carries its price, known full well to these early apostles of the scientific religion.

  13. Augustine Redux
  14. We can now see the problem with Augustine's critique. It was all or nothing, like Elijah on Mt Carmel. Either the foundations of materialism were wrong, or Augustine's hermeneutic was wrong. And if Augustine was wrong, he was really, really wrong.

    The successes of atomism were at first carefully construed not to lend any support to materialism. Augustine was sheltered, as it were, by Immanuel Kant's wall of separation between the noumena and the phenomena. But alas, all such scholasticism provided little resistance to the blitzkrieg of materialism. Some, like GK Chesterton, artfully railed against the nihilism inherent in materialism. CS Lewis passionately argued for the nous of Aristotle. Fyodor Dostoevsky painted vividly the ethical destruction of materialism. And on and on it went, but all of these brush fires did little damage to the root. Either the world is nothing but particles, or it is nothing but God. Half-measures in philosophy were as meaningful as being half-pregnant or half-damned.

    In consequence, most theologians like Karl Barth escaped into the Kantian ghetto, swearing off any odor of science in the halls of theology. Strict separation was the only way for faith to survive in the wasteland of materialism. Fundamentalists, liberals, biblicists, unitarians, deists, all huddled together for support in the shrinking ghetto. For the ghetto was growing smaller as the panzers of progress moved in and the claims of materialism reached to the skies. First chemistry, then physics, then biology and even cosmology fell like dominos. Science was now not just incommensurate with faith, it was inimical to faith.

    The worst nightmares of Chesterton, Lewis, Barth, and even Ted Kaczynski all came true in the 20th century, but simultaneously, something really amazing happened...

  15. Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity and the Death of Matter
  16. Einstein was convinced that physics should look the same in every inertial reference frame. Several people before Einstein had explored the strange and wonderful postulate that the speed of light was a constant (Poincare, Lorentz), but it was to Einstein's credit that he believed it. To make a speed constant from any moving reference frame requires that we "squish" space and "stretch" time. This rather non-intuitive Lorentz transform takes some getting used to, and traditionally books on relativity talk about the Michelson-Morley experiment which returned a negative result when looking for the "ether", the medium in which light waves "wave".

    I prefer another argument closer to home. A simple computer monitor "CRT" accelerates electrons to an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. When the electron gun modulates (to, say, place a period at the end of a sentence) we can measure the time before the period appears, and with the width of the CRT, find distance/time = speed. Now everyone who graduates from freshman physics learns that the energy, E=1/2mv2, which is to say, as we raise the voltage on our CRT electron gun, we should be giving the electrons more energy and they should go faster. But what do we find? We find that the speed of the electrons hardly increases at all, no matter how much voltage we put on it. How can that be? This energy equation was one of the things we were really sure about.

    Well, said Einstein, nothing travels faster than the speed of light (which for lack of another letter, he used the letter "c" to designate light-speed.) So where does the energy go, if it doesn't go into speed? If our equation is to be valid, it must go into the "m", the mass. So there's this "normal mass" we usually measure, and then there's this "relativistic mass" when something is going really fast. Mass is related to energy. In a very short, two page paper published a few months after his 1905 bombshell, Einstein derives this result for light, and says m = E/c2 (no, he never said E=mc2). His penultimate sentence suggests mildly that this may account for radioactivity. The rest, they say, is history--Trinity, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But the bombshell for materialists was that matter, that indestructible, particulate, ubiquitous, heavy stuff having real inertia, was as ephemeral as a sunbeam. Particles could be created out of a vacuum, and could annihilate and vanish into the vacuum.

    Can mass-energy replace matter?

    As you might expect, no hard-core materialist was going to take this challenge lying down. For if matter could be destroyed, then what right had anyone to believe there should be existence rather than non-existence? What right had any of us to the pleasures of a material life if it is all ephemeral? So much effort was expended, as can be seen in the space devoted to the topic in introductory physics texts, that perhaps matter itself might not be conserved, but the sum total of matter and energy, or mass-energy was a well-conserved substitute for matter. Actually, it is not well-behaved at all, but starts immediately to suffer from normalization problems, such as how do we count the energy in a box, especially if it is an empty box, or an accelerating box, or two observers see the same box from two different speeds? We thought we could count particles, but waves are all but uncountable.

    Two other problems surface even if we think we have solved the relativity paradoxes. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that ΔE*Δt=h, meaning that the uncertainties of time and energy multiplied together will always equal or exceed Planck's constant. So for very very small times, the energy uncertain becomes huge. We will never be sure what the energy in the box was, especially if we look for a very short time. Thus the vacuum of interstellar space is alive with the swarming of virtual particles appearing and disappearing. In cosmology, there is a search for the "dark energy" that makes spacetime appear flat (or normal). Approximately 2/3 of the stuff that produces gravity is now thought to be "non-baryonic", e.g., not matter. No one has a clue what is making gravity out there. Many kooks, and some geniuses, (in a similar unknown ratio) are arguing fro tapping into this vacuum energy. Can anyone reasonably argue for a conservation law when one doesn't even know what it is being conserved?

    Another problem is that some very serious proponents of variants to the Big Bang theory, which we discuss next, of the origin of the universe argue that the energy of the Big Bang was extracted from gravity, such that the negative energy of gravity exactly balanced the "baryonic" energy of the Big Bang. Which is to say, the total mass-energy of the universe=0, and everything we see around us is consistent with not being there at all. If that's a conservation law, then we'd all better be investing in dot-coms.

    So in conclusion, should we want to replace the conservation of matter with some other mass-energy conservation law, we find increasing problems the larger our system becomes, ultimately finding no conservation at all at scales the size of the universe. Thus Augustine's refutation of "The First Law of Materialism" stands, neither matter nor mass-energy is eternal.

  17. Einstein's General Relativity and the Birth of Time
  18. As Einstein himself realized, the special theory of relativity was incomplete. It could only handle systems that were moving in a straight line at a fixed speed. It could neither handle rotating objects, nor the transition from rest to a high speed. Somehow the theory had to be generalized to take into account acceleration. The key, as in his earlier theory, was recognizing that just as physics in all trains must be alike, so all physics in elevators was alike.

    Suppose we have two elevators (Einstein no doubt would have used spaceships had he been a Buck Rogers fan), one sitting on the earth, and one in interstellar space, which happens to be accelerating, which produces "artificial gravity". That is, a passenger in both elevators feels a force tugging "down", and according to Einstein, is unable to do any physics experiment to tell the difference between the two elevators. Now suppose in the accelerating elevator has a little pocket laser pointer shooting across the elevator. In the time that it takes the light to cross, the elevator has moved up some distance, because it is accelerating. So the passenger will see the light beam as "bent" by the acceleration. Well in that case, says Einstein, the passenger on the surface of the Earth should also see the light beam "bent" by gravity. Now that was a prediction, and in 1919 Eddington took an expedition to see if stars in a constellation looked distorted or "bent inward" during an eclipse when the sun was in the field of view. The positive confirmation of Einstein's wild prediction propelled him to fame and everlasting glory.

    But now we have a problem. As every surveyor knows, we measure off our world with light rays, assuming that light travels in straight lines. Fermat would even say that light takes the shortest route between two points. Now Einstein is suggesting that these are "bent" by gravity. This may conveniently explain Newton's spooky action-at-a-distance that was called the "gravitational force field" and is now seen to just be the warping of space-time. However, and here Einstein was embarrassed by his contemporaries such as Friedman, this means that the Universe should be "bent inward" by gravity and collapse. Newton, of course, had the same problem and found no solution.

    Einstein's solution at the time, was to add a fudge factor to keep everything in its place. Later he called this Cosmological Constant his "greatest mistake". Recently, this constant has been rehabilitated and is featured prominently in modern cosmological theories. But the reason for Einstein's apology, was that there was another more elegant solution to the problem: if space-time was expanding then the speed of the expansion can exactly balance the contraction of gravity. Hubble's careful measurement of "red-shift" of galaxies was experimental proof that all galaxies seem to be moving away from us, and the further they are from us, the faster away from us they move. It seemed incontrovertible evidence that the universe is indeed expanding. But then there had to be an explosion that began the expansion. And an explosion means there was a start time, a beginning. Of spacetime.

    Can the Big Bang NOT = Genesis?

    In 1951 Pope Pius XII announced that "everything seems to indicate that the universe has in finite times a mighty beginning". He went on to claim that unprejudiced scientific thinking indicated that the universe is "a work of creative omnipotence, whose power set in motion by the mighty fiat pronounced billions of years ago by the Creating Spirit, spread out over the universe." He took a lot of heat for saying this. But in 1965, Penzias and Wilson made the clinching discovery of "Big Bang radiation" cooled to 3 degrees above absolute zero. It looked like the Pope was right after all. Can we avoid his conclusion?

    Method 1: (Sir Fred Hoyle) Unlike the modern school of cosmologists, who in conformity with Judaeo-Christian theologians believe the whole universe to have been created out of nothing, my beliefs accord with those of Democritus who remarked "Nothing is created out of nothing". The universe really is time stationary, because matter is appearing out of the vacuum and filling in the "empty" regions.
    This view was experimentally disproven.

    Method 2: (Russians). The universe didn't collapse to a point, but merely "necked down" to an hourglass shape, like focussing light with spherical aberration. E.g., when we look backward in time, the galaxies "just missed" colliding and thus the big bang was not a beginning at all.
    Young Stephen Hawking, with his mentor Roger Penrose, proved that the Big Bang looked a lot like a time-reversed Black Hole. Thus just as a star that is collapsing into a Black Hole reaches a point of no return, so the time-reversed Big Bang reaches a point of no return, and so all galaxies emerged from a single point. Or to rephrase it, we are all living within the Big Bang event horizon, inside the time-reversed Black Hole. That is, Hawking proved that the Big Bang really was a beginning of both space and time.

    Method 3: (Bounce). Well perhaps the Big Bang was the Big Bounce? Theoretical hogwash. The Big Bang was a singularity. No knowlege of time before the singularity is possible. Nor would a bounce conserve entropy. All hypotheses concerning bouncing are thus metaphysical, not physical. Some respectability is achieved with "quantum loop gravity" which hypothesizes a quantum "ether" millions of times smaller than an atom that is incompressible, but likewise correspondingly metaphysical. Nor is it supported by recent "speed of light" tests from gamma ray bursters.

    Method 4: (Stephen Hawking) Could quantum uncertainty take the point off "The beginning"? Carl Sagan writes in his introduction to Hawking's 1987 book, This is also a book about God--or perhaps about the absence of God. Hawking embarks on a quest to answer Einstein's famous question about whether God had any choice in creating the universe. Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so for: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.
    Now if one had a roofing nail the size of the universe, Hawking's hypothesis dulls the point of that nail by less than the diameter of an atom, less than the diameter of a proton, even less than a quark, and yet claims to have removed the point!

    No, I would say no one has successfully argued that the Big Bang was not the creation of space-time. Augustine's refutation of the "Second Law of Materialism" remains firm, Creation was Created.

  19. Interlude: Physicists Respond
  20. Other than the Pope, not too many people seemed to be giving much thought to the revolution wrought by Einstein's discoveries. But scientists were bothered, physicists most of all. Two books that alerted me were Robert Jastrow's 1978 book "God and the Astronomers", and Paul Davies 1984 book "God and the New Physics". Jastrow's book ends with this famous quote: For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. Does this mean physicists are converting in large numbers to Christianity or theistic religions? No, for on matters of faith, Jastrow professes agnosticism, a liberty also taken by the Christian Maxwell, and now claimed by the post-christian astronomer for the opposite reason. But like Maxwell, it will prove a brief freedom.

    Paul Davies wrote a far more scathing attack of Christianity in his book, in which he attempts to address these same theological issues without giving any quarter to Christianity. A religion he attacks for being mean-spirited, narrow-minded, and unworthy of the occasional coincidence that lend it support. He publishes about a book a year, and his 1999 "The Fifth Miracle" was about the spontaneous generation of life on Earth approximately 3 billion years ago. It could equally apply to the Big Bang. He writes The search for life elsewhere in the universe is therefore the testing ground for two diametrically opposed world-views. On one side is orthodox science, with its nihilistic philosophy of the pointless universe, of impersonal laws oblivious of ends, a cosmos in which life and mind, science and art, hope and fear are but fluky incidental embellishments on a tapestry of irreversible cosmic corruption. On the other, there is an alternative view, undeniably romantic but perhaps true nevertheless, the vision of a self-organizing and self-complexifying universe governed by ingenious laws that encourage matter to evolve toward life and consciousness.

    Note the complete absence of a theistic viewpoint, unlike Jastrow, perhaps because of his earlier published statements denying the worthiness of religion. Thus Davies has to make his religion centered on self, a "self-organizing" and "self-complexifying" (self)-ingenious laws. Which is all very reminiscent of CS Lewis' "Materialist Magician" referred to by Screwtape at a banquet in his honor. The problem for Satan, Lewis points out, is that a magician can appreciate the greatest Magician of all, so what Satan needs to perfect is the magician who cannot believe in God. Davies fits the bill perfectly.

    So here we see in a nutshell are the typical response of physicists, either an agnostic refusal to decide, or an atheistic decision to refuse.

  21. The Anthropic Principle
  22. Now we come to the third pillar of Augustine's great critique, contingency. This is an obvious point cloaked in philosophical jargon. The question, as Carl Sagan put it, is whether God had any choice in creating the world. It's the old determinism versus freewill argument. Is an animal or an organism making choices, or just responding like a machine to stimuli? Is there anything to intelligence beyond an optimal computerized choice from somewhat ambiguous external inputs? All of these questions are lumped into that word "contingency" whose opposite is determinism plus random chaos for anything that cannot be described by a law. Let's say it one more time: if an event is not described by a law, and it is not highly probable, then it is contingent.

    Now this was perhaps a common enough question in Biology, but it took Physics by surprise. Determinism had been debated for years, not because it was unlikely, but because it was too likely, and no one really enjoyed the consequences. Suddenly, however, the discipline of cosmology begun by Einstein started returning truly infinitesimal statistics, making our universe appear extremely improbable, unique, and unusual. We have literally dozens of cosmological factors we could consider; atheist Sir Fred Hoyle liked to point out the metastable energy state of 8Be in the nuclear burning cycle of stars as his one improbable event that might convince him of a Creator. But for our purposes, let us take the expansion rate of the universe.

    The present universe is a delicate balance between the Big Bang expansion and the gravitational contraction. These equations result in the size of the universe that appears like the argument of an exponential. To find that 13.7 billion years after the event, the universe appears "flat" requires a cancellation of those two unrelated terms, accurate to 60 decimal places, according to Hawking. Had it been different by one part in that zillion, the universe today would either be a black hole, or a cold diffuse gas without stars. Lest numbers that big seem hard to grasp, let's try to get a handle on it. The number of protons in the Universe is roughly 1080, so the universe was sensitive to lumps of matter with about 1080 / 1060 = 1020 protons, or roughly 1 milligram of hydrogen, the mass of a grain of salt would have upset the delicate balance of the Big Bang. It's that sensitive.

    For a physicist who has grown accustomed to determinism, this sounds like heresy, or at the very least, paradox. Brandon Carter named in "the Anthropic Principle" around 1976, and in 1986 Barrow and Tipler explain it as a selection effect. That is, it only appears improbable, when actually it was highly probable, since we wouldn't be around to see this universe if it were any other way. The fallacies of this argument require a few subtleties of Aristotelian logic.

    Consider a fellow who was sent to the firing squad and 100 rifles fired at him, but he could see that they had all missed. B&T say: (1) He should not be surprised because he couldn't observe anything if he were dead. This is incorrect. Now it is true that (2) He should not be surprised that he does not observe that he is dead. However, that is not the same thing as (1), and in fact, it is eminently reasonable that (3) He should be surprised that he observes he is still alive. Our universe should surprise us.

    This does not necessarily prove God's existence, and a large coterie of desperate materialists have taken refuge in Bayesian analyses that argue, in essence, "so what?" Yet everyone acknowleges, friend and foe alike, that this turn of events is highly unlikely. The universe is not "necessary", nor is it "likely", therefore it is "contingent".

    William Dembski: Design/Purpose

    So why is contingency such a big issue? Can we echo the skeptic and say "so what?" Remember Sagan's assertion, that Hawking proved there was nothing for a creator to do. Necessity, or universal law, is the principle assertion of naturalism, the philosophical baggage that invariably attends scientific materialism. And whatever is not determined is arbitrary. These two options, they assert, exhaust all possibilities. Natural Law & Chance. There is no other possibility, no purpose, no teleology left. Whether we talk about Epicurus, Darwin or Hawking, they all deny purpose. Why do they hate Aristotle so much? Because to allow Aristotle, is to require a god. Not even agnosticism survives this camel's nose into the tent. But is this dichotomy exhaustive? Is it even logical?

    Dembski argues that common sense dictates a third way. With the publication of "The Design Inference" in 1998, he develops the category of "design", and an algorithm to detect it.
      Given an event, is it
    1. a product of known laws? If not, was it,
    2. highly probable but arbitrary chance? If not, then it must be
    3. designed.
    There are many ways to restate this algorithm, the one that most appeals to me is the corollary with information theory. How much information is encoded in a message? How compactly can I compress that file on my computer? How do I maximize the signal to noise ratio? All these questions are meta-questions. That is, without deciphering the message, I can still determine its information content! A very nice Physical Review article that exemplifies this approach used PKZIP to compress 180 translations of the UN charter. Then extracting the hash table from each compression, this table was used to compress the other 179 languages. By seeing how well the "wrong" hash table performed, they constructed a binary tree of "relatedness" of the 180 languages that nearly exactly matched a linguistic tree of common linguistic descent. That is, without knowing a speck of linguistics, an information-theoretic approach could reconstruct language trees!

    What does information theory then have to say about contingency? Simply that a contingent Universe requires, proves, and necessitates an information-rich Universe, a meaningful Universe.

  23. An August Conclusion
  24. Now recall the whole reason Epicurus, or at least Lucretius, argued for a denial of teleology, of purpose. It was in order to set men free of the bounds of ethics, of moral laws, of making sense of life, and especially, death. What Augustine told us, and science confirms, is that despite our best efforts to deny it, the Universe contains meaning. What then can we say about the Materialism versus Augustine debate? Augustine won a TKO.
    1. Matter is not eternal, nor space, nor even time. All these had a beginning. And thus it is entirely accurate to say that the Universe is finite. All forms of pantheism or panentheism are denied simply because equating the Universe to God makes God finite, an oxymoron if there ever was one. We are led, inexorably, to the question, "Why a beginning at all?" If there was nothing before, why should our universe suddenly begin at all? Where did it all come from?
    2. The Universe was created out of nothing. Democritus was dead wrong. Our belief in the permanency of the material has been profoundly shaken. Whatever power, whatever force, whatever brought this Universe into blazing existence, did so out of nothing.
    3. That force was not impersonal, that force was not random, that force was intelligent. I assert, with no effort at proof, that meaning implies intelligence, that purpose implies a person. For denial of a better word, let us call that intelligent person, God.
    What then can we say about this God? If it is not the universe itself, it existed before the Universe. The Universe being finite in both space and time, it is only reasonable to assume it is neither. If it created the Universe out of nothing, it is supremely powerful and able to repeat that feat at any moment. Augustine was vindicated beyond his wildest dreams. The world is no longer safe for atheism. Physics, Chemistry, Biology have changed. Theology is once again Queen of the Sciences.

    Purpose

    We are now at a crossroads, Scientific Materialism has lost its foundations and is now drifting on the high seas. Yet we have been told that western science was built upon this rock. What will be the support of science in this tossing sea of postmodern relativism? Are any of the competitors of materialism worth re-examining? Or are we destined to be deluged with pseudo-science, parapsychology, New Age animism and sophistry? What can we rescue from the shipwreck, and what can we glean from Scripture that will provide a solid base for 21st century science?

    Real scientists, though only the famous ones have been able to say so publically, have been grappling with this question since QM was invented in 1930. Everyone asks "How do we know what we know?" Epistemology is key. Rather than sorting through the arcania of QM interpretations, let us work the other direction, from a distinctly Christian perspective.

    This question might be restated, "What is Truth?" We must abandon the false security of "scientific objectivity" and grapple with the world in the same manner as Augustine. We must humble ourselves and our search for knowledge accepting that we are part of some greater purpose, some greater cause. The great scientists of the past all managed this feat, but our best exemplar remains Augustine.

    As we read Augustineís Confessions, especially the last 3 chapters, we are astounded by the way in which Augustine blends prayer and prose, supplication and explication. It is a unique book, belonging to no recognizable genre. Most, as I have in this paper, carefully extract the science from the supplication, and distort his work. But Augustine did not. He viewed subjective prayer to be an integral part of his search for objective fact.

    In Scripture, Jesus tells us, "I am the Truth", and lays claim to the whole realm of cosmology, making himself the one sure epistemic method. He also tells us that should we desire to follow him, we must await the Holy Spirit, who will "guide you into all truth."

    Thus Augustine was able to be supremely, miraculously prescient because he sought the Holy Spirit in his scientific endeavors. He pleaded for wisdom, he admitted his ignorance, he praised God for revealing his Truth. This is the true sense of the word Confession, and the title of his book. For all truth is personal, all knowledge is subjective. This is not relativism, for the object of our knowledge is permanent. The Truth is a Person.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rob Sheldon, March 23, 2004