Augustine and 20th Century Cosmology
Dr. Robert B. Sheldon, MA Religion Westminster Seminary, PhD Physics UMd, © 2003
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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:
Aye, religion won't keep a man from sinnin' but it will keep him from enjoyin' it the rest of his life!
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.
(I:50)When human life lay grovelling in all men's sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight
of superstition whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky,
a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge.
Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and the growling menace of the sky. Rather,
they quickened his manhood, so that he, first of all men, longed to smash the constraining locks of
nature's doors. The vital vigor of his mind prevailed. He ventured far out beyond the flaming ramparts
of the world and voyaged in mind throughout infinity. Returning victorious, he proclaimed to us what
can be and what cannot; how a limit is fixed to the power of everything and an immovable frontier post.
Therefore superstition in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level
with the skies. One thing that worries me is the fear that you may fancy yourself embarking on an impious
course, setting your feet on the path of sin. Far from it. More often it is this very superstition that is
the mother of sinful and impious deeds. Remember...Iphigeneia...Such are the heights of wickedness to
which men are driven by superstition.
This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day,
but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature. In tackling this theme,
our starting point will be this principle: Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing.
The reason why all mortals are so gripped by fear is that they see all sorts of things happening on the
earth and in the sky with no discernible cause, and these they attribute to the will of a god. Accordingly,
when we have seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, we shall then have a clearer picture of
the path ahead, the problem of how things are created and occasioned without the aid of the gods... Even
if I knew nothing of the atoms, I would venture to assert on the evidence of celestial phenomena themselves,
supported by many other arguments, that the universe was certainly not created for us by divine power,
it is so full of imperfections.
(I:220)The second great principle is this: nature resolves everything into its component atoms and never
reduces anything to nothing. If anything were perishible in all its parts, anything might perish all of
a sudden and vanish from sight.
(II:1080) Bear this well in mind, and you will immediately perceive that nature is free and uncontrolled
by proud masters and runs the universe herself without the aid of the gods.
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.
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.
At this point, I will set out to explain what law of nature causes iron to be attracted by that stone
which the Greeks call from its place of origin magnet, because it occurs in the territory of the Magnesians.
Men look upon this stone as miraculous. They are amazed to see it form a chain of little rings hanging
from it. Sometimes you may see as many as five or more in pendent succession swaying in the light puffs
of air; one hangs from another, clinging to it underneath, and one derives from another the cohesive
force of the stone... First, this stone must emit a dense stream or emanation of atoms, which dispels
by a process of bombardment all the air that lies between a stone and the iron. When this space is
emptied and a large tract in the middle is left void, then atoms of the iron all tangled together
immediately slide and tumble into the vacuum. The consequence is that the ring itself follows and
so moves in with its whole mass.
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
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.
In this context, there is one illusion that you must do your level best to escape--an error to
guard against with all your foresight. You must not imagine that the bright orbs of our eyes were
created purposely, so that we might be able to look before us...TO interpret these or any other
phenomenon on these lines is perversely to turn the truth upside down. In fact, nothing in our
bodies was born in order that we might be able to use it, but the thing born creates the use. There
was no seeing before eyes were born, no talking before the tongue was created. The origin of the
tongue was far anterior to speech. The ears were created long before a sound was heard....Here, then,
is proof upon proof that you must banish the belief that they could have been created for the
purpose of performing particular functions.
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.
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.
If you find yourself thus passionately enamored of an individual, you should keep well away
from such images. Thrust from you anything that might feed your passion, and turn your mind elsewhere.
Vent the seed of your love upon other objects. By clinging to it you assure yourself the certainty of
heart-sickness and pain. With nourishment the festering sore quickens and strengthens. Day by day
the frenzy heightens and the grief deepens. Your only remedy is to lance the first wound with new
incisions; to salve it, while it is still fresh, with promiscuous attachments; to guide the motions
of your mind into some other channel. DO not think that by avoiding grand passions you are missing
the delights of Venus. Rather, you are reaping such profits as carry with them no penalty.
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?
As Matthew Arnold, whose poem, "Dover Beach" is quoted later on, said of Darwin, "Why, it's all in Lucretius."
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:
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.
- time and space creation
- creatio ex nihilo
- contingent creation
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.
The creation of time
(11.14) How then shall I respond to him who asks, "What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?"
I do not answer, as a certain one is reported to have done facetiously (shrugging off the force of
the question) "He was preparing hell," he said, "for those who pry too deep." It is one thing to see
the answer; it is another to laugh at the questioner--and for myself I do not answer these things thus.
More willingly would I have answered, "I do not know what I do not know," than cause one who asked a
deep question to be ridiculed--and by such tactics gain praise for a worthless answer...
(11.15)But if the roving thought of someone should wander over the images of past time, and wonder that
thou, the Almighty God, the All-creating and All-sustaining, the Architect of heaven and earth, didst for
ages unnumbered abstain from so great a work before thou didst actually do it, let him awake and consider
that he wonders at illusions. For in what temporal medium could the unnumbered ages that thou didst not
make pass by, since thou art the Author and Creator of all the ages? Or what periods of time would
those be that were not made by thee? Or how could they have already passed away if they had not already
been? Since, therefore, thou art the Creator of all times, if there was any time before thou madest heaven
and earth, why is it said that thou wast abstaining from working? For thou madest that very time itself,
and periods could not pass by before thou madest the whole temporal procession. But if there was no
time before heaven and earth, how, then, can it be asked, "What wast thou doing then?" For there
was no "then" when there was no time.
Creatio ex nihilo
(12.3) And truly this earth was invisible and unformed, and there was inexpressibly profound abyss
above which there was no light since it had no form. Thou didst command it written that "darkness was
on the face of the deep."...Hast thou not, O Lord, taught this soul which confesses to thee? Hast thou not
thus taught me, O Lord, that before thou didst form and separate this formless matter there was nothing:
neither color, nor figure, nor body, nor spirit? Yet it was not absolutely nothing; it was a certain
formlessness without any shape.
(12.7)Thus it was that thou, O Lord, who art not one thing in one place and another thing in another
place but the Selfsame, and the Selfsame, and the Selfsame--"Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty"--thus
it was that in the beginning, and through thy Wisdom which is from thee and born of thy substance, thou
didst create something and that out of nothing. For thou didst create the heaven and the earth--not out
of thyself, for then they would be equal to thy only Son and thereby to thee. And there is no sense
in which it would be right that anything should be equal to thee that was not of thee. But what
else besides thee was there out of which thou mightest create these things, O God, one Trinity, and
triune Unity? And, therefore, it was out of nothing at all that thou didst create
the heaven and earth--something great and something small--for thou art Almighty and
Good, and able to make all things good: even the great heaven and the small earth. Thou wast,
and there was nothing else from which thou didst create heaven and earth: these two things, one
near thee, the other near to nothing; the one to which only thou art superior, the other to
which nothing else is inferior.
The contingency of creation
(13:2) Indeed, it is from the fullness of thy goodness that thy creation exists at all: to the end that
the created good might not fail to be, even though it can profit thee nothing, and
is nothing of thee more equal to thee--since its created existence comes from thee. For what did the
heaven and earth, which thou didst make in the beginning, ever deserve from thee? Let them declare--these
spiritual and corporeal entities, which thou madest in thy wisdom--let them declare what they merited at
thy hands, so that the inchoate and formless, whether spiritual or corporeal, would deserve to be held
in being in spite of the fact that they tend toward disorder and extreme unlikeness to thee?
(13:5) What, therefore, would there have been lacking in thy good, which thou thyself art, even
if these things had never been made or had remained unformed? Thou didst not create them out of any
lack but out of the plenitude of thy goodness, ordering them and turning them toward form, but not
because thy joy had to be perfected by them. For thou art perfect, and their imperfection is
displeasing. Therefore were they perfected by thee and became pleasing to thee--but not as if
thou wert before that imperfect and had to be perfected in their perfection. For thy good Spirit
which moved over the face of the waters was not borne up by them as if he rested on them.
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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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...
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.
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,
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain,
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
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.
They [atoms] continue this day as they were created, perfect in number and measure and weight, and from
the ineffaceable characters impressed on them we may learn that those aspirations after accuracy in
measurement, truth in statement, and justice in action, which we reckon among our noblest attributes as
men, are ours because they are essential constituents of the image of Him Who in the beginning created,
not only the heaven and the earth, but the materials of which heaven and earth consist.
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?
Science is incompetent to reason upon the creation of matter itself out of nothing. We have reached
the utmost limit of our thinking faculties when we have admitted that because matter cannot be eternal
and self-existent it must have been created.
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:
We claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory
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
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
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
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
- a product of known laws? If not, was it,
- highly probable but arbitrary chance? If not, then it must be
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.
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.
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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
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