From Skeptic vol. 5, no. 2, 1997, pp. 66ff.

The following article is copyright ©1997 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice.


Do Recent Discoveries in Science Offer Evidence for the Existence of God?

By Bernard J Leikind

Modern science offers scant comfort for those who believe that God plays an active role in the physical operations of the universe. Beginning some three centuries ago, researchers have gradually extended the realm of natural law and simultaneously reduced the kingdom of supernatural powers. Today even the beginnings of life and the beginnings of the universe, God's traditional domains, are subjects of scientific study.

One result of this extension of natural law is that some believers no longer claim that God rules nature. God's manifestations, they might say, are not the forces and materials upon which we may all stub our toes. God exists as spiritual ideas and feelings within our minds and hearts and appears to us through our thoughts and actions. This makes God responsible for the good and the bad in human behavior. I have no quarrel with these believers, although I see no way to tell if their views are true or false. To me these ideas seem an unneeded metaphor for the source of human character and behavior.

How many still adhere to more traditional views? There must be many. In various forms, these traditional believers hold that God created the universe, as in the Genesis stories; or that God runs the universe, minding every sparrow fluttering in a tree; or that God intervenes in the natural world to adjust the otherwise smooth operation of natural law, saving this baby here and striking that plane from the sky there. They believe that the world expresses God's inscrutable purposes. These believers find that scientific knowledge, cosmology, fundamental physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, and psychology, undermine their views on every front. Religious knowledge, which professes absolute truth, fails while science, which professes fallibility, succeeds. Any open minded seeker must agree that tradition and revelation cannot provide us with reliable guides to the natural world.

Physics and Biology Take Over God?? Job

Until the rise of science in the 18th century, Westerners believed the biblical accounts of God's creation and operation of the world. They believed that God was in the details. Newton, an eccentrically religious man, taught us that the heavens and Earth were one, governed by a single, marvelous, all-embracing law. God no longer managed the flight of every butterfly. Instead, he established a law of beautiful simplicity and set the world free to run its course. To many believers and to most scientists of Newton's time, God had created and energized the world's marvelous mechanism but did not involve himself in its daily operations. This clockwork universe was and still is profoundly unsatisfactory to those who prefer an interventionist god who can be induced to watch over and protect them.

In any case, most thought that life fundamentally differed from the world's gears, axles, pulleys, and grease. God, they believed, had instilled a spiritual essence in humans that distinguished their substances and souls from lower lifeforms and from inanimate matter. The collapse of this élan vital doctrine began in the 19th century. We can date this event to the 1820s with Wohler's synthesis of urea. Life's chemicals were just chemicals. Believers retreated again. If God used the laws of physics and chemistry when he created life, at least he must have designed its many forms. Ignoring our appendixes, bad backs, and baldness, believers now asserted that the perfection of natural design reflected God's all-embracing purposes and the perfection of his methods. He chose to make the okapi and the platypus, the mudfish and the bumblebee just so. How else could it have happened?

Darwin taught us how. His theory of natural selection explained the mysterious fact of evolution and the riotous variety of life. Subsequent developments in biology have confirmed and extended the truths that Darwin proposed. Unknown and perhaps even unimaginable to Darwin, discoveries such as classical genetics and the genetic code have corroborated his proclamation of the unity of life. We now know that humans barely differ from chimpanzees and that our most prized accomplishments, such as language and culture, are merely one end of a continuum that extends from animals to us.

Natural Law Rules Everywhere For All Time

Physics and astronomy, in the meantime, were expanding their territory. Einstein?? theories extended Newton?? laws to universal scales while quantum mechanics brought the reach of scientific law to the tiniest objects. Let us consider one of the amazing recent developments in astrophysics, cosmology, and fundamental physics that confirms the universal reach of scientific knowledge.

Using quantum theory, relativity, fluid dynamics, and other sciences, astrophysicists study the structure of stars. Unfortunately, we have only one relatively nearby example, if you consider 96 million miles nearby, and we can only see its surface. Astronomy is an observational science, and the time scales over which stars change are millions of times longer than the lives of astronomers and even of astronomy. Astronomers are like naturalists studying a forest and imagining from a week's observations of trees, young and old, the life cycles of all trees. Unlike the woodsmen, who can chop down the trees to look inside, astronomers can only look at stars from a distance. Connecting their ideas with experiments and observations whenever they could, modern researchers now understand the composition and life history of stars.

Recently a supernova appeared in the Magellanic Clouds, smallish galaxies near our Milky Way. Although astronomers see a few supernovas each year in distant galaxies, this was the first close one since 1572. A supernova is the death of a large star. Its nuclear fuel exhausted, the star no longer resists the inward pull of gravity with thermal energy and radiation pressure. According to theory, in amazing and rapid sequence the core collapses and explodes. An outward-bound shock wave blasts away the now unsupported outer layers. Rebounding inward the shock wave crushes the interior, which may collapse to form a neutron star or a black hole. The entire event may last only minutes. This star-stuff maelstrom radiates immense quantities of energy. For a few days or weeks, a supernova may give off as much energy as an entire galaxy of 10 billion normal stars. No astronomer was lucky enough to have been looking at this star at the moment its light began to brighten. An observant astronomical o bservatory technician in Chile noticed the new star while stepping outside, perhaps for a smoke.

Astrophysicists predict that a supernova's tremendous burst of light accompanies an even larger burst of neutrinos, the ghost particles of physics. These particles, which have hardly any properties at all and which barely interact with anything, must have zoomed off in all directions with nearly the speed of light early in the immense collapse. The astrophysicists' calculations about collapsing stars showed that the supernova must have emitted its neutrino blast before its light reached its brightest. They called their colleagues at neutrino observatories deep below the Earth's surface in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Neutrinos are so elusive that these massive detectors, huge tanks of cleaning fluid or water, must collect neutrino evidence for months. "Look in your tanks," the astrophysicists said. "You have already made a great discovery." They were right. Each of the observatories had detected a few 10s of neutrinos at about the same time. Consider this achievement. Using theories from nearly every part of physics, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, nuclear physics, atomic physics, and elementary particles, scientists had predicted the events in a star's death throes. The stuff of the star transformed itself under extreme conditions and complexity never duplicated on Earth. If any of these theories had been in error by much, this prediction would have failed. The supernova explosion provided us with a test of virtually all of physics. This property of our theories--that evidence from many sources combines and confirms itself--is a major reason why working scientists believe they are approaching the truth about nature. This also shows us that the laws of nature known to us on Earth must be the same hundreds of thousands of light years away and must have been the same when that star exploded hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Science Pushes God?? Tasks Into the Distant Past

Beginning with the discovery of deep time by early 19th century geologists, scientists have pushed to successively earlier epochs the moment when, as in the Sidney Harris cartoon about a complicated mathematics proof, ".. a miracle occurs."

In biology, this miraculous moment is the time, billions of years ago, when chemicals somehow crossed the line from just chemicals to living chemicals. In this matter lack of evidence hampers us, and it may be that our evidence of this imperceptible and distant event will never be sufficient to eliminate all but one theory. Even if we had been there, we might not have been able to notice the slight difference between definitely dead chemicals and definitely alive chemicals. We would not have seen anything spectacular enough to class as a miracle.

Our problem is not that we have no ideas and so need a miracle. Our problem is that we have too many good ideas and the right one may still not be among them. Even if, through hard thinking and good experiments, we succeed in creating life from inanimate chemicals, how could we confirm that we had found what had happened on the early Earth?

In a sense, the creation of life may be easy. We now have evidence of ancient algae from more than 3.5 billion years ago. The Earth had only become cool enough for liquid water to exist a few hundred million years before. So, to reach the stage of algae in the allotted time, life's most primitive forms must have begun as soon as liquid water became possible. Doing better than pond scum, on the other hand, must be difficult. It took more than two billion years for more complicated life to appear.

In physics, the miraculous moment is the Big Bang. The entire universe, all of everything, even space and time themselves, appeared from nothing. How could this be? No one knows. Will we ever know? Until recently, most physicists thought not. The very conditions at the beginning--the so-called singularity--seemed to destroy the validity of the known laws of physics. Not only were physicists resigned to failure, they were distressed by the idea of a creation. It smelled too much like the Garden of Eden.

In his book God and the Astronomers, Dr. Robert Jastrow cites distinguished physicists expressing their discomfort at the thought that the universe had somehow sprung into existence. Although the Big Bang differed from the biblical story in every detail but the critical one of creation itself, the religious took solace and some scientists despaired. Dr. Jastrow pictures the scientists climbing the mountain of nature's truths. Exhausted, they barely crawl to the top. They are surprised to find a convention of theologians. "What took you so long? We have been here all along."

What is the Big Bang and what is the evidence for it? In the 1920s astronomers discovered that the color of the light sent to us from distant galaxies was redder than the light from nearer ones. The more distant the galaxy the more the shift of light from short wavelengths to longer wavelengths. The astronomers tried many ways to account for this reddening. For example, intergalactic dust can redden star light in the same way that the eruptions of Mt. St. Helen's and Mt. Pinatubo reddened sunsets. After the astronomers accounted for all known reddening causes one remained: the distant galaxies were moving away from us. This recession velocity lowers the light's frequency in the same way that the pitch of a car horn sounds lower when the car moves away from us than it does when it stands next to us.

Like raisins in bread baking in an oven, the galaxies are sailing apart from each other, and the farther apart they are the faster they are separating. Running the film backwards, so to speak, astronomers calculate that 10 or 20 billion years ago everything was in the same place. Distance measurements are among the most difficult and controversial in astronomy. That is why age estimates for the universe have only one significant figure and the range covers a factor of two. To be brief, astronomers have had to adjust their time scales every decade or so. At first, the adjustments made the universe older. You may have read the recent newspaper accounts to the effect that new measurements of the universe?? age show that the universe is younger than its oldest stars. Whatever the actual age turns out to be, this controversy does not contradict the idea that everything was once in one place, or, put another way, that every place was one place. The dispute has to do with how fast to run the f ilm backwards.

By the 1960s, when Dr. Jastrow wrote his book, two other powerful lines of evidence had persuaded astronomers that the Big Bang was real and that various proposals for an eternal universe were unworthy. One of these lines of evidence was the discovery of the so-called three degree blackbody radiation. This faint microwave radiation, which comes to us from intergalactic space, finds its only natural explanation as the remnant radiation from the exceedingly hot, dense early universe cooled by the expansion. A third line of evidence that supports the Big Bang idea is that astronomers can calculate from supposed conditions of the earliest state the amount of primordial helium, lithium, and a few other light elements.

These three pillars--cosmic expansion, remnant background radiation, and primordial elements--form the foundation of what is now a massively supported theory called the Big Bang. During the past 30 years, the Big Bang theory has passed many scientific tests. Like carpenters laying in additional crossbracing, astronomers have solved problems posed by the theory, and they have made predictions subsequently confirmed. Over the years the Big Bang theory has withstood many storms. And yet, from clouds looming over this triumph of natural law a mocking voice still calls out, "Where did it all come from? Explain that!"

Is Supernatural Intervention Necessary?

The remnant three degree microwave radiation comes to us equally from all directions. This tells us that when the radiation last hit something, a few hundred thousand years after the beginning, the things that it hit were uniformly distributed throughout the young universe. If this last opaque material were uniform then astronomers could not explain how gravitation could have produced the clumps that later formed galaxies. They have been looking for nonuniformities in the radiation. Recently, they found them. Berkeley professor George Smoot announced that, after many years of searching, his detectors had measured tiny variations, less than one hundredth of one per cent, in the microwave background. He proclaimed "we have seen the mind of God!" With this overblown metaphor Professor Smoot, who probably does not believe that God created the universe, sent physicists' eyes rolling. For at almost the same time other physicists have begun to find the tools and the language to ponder the uncaused formation of the universe from nothing.

This extraordinary advance arises from a startling confluence of our theories of the microscopic world, quantum mechanics and elementary particle theory, and our theory of the universe as a whole, general relativity. The ideas involved are speculative. This area of investigation is still an exciting melee where imagination counts as much as careful calculation and observation.

I will try to explain some of these ideas to you, but do not quote me about this. Everyone's ideas might be completely different next year. The significance of these ideas is not whether they are right or wrong, but that the realm of the last miracle now seems within the reach of science.

Quantum mechanics is our most fundamental theory about the microscopic world. This powerful, deep, accurate, and beautiful theory teaches us that the world of the tiny is radically different from the world of our everyday experience. One remarkable difference is that tiny things have vague properties. Usually scientists explain the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which embodies this vagueness, by saying that you cannot measure a particle's position and velocity at the same time as accurately as you wish. Measuring one very carefully will disturb the measurement of the other. This leaves readers with the view that the particle has a particular position and velocity, but that the scientists cannot measure it. A more truthful statement of the Uncertainty Principle would be that a particle does not have a position or velocity. The scientist and the particle together create the fuzzy position or velocity that the measuring instrument reports. Forgive me for not going into the details. The upshot of this microworldly vagueness is that "nothing" itself has properties. For if "nothing" were exactly zero, it would violate the Uncertainty Principle that every tiny thing is vague. Physicists call this "nothing" the vacuum, and the vacuum has ghostly properties. Particles and their antiparticle brethren spring into existence and vanish again. They have to do this so quickly that we cannot directly see them. If we could see them, it would not be a vacuum, but if they were not there the vacuum would be exactly "nothing" and it would violate the vagueness rule.

Some of you may think that this is worse than theologians considering whether an omnipotent God can make an object too big for God to move. The difference is that this fuzzy nothing has effects that we can compute and measure. A few decades ago, in a theoretical and experimental tour de force, physicists calculated and observed the Lamb shift, as it is called. The properties of atoms are different by a tiny amount because of the fuzzy vacuum, so we know that quantum things pop in and out of existence.

General relativity is our most fundamental theory about the entire universe, about gravitation, and about space and time. Einstein taught us that these things inextricably entwine. General relativity is not a quantum theory, and physicists believe that every theory at its base has to be a quantum theory. What happens when you apply quantum mechanics to general relativity? No one today knows, but we can make some guesses.

Space and time themselves must come in tiny indivisible chunks. Professor John Wheeler, a famous relativist, illustrated one of his papers with a close-up of a sponge. "This is a picture of space-time at the smallest scales," he wrote. In popular speech the shortest possible time is a New York minute. It is the time that elapses between a stoplight turning green and the cabby behind you honking his horn. The time is: 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000005 seconds. Physicists call this the Planck time. What is a New York inch? It is the distance light travels in a New York minute, which is a number with 10 fewer zeros. If space and time come in chunks the chunks are tiny.

What happens to matter when it squeezes into such tiny spaces and when things happen at such short times? No one knows very much about this, but we think that it must happen to the stuff inside a black hole and we guess that the universe must have been that small once. Students of quantum gravity think that, just as quantum particles flicker in and out of existence from nothingness, so must quantum time and space. What does it mean for a tiny bubble of space and time to come into existence? The nothing of quantum relativity produces universes. It's a little hard to talk about how big these bubbles are, since everything, including space and time are inside them, but most are tiny and short lived. Some, however, in the fuzzy way of quantum theories, are bigger and last longer. The laws of physics themselves appear within the bubbles and may differ from one bubble to the next. Do not forget that we are engaging in informed speculation.

Even now, within black holes, irresistible gravitation is crushing matter to the quantum nothingness from which universes can appear. Perhaps, some physicists have speculated, universes themselves evolve. Those that have the right laws and properties to produce new universes remain. We are here because this particular universe has the right properties to produce black holes and so must its ancestor universes. Evidently, to produce many black holes a universe must be big enough and powerful enough to last long enough for it to be possible that life can evolve somewhere within it. These wonderful speculations are different from metaphysics. They stand upon strong theories and solid knowledge, but they are at the frontiers of human knowledge. Are they true even there? No one knows, but unlike revelation, these ideas are subject to critical tests--experimental and observational confirmation.

One brief matter remains. Would a quantum relativistic bubble universe have a cause? It would not. Quantum events, such as the decay of a radioactive nucleus, the spontaneous creation of elementary particles, or the measurement of a fuzzy quantum property, have no causes. The doctrine that quantum events have causes yet unknown to us is called the theory of hidden variables. My hero, Albert Einstein, acknowledged the accuracy of quantum mechanics, but hoped someone would clear up the quantum world's fuzziness. Amazingly, in the last decade, experiments have shown us in a powerful and general way that to wish for hidden variables is a forlorn hope.

The Uncaused Universe

Dear reader, you have followed me a long way. I have suggested to you that the last miracle, the creation of the universe, may not remain a supernatural event for long. When science finally solves the origin of the universe, the last reason for belief in the supernatural will vanish but the mystery will remain. Let us face the facts with courage. The universe is without cause and without purpose. This assertion throws many believers into a black funk. "What is life for?" they ask. "How can I live without knowing that my life has a purpose?" Cause and purpose are not properties of the universe like mass and momentum. They are creations of the human mind. That fact is the source of our glory and of our despair. We are responsible to ourselves, to our peers, and to future generations for the consequences of our actions, insofar as we can foresee them.