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The big bang of fact collides with faith

August 02, 2008

Astrophysicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking shares a priceless anecdote about his one-time encounter with Pope Paul in 1981. In chapter eight (The Origin and Fate of The Universe) of his fabulous book, "The Universe In a Nutshell," Hawking tells of a conference at the Vatican organized by Jesuits to discuss the latest scientific views about cosmology - the origin and structure of the universe.

After reminding the reader of an earlier Pope's "bad mistake" with regard to Galileo's revolutionary claim that the earth orbited the sun rather than the reverse, Hawking recalls his invitation to visit the Pope at the conclusion of the conference.

As Hawking tells the story, "He (the Pope) told us it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the Big Bang, but we should not enquire into the Big Bang itself because, that was the moment of creation and therefore the work of God."

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Hawking then (no doubt with tongue in cheek) offers the following. "I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference - the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of creation. I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo with whom I feel a strong sense of identity, partly because of the coincidence of having been born exactly 300 years after his death!"

I say "tongue in cheek" because Hawking was well aware of the fact that the Catholic Church can order its followers to adhere to whatever view of the cosmos it prefers, but it no longer has the power to compel acceptance either within its ranks or beyond. In America, the threat to legitimate science comes from the relentless attempt of the religious right to choke the life out of open discussion and force religious dogma into science classes.

Biblical literalists would have apoplectic seizures at what then follows. Hawking has a series of sketches illustrating events in the cosmos from the Big Bang until the appearance of complex molecules and living matter, starting from seconds, then at the point of minutes and then to years which are estimated to eventuate at 15,000 million years. So much for the "young earth" claim by creationists. Galileo was lucky to get by with only house arrest.

Parenthetically, it does not require one fossil correctly dated at 2.5 million years ago to refute the "young earth" theory of about 10,000 years. All that needs be known is the speed of light and an estimate of the distance in space to an object observed. The galaxy Andromeda, for example, (our closest galactic neighbor) is estimated to be about 2.5 million light years away. A beam of light now observed would have left Andromeda 2.5 million years ago. It follows that Andromeda is at least 2.5 million years old.

The perennial tension between the world of fact and the world of faith became evident when the Pope cautioned Hawking (and in effect all scientists) to refrain from trespassing into "the work of God." If this caution would be taken seriously, there would be very little working space for scientists to ply their trade. Religionists would, in effect, be setting the limits of scientific research. While society at large may theoretically assert the power to regulate certain aspects of research, it would be unacceptable to permit religious organizations to do so beyond a point of doctrine for their members.

There are well-understood reasons why there has been and will continue to be dynamic tension (at the least) between science and religion. First, the methods applied by science are radically different from those used by believers in revelation.

Second, science deals with the quantitative (observable and measurable) while religion deals with the qualitative (felt and subjective). Third, science deals with what, in principle, is either verifiable or falsifiable, while spiritual entity claims are neither verifiable nor falsifiable.

Finally, scientists assume that the world is a natural order, governed by natural laws while religionists suppose that supernatural forces may intervene to alter natural events. The stage is set for perpetual competition at least and ugly conflict at worst.

In a democratic, open society where pluralism is a given, it is desirable that a working harmony governs competing ideologies. Religion and science must exercise restraint and not invade the turf of each other.

Revelation cannot successfully compete with science because the many contradictory revelations undermine their claims to truth and exclusivity. In the end, faith (belief without evidence) takes a huge risk in credibility when it collides with ideas grounded on an empirical underpinning.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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