Saturday, 25 February 2012

Science vs Religion - A Relative Difference

Whilst reading the excellent A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss, I was struck by the following example of the different approaches to truth of religion and science.

The first person to propose the Big Bang was Georges Lemaïtre, a Belgian cleric. A former engineer, he had taken up mathematics when studying for the priesthood and had then studied cosmology under the British cosmologist Sir Arthur Eddington and later at Harvard.

Lemaïtre solved Albert Einstein's equation for General Relativity and concluded that the universe was expanding, not static as just about everyone, including Einstein, had assumed. He concluded that the universe must have begun as a 'primordial atom'.

Einstein himself had realised an earlier form of his equation had 'predicted' an expanding universe and, so ingrained was the assumption of a static, eternal and small universe, he assumed his equation was incomplete and had included a 'cosmological constant' to correct the 'error'. He later called this the biggest mistake of his life and removed it, otherwise Einstein would have been credited with having predicted the Big Bang simultaneously with having explained gravity far more accurately than Newton had, all with the Theory of General Relativity.

It should be remembered that, with the limited power of telescopes in the early twentieth century, it was generally assumed that the universe was very much smaller than we now know and consisted only of the Milky Way galaxy in an otherwise empty void. We now know there are some 400 million other galaxies, each with about 500 million stars of course.

As it was, the credit for discovering the Big Bang rightly goes to Lemaïtre. It was later confirmed by Hubble's discovery of the red shift and by Nobel Prize-winners Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of the the microwave background radiation which is exactly as it should be if the universe came into being at the time predicted from it's known rate of expansion.

But interesting though that little piece of science history may be, it's what happened next which is interesting from the point of view of the different approaches to truth of religion and science.

Pope Pius XII
In 1951 Pope Pius XII recognised the Big Bang and claimed it as evidence for the biblical account of Creation in Genesis. In a moment of triumphal excitement he threw caution to the wind and, more than slightly over-egging his pudding, said:

It would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies. Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence Creation took place. We say: "Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore God exists!"

Instead of basking in the credit for his discovery which, according to Pius XII had proved God exists, Lemaïtre, who had by now been elected the Vatican's Pontifical Academy, was horrified by the Pope's naive blunder. As a scientist he realised that the Big Bang theory was subject to falsification and had avoided linking it too closely to theology for that reason. He had in fact removed a paragraph which did just that from the first draught of his 1931 paper for that very reason.

He realised that the Pope had committed the crass blunder of tying Christian theology in general and Genesis in particular, and even the very existence of the Christian god itself, to a scientific theory which could be falsified and which contained an inbuilt uncertainty not permitted in Christian theology. If this ever happened, the Genesis account of Creation and the existence of a god would be called into question, and with it the entire Christian faith.


And so, following 'advice', the Pope never referred to the subject again.

How different to the approach of science. Science has no hesitation to say, "This is what the facts seem to show and here is the evidence - but we could be wrong". If that overthrows an earlier theory, or is itself later overthrown by better information, or if a new understanding of the evidence shows the earlier conclusion to be wrong, then so be it. This is progress. The sum total of human knowledge has increased and science has moved a little closer to the truth of the matter. Science embraces and welcomes uncertainty and doubt.

To the Vatican of 1951, after wiser council had prevailed, the theory of the Big Bang was seen as a potential threat; like riding a tiger - all very well if it gets you to where you want to be but woe betide you if you fall off or the tiger decides to roll over or go some place else. And just how do you intend to get off it later?

Best to stay clear of tigers.

And NEVER EVER make a claim which can be tested and falsified. Religion demands certainty, even when none is possible, and refuses to acknowledge the possibility of error.

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  1. It always amazes me how utterly counter-intuitive the concept of "no" before the universe, or "no" outside the universe is to those who desperately need to imagine a creator. Then, if one brings the question of how could information or influence traverse the "Primeval atom" the singularity, or the inflationary period into the conversation, well, one can almost hear the breakers trip in their minds.

    Yes, I think, and have always thought, as did Georges Lemaïtre, that his Big Bang concept didn't necessitate a creator. Alas, I have now come to hold to the idea that the Big Bang, singularity, and inflationary period actually negate any possibility of a creator unless it can be shown that the universe could be created from within, yet prior to the existence of, the universe which I think is absurd, but hey, I'm open.

    And that's science.

    1. Here's a little essay on 'Nothing' that I prepared earlier :-)


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