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Science, Religion and the Big Bang: The Search for Common Ground

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An image of data recorded at Cern during experiments is search of the Higgs boson (c) CernFrom BBC News:

Some of Europe’s most prominent scientists have opened a debate with philosophers and theologians over the origins of everything.

The event, in Geneva, Switzerland, is described as a search for “common ground” between religion and science over how the Universe began.

It will focus on the Big Bang theory.

The conference was called by Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in the wake of its Higgs boson discovery.

Cern is the home of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, situated beneath the French-Swiss border region near Geneva.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili explains what the Higgs boson is and why its discovery is so important

The first speaker at the conference was Andrew Pinsent, research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University.

He said that science risked “trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

“Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas,” he told the BBC.

“Einstein began by asking the kinds of questions that a child would ask, like what would it be like to ride on a beam of light.”

That, Dr Pinsent said, was what science should return to.

Prof Rolf Heuer, director of Cern, explained that the Higgs results provided a “deeper insight and understanding of the moments after the Big Bang”.

He added that he hoped, by the end of the conference, that delegates from very different backgrounds would be able to “start to discuss the origin of our Universe”.

Co-organiser Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, said that the Higgs particle “raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer”.

“They need to explore them with theologians and philosophers,” he added.

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tjguy: Thanks. I'm gratified that I'm not completely out in left field. It is always fun to think through something on your own and then find out later that some experts (with a lot more experience than I) have raised the exact same issues. BTW, do you view some of the statements in Privileged Planet as supportive of the Big Bang? They sure seem to be at first glance, but I'm wondering if they could be understood simply as supportive of an initial creative cause, while not necessarily saying that the Big Bang is the source of the structure of the universe we see today? For years the references to the Big Bang in Privileged Planet as supporting the idea of a creator have been one area that has nagged at me a bit . . . Eric Anderson
JLA, Are you serious? What would ever give you that wild idea? Listen, if there is even such a thing as proof that God does not exist, believe me, if they found it, it would be BIG news and would not be hidden. They would never be able to keep something like that a secret, but I don't think we need to worry. There is no such proof. There would be no way to prove such a thing. Rest easy! tjguy
If you guys want to read about problems with the Big Bang, creationist websites have some very good critiques of it. For example check out creation. com. It is no where near fact from what I can tell. Even secular cosmologists are questioning it. Check out cosmology statement.org for a long list of brave dissenters who were willing to risk the wrath of Big Science and publicly question it. Star formation is not well understood either. Dave Coppedge of JPL lawsuit fame has much to say about this in his blog at crev.info Also I have a secular magazine in Japanese in my office that has one whole issue dedicated to questioning the Big Bang and all the ad hoc assumptions necessary to prop it up. tjguy
Thanks, KN, for your kind words. I take your point about the particles forming and different interactions of forces. No doubt some important nuances there. However, (i) you have to end up with particles eventually, (ii) the particles are moving away from each other, broadly speaking (even accelerating away, we are told), and (iii) somehow gravity has to have been able to counteract that. The idea (admittedly, perhaps a layman's wording) that there is 'coalescing of matter to produce the large scale structure we now see' seems incorrect. Rather it seems to me we should say that any coalescing of matter we now see 'is because of the large scale structure that exists.' This is true of planet formation, meteors adding material to existing bodies, asteroid collisions, comet Shoemaker-Levy striking Jupiter, and so on. The coaelescing happens only because of the large scale structure already in place. Put another way, there is a popular mental image that after the Big Bang particles will collide and coalesce to form larger structures over time, when in fact over time it becomes less and less likely that particles will collide and coalesce. If we play that backward to the beginning, we conclude that the large scale structure of the universe (certainly galaxies and stars) had to be there from the outset immediately after the Big Bang. Why was that structure there? Has to be one of (or a combination of) the three possible causes: necessity, chance, or purpose (design)? I'm sure astrophysisists have gone over these kinds of questions ad nauseum, so I'm not adding any great insights here, just thinking out loud and wondering whether some people's haste to accept the Big Bang and the idea that it "naturally" led to the structures we see today may be driven by something other than a careful look at the particulars. Eric Anderson
Eric, I don't think any astrophysicist would say that that's a "dumb question." Last I heard, the question as how exactly galaxies formed was still open for speculation and examination. One minor point, though: it's not that the particles are, fully-formed, going off in all directions into empty space-time. The model is one in which the particles themselves are coming into existence at the same time as space-time itself expands. At extremely high energies, as were hypothesized to exist in the first few nanoseconds and as duplicated (to some extent) in particle accelerators, the forces and particles are different. For example, above 100 GeV (giga-electronvolts), electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force are unified into a single "electroweak" force, so at that energy level, there wouldn't be photons, which are just oscillations in the electromagnetic field. Kantian Naturalist
Dumb question: I realize there is some decent evidence supporting the Big Bang (microwave background radiation, for example, is usually cited), but there is one aspect of the concept that nags at me as being almost a little too convenient. Namely, the idea that after this tremendous explosion of matter and energy, the energy ends up becoming a diffuse background noise, while the matter ends up becoming specific structures (stars, planets, galaxies). I understand, of course, that the proposed reason for the difference is gravity (the idea being that gravity could cause matter to coalesce, whereas radiation would not). So the dumb question is: how much evidence do we have that a bunch of particles blasted away from each other into empty space -- essentially in all directions by definition -- would end up coalescing into discrete bodies, as opposed to just drifting away and becoming ever more diffuse? Gravity is powerful, to be sure, but it very quickly diminishes its influence with distance. We know, for example, that if we have two small rocks in open space, even if they are quite close together, typically their attraction will not be enough to pull them together, certainly not if they are still moving away from each other due to initial trajectories of an explosive event. If an astronaut during a spacewalk lets go of a screw or a tool, it tends to drift off, notwithstanding the fact that there is a much more massive space station right next to it. The force of gravity is just terribly diffuse, particularly with small objects and particularly with objects that have an initial trajectory. I'm not saying it couldn't happen. Maybe we posit that the Big Bang explosion left lots of massive clumps of matter, which happened to be big enough that the gravitational attraction of the clumps overcame the outward trajectory of all the pieces and were able to form a star. We could further posit that lots of these big clumps were also close enough together to be gravitationally bound to each other to eventually form a galaxy, but at the same time weren't so gravitationally bound that they would pull each other in and form one massive star or a single lump of matter (are all galaxies destined to end up as ultra-massive black holes?). Let's say you are trying to form a galaxy, at some level it would seem you almost need the broad macro structure of the galaxy to somehow be in place in the clump of matter immediately after the Big Bang in order for the matter to be in the right place for the coalescing process of gravity to eventually form discrete bodies and a structured galaxy. Again, it might be true, and there are certainly some interesting ongoing gravitational interactions between stars and between galaxies that we can see evidence of in astronomy. It just seems a little strange (almost too convenient) that this explosion would start out being broadly diffuse with matter and radiation heading in all directions from the explosive force, yet at the same time have just the right quantity of mass and the right amount of clumpiness for stars to form, galaxies to form, habitable planets to form. Eric Anderson
It is interesting that cosmologists and physicists are much more willing to engage with theologians than biologists are. I can think of a couple of reasons for that. For one thing, I think it's easier to imaginatively project oneself into pre-biotic earth -- we know what it is we're imagining -- whereas I,for one, have no idea how to even begin imagining, or thinking even coherently, about the origins of the universe. But theologians have a vocabulary, and it might be helpful. For another, the rejection of elan vital and the discovery of the chemical basis of life in the 19th and 20th centuries made it much easier to not see any room for divine intervention in the transition from complex chemistry to simple organisms. (Note: I'm not saying that the problem of abiogenesis has been solved or even that it will be solved; I'm saying that it appears to be solvable, which is a very different thing.) A further reason why biologists tend not to engage theologians -- and this is a really nice point emphasized by Plantinga -- is that biologists, not being trained in the distinction between science and metaphysics, tend to confuse the idea that biological variation is random with the idea that it is unguided. So it can easily seem, both to evolutionary biologists and to others, that evolutionary theory undermines theism, even though that's clearly false to anyone who has been studying the issues closely. Kantian Naturalist
I recently watched an episode of the BBC Panorama program entitled "What Happened Before the Big Bang?". They showcased 5 or 6 different research physicists who all had very different ideas about what went on before the supposed Big Bang. At least one of the researches said he didn't believe the Big Bang took place at all!! Inflation was discussed along with The Big Bounce idea. Fascinating. And it showed how science works: dedicated people trying very hard to figure something out, arguing with each other and hoping to throw down the old paradigm. It's a much more adversarial endeavour than most people know. Jerad
Perhaps the Higgs Boson has provided proof that God doesn’t exist and the science community is being sympathetic. Instead of flat out stating what they have found, they decided to throw religion a bone. Perhaps science is calling this meeting to make a sympathetic proposition along the lines of “We won’t tell the public that we have definite proof that God doesn’t exist if you just back off and support everything we do and say from now on. We will make it look like we don’t know about God’s existence if you are willing to change your beliefs to match our findings and lead your followers to do the same.” Maybe that’s the common ground that science is wanting. If religion refuses then science will come out with their devastating find. JLAfan2001
Yes this is extremely interesting indeed. I mean why would the scientific community even entertain such a meeting? Surely this only serves to give out the 'wrong impression', something they normally try very hard to discourage? When will this debate be screened? PeterJ
Could be interesting. If I recall correctly, David Berlinski expressed some skepticism about the Big Bang, even though it is siezed upon by other cosmology-ID proponents and many religious folks as being supportive of a supernatural First Cause in general, and the story in Genesis in particular. From what little I've read on the topic, I'm not sure the Big Bang story is quite as straight-forward or clear-cut as we sometimes assume . . . Eric Anderson
This is an interesting article but what does it mean? Have these scientists through their discovery seen an insight into the possible design of our universe? It certainly does not sound like the usual handwaving hogwash we hear from Neo-Darwinists! Andre

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