Science in Christian Perspective
A Positive Approach to Creation
GEORGE L. MURPHY
Dubuque, Iowa 52001
From: JASA 32 (December1980): 230-236.
An attempt is made to discover ways in which the Christian doctrine of creation can contribute to our understanding of physics in general, and physical cosmology in particular. An important role is played by the idea that the laws of physics are themselves a major part of creation. This concept provides insight into the meaning of creation, but must be balanced by the emphasis on the creation and value of matter which is required by the Incarnation. Concepts of creation in modern cosmology are examined in the light of these ideas.
Creation has been a focus of debate between scientists and theologians for many years. Much of this debate, however, has been concerned with the origin of biological species, and more general questions of cosmogony have often been considered only to the extent that they shed light on such biological questions. The problem of creation as part of physical cosmology has thus been overshadowed, and theology and science have not interacted as fruitfully in this area as they might have. In addition, much of the work which does deal with physical origins has been devoted to the necessary, but ultimately sterile, task of "reconciling" orthodox theology with science. Such work is merely a reaction to scientific developments, and cannot ultimately enhance our understanding.
My purpose here is to suggest positive contributions which Christian theology can make to our understanding of the physical universe. After noting some statements on creation in the Christian tradition, I describe one fruitful approach to an understanding of the status of natural laws, for I contend that these laws are a central object of creation. The question of physical origins is then considered, and the extent to which the doctrine of creation is linked with specific cosmological models is investigated. Finally, the importance of the Incarnation for our view of the material world is considered.Traditional Views of Creation
I beg you child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God make them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way. (NEB)
The fact that this does not come as a part of any philosophical discussion on creation may indicate that the view expressed was widely held when the passage was written.
In the New Testament, Hebrews 11:3 is often taken as an assertion of ex nihilo creation, though the statement that the world was formed "of things that do not appear" leaves room for the possibility of creation from invisible matter, an idea that can be supported from the Septuagint rendering of Genesis 1:2. But by the middle of the second century A.D., we find in the Shepherd of Hermas an unambiguous statement of what comes to be a commonplace of orthodox Christian theology:First of all, believe that there is one God who created and finished all things, and made all things out of nothing.3
A traditional view of physics is that it deals with the relationships of matter and energy, summarizing their behavior in mathematical formulae. According to classical physics,
The distinction between "substance" and ""structure" has become obsolete.
any portion of matter interacts with any other portion via forces, and it is the matter and the forces which are "really real". Newton's F = ma and the other equations of mechanics summarize in a convenient way the results of observations. This applies equally to more complex theories, such as Maxwell's electrodynamics, and the frequent pedagogic procedure of "deriving" the four Maxwell equations from experimental results-the laws of Coulomb, Faraday and Ampere and the absence of magnetic monopoles-provides an illustration of this view of the operation of physics.
Such a view of science-and especially of the role which mathematics plays in it-fails to do justice to one of its most fundamental features. The equations of physics not only summarize the results of previous observations, but are also capable of predicting new-arid sometimes qualitatively new-phenomena. This can happen when equations have been suggested by previous observation and experiment, but the possibility is increased by the fact that the theorist is not constrained by existing empirical knowledge. Newton's assertion that gravitational attraction is universal, when there was no direct evidence for the influence of one planet upon another, is an excellent example of the power of such freedom, for it led, among other things, to the prediction of the existence and position of Neptune. Similarly, Maxwell's equations are not, as the previous paragraph might suggest, simply a summary of experimental results. It was Maxwell's theoretical insight, rather than direct empirical evidence, which gave rise to the displacement current term in the field equations, making possible the prediction of electromagnetic waves which was verified by Hertz.
Mathematical structure is thus not subordinate to observational data. indeed, if our primary goal is understanding, we are seeking ultimately for pattern, always remembering that the pattern must, in the last analysis, match observation. The situation has become clearer in this century with the advent of relativity and quantum theory. The distance between observational fact and the primary level at which theory operates has continued to increase, and intuitive models have become of less and less importance for an understanding of fundamental physics. The only models that are really helpful are mathematical ones. We are not discovering details of sub-atomic or cosmic machinery, but mathematical structure. This structure is consistent with the rational patterns that our minds are able to evolve but, as predictability indicates, also has an objective existence. Einstein expressed his view of the importance of mathematics for the understanding of nature very clearly:Experience remains, of course, the sole criterion of the physical utility of a mathematical construction. But the creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients drearned.4
According to Plato, the sensible world is merely a representation or image of the eternal world of forms. In the Timaeus he tries to picture, in the crude way allowed by Greek mathematics, how the universe might have been constructed from mathematical pattern.' It is this view toward which we seem to be driven by developments in modern physics.
It is perhaps surprising that this apparent abstraction of our physical theories from the world of sense allows us to recover a belief in the objective character of an external world, something often considered to be endangered by the successive demolition of the theories of the past. On the usual view of things, it is difficult to maintain the belief that the purpose of science is to discover truths about an objective external world. McVittie, for example, argues that science has apparently had little success in discovering such truths.8 The structure of Aristotelian physics was overthrown by Newtonian mechanics, and the latter has been destroyed by relativity and quantum theory. We have no reason to believe that equally radical changes will not be necessitated by our work in cosmology or high energy physics.
It is not even possible to argue that we are making successively better and better approximations to the real world, for there is no way in which the physical concepts of the Newtonian world view can be said to be approximations to those of the newer theories. In dealing with gravitation, for "ample, it makes no sense to say that the concept of particles interacting via forces is an approximation to the concept of curved space-time.
If, however, we are concerned with the mathematical patterns which the theories display, then we can speak meaningfully of Newtonian theory as an approximation to the relativistic theory of gravitation. If one considers a space containing isolated regions of high space-time curvature separated by regions of slight curvature, the highly curved regions, representing matter, must move in accordance with Einstein's equations of general relativity. (The words used here are, of course, simply circumlocutions for the appropriate mathematical concepts.) In the limit of weak fields and relative speeds slow in comparison with that of light, the relativistic equations of motion are well approximated by the Newtonian ones.9 More generally, Einstein's equations, under the stated conditions, yield Poisson's equation for the gravitational potential and Newton's second law for the motion of a particle in that potential.
Naturally there must be in both theories an appropriate identification of mathematical symbols with observational quantities. Furthermore, observation plays an indispensable role in showing that the relativistic theory is "better" than the Newtonian in some cases. This is, of course, why we say that the Newtonian theory is an approximation to general relativity rather than vice versa. But it is only an insistence on the importance of mathematical pattern which allows us to maintain that Newtonian theory retains any fundamental significance at all, and is not simply a convenient working rule for engineers.
It is important to note that nothing has been said here about the general theory of relativity as a final theory of gravitation. On the contrary, it seems fairly likely that further advances will be necessary. But our emphasis on mathematical structure allows us to believe that any new theory will be approximated in some limit by Einstein's, though the geometric interpretation of the Einstein equations, for example, may be dropped.10 This relieves us of the melancholy duty of anticipating that our successors will regard our work as a series of empirical discoveries, guided by theories which have no basic significance.
As one might now expect, classical mechanics also appears as an appropriate limit of quantum mechanics. In fact, the way in which the classical Hamilton-Jacobi equation and the Bohr-Sommerfeld quantization conditions come out of the Schrodinger equation provides a beautiful example of our thesis.11Having thus sketched a Platonic view of physics and the advantages of understanding which accrue from it, we must note immediately that there are serious dangers inherent in such an approach. In the first place, it is clear that an emphasis on mathematical structure as both the tool and goal of science can endanger the essential experimental aspect of science. One might be tempted to insist that a theory which he considers to be sufficiently beautiful must be true, in spite of experimental evidence to the contrary. Even worse, the existence of a sufficiently beautiful theory might be considered to obviate observation. This is more or less what happened during the domination of western science by Aristotle's theories. Dirac's insistence on the search for "beautiful equations" and his caution-using Schrddinger's discovery of the first relativistic wave equation as an example-that no single experimental verdict on a theory is final, should be kept in view.12 The danger is that the emphasis on mathematics will get out of hand. For a purely Platonic physicist, there may be nothing to balance that emphasis.
What, then, will provide the balance? What basis do we have for a claim that the material world is important? Orthodox Christian theology is at least one thing that does this. With its repeated statements that the creation was 'good" and "very good", with its doctrine of the Incarnation and belief in a physical Resurrection, Christianity is, in one sense of the adjective, a very materialistic religion. The strong emphasis on unity of body, mind and soul which it receives from its Old Testament background serves to balance the Greek philosophical views that have been important in the formulation of its theology. The tension between these approaches resulted in the classical Christian statements of faith of the fourth and fifth centuries, contributed strongly to the development of modern science during and after the Renaissance, and can serve to keep science on course today.
The secular scientist may be tempted to scoff at any suggestion that Christianity is needed to save science from Platonism. He knows what's real and what isn't, and knows that matter is important, in spite of Plato and without St. John Damascene.13 I Dr. Johnson's refutation of idealism may be repeated in some form. But this is as if one had slept through the past century of physics. Matter is not anything kickable, and its importance is hardly obvious. We scarcely can say what matter is, but any image of classical "stuff' is inadequate.
Both aspects of reality, mathematical structure and matter, aspects that cannot be disentangled, must be considered when we discuss creation.
Platonism in physics is not simply wrong-we might, for example, note its importance for Heisenberg'14-but it cannot serve as a complete philosophy of science. Mathematical pattern is an essential aspect of reality, but so is matter. One might picture the Platonic theory as saying that the world is like a game of blindfold chess, with the pieces actually used on a board being only convenient markers to help us remember the pattern of the game. Now the game obviously does not exist without the pattern, but Christianity insists that the pieces themselves are important, and that the real game would be quite different without them. Both aspects of reality, mathematical structure and matter, aspects that cannot be disentangled, must be considered when we discuss creation.
The Christian belief that God created the matter of the universe out of nothing has had the consequence that we look down perhaps too far upon other creation accounts in which there is prime matter. But this is rather unfair to, for example, the Norse gods (or, more precisely, to their creators!). It is true that Odin and his brothers had their material on hand to begin with, in the form of the body of the giant Ymir. However, they still had to impose pattern on this matter. Their creative activity was not negligible.15
The same considerations apply, afortiori, to the God of the Judaeo-Christian creation accounts. If we are to speak of creation at all, the creation of the laws of nature must be considered an essential part of the creator's activity. The successes of big-bang cosmologies have made scientists more willing now to speak of creation than they were at the end of the nineteenth century, when the law of conservation of energy could be adduced in support of a belief that the universe must have existed forever.16 But it is, of course, necessary to examine the situation critically.
In the simplest cosmological models of general relativity, a singularity occurs at a finite time in the past. The cosmic scale factor R (which determines the distance between representative particles as a function of time) obeys the equation 1/2R2 = GMIR near the beginning of the expansion of the universe: here M is a constant mass, G the usual gravitational constant, and h the time rate of change of R.17 (Spatial curvature may be neglected at times very close to the beginning of the expansion. I have here considered matter as pressure-free dust, since pressures which are limited by energy and causality conditions do not change the results qualitatively.) We see that the "velocity" R becomes infinite at the instant when R = 0, the beginning of the expansion of the model universe. (This instant is labelled, arbitrarily but suggestively, t = 0.) In the mathematics of general relativity, components of the curvature tensor, which are related to the density of matter via the field equations, blow up at t = 0. Einstein's equations reduce to the physically useless statement - = -. Extensive work on the problem of singularities in general relativity during the past fifteen years has shown that this result is not simply a consequence of the highly symmetric and oversimplified model employed here, but that a singularity must occur if only certain very general conditions, such as causality and positivity of energy, are met.18
Thus the presently known laws of physics fail at t = 0, precluding the possibility of retrodiction before that instant. In fact, a more fundamental, and perhaps more disturbing, way of considering singularities does not even allow us to say that the instant t = 0 exists-the space-time manifold is incomplete.19
The beginning of the expansion in big-bang models has thus come to be identified by some with an instant of creation. Milne was one of the first to present such an idea in connection with his own rather idiosyncratic "big-bang" model of kinematic relativity.20 But let us examine carefully just what can be said to be created at t = 0, short of an act of faith. The origin of matter is not so much the point here as is the beginning of the operation of the laws of physics. It is only the Einstein equations of general relativity that can be said to come into being at t = 0, for they cannot be "analytically continued" to earlier instants. The object of creation suggested by the big-bang models is the pattern of the universe. It would be too much to insist that this entails the creation of matter as well, but our previous discussion has indicated that it is unwise to attempt too sharp a separation between matter and laws. I return to this point in my last section.
Such an emphasis on the creation of pattern is also scriptural. Whether or not the first verses of Genesis intend to teach ex nihilo creation may be debated. What is certain is their emphasis on God's creation of order: the earth was "Without form, and void" when God said "Let there be light." This emphasis on the creation of order is not restricted to the Old Testament. The prologue of the Fourth Gospel, which emphasizes the role of the Logos, the Word or Reason of God, in creation, is especially significant in this regard. The use of such a Hellenistic concept here is probably not fortuitous.
The idea of God as the creator of the laws of nature may summon up a deistic picture of Him writing down an elaborate set of equations twenty billion years ago, activating them somehow and then letting the universe, go. In fact, a belief that God was "merely" responsible for the laws of nature, and that the origin of the solar system (in particular) was then due to the operation of those laws, was often attacked by Christians of the nineteenth century.21 But as soon as we begin to think of the origin of the laws of nature as a significant part of the creative activity of God, we realize that this activity is not something that can be restricted to a time in the past, not even to a unique "first instant". We emphasize the maintainence of the universe through the laws of nature as much as any initial calling into being of those laws. While the big-bang cosmologies bring out with especial clarity the idea that the mathematical pattern of the universe is created, the Christian doctrine of creation and its significance for modern physics are not dependent on this class of cosmological models.
The idea of maintainence or sustenance as an essential part of the doctrine of creation might have saved a good deal of grief if it had been stressed in debates about creation and evolution. The biblical statements that Christ "Sustains the universe by the word of his power" (Heb. 1:3) or that "In him all things hold together" (Col. 1:17) emphasize this aspect of the creative activity of the Logos rather than his initial creative activity. God's continual activity in maintaining the universe in existence was stressed by Augustine and Aquinas,22 and Luther gives the doctrine of creation this direction in his explanation of the First Article:23I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my limbs, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them.
This traditional approach to the doctrine of creation deserves much more emphasis, not only in everyday life but in the ongoing dialogue with science.
It is fortunate that the Christian doctrine of creation is not tied to big-bang cosmologies or to any specific cosmological model, for it would be unwise to base fundamental theology on the current state of astrophysics. There are a number of ways in which our present models may change, and the whole position in regard to the fearsome "initial singularity" may be altered radically. The mathematical conditions of the relativistic singularity theorems can be violated, most obviously by allowing the existence of negative local energy, such as could occur witit bulk viscosity or massive scalar fields.24 Another oft-discussed possibility is that a proper quantization of general relativity, which is required anyway when we encounter lengths on the order of 10-11cm or less, will eliminate the failure of physical laws found at the classical level.25 The most recent work on this subject does not encourage this belief, but it cannot be dismissed at our present stage of understanding. Finally, the recent work of Hoyle and Narlikar, which returns to an action-at-a-distance view of physical interactions, replaces the usual picture of the expansion of the universe with that of a continual change in our length scale. This also changes the masses of particles, and leads to the cosmological redshift.26 Our "instant of creation" becomes in this theory simply the time when all particle masses were zero in our relatively small portion of the (perhaps infinite) universe.
The idea of maintenance or sustenance as an essential part of the doctrine of creation might have saved a good deal of grief if it had been stressed in debates about creation and evolution.
To tie the doctrine of creation to the big-bang would be simply another "God of the gaps" attempt, in danger of the usual dismissal when science removes the gap. An emphasis on creation as maintainence avoids this pitfall, yet leaves the doctrine with real content. Even in the classical steady-state cosmology, infinite in space and time, with matter being created continuously in order to keep the large-scale aspect of the universe always the same, one would still have to account for the mathematical structure which made such a universe possible.Is the Universe Unique?
In fact, this type of thought is not peculiar to the steadystate theory. Without pursuing its antecedents in antiquity, we should note that the idea of a single self-consistent universe is central to the philosophy based on the bootstrap theory of strongly interacting particles, and that farreaching philosophical and even religious claims have been based on this theory.28 In the cosmological realm, Milne was able to associate a somewhat weaker view with a Christian belief in -creation. He argued, for example, that God, in creating a universe consistent with the special theory of relativity, had to give it a point origin, for otherwise the relativistic prohibition of the idea of absolute simultaneity for spatially separated events would have made an instantaneous creation impossible.29
According to the most extreme views of this type, this is not the best of all possible worlds but the only possible world. There is no need for a God to create either matter or pattern, and any sort of divine interference with the unique laws of nature is prohibited. Miracles, in the usual sense of the word, are impossible.
But this idea of the necessity of the universe, as it was, is, and shall be, loses its plausibility when we consider the developments in mathematics of the past two centuries. Until the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries, it was possible to regard Euclidean geometry as a "necessary truth", and to believe in the existence of a single consistent system of mathematics. This is simply no longer possible. There is no a priori reason to suppose that the universe could not have been the embodiment of, for example, finite arithmetic systems or multi-dimensional tijines-though such universes might be lethally dull or intolerably bizarre to our minds.30
A demonstration of the logical consistency of any universe other than the one we inhabit would dispose of all arguments concerning the necessity of the universe. However, we encounter here an aspect of mathematics more jarring than the existence of multiple geometries. This is the renowned Godel theorem, according to which any mathematical system of reasonable complexity must contain "formally undecidable propositions--theorems which cannot be proved or disproved within the framework of the system itself.31 This means that a complete mathematical model of the universe, providing answers to all questions, cannot, even in principle, be constructed. Thus a proof that a single complete and self-consistent universe could exist seems to be impossible.
Two further conclusions, one fairly safe and one quite
speculative, emerge from this discussion. First, we have
clear support here for the Christian idea that God created
and maintains the universe freely-the doctrine of the contingent rationality of the
universe.32 Of all the possible
mathematical structures which the universe might have embodied, the one that we observe is chosen. God cannot be
constrained by the consistency requirements of the merely
physical universe, which are not sufficiently rigid to prevent divine intervention.
Secondly, a literal application of the previous comments on Godel's theorem to the Platonic view of physics suggests that the physical universe must be an open system. If the physical universe is a representation of mathematical pattern, and if all mathematical systems contain formally undecidable propositions, then the physical universe is incomplete. This does not, of course, constitute a proof of the existence of God, but it does suggest that there must be something beyond physical reality.
The view presented in the preceding sections, that the creation of the mathematical structure of the universe is an essential part of the creative activity of the Word of God, already makes possible some important contact between theology and science. But this is not the end of the story, for Christianity also insists on the importance of matter. While the New Testament emphasizes the creating and sustaining activity of the Word, it does not yield to the temptation to leave matter behind and ascend to realms of pure mind or spirit. It would have been easy for the author of the Fourth Gospel, with his emphasis on the pre-existence of the Word, to have presented a picture of Christ freeing men from the trammels of matter, or to have completely spiritualized the Resurrection. Instead, Christ does miracles of feeding and healing and, risen, shows Thomas His hands and side in order to prove that He is not a ghost or a vision. Matter, which was declared "good" in the beginning, is sanctified by the Incarnation and perpetuated in the Resurrection.
We may still say that matter is, in one sense, subordinate to pattern, and thus to mind-at least to the mind of the creating and sustaining God. The mathematical pattern of which our universe is a representation is not to be thought of in a Platonic fashion as eternally existing alongside God. God created the pattern of the universe freely when the universe was made, and the universe displayed this pattern in its material arrangement. But to say that matter is subordinate to pattern is not to say that it is unimportant or evil. Man is not inferior to an amoeba because the amoeba came first, nor is the amoeba inferior to a carbon atom. In fact, we tend to think of the later stage of development, the one showing more organization, as superior. In the same spirit, matter may be considered superior to unclothed mathematical pattern, though it could not exist without the pattern-just as we could not exist without carbon.
There are suggestions in modern cosmology that it may be possible to explain the origin of what is commonly called matter-electrons, protons, etc.-in terms of quantummechanical creation of particles from the "anisotropy energy" of the rapidly expanding early universe.33 This process could have created the matter content of the universe and smoothed out any initial anisotropy. Lucretius certainly would have regarded the creation of particles from empty space as a violation of his nihil ex nihilo doctrine,34 but modern physics does not allow us to call "empty space" "nothing". This emphasizes again that our whole distinction between structure and substance is artificial, and must not be pushed too far.
In the last analysis, the doctrine of creation can be fully
understood no more than the universe can be fully described. We may, however, hope to reach a more mature
understanding of this doctrine, and one that will make
more likely the information of science by theology. An emphasis on the Christological aspect of creation allows
Christian theology to make a positive contribution to the
dialogue which should occur between theology and science
when they meet at the frontiers of space-time, which are, at
the same time, the frontiers of our understanding.
1Plato, Timaeus and Critias, (trans. D. Lee), Penguin, Baltimore, 197 1, pp. 43-45.
2E.g., Childs, B.S., Myth and Reality in the Old Testament, 2nd ed., SCM Press, London, 1%2, pp. 31-43.
3In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, v. 11, (ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson), Scribner's, New York, 1925, p. 20.
4Einstein, A., &says in Science, Philosophical Library, New York, 1934, p. 18.
5Under "equations of motion" I include not only traditional equations of dynamics, but also mathematical conditions such as those imposed on the S-matrix in bootstrap theory.6Jeans, J., The Mysterious Universe, Pelican, London, 1937, pp. 186-187.
8McVittie, G.C., General Relativity and Cosmology, 2nd. ed., University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill., 1965, section 1.2.9Einstein, A., Infeld, L. and Hoffmann, B., Ann. Math. 39, 65, 1938.
L.I., Quantum Mechanics, 3rd ed., McGraw-Hill, New York, 1968,
12Dirac, P.A.M., Sci. Am. 208, 45, 1963.
13Murphy, G.L., Currents in Theology and Mission 5,222,1978 and references there.
14Heisenberg, W., Physics and Beyond, Harper & Row, New York, 1971.
15See, e.g., Hamilton, E., Mythology, Mentor, New York, 1953, pp. 3t2313.
16Haeckel, E., The Riddle of the Universe, (tr. J. McCabe), Watts & Co., London 1929. Haeckel's preface is dated 1899.17See, e.g., reference 10, section 15.1, for more detail.
21Numbers, R.L., Creation by Natural Law, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1977.
22Aquinas, Contra Genies, iii, 65. See, e.g., Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, v.2 (ed. A.C. Pegis), Random House, New York, 1945, pp. 116-118. The relevant passage from Augustine's De Genesi ad Litteram is quoted here.
23The Small Catechism in Concordia Triglotta, Concordia, St. Louis, 1921, pp. 542-543.
24Murphy, G.L., Phys. Rev. D8, 4231, 1973: Parker, L. and Fulling, S.A., Phys. Rev. D7, 2357, 1973: Bekenstein, J.D., Phys. Rev. D11, 2072, 1975. It should be noted that a classical fluid which violates the positivity condition on the energy-momentum tensor will sometimes also violate causality, since negative pressures give imaginary sound velocities, making the wave equation for sound elliptic and allowing pressure disturbances to spread instantaneously.25E.g., MacCallum, M.A.H. in Quantum Gravity (ed. C.J. Isham, R. Penrose and D.W. Sciama), Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975: Murphy, G.L., Am. J. Phys. 42, 958, 1975.
26Hoyle, F., Highlights in Astronomy, Freeman, San Francisco, 1975, Chapter 8.
27Sciama, D.W., The Unity of the Universe, Doubleday, New York, 1961.
28Capra, F., The Too ofPhysics, Shambhala, Boulder, Col., 1975.
29Milne, E.A., Modern Cosmology and the Christian Idea of God, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1952, especially p. 129.
30See, e.g., Haldane, J.B.S. Possible Worlds, Chatto and Windus, London, 1927, pp. 264-265.31Gdel, K., Monaish. Math. Phys. 38,173,1931.
34Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, (it. R. Latham), Penguin, Baltimore, 1951, p. 31.