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Grasping this bewildering universe requires science, religion, and culture

After a century of concrete advances, cosmology has become speculative again. Religious and cultural insights can help put it back on track

Gulf News

This past century, scientists came a long, long way in figuring out this amazing Universe of ours. While the old Earth-centred cosmology had been thrown away for several centuries, the bewildering scale and contents of the Universe were far from fully realised and fathomed.

At the start of the 20th century, we knew that cosmic distances were billions of times anything we measure on Earth, and we knew that the Solar System was “old”, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that we learnt that the Universe had to be measured in billions of light-years (each light-year being 10 trillion kilometres), that the “observable” part of the universe alone contained one hundred billion galaxies, and our Milky Way galaxy contained hundreds of billions of stars. And if that was not enough, we learnt that our universe has been expanding, continuously growing in size since the moment it popped up, in a “big bang” from which all matter, energy, space, and time sprang.

It took some time for this Universe to sink into our minds and culture. “Big bang” became a cultural expression, even though few understood what it really meant: a description of the physical processes that gradually led to the formation of atoms, gases, and then stars and galaxies, from the first instant through the unfolding millions of years in time and space.

So our human culture laboured to adjust to this new Universe: The Earth became no more than a speck in the unfathomable immensity of this evolving cosmos, and we (humans) appeared only in the last “hour” of the Universe’s life.

And we barely had digested that picture when things began to get more complicated. First, “dark matter” pressed itself into cosmology, some stuff that is completely different from all the matter than we know in nature (from hydrogen to uranium) but which seems to largely dominate the contents of the Universe.

Then we were hit with a stunning discovery: The Universe is not just expanding (from the initial “blast”), for the past 5 billion years it has been accelerating in its expansion. Hence, there must be some “dark energy” of unknown origin fuelling this acceleration.

On the less disturbing side of things, scientists found that the universe is “fine-tuned” to the existence of life, complexity, intelligence and consciousness. If the physical laws and parameters of the Universe (from the mass of the electron to the speed of light, the strength of gravity, the number of dimensions of space and time and a host of other fundamental quantities) had been slightly different from their actual values, our universe would be devoid of anything interesting — no brains, no cells, no planets, no stars …

How does one explain that? Can we just say “God did it perfectly”? Or can one find a “more scientific” explanation? Many cosmologists have proposed that we are perhaps in one special Universe among zillions of Universes, part of a “multiverse”; is that a satisfying scientific explanation?

And while we are banging our heads against “big questions”, what about that “big bang” moment? What does it mean that the whole universe (with all its matter, space and time) sprang from a “singularity” (a point where all quantities, including density and temperature, were infinite)? Can cosmology explore that moment? Can one speak of what there was before the “big bang”? Did our universe come from something else, or is its appearance for ever beyond our scientific explanation?

These issues, and a host of others, have led to a crisis in cosmology, which found itself gradually moving back to its speculative days. “Don’t let me catch anyone talking about the Universe in my department,” Ernest Rutherford (the Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the atomic nucleus) famously said, a century ago. Indeed, cosmology was then overly speculative, not scientific enough, lacking solid data and robust theories. The 20th century changed that. But today’s cosmology, it seems, has been sliding back towards speculations …

One of the main reasons for the crisis is that scientists have forgotten the fact that, as Helge Kragh, a historian of science and technology, wrote just last year, “[w]hile cosmology is a science, it is not just a science … Questions of a philosophical and sometimes even religious nature are part and parcel of what cosmology is about …” He goes on to insist that those questions “should be given due consideration … in educational contexts”.

A few years ago, Joel Primack (a cosmologist) and Nancy Abrams (his wife, a writer and artist) had sternly reminded scientists that “if science has nothing to say about human beings, it will have little to say to most human beings …” They warned about “the culture of separation”, the “social schizophrenia” between the physical world and the world of values and meaning that humanity was slowly developing.

And so finally, scientists and thinkers realised that they need to instate a dialogue and a fully-fledged collaboration between cosmologists, philosophers, theologians, and men and women of the wider culture of society. And so indeed, just over the past six months, I was invited to three symposia, all discussing how cosmology and the wider culture, including religion, need to join minds to reach a more “digestible” conception of our cosmic place.

Last April, a seminar was organised at the University of Iowa on “Cosmology, Creation and Islam”. And last month, a two-day conference was held in Philadelphia on “New Frontiers of Astronomy and Cosmology” discussing new developments, from new planets (“other Earths”) to the multiverse and pre-big-bang cosmologies. It was followed by another two-day gathering of scientists, philosophers and theologians near Geneva to discuss “the big bang and the interfaces of knowledge”, looking for “a common language”.

It quickly became apparent that a “common language” was far from obvious to agree on. Leaving aside scientists’ varied views on religion (most of them tolerate it as long as it doesn’t “interfere”), the vocabulary of theologians on the one hand, and the modus operandi of the scientists on the other, could pose problems.

Indeed, for theologians, words such as “creation”, “truth” and “purpose” are fully acceptable or even central concepts in their discourse. For scientists, those are loaded terms. For scientists, “naturalism” (basing oneself only on physical causes and mechanisms) is an untouchable principle of their general methodology, and any reference, however indirect, to divine will, agency, goals, or even meaning, is to be carefully dissociated from the science, at the very least.

So then, can scientists, philosophers, theologians, educators, artists and social commentators still work together to address cosmological issues (and similar topics of serious impact on human life and thought)? Certainly.

First, the history of modern science has shown how valuable philosophical thinking can be for science itself. Einstein revolutionised physics when he thought deep and hard about what “simultaneity” must mean and imply (relativity), what gravity must be due to (curvature of space), etc. And quantum mechanics only came about when serious and bold physicists decided to take “oriental” concepts such as “duality” and “complementarity” and apply them to particles and waves, with all kinds of potent consequences.

Centuries before that, it had taken Johannes Kepler a bold conceptual jump to replace circular planetary orbits (and their complicated epicycles) with elliptical ones, thereby erasing two millennia of erroneous astronomy. (Kepler was a devout believer in God and saw divine creation as being necessarily elegant.) And it is thus quite fitting that the Nasa satellite which is now discovering “other Earths” and thereby producing another revolution in humans’ view of their place in the cosmos … is named Kepler.

Last month’s Philadelphia conference identified four “big questions” at the frontiers of astronomy and cosmology: 1) How did the universe begin? 2) Is there a multiverse? 3) What is the origin of complexity in the universe? 4) Do life and intelligence exist beyond the Solar System?

Some of these questions must be addressed almost entirely by science. But philosophy and other fields of culture can help frame the discourse and clarify the concepts. As one participant put it during the Geneva conference, “religion doesn’t add to scientific facts, but it does shape our view of the world”.


Nidhal Guessoum is associate dean at the American University of Sharjah.