Why is there something rather than nothing? Is a belief in God compatible with scientific thinking?
As the inspired writers of Scripture observed nature, they discovered patterns, rhythms and cycles, just as a scientist would.
Looking at the world around them, they invariably saw God at work:
‘Ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.’ (Romans 1.20)
‘The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.’(Psalm 19.1)
While such a conclusion may have been mainstream in the days of King David or the apostle Paul, now we tend to be given the impression by those in the know that nature isself-explanatory.
That’s certainly what French mathematician Laplace thought when he told Napoleon that physics had explained the universe and that God had become, as Laplace put it, a superfluous hypothesis.
But since Laplace, scientists have discovered that the universe is infinitely more complex and mysterious than he could have ever imagined.
Modern science has shown that the natural constants which determine everything in and around us are calibrated with staggering precision. Change any of the constants by the tiniest degree, and there is no universe, no life, no nothing.
Even some atheists agree that cosmic fine-tuning, as it is known, makes you wonder how such a finely tuned universe could have come about without a ‘fine-tuner’. The late Sir Fred Hoyle, astronomer and avowed religious sceptic, famously quipped: ‘A common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature’. The discussion around ‘chance and necessity’, as another atheist, French biologist Jacques Monod put it, goes on. More of that in a later article in this series.
The question, at any rate, posed by 17th-century German mathematician Leibniz, is still worth asking: why is there something rather than nothing?
Does nature itself give us any clues? What exactly do we know about the beginnings of space and time? Most astronomers believe that the universe exploded into existence billions of years ago. This ‘big bang’, they say, arose from fluctuations in a kind of energy field known as quantum vacuum.
So, does the quantum vacuum provide the answer, why there is something rather than nothing?
Well, not quite, because a quantum vacuum is not nothing. We neither know where it came from, nor why it would cause fluctuations capable of generating the universe.
There seems to be an ultimate frontier which scientists cannot cross. Their explanations fail to give us the whole explanation. They operate with hypotheses which, at any moment, can be shaken or even toppled as new data emerges. So, was Laplace a little too quick to assume that God was no longer needed to explain the world? Or do we need a new way of showing how God and science can be compatible?
Are we back where the biblical writers started off: acknowledging the limits of human reason and our inability to answer the ultimate questions?
3,000 years ago, King David wondered, ‘When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’ (Psalm 8.3–4)
The psalmist teaches us to look at creation, to acknowledge our limited ability to understand it, and to be in awe of the one who made it.
Both Holy Scripture and modern science point to a world full of beauty, mystery and unanswered questions, including the question of how the order and complexity we see everywhere, could have come about.
For reflection and discussion:
Do you think of the world as a spiritual place reflecting the divine or as a collection of moving molecules and observable data?
Does cosmic fine-tuning seem like a convincing pointer to God? Or does God feel like a hypothesis which gets in the way of scientific progress?
To the writers of the Bible, God is not only the creator, but the enabler in his creation. How do you feel about the idea that God cares? (Psalm 8)
Christ and Evolution: Wonder and Wisdom, Celia Deane Drummond, Fortress Press 2009
Science and Religion: A New Introduction, 3rd Edn, Alistair McGrath, Wiley-Blackwell 2020.
“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”
A Letter from Pope John Paull II to Father George V Coyne SJ – the former director of the Vatican Observatory. 1988.