It seemed to some that Pope Benedict claimed in this year’s Epiphany sermon that modern science helps explain God’s existence. “Contemplating [the universe] we are invited to read something profound into it: the wisdom of the creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God.” Reuters reported that, “Some atheists say science can prove that God does not exist, but Benedict said that some scientific theories were ‘mind limiting’ because ‘they only arrive at a certain point … and do not manage to explain the ultimate sense of reality …'”
Benedict wasn’t the first pope friendly with the Big Bang; that was Pius XII. What Pius liked about the theory was that the universe began suddenly, at a specific point in time, as if it did so on command. We can’t know if the Holy Father understood all physics implied by the Big Bang, but fascinating was the commentary arising from the revelation that a Pope could believe in something “scientific.”
Typical is a 2004 Discover article which opens by repeating a beloved myth. “The Catholic Church, which put Galileo under house arrest for daring to say that Earth orbits the sun, isn’t known for easily accepting new scientific ideas. So it came as a surprise when Pope Pius XII declared his approval..[of] the Big Bang.” Galileo bravely guarding the candle of Truth against a Church determined to snuff it out is a well beloved image. That this picture is false doesn’t seem to bother anybody because it is so useful in highlighting the opposition of religion and science.
It is true that some religious people venture into lands in which they are strangers. There are the obvious mistakes (to stick with Christianity), such as those made by young-Earth creationists, whose faith requires them to ignore most empirical observation, or to invent tottering, non-parsimonious theories to explain it. This is not strictly opposition to “science”, but a new science, albeit a strange one. Macaulay wrote:
The books and traditions of a sect may contain, mingled with propositions strictly theological, other propositions, purporting to rest on the same authority, which relate to physics. If new discoveries should throw discredit on the physical propositions, the theological propositions, unless they can be separated from the physical propositions, will share in that discredit.
When the propositions are truly separable, in a logical sense, then what a religion says about a physical later-false proposition cannot be evidence against its theology. The error Macaulay makes is that it matters little whether the propositions can be separated. Merely making a statement about physics which later turns out to be false is enough to dismiss a religion’s entire theology by those eager to do so.
Supporting an eventually supplanted physical theory is only a negative for the religious. For example, Fred Hoyle, the originator of the term “Big Bang”, hated it and, even worse, didn’t believe in the spontaneous creation of the universe theory. Worse still, Hoyle held with the anthropic principle, which (in one form) the universe was created—i.e. designed—the way it was to bring forth life, particularly life in human form. Yet Hoyle’s mistake is not held against him, and even now many non-religious scientists hold with (some version of) the anthropic principle.
Let’s not forget all the mistakes made by those on the left as they sought to invoke ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics (see Gairdner’s The Book of Absolutes for examples). These not-even-wrong views are never taken as evidence against the orthodoxies held by the bien pensant.
None of this matters in the case of Benedict’s remarks. It may be, and is even probable, that the Big Bang theory to which the Pope referred (and it is not even clear that he meant this specific theory) has been supplanted. But Benedict was not speaking as Pius was, and although Benedict did mention current physics, the core of his argument was something deeper and quite true.
As John Haldane writes in First Things, commenting on Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow’s new book The Grand Design, a book in which the authors claim that they can eliminate philosophy, “Science cannot provide an ultimate explanation of order.”
Hawking and Mlodinow were speaking of M-theory, the current “theory of everything.” Whether or not this is the ultimate foundation, only philosophy can explain why it is. That is, physics will eventually come to a point where everything is described by some theory, one which contains only deduced parameters. But physics will never be able to explain why this theory is true and none other is. Pope Benedict merely made the philosophically commonplace statement that the “ultimate sense of reality” must be sought externally, through reason alone. Whether or not this external source is God, as the Pope says it is, is a different question.