William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Pope And The Big Bang

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.

25 Comments

  1. I have heard that recent scholarship casts a different light on Galileo’s difficulties with the Catholic Church. Unfortunately I can’t find the reference now, but someone wrote that the original church legal records were very technical and convoluted, and seldom explored by people who comment on the affair.

    According to this article, Galileo did not get in trouble for his science but for his theology. It was fine for him to support the Copernican view of the solar system as a scientific theory. Copernicus had done the same long before. But when Galileo commented that the Copernican view was also compatible with Scripture, he violated a prohibition on laymen making theological pronouncements.

  2. RE “…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.”:

    Recall the story of Jesus’ resurrection & the Apostle Thomas that had to see & touch the wounds to believe it really was Him. “Doubting Thomas.”

    Proof is for doubters.

    This fundamentalist physio-theological outlook of a young-Earth is nothing more than a search for proof (or the creation of proof where none exisits). It is a symptom of people that want, desperately, to believe but lack the faith they desire (and claim).

    It is a blatant example of what psychologists have long called a Reaction Formation: a psychological defense mechanism in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions and impulses are mastered by exaggeration (hyperbole) of the directly opposing tendency.

    A/n [in]famous example of this is Ted Haggard, the Colorado preacher that spent an inordinate amount of time gay-bashing…and sure enough, he was later revealed to be gay.

    Anytime one observes extreme behavioral traits in people (e.g. fastidious neatness, or messiness, etc., etc., etc. that are flaunted to some noticable degree) you can be almost certain that they possess the exact opposite trait in some significant [often hidden, but not necessarily so] part of their life. Chinese “Yin-Yang” concepts link directly to this same observation. When people talk about a given value excessively its nearly a sure bet they actually behave in a contradictory way (this is also a very common observation with religious fundamentalists) — though in such cases such individuals generally fail to perceive their behavior contradictions relative to their spoken values — as if merely talking about whatever actually imparts that trait. In this regard Reaction Formations appear, when observed, as examples of [often blatant] hypocrisy.

    But for fundamentalists, “creationism” or “intelligent design” and so forth are all very blatant examples of Reaction Formations. They doubt, therefore they seek proof.

    As for the Catholic Church, it is an institution — and a once very influential & thus powerful one at that. One aspect of institutions is that they strive to survive and necessarily adopt, however grudgingly, the values of society to retain their power & influence. From that oft-observed perspective & motivation, seeing a Pope–representing an institution–adopt a position in direct contradiction to prior positions is entirely understandable…and predictable. In time, assuming that institution remains, when science has disproven the existance of God (for now just follow along for the sake of illustration) one can expect the then-reigning Pope to once again re-define “God” as nothing more than a simplifying thought-construct for the conjunction of “nature” and human psychology/human nature. A fancy philosophcy that today we loosely refer to “Mother Nature.”

    Just wait, you may live to see that actually happen.

  3. John 12 January 2011 at 7:06 am: According to this article, Galileo did not get in trouble for his science but for his theology. It was fine for him to support the Copernican view of the solar system as a scientific theory. Copernicus had done the same long before. But when Galileo commented that the Copernican view was also compatible with Scripture, he violated a prohibition on laymen making theological pronouncements.

    I’m no expert, either, but I’ll say that’s not what happened.

    The Church told him that he could teach heliocentrism as “hypothesis” but not as “fact.” In those days, at least in the context in question, “hypothesis” meant “assumption for purposes of calculation”; it did not mean a hypothesis that some facts were such and such.

    Galileo went on to teach heliocentrism as fact. In fact, he was wrong; he had no basis for calling it fact.

    The Church at first didn’t understand what the Aristotelian professors were complaining about. The Church attitude was something like, “So what if he uses some hypothesis that doesn’t match Church doctrine? It’s only to simplify calculation.” Galileo had an enthusiastic following among the Jesuits, and even the pope who prosecuted him, about 20 years earlier, had defended him at a dinner party.

    I’m not sure whether the Church initially had a scientific argument to back up doctrine, but at any rate they came up with one. They held that no one by reason or observation could tell whether the earth was at the center of the universe, since there was no guaranteed fixed point at which to stand. In other words, they were arguing a form of relativity. (In fact, someone in Europe or England had argued the same centuries earlier, so maybe they did have this argument to begin with.) Since no one could tell, the telling had to come from revelation, and it did, in the Bible.

    The Church was also suspicious of heliocentrism because it was a Pythagorean mystical doctrine, so they saw it possibly being a pagan religious belief.

    Galileo was obnoxious. In his book “Dialogue on the Two Great Systems,” he put the pope’s arguments into the mouth of his character Simplicio, a simpleton. In those days, you didn’t do that to anyone in power, religious or otherwise. A priest who knew Galileo said that if it weren’t for Galileo’s personality, he would have won and become one of the most illustrious sons of the Church.

    Galileo was convicted of third-degree heresy, or “extreme suspicion of heresy.” They couldn’t prove full heresy, because, after all, he might only be making an honest scientific argument. Even the pope that prosecuted him said that if it should be proved that the earth was not at the center of the universe, the Church would have to conclude that it had misinterpreted the Bible.

    He was sentenced to house arrest for life. Many people expected that he’d be let out after a few months, considering his friendship with many people in the Church, and earlier with the pope. But he wasn’t, and no one knows why. The best guess seems to be that the pope was just too offended by being put in the part of Simplicio.

  4. I forgot something:

    From ancient times until Galileo’s time or later, philosophers had thought that experimentation was wrong, because it altered the thing being observed and quite possibly gave incorrect results; instead, one should passively observe Nature.

    This was used against Galileo’s telescope. The argument went like this: If you use the telescope to look at something (say) down the street, you can go there and see whether the telescope was accurate, but you can’t do that with the moon or Jupiter, since you can’t go to those places; and just because it’s accurate for down the street does not show that it’s accurate for the moon or Jupiter.

    So Galileo was seen as trying to overthrow (what we would call) a philosophy of science which had held for thousands of years. No “upstart” could do this.

  5. “The best guess seems to be that the pope was just too offended by being put in the part of Simplicio.”

    Most likely the only thing that got him in trouble in the first place. With “Dialogue” he seemed to go out of his way to be unpolitic. One of the better of examples of being stupidly smart.

  6. Sander van der Wal

    12 January 2011 at 8:58 am

    It is always possible to create new theories that says why thistrue physical theory is true.

    That is the whole point of a theory, it has to explain why things are as they are, and not different. And when the new theory about this theory makes predictions about observable events, it is also a physical theory.

    When the new theory about this theory cannot make predictions about observations, it is a meta-physical theory. The good bit about meta-physical theories is that you can think up as many as you please, and they are all equally good in explaining why something is as it is. Nothing deep or profound about that.

    If the Pope wants to add something relevant to the discussion, he should tell us how we can tell it is his God that did the Big Bang, and not Brahman. AFAIAC, Hinduism is a much better contender for the God-that-did-it as they got the order of magnitude about the Universe ‘s age right.

  7. StephenPickering

    12 January 2011 at 9:21 am

    “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 …’”

    I would have thought that ‘the ultimate sense of reality’ in the quotation is open to a number of possible interpretations. It may refer to the big-bang, or to something else. Interesting is the claim that ‘some scientific theories’ do not explain it (whatever it may be) thereby leaving open the possibility that other scientific theories can or will do so. I don’t think the concluding remark of the blog that ‘the explanation must be sought externally’ properly captures the apparently more open position expressed in Pope Benedict’s statement. However, in order to properly understand that position, it seems pertinent to ask what constitutes an explanation? Or more precisely, what criteria must ‘the explanation’ fulfil, for it seems that for the pope there can only be one. The big-bang may be sufficient explanation for an atheist, but perhaps not for a theist. We can certainly have different levels of explanation that will satisfy different groups at different times, but whatever is offered as ‘the explanation’, whether from science, philosophy or religion, is vulnerable to endless regression. I don’t see how can significantly improve on the wisdom of Douglas Adams.

  8. I feel honor bound to defend my faith (in a most reasonable and lighthearted way). Jesus said in Luke 10:21 (also in Matthew 11:25-26), “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.”

    Why can’t hooves herald a zebra? Anyways, perhaps it comforts everyone to know that even Jesus thinks nonbelievers are both wise and prudent :)

    King James Version was chosen just for Briggs. I thought about using “The Message” in to annoy him, but in that translation Jesus thanks God for hiding these things from the “know-it-alls”… lol

  9. StephenPickering

    12 January 2011 at 9:50 am

    @ Adam H

    In the same lighthearted spirit, should we understand that believers are neither wise nor prudent?

  10. Adam –

    LOL on “The Messenger”. When I was going through my Methodist confirmation in the early ’70’s, we used some hip “bible” called “The Way”. I guess it was supposed to help us hipster doofuses “relate”, but it really just sounded silly.

    http://www.amazon.com/WAY-Living-Bible-Illustrated/dp/B003IPMBBK/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1294860438&sr=1-2

  11. My understanding is that the trial of Galileo was a sop to the German clerics who had denounced him as a heretic and demanded that something be done about his heresy. The Pope already had enough problems with a German named Martin Luther and didn’t want more problems with the Germans, so he put Galileo on trial.

  12. @ Adam H. Good catch. The ESV uses the term “little children”.
    @ StephenPickering. Sometimes. The trick is in knowing who is and who isn’t.

  13. Briggs

    12 January 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Mike,

    I remember The Way! My sister, or one of her friends, had a copy. Love the picture of cheerleader (?) and a guy riding a bike, just like Jesus used to do. Or something.

  14. But physics will never be able to explain why this theory is true and none other is.

    Bold statement. Specially coming from someone so well versed in the troubles of trying to predict the future. I’d guess someone like that wouldn’t be so eager to proclaim such absolutes…

    Really, I don’t get what’s so special about “philosophy”. Philosophy is just thinking about that kind of stuff that is still very elusive scientifically speaking. Usually, what is in philosophy’s domain today is tomorrow’s science.

    Now we can all be skeptics and proclaim that most probably, many things will always elude us. I have no qualms with that. But let’s be serious. This is what you are proposing, not that there is some kind of “barrier” between science and philosophy and that some things “belong” to philosophy by definition, or something like that. No, what you are proposing is that we will never “find out the whole truth”.

    Alternatively, you are just stating something very bizarre. That while we have this TOE, we will need “philosophy” to explain “why” it works.

    But that pressuposes that the “why it works” is elusive knowledge. Which is contradictory, for we had established that we already had a TOE. Well, if we have a TOE, then the very knowledge of why it works is also part of such a TOE.

    “Oh, that can’t be right”, you are thinking, this is self-referential. Right? I mean, Godel and all. Well, I don’t know, I’m not the one proclaiming absolutes, you are. So you must know all these dots and where they fail, right?

  15. “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.”

    Could you expand on this a bit? Are you talking about some kind of scientific relativism? Are you saying that young Earth theory is equivalent to geology, or creationism is equivalent to evolution? At least at the level of “all theories should be respected”.

  16. Person of Choler

    13 January 2011 at 12:11 am

    Luboš Motl, Czech physicist, put it succinctly, “The fact [is] that science asks ‘how’?” rather than ‘why?’ and therefore has no overlap with religion. People need to get over the idea that one somehow precludes the other.”

  17. “Well, if we have a TOE, then the very knowledge of why it works is also part of such a TOE.”

    Aw… I wanted to say that! Further on that point: as matters stand “The Hard Problem” as characterized by Chalmers is where we stand, unable to explain our own awareness, and hence our own knowlege. Since a TOE would also solve The Hard Problem it would show how the nature of things gives rise to the knowledge of “why this theory is true and none other is.”

  18. “In the same lighthearted spirit, should we understand that believers are neither wise nor prudent?”

    Absolutely! My subtle point was that believers can take pride in it, so attempting to reasons with them/us is really not going to get you anywhere.

  19. StephenPickering

    13 January 2011 at 10:12 am

    @ Adam H

    A truly wise and prudent answer!

  20. @Briggs re: the cheerleader and the bike rider – of course the not so subtle message is that “cool people” are believers, too. I think everyone knows that, I just can’t figure out why you need pictures on a “modernized” bible to make that point.

    It’s a bit like the “I’m a Mormon” commercials, which just scream, “Look at me! I’m a Mormon, and I’m not a kook, but the Church does have enough money to buy this airtime.”

  21. 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.

    I can think of numerous examples where scientists have and do adhere to theories in direct opposition to empirical observation. Fatheadedness is not the exclusive possession of religion.

  22. It’s not surprising that popes embrace the Big Bang. Of all cosmogonies, it is the one that resembles Genesis the most.

    I like this little story by David Berlinski, where we hear a conversation between a cardinal and a physicist at a dinner in the Vatican. The first paragraph is a bit baroque to set the atmosphere, but then things get going smoothly.

    The Cardinal at Dinner
    http://tinyurl.com/4ofxhlf

  23. The Pope as he represents the institution of the Roman church continues the greatest fraud in the history of the world. The Vatican is responsible for the murder of more Christians (heretics) than any other agent bar none. See: Counter Reformation and Inquisition.

  24. Eric Dailey, what you have just said sounds and smells like a very loud sulphurous fart that interrupts an intelligent and witty conversion during a formal dinner. Please excuse yourself and leave the room. (Don’t bother to reply as I have absolutely no intent to engage with such a boorish dolt as you appear to be.)

  25. Eric Dailey, although I am no fan of the institution of the Catholic Church or any form of religious institution, your claim is ovreblown. It does not seem to me that the very heavy dose of blood-thirstiness that afflicts humanity can be said to have its origin in religion or religious institutions, particularly in the last hundred years or so. Evangelical atheism of the Dawkins variety, where all the problems of the world are blamed on religion, strikes me as silly. Many, probably most, human beings have a spiritual dimension, which religion supposedly tries to minister to, with different degrees of success. It is sometimes claimed that religious proclivities in humans are a mark of backwardness, that they arise from a sense of fear and a craving for protection in a father-like figure. This is too simplistic. If it were so, then many animals who seem to live in a constant state of fear should have developed religious tendencies long ago. I think religious tendencies arose in us as a measure of our ability for abstract reasoning, our ability to reach metaphysical impassess (why is there something rather than nothing, why isn’t nothing the default state, etc) which for many seem intolerable and which I suspect are beyond the mental faculties of other animals, no matter how scared they have been by predators generation after generation. In other words, religion is a quintessentially human trait, like language, not a biological by-product of fear, as the amazingly simplistic neo-darwinians may have you believe.

    To go back to the religion-murder coupling, in a Globe and Mail review of Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion (a very entertaining book) the following quote appears:

    http://tinyurl.com/4v3avxh
    “Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons? If memory serves, not the Vatican.”

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