“He (Pope John Paul II) told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.” Stephen Hawking writing in “A Brief History of Time.”
I’ve been reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” recently, and I have been wondering why it is that the late Pope might have declared it to be forbidden to delve into the Big Bang, in other words, into the beginning of the universe. I have to say, I see absolutely no reason why it should be forbidden.
But let me start first of all by saying that I am in no way a physicist, and I possess little or no background or training in science. Still, the older I get, the more I honor what science can teach us, and I deeply respect the intellect and the profound curiosity about the origins of the universe evidenced by so many scientists today. Indeed, from what I can see, science has taken up where philosophy once left off. But just because I have no formal training in science, does not mean that I, or we, or any of us, cannot understand the basic concepts uncovered and elucidated by such thinkers as Stephen Hawking and his many colleagues throughout the world.
Time began at the Big Bang. Everyone seems to agree on that. This is because there was nothing before it, or at least nothing that we can know. Physicists refer to the Big Bang as a “singularity,” by which is meant a point in space-time at which the curvature of space-time becomes infinite. Now, infinite is not a word we normally expect to hear from scientists. We would think to hear it more from theologians. But there it is, part of the currently accepted definition of the scientific term “singularity.” The only other known singularities occur within black holes in space. In each case, all laws of physics dissolve, both those which describe the universe at a macro-level, which is to say, Eisenstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and those which describe it from a micro-level, that is, Quantum Mechanics, which teaches us about all that is smallest in the universe.
For the longest time now, scientists have been attempting to come up with a theory that would, in a sense, marry these two ways of understanding the universe, the unimaginably big and the unimaginably small. Much progress has been made, and it seems as though ways have been devised to understand how three of the four basic forces of the universe do interact with one another. These three forces are electro-magnetism, the strong force, and the weak force. However, no way has yet been devised of incorporating the fourth force, gravity, into one Theory of All. String Theory, and its cousin M Theory, have been proposed, but so far there has been no satisfactory way of testing this empirically. And even then, there are a number of matters about this theory which remain controversial, not the least of which is that it posits eleven different dimensions, seven more than the standard four we currently have (i.e. up, down, across, and time).
Understanding the Big Bang might unable us to see how all four forces of our universe interact together, thus allowing us to posit something like a One Force of All Theory. This is because in such a case we could, as it were, peer into a “place” that was infinitely small, yet one which contained all that exists in the universe. In the infinitude of its smallness, the Big Bang event contained at least in potential all the energy, all the matter, and all the antimatter that ever existed, exists now, or ever will exist in the universe. Everything, in a sense, came from this infinitely small nothingness, and from there it spread out (at the time of the Big Bang) into what we now know to be our continually expanding universe. Thus, the macro and the micro were one, bringing together the four great forces of the universe as we know them today.
However, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle indicates that we cannot predict events with complete certainty (it states that we can measure the speed of a particle with great accuracy, or the location of the particle, but we cannot measure both simultaneously). What follows from this is that, from the point of view of physics, we will probably never fully be able to predict things. However, at the same time we know that, once again given a singularity such as the Big Bang, the ordinary laws of physics as we understand them cease to exist, and so within such a singularity, with its infinity of density, all of the basic forces must have merged. Therefore, who is to say that what seems contradictory today in nature was not once in some way reconciled? The same might also be true in regard to what is happening even now in black holes.
We may of course never be able to prove what happened in a singularity like the Big Bang, or even in a black hole. Indeed, if the definition holds, it would seem to be almost contradictory even to try. However, human beings by their very nature appear to be endlessly curious, even when it comes to those things which otherwise appear irreconcilable.
So, I say bravo for those scientists who continue searching. Or will the answer ultimately be found in mysticism, rather than in science? In other words, maybe in the end science cannot go where its own tools by definition seem to be useless (although that is not the same as saying that it is forbidden to try). Or maybe another idea is that someday science and what we now call mysticism will in some sense merge, and scientists will become the true seers of the age. In fact, doesn’t the very definition of the Big Bang sound in certain ways an awful lot like some theologians’ definition of God? I still remember the prayer we said as Catholics when I was a child, which ended in “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” Sounds a lot like the singularity of the Big Bang, doesn’t it? And after all, the very word science is derived etymologically from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge.
So, I say it’s OK – and more than OK – to look into the beginnings of the universe. It’s actually not only all right, it is perhaps a requirement of being human. It is maybe the very culmination of being human. Hindu philosophy, too, talks a lot about the reconciliation in Spirit of all the contradictions of all the pairs of opposites. And the Tao Te Ching declares: “Nonbeing penetrates nonspace.” Could it be someday in perhaps the distant future that science-cum-mysticism will finally enlighten us about Infinity?