Believers in God who follow modern science will be heartened by a recent article in New Scientist, "Why physicists can't avoid a creation event."
While many of us may be OK with the idea of the big bang simply starting everything, physicists, including Hawking, tend to shy away from cosmic genesis. "A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God," Hawking told the meeting, at the University of Cambridge, in a pre-recorded speech.
For a while it looked like it might be possible to dodge this problem, by relying on models such as an eternally inflating or cyclic universe, both of which seemed to continue infinitely in the past as well as the future. Perhaps surprisingly, these were also both compatible with the big bang, the idea that the universe most likely burst forth from an extremely dense, hot state about 13.7 billion years ago.
However, as cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts University in Boston explained last week, that hope has been gradually fading and may now be dead. He showed that all these theories still demand a beginning.
To me, though, I don't see why a beginning to the universe implies anything about the "hand of God" being the cause of creation.
If we didn't know that our galaxy is part of the vastly larger universe, it'd be easy to think that the formation of our solar system can be traced back to the mysterious formation of the Milky Way Galaxy, before which time and space supposedly couldn't exist.
Several decades into the twentieth century, there wasn't any firm evidence of other galaxies. Now, we know there are at least a hundred billion galaxies. So religious believers and unbelievers alike should be extremely cautious about assuming that what we now know about reality is anywhere close to the ultimate truth.
The big bang banged. Our universe came into being. How? From where? Why? When? Nobody knows. It's a mystery.
According to the article, some theories of modern physicists -- eternal inflation, cyclic universe, static cosmic egg -- seem to be on the ropes, inconsistent with mathematical models. What's surprising about that? What I find surprising is that we humans have been able to make as much progress as we have toward understanding the origin of the universe, and how it has evolved during its post-big bang history of 14 billion years.
Sure, us Homo sapiens are the most intelligent great apes.
We've come a long way over the past few million years, far surpassing what other primates are able to achieve, knowledge-wise. Yet it's important to keep in mind that in comparison with cosmic time, monkeys and humans shared a common ancestor just a blink of an eye ago.
I doubt we'll ever be able to comprehend what the cosmos as a whole is like, which probably includes much more than just the universe in which we find ourselves. I doubt even more that we'll ever be able to know, really know, how the origin of everything in existence came to be.
When I say "we," I mean humans. Almost certainly, our species will die out one day. Perhaps more advanced earthly species will evolve capabilities of consciousness which will enable them to grok stuff we're utterly incapable of understanding.
Let's suppose some conscious being, somewhere, some time, somehow, grasps (or is) the ultimate truth of the cosmos. This being knows. It groks. It's so attuned to the Absolute Truth of Existence there's not even a Planck length of distance between the being and that truth. This being does its best to communicate what it knows to us humans. And I wonder...
Would we have any chance of understanding? Of knowing what that being knows? Of fitting our repository of limited human truths into whatever lies at the heart of the entire cosmos, our unimaginably vast universe plus all that lies beyond what we know now?
I doubt that we could. I doubt that our great ape consciousness, no matter how evolved it is compared to our primate cousins, would be able to take in the Absolute Truth of Existence and make much sense of it.
Reminds me of Douglas Adam's Total Perspective Vortex.
The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.
To explain — since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation — every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.
The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.
Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.
And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.
"Have some sense of proportion!" she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.
And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.
And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.
To Trin Tragula's horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.
I'd like to know what the cosmos is all about. But not at the cost of having my brain annihilated. I don't want to end up in a mental hospital muttering to anyone who'll listen, "The universe is... is... is..." Heck, that's akin to what I was up to back in the sixties. Been there, done that.
So I'm pretty much content to accept that I'll never know how or why our universe was created in the big bang. Nor will scientists, at least not in the foreseeable future. I can picture the big bang banging, yet what it banged from or what it is banging into... that's beyond my mind's pay grade.
Back when I wrote "Existence exists. Amazing!" I was more open to the possibility that somehow human consciousness could be the missing piece that completes the jigsaw puzzle of reality. Well, it's still a possibility.
Now I enjoy contemplating the beauty of boundless existence without feeling that I'll ever understand it. Something always has been, even if the universe hasn't. Wow. Beautiful.