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Scientia / Fides

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Can Science Explain "Origins"?

by Patrick Henry Reardon

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I have often reflected on the patience of St. Irenaeus, a second-century bishop, who set himself to refute the complex and highly arcane speculations of the Gnostics, a group largely concerned with the "origins" of the universe.

In order to accomplish his task of refutation, Irenaeus was obliged to read many volumes of the most awful sorts of nonsense, written by the likes of Valentinian and Basilides. This pursuit, undertaken to preserve the faith of the Lord's flock, compelled Irenaeus to become familiar with the "unmeasured silence" of the Protennoia, the "thought that dwells in light, the movement that dwells in the All," and heaven knows what else. He was required to read endless treatises about "Barbelo," the female emanation of the Absolute; he could not escape investigating the various aeons, such as Autogenes. He had to work his way through dozens of volumes of silly theories. When in the year 202 Irenaeus suffered martyrdom, I suspect that he felt a sense of relief.

Fortunately, we live in a more enlightened age, don't we? Modern people invariably rest their cases on well-founded and proven facts, don't they? You never hear anybody nowadays adhering to exotic and improbable theories about the origins of nature and the structure of the universe. Indeed, what do modern people believe on these subjects?

Let us take an outstanding example of modern enlightened thought. Let us consider Dr. Lawrence Krauss, head of the "Origins Project" at Arizona State University. Dr. Krauss's book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing was published in 2012. It is obviously an important book, because it quickly made its way onto the bestseller list of The New York Times.

Dismissing Theology

According to Krauss, in discussing the origins of things, the first discipline that we must dismiss is theology. Krauss writes, "Theology has made no contribution to knowledge in the past five hundred years, since the dawn of science."

Goodness, where does one start to answer this assessment? I suppose that we should draw attention to Krauss's unfamiliarity with the literature relevant to his subject. He seems not to have read, for instance, Amos Funkenstein's Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century, published in 1986. In that work, Funkenstein—himself an unbeliever—demonstrated how the beginnings of modern scientific orientation and methodology were rooted in certain ideas drawn from theology.

One of those ideas, in fact, concerned the "origins" of things. Modern scientific interest in "origins" did not spring from science but from theology. With respect to origins, theology postulates a "transition" from nothing to something, and it calls that transition "Creation." Whatever else may be said about that transition, it was absolute; there is no halfway point between nothing and something. It cannot be scientifically examined.

Where does this consideration leave modern science, the methodology of which is strictly determined by mathematical laws and controlled experimentation? Because the very notion of nothing lies outside the realm of observed experimentation, science seems very ill-equipped to explore a subject so distant, abstract, and speculative as "origins."

Neglecting Science

But let us not beat up on Krauss too quickly. Let us instead bracket theology for the moment and look simply at Krauss's neglect of logic. How is it, he asks, that we now have something? Well, says Krauss, there wasn't always something. Until about 13.72 billion years ago, there really was nothing. (By the way, I love the scientific precision of that decimal, .72 billion. A lesser mind would simply have rounded it off to 14 billion.) Until then, nothing existed. Then—and rather suddenly, it seems—there was something. Well, okay, but how?

Krauss explains that the distant, pre-existent nothing was not ordinary nothing—le rien du jour, so to speak. It was not real nothing, not the genuine article; rather, it was nothing charged with energy. (How what doesn't exist could be charged with energy, he doesn't explain.) Then, somehow, this energetic nothing exploded into something. In just a second or so, you got—whammo!—atomic particles: electrons, neutrons, and protons. That's what you got right away, as soon as this pre-existent non-existent went "bang!"

Then, about three minutes later (Krauss's calculation), protons and neutrons found their way to one another to form the first atomic nuclei. Then everything sort of calmed down for about 300,000 years, while these new nuclei cooled off and the electrons found their way in and established honest-to-goodness atoms.

Over the next billion years, these atoms came together to form stars. A couple of billion years after that, nuclear reactions in the stars created heavier elements such as iron and carbon. Eventually, the stars exploded, sending iron and carbon and all of the other elements out into the universe. And here we are now, we modern people, made of stardust. Krauss rhapsodizes: "One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded."

Stardust & Moonbeams

Krauss is not a writer of science fiction; he is a professor of theoretical physics at a notable university. So why does his stardust so closely resemble moonbeams? Although his answer is self-contradictory, Krauss at least poses the question correctly: How do we get from nothing to something? Nothing is unable to provide the answer, because (let's see if I can get this right) nothing doesn't exist.

The problem is that this is not a scientific question; no amount of empirical evidence can even begin to address it. For this reason, the question itself has no business whatsoever in a science class. Rather, the subject of "origins" pertains to philosophy, not science, and even philosophy can only speculate on it. To deal with it adequately, we need—you guessed it!—theology.

You know, I think it would do us all a world of good if we took another look at Irenaeus. 

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