“It is through the death of God that religions emerge.”
— Jean Baudrillard (Simulacra and Simulation, 1981)
“What comes after God? What follows in the wake of our letting go of God? What emerges out of that night of not-knowing, that moment of abandoning and abandonment?”
— Richard Kerney (Anatheism, 2010)
Whence, whence this creation sprang?
Gods came later, after the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?
— Rig Veda 10.129.6-7 (c. 1500 BC)
I was brought up in the Anglican Church. I liked the poetry of the psalms, some of the music moved me (I sang in the choir, angelic in my ruff), and I enjoyed staring up into the vast spaces of the roof and daydreaming. But I don’t remember a single experience of connecting with the religion on a conceptual or spiritual level. It didn’t explain anything to me or empower anything in me. I couldn’t understand where it was coming from, what lay behind it. It’s not that the religion didn’t give me answers — it didn’t even give me questions. It seemed rather to defuse my sense of wonder, or steer it into a dead-end. I was never confirmed as a Christian. Once my voice broke I never went back to the church.
Instead, like the majority of my contemporaries, I exchanged Christianity for the modern orthodoxy of ‘scientism’. Scientism, or ‘the science delusion’ to borrow the biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s phrase, is the hubristic belief that science has resolved all the fundamental questions, leaving only the details to be filled in. Scientism transfers to the notion of ‘Science’ the authority of a primitive deity. It personifies ‘Science’, just as religions personify God, misconceiving it as a coherent entity speaking with one voice.
So, for example, I accepted Darwin completely, ridiculing any other view of origins as irrational wish-fulfillment, laughable in its denial of the self-evident mechanism of evolution. Life was an accretion of accidents, and purposeless by definition. Swayed by fashionable existentialist novels, I believed that any sense of inherent meaning in life was illusory, and our own invention. Likewise I knew no better than to subscribe to Relativity, the Big Bang, and an accidental, entropic universe.
This accidental and meaningless existence was to be lived out, as the talking heads of scientism kept telling me, against the sterile backdrop of a universe which would probably turn out to be devoid of any other intelligent forms of life, or that such forms would be so impossibly rare that the chances of ever coinciding with them in space and time were negligible. We were alone in an empty universe which was itself the product of random evolution, formed through accidents of accretion and collision, and which was flying apart, with everything in it accelerating away from everything else. Eventually the whole system would wind down and collapse in on itself, just as it exploded out of nothing in the first place.
It was a bleak vision, and, like the religion of my childhood, it ultimately explained nothing. But apparently this was what four hundred years of the scientific era had brought us to. The truth that humanity had finally succeeded in attaining after millennia of struggle — the answer we’d all been waiting for, through these thousands of years of crazy superstition and psychological repression — turned out to be a kind of cosmic shrug. Life, the Universe, and… Nothing, as one of the most prominent shills for scientism, Laurence Krauss, puts it in the proud title of his presentations.
In all of history there has never existed such an empty cosmology. But we flattered ourselves that facing this emptiness constituted our heroism; that we were the first generations to possess the courage to look reality in its vacuous eye; to stare into the void, and stay sane.
And did we? Stay sane, I mean.
I’m not so sure.
The theory that the universe exploded out of nothing at a calculable point in time — ‘Big Bang’ theory, to use Fred Hoyle’s disparaging phrase — grew out of the observations of the astronomer Edwin Hubble, whose name has been attached not just to an orbiting telescope but to a theory he never espoused.
Hubble was a disciplined observer, who resisted making premature interpretations. As so often when science goes wrong, a hypothesis was taken as a fact and became the premise for further hypotheses. Hubble pointedly refused to endorse the theory that red shift observed in the spectra of galaxies means that they are accelerating away from the observer. It was others — in particular, the Belgian priest George Lemaître — who ran away with the idea that the universe is expanding, and from that single premise concluded that it could be traced back to a single point in time and space, a ‘singularity’ of which the explosive energy was still propelling the expansion. Hubble corrected Lemaître’s mathematics — and as a result his name was attached to the expansion theory in the form of the ‘Hubble Constant’.
“It seems likely,” he wrote, “that red shifts may not be due to an expanding universe, and much of the current speculation on the structure of the universe may require re-examination… We may predict with confidence that the 200 inch [the Hale telescope at Mt Palomar] will tell us whether the redshifts must be attributed as evidence of a rapidly expanding universe, or attributed to some new principle of nature.”
This did not stop others from building a whole theory of the origins of the universe from this one observation. Hubble himself evoked something more like the balanced and boundless cosmos of pre-Socratic philosophy:
“The assumption that red shifts are not velocity shifts but represent some hitherto unknown principle operating in space between the nebulae leads to a very simple, consistent picture of a universe so vast that the observable region must be regarded as an insignificant sample.”
Nevertheless, cosmological redshift (i.e., due to expansion) became an unshakeable dogma and the foundation of the ‘standard’ model of the universe.
However, Hubble’s prediction was fulfilled by his former intern, Halton Arp, who went on to become widely known in his own right for his ‘Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies’ (1966), the most frequently cited resource for research on galaxy formation. His observations using the Hale telescope at Palomar Observatory, images from which were published in the Atlas, had led him to very different conclusions about red shift. From 1967 onwards he developed an argument that red shift does not mean recession, or acceleration away from the observer, but represents an intrinsic property of matter like mass or charge, which can change over time, younger galaxies emitting light at the lower end of the spectrum.
For this Arp was censured by his peers and had his telescope privileges withdrawn at Palomar in a blatant attempt to block his research. The parallel with an earlier telescopist, Galileo Galilei, has been made much of by his supporters, but Arp was able to sidestep the suppression without too much difficulty. Relocating to Europe in 1983, he continued his work at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany.
Arp’s theory was vindicated by the revelation that red shift is quantised, as first reported by the astronomer William G Tifft in 1973: i.e., that the observed shifts in wavelengths are not smoothly graduated but cluster around specific values, like harmonics in music. This falsifies the notion of cosmological red shift, and makes its continued dominance over institutionalised science an example of what the biologist Jonathan Wells calls ‘zombie science’ — scientific hypotheses that refuse to die, and continue to be treated as facts even after being falsified or superseded by new evidence.
Quantised intrinsic redshift means that we can make no claims about the age or extent of the universe, and sends us back to something like the Steady State theory of the British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who with his collaborators Hermann Bondi & Thomas Gold came to the conclusion in 1948 that the universe has existed forever.
Which is exactly what the pre-Socratic philosophers were telling us, half a millennium before Christ:
This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.
Hoyle’s cosmology came to resemble that of Herakleitos and the Stoics in another crucial respect. His most significant and groundbreaking work was on stellar nucleosynthesis — the creation of heavy elements within the furnace of a star. When he came to examine the synthesis of carbon, he was struck by a contradiction: the existence of carbon (of which all known life-forms are composed) should be impossible, and would be, without an extremely specific parameter being in effect. According to his calculations, carbon atoms should be immediately transformed into oxygen upon coming into existence. And yet carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen, helium and oxygen. The only way it could persist would be if carbon-12 were to have a very specific property: a resonance level at 7.65 MeV (million electric volts) above its ground state. This prediction, made in 1953, was experimentally confirmed by William Fowler, who would work with Hoyle on the groundbreaking 1957 paper Synthesis of the Elements in Stars.
This stunning discovery moved Hoyle into a new outlook on the nature of the cosmos.
I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside the stars.
(Religion and the Scientists, 1959.)
Later, he wrote:
Would you not say to yourself, “Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule.” A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question. (“The Universe: Past and Present Reflections”, 1981)
Hoyle is only one of a number of scientists throughout the 20th century who started to advance the teleological argument — that physical parameters governing the condition of the universe are fine-tuned to enable not only the possibility of life, but of astronomical structures, diverse elements, chemical bonds, and even of matter itself.
These include the fine-tuning of the ‘strong force’ and of the electromagnetic force, necessary to allow the abundance not just of carbon but of oxygen. With a significantly smaller ratio of the electromagnetic force to the gravitational force, a universe of any significant size would be unsustainable. If the efficiency of fusion from hydrogen to helium were one thousandth of a percentage point lower, nothing but hydrogen would exist; these are just a few examples.
The teleological argument is anathema to the scientific mainstream, but the arguments ranged against it seem to me rather desperate. The ‘multiverse’ hypothesis embraced by Stephen Hawking and others attempts to rescue the idea of undirected cosmic evolution by imagining that every mathematically possible universe exists simultaneously, all but one of them sterile and empty, and in the only one which produces life and consciousness, accidental beings such as ourselves are seduced by the subjective illusion of design. As an ad hoc theory this is pretty extravagant. It is in fact the very antithesis of Ockham, entailing the unnecessary multiplication of entities to an infinite degree. Impossible ever to falsify, the ‘multiverse’ does not qualify as a scientific hypothesis at all, only as metaphysical speculation. The idea was memorably despatched by the author and cosmologist Paul Davies in a 2003 New York Times article:
“…invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.” — Paul Davies, ‘A Brief History of the Multiverse’
Out of the multiverse grows the ‘anthropic bias’ argument — that only in a universe with exactly the physical parameters we observe could an intelligence arise capable of noticing the fine-tuning of those parameters, and that we should therefore not be surprised at that fine-tuning, since without it we would not be here to wonder at it. And so on ad infinitum, sending the mind into an endless loop. It’s clever stuff, but gets you nowhere, which is what I think it is designed to do.
The more rational position is, as Carl Sagan suggests (in his novel Contact), that whenever our mathematics is correct it reveals the maker’s mark.
However, to leap from this to invoking an anthropomorphic ‘God’ — a word which immediately prejudices the discussion — is not wise. All we can access with our senses and our reason is what Herakleitos and the Stoics called the Logos — Divine Reason; the frame of things, how it is and has to be. To believe we can know anything beyond that is to make claims which are the currency of religion, not philosophy.
Hoyle doesn’t do that. Instead, in 1983, he published The Intelligent Universe, and that title brings me, for one, straight back to Herakleitos, writing two and half thousand years ago. For the Stoics, who took their natural philosophy from Herakleitos, the universe is no random accretion of dumb, unconscious matter, but a living entity in itself. Alive. Conscious. Intelligent. Herakleitos and his successors do not develop any conception of an entity separate from the Universe; they worship the Universe itself.
“The universe itself is God, and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence; then the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then fire and the principle of aether; then those elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.
— Chrysippus of Soli, (c. 279 – c. 206) De Nature Deorum, i. 39
Whether to say that the universe is God is the same as to say that God is the universe, is another question. Regardless, what strikes me about the concept is that it is not some vague personification of destiny or reification of an abstract. This God is not somewhere among the stars, watching over your shoulder from a billion miles away. There is no distance. If the universe is God, then God is everywhere; everything.