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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

The ultimate mystery movie.  That would be Cosmic Origins, a fascinating documentary that dares tackle the greatest mystery of them all — that of existence itself.  So, what does science actually tell us about the creation of the universe? And does the scientific creation story negate a belief in God?

Executive produced by Robert J. Spitzer (a Jesuit priest) and Barbara Nicolosi, the fascinating film employs the likes of physicist Stephen Barr, Lisa Randall (a theoretical physicist named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2007), Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, NASA scientist Jennifer Wiseman, and Templeton Prize winners John Polkinghorne and Michael Heller to make a compelling case that belief in science and faith are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Okay, now I must admit I was pre-convinced of that notion — but it’s nice to hear some really smart people explain to me why I’m not necessarily the simpleton militant atheists seem to think I am.

In fact, as the film reveals, the whole idea of a schism between the search for God and the search for scientific truth is something of a modern invention.  It was, after all, a Belgian priest named Georges Lemaître who came up with idea of  the so-called Big Bang Theory to begin with. (And here I thought it was Chuck Lorre.)

Ably directed and co-written (along with Warren Lam) by my former Faith Under Fire colleague Martha Cotton, Cosmic Origins is Highly Recommended.

Anyway, I recently spoke with Fr. Spitzer, the philosopher-priest/president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith about the film.  Highlights from our conversation can be read below the trailer. The DVD is available for sale via Ignatius Press. For information on organizing screenings of Cosmic Origins for your group or parish, click here.

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JWK: Before we get to the origin of the universe, how did the concept for this film come to be?

FR. ROBERT J. SPITZER: Basically, I had about five friends – mostly physicists – (and we were) kind of reflecting on…whether or not the media — inadvertently or , perhaps, culpably — were trying to convey the impression that faith and science are incompatible – that faith led away from science.  This kind of upset us a little bit to say the least because essentially we were of the opinion that it goes the opposite way. In fact, if you really know your physics, it’s really difficult to escape the possibility, or even the probability, of a creator and an intelligent creator at that.

So, we thought okay let’s get some first-class (scientists)… and lets just line them up and talk about not just the other side of the story (but) the much more probabilistic side of the story which seemed to, for whatever reason, not be hitting the media.

JWK: You’re actually distributing two versions of the film, correct?

RJS: Yeah. One has a lot of extra things for Catholics – a long interview between (Fr.) Joe Fessio and myself and some other philosophers of science who are clerics.  It’s not in the actual documentary but when you pull it up in the Catholic version there is one extra there which is my intro and that’s integrated into the film. Everything else is just the standard film but then you have a menu and it has additional options. You can click on any of those options  and you will see a much more in-depth explanation of  some of the things that are in the film.

JWK: I was surprised to learn from the film that it was actually a Catholic priest who, more or less, first came up with the Big Bang Theory.

RJS: Oh, Not more or less.  He, in fact, did. His name was Father Georges Lemaître  and, basically, he got his PhD from MIT…and became a colleague of Einstein’s. It’s kind of a cute story – which I think is true –   where he basically came up to Einstein  asking for approval of the theory as an explanation for the radio velocity of the extragalactic nebulae..these light sources which we later found out were galaxies that are outside of our galaxy of the Milky Way but are going way too fast. Lemaître  just couldn’t explain it by the standard Theory of Relativity so (he) had kind of a bizarre-but-brilliant flash.  He thought, well, what if space is stretching? No, not that the galaxies are moving away from each other in already existing space which was the Einsteinian model which, at that time, was called the Steady State Theory — but, instead, that space was stretching  like the surface of a balloon and that all of the galazies were being carried away from all of the other galaxies by the stretching of this balloon through the stretching of the space-time continuum.

So, he projected it outwards and, basically, showed Einstein that you could not only explain by this theory how the radio velocities could be in excess of anything predicted by a Steady State interpretation…but also he came up with the constant for the overall rate of expansion of the universe and that was called the Lemaître  Constant.  The only reason that the Hubble Constant is the one that’s used rather than the Lemaître  Constant is because Hubble actually had much more precise observations from the Mt. Wilson Observatory which enabled him to do things that really Lemaître really couldn’t have done.  Lemaître’s Constant was very close to the Hubble Constant. The Hubble Constant is more accurate  but today even you see Lemaître’s name  everywhere in cosmology.  He’s a very, very well known cosmologist.

Initially, for a long, long time time, people thought the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe. Even (renowned physicist) Stephen Hawking seemed ot have that view for a little while – even though he was postulating other possible views.  He was one of the first ones to postulate the Singularity Theory.  So, for a while there, it looked like the Big Bang was the creation of the universe.  By the way, there are a lot of physicists who still believe that to this very day.  Nothing has been proven to the contrary.  There’s no evidence for a pre-Big Bang period but nevertheless there is a possibility of a pre-Big Bang period that is introduced by what we call  Inflationary Theory and by what we call Quantum Cosmology  and one type of quantum cosmology is String Theory.  In that particular model,  you could have a pre-Big Bang period.

JWK: I’m confused but let me ask you, in terms of our faith, does any of this matter?

RJS: No, it doesn’t matter at all.  But the interesting thing, of course, is if you could actually have proof of a beginning of the universe that…would also be proof of a creator. In physics, a beginning is actually a beginning, not just of the universe as a constant, but it’s also the beginning of physical space and physical time.  So, prior to this moment of beginning, you have a fundamental point that’s called Singularity. Prior to that point, a mathematical point that really is only a boundary, it’s not something physical. It’s just a boundary prior to which its physical space and physical time are nothing.

Now, unless you want to go out on a limb  with Stephen Hawking, and say that nothing is something – which most metaphysicians  are loathe to do – then, essentially, if you consider nothing to be nothing then nothing can only do nothing.  And if nothing can only do nothing then when the universe in its physical time was nothing than it could not have moved itself from nothing to something – implying that something else did.  And that’s where you get the whole notion of Transcendence.  A beginning of the universe is inescapable, an implication of some sort of Transcendence or creation outside of our universe.

Pre-Big Bang periods are totally hypothetical  but is there any way we can judge whether a hypothetical pre-Big Bang period would have to have a beginning? And there is, as a matter of fact. There are two methods that are used. One is called the Space-Time Geometry Proof and the other  is Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics.

Now, there are two models for a pre-Big Bang period.  The first model is called a multiverse.  A second model is called an oscillating or bouncing universe in higher dimensional space. I could just give you the rundown of why both of those need a beginning.

JWK: A “multiversem,” isn’t that what they talk about on the TV show Fringe?

(Fr. Spitzer has absolutely no idea what I was talking about which made us, for one brief moment, even.)

RJS: A Space-time Geometry proof  (requires) a boundary to the space-time continuum in a pretty fundamental way. Since the discovery of Inflationary Theory by Alan Guth , there have been three such proofs.  The first one occurred in 1993 and it was formulated by two people – Alexander Vilenkin (Director of the Institute of Cosmology at Tufts University)…and an Indian fellow by the name of Arvin Borde (Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of California Santa Barbara).

Borde and Vilenkin…proposed a proof in Physical Review Letters that is still a valid proof to this day but it basically showed that any Inflationary Universe that met five conditions would have to have a beginning. It doesn’t matter if it’s a multiverse…By the way, a multiverse is like a big mega universe that’s burping out little bubble universes all the time. Essentially, this proof would extend to even a multiverse if the multiverse met all five conditions.

Now, in 1997, Borde and Vilenkin actually found a possible exception to their third condition, it’s called the Weak Energy Condition…They basically saidt here is a possibility that you could get out of this proof for a beginning but the probability is so remote that even Alan Guth, the father of Inflationary Theory up at MIT,  just basically said (it’s) remote as to be physically unrealistic….(Guth said) “Try as physicists might to prove an inflationary model universe that does not have a beginning , (they) have been unable to do so. All known and all hypothetical models that are currently projected may be enternal into the future but they cannot be eternal into the past.  Everyone of them must have a beginning.”

In 2003, a definitive proof with one condition was discovered by all three of them.  Borde, Vilenkin and Guth basically got together and published an amazing proof – a very elegant pr0of …They basically indicated that any multiverse or universe…would all have to have a beginning and so basically they have put an end any speculation.

Note: Fr. Spitzer forwarded me an article he wrote in which he quotes Alexander Vilenkin’s 2006 explanation of the proof:

“We made no assumptions about the material content of the universe. We did not even assume that gravity is described by Einstein’s equations.  So, if Einstein’s gravity requires some modification, our conclusion will still hold.  The only assumption that we made was that the expansion rate of the universe never gets below some nonzero value, no matter how small. This assumption should certainly be satisfied in the inflating false vacuum.  The conclusion is that past-eternal inflation without a beginning is impossible.”

RJS: The reason their proof is so good is because…first, it’s independent of the physics of any universe.  Secondly, it only has one condition. Instead of five conditions and the one condition is one that all multiuniverses and most bouncing universes have to meet. It’s that the average Hubble Expansion be greater then zero.

Now, what’s a Hubble Expasnion. That’s the rate of expansion of the universe as a whole – like the blowing up of a balloon. It’s hthe rate  at which the whole of the space-time continuum is stretching  and pulling galaxies apart from one another…It’s so simple that nobody can disprove it or has disproved it.

In fact, there’s a lovely summary of all of this in The New Scientist from January of this year.

But, anyway, Alexander Vilenkin essentially went to Stephen Hawking’s birthday party at the beginning of the year and, you know, at physicists’ birthday parties they read academic papers . SO, he read his paper (on) why physicists cannot avoid a creation.

JWK: Didn’t Hawking embrace atheism?

RJS: Well Hawking embraces what I call Radical Agnosticism without coming out the atheistic door…”Science has no need of God” is how he phrases it.  He doesn’t  phrase it as” There is is no God. ”  So, I kindd of call it a Radical agnosticism.

He’s got a bunch of theories but the Hartle-Hawking Theory doesn’t work. (Many) physicists have pointed this out and, of course it never gets into the popular media.  It’s like the God Particle. What does a God Particle have to do with creation? Nothing. What does it have to do with God?  Nothing!  (Finding it) wouldn’t disprove God at all. It has nothing to do with God!  It’s basically a Higgs field which is rushed out along with energy and the boson basically indicates the presence of the field. It’s not even a particle your’ really looking for here. The particle basically an indication of the field.

JWK: But the media seems to present the God Particle as almost disproving God?

RJS: Yeah and it’s absolutely ludicrous.  I mean the whole God Particle thing to begin with is a marketing gimmick. Essentially…(physicist) Peter Higgs wanted to write a book called The GD Particle (meaning)  exactly what you think — and, of course his editor said you can’t call it that. (Then someone) said “Let’s drop the damn and call it The God Particle.”  And, of course, the marketing gimmick worked…The media has played it up like its some kind of disproof of God. It’s hilarious. Anyone who knows any physics is just laughing. I mean chortling! It’s just nonsense.

(Back to the original point, the Hartle-Hawking Theory) has left out the Borde, Vilenkin and Guth theory and that’s whyVilenkin got mad at him and went to his birthday…” Why Physicists Cannot Avoid a Creation”…explains it very very well.

It goes through a three-step proof for why you simply can’t avoid a creation and, at the end, he just kind of lays it over to Stephen and with the complete implication of “Hey, you never mentioned any of this!  This has been in the physics literature since 2003. You wrote the Grand Design and you ignored all this evidence! I won’t let you do this with impunity!” And Lisa Grossman calls her (New Scientist) article – the summary the Vilenkin paper Why Physicists Cannot Avoid a Creation — the “Worst Birthday Present Ever!  SO , you get the point.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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