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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Cosmic Wonder and Human Scales

Part One - Big Bangs

15 million years before the first dinosaurs walked the earth, a star in a distant galaxy, (NGC 1260), some 150 times the size of our sun, exploded in a devastating supernova explosion. Last September the light reached earth and for 200 or more days has outshone in brilliance any previously known supernova, much brighter in fact than that of its host galaxy.

The power of this dying star, anonymously catalogued as SN 2006gy, is the power of birth. Supernovae account for the presence of heavy elements in suns such as our own given that they are too small and cool to have produced them by our their own fusion processes. Life without supernovae would not be possible.

Moreover we have our own SN 2006gy ticking away to destruction just 7500 light years away in our own Milky Way galaxy. A little smaller perhaps at 120 solar masses, this star, Eta Carinae has already had a mini-eruption, observed in the 19th century. Being much nearer, when this star fully explodes, you will be able to read a book by its light at night time and it will be plainly visible during the day. It could happen at any time; although it may have already happened and its radiation would now be racing across the stellar void so that it can "happen" here. Life on earth is probably safe. The supernova would have to involve a gamma ray burst on a very narrow trajectory cone to to threaten us here ... but you get the point. The Cosmos is a dangerous violent place. It has to be if the building blocks of life (the "dust" of Genesis) are to be in place waiting the "breath of God" (Genesis 2:7).

In a now-famous statement, at the end of his book "The First Three Minutes", (1977), the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg wrote that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." In effect Weinberg was claiming that science paints a picture of our universe as a vast purposeless place in which we can see no evidence of a point for ourselves as human beings. Weinberg has now joined the likes Richard Dawkins and other atheistic scientists in an evangelical crusade against religion; yet, as a Jew and unlike Dawkins, he remains wistful for the passing of what he must deny. But is the conclusion - that the Universe is cold, violent, purposeless and devoid of God, rational?

I submit that this question cannot simply be resolved by observation and the explanatory power of scientific theory. We need such methods and operations to understand physical phenomena but it is quite a step to deny the legitimacy of existential questions as if these were simply the lazy and unwarranted speculations of "dust refusing to be dust." It seems strange to me that cosmic wonder should so readily escape those who behold the stars, those who hold life in their hands. Ever since I can remember I have had an intuition about God from the wonder of creation. I gaze at the novas remains of a nebula and I am at once "homo adorans" ... which is why I find Weinberg's melancholy before the apparently cold cosmic vastness so incomprehensible.

Actually I think that we have two problems here. The first concerns the God bearing potential of creation. The Protestant Reformation denied this. It stripped away the sacramental character of the physical realm. It demystified the material world, banishing the spiritual to the private and mental sphere. All science in the west has been conducted in this context since. It has non too subtly shaped popular perceptions of the Cosmos as God-less. Pietism has been its bedfellow. Some (but not all) scientists who are believers sometimes seem to pursue their scientific work quite independently of their spiritual lives; much in the manner of the divorce between public-fact and private-feeling.

The second problem concerns the impoverished vision of the pietist's God who could barely manage to create a good souffle let alone the Cosmos we see through our telescopes. From an Orthodox point of view, his "God" is just too small or rather we say that the true God is beyond all conceptions of size and temporality. Likewise in the "nothing-buttery" of the atheist for whom by definition nothing can exist "outside" the Universe (since the Universe is "everything") the conclusion has been presupposed in the very act of enquiry. How is this a rational open ended approach to the question of why there is anything at all, not just the actual vast Cosmos we see (and the others perhaps that we cannot)?

I guess I am just asking for a bit more humility, not just of the Copernican sort that accepts our smallness in the Cosmos but also of the existential and philosophical sort. There are no knock down incontrovertible arguments for or against the existence of God from creation but there is wonder. Our response to who we are and what we are cannot be exhausted by our ability to explain physical phenomena. Even the biggest bang of the largest supernova cannot match the enormity of the deepest questions that such wonder evokes.

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