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Is the Big Bang a Moment of Creation?

In some formulations the point associated with the Big Bang itself is a singularity - a point at which our laws of physics break down. In itself, this does not imply an absolute beginning. Nevertheless, it is tempting to read the Big Bang as having theological significance. After all, it does seem remarkably like a moment of creation.

This temptation received strong papal endorsement in 1951. Pope Pius XII announced that ‘everything seems to indicate that the universe has in finite times a mighty beginning’. He went on to claim that unprejudiced scientific thinking indicated that the universe is a ‘work of creative omnipotence, whose power set in motion by the mighty fiat pronounced billions of years ago by the Creating Spirit, spread out over the universe.’ To be fair, he did also admit that ‘the facts established up to the present time are not an absolute proof of creation in time.’

Such pronouncements are guaranteed to provoke controversy. Even members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences were divided over the wisdom of the Pope’s remarks. While Sir Edmund Whittaker could agree that the Big Bang might ‘perhaps without impropriety’ be referred to as the Creation, George Lemaître, one of the pioneers of the Big Bang theory, felt strongly that this was a misuse of his hypothesis.

Beyond the Christian community there was even greater unease. One of the fundamental assumptions of modern science is that every physical event can be sufficiently explained solely in terms of preceding physical causes. Quite apart from its possible status as the moment of creation, the Big Bang singularity is an offence to this basic assumption. Thus some philosophers of science have opposed the very idea of the Big Bang as irrational and untestable.

One popular way to evade the suggestion of an absolute beginning has been to argue that the universe must be closed. If it will eventually return to a singular point, why should it not then ‘bounce’? This is the so-called cyclic universe. Other astronomers opposed to the Big Bang, proposed instead a steady state theory. Fred Hoyle took a lead in this proposal.

Interestingly, one of Hoyle’s motivations was aversion to the Genesis-like connotations of the Big Bang. He wrote: ‘Unlike the modern school of cosmologists, who in conformity with Judaeo-Christian theologians believe the whole universe to have been created out of nothing, my beliefs accord with those of Democritus who remarked “Nothing is created out of nothing”’[FTEXT] Here, then, we have an important example, albeit a negative one, of theory selection in science being influenced by theological stance!

The steady-state theory argued that, in spite of appearances, the universe was infinitely old and did not evolve over time. Although defended by some very able scientists, this theory suffered a number of major setbacks which led to its demise:

In order to maintain a steady state in the face of universal expansion it was necessary to postulate the continuous creation of matter from negative energy - ingenious, but contrived.

There was the embarrassment of Hoyle’s failed attempt to show that the Big Bang could not account for the chemical composition of the universe.

Finally, the steady state theory was not able to accommodate the new data that appeared - on the microwave background. See evidence for a Big Bang?

Big Bang theory, then, survived competition from steady-state theory, and has become the standard basis for thinking about the development of the universe. And superficially at least the theory does seem to have a most pleasing consonance with the biblical account of creation in Genesis Chapter 1.

But see Stephen Hawking and the growth of quantum cosmology to understand how later scientific developments have made this consonance less evident.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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