As it was in the beginning

Author: William E. Carroll '65

Outmoded and pointless: That’s the philosophical judgment of many who think a belief in God as Creator is an artifact from a less enlightened age.

The commemorations last year of the birth of Charles Darwin (1809) and of the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) offered us a stark reminder that scientific advances in evolutionary biology and cosmology have long served as the basis for that increasingly pervasive philosophical outlook, which dismisses divine agency.

In discussions about evolution and the role of God in biological change, the choice for many seems to be between a purely natural explanation of the origin and development of life, and an explanation that relies on God’s action.

The natural explanation relies on notions of common descent and genetic mutations, and sees natural selection as the mechanisms of biological change. The other choice sees God the Creator as the source of life in all its diversity. It posits that human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, have a special place in the universe.

The difference appears stark: either Darwin or God.

What is at issue is not some naïve view that the Earth is only 10,000 years old. Rather, for many believers, however old the world is, God is necessary to explain the order and design evident in it. Some hold that God has directly intervened to create each of the different species of living things. It is precisely this understanding of creation that many people think modern science (and, in particular, evolution) denies. Not only does natural selection replace divine agency, but chance supplants order and design in explanations of the origin of life.

As Daniel Dennett remarks: “Science has won and religion has lost. Darwin’s idea has banished the Book of Genesis to the limbo of quaint mythology.” Or, as Christopher Hitchens in his popular book, God is Not Great, contends: “Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.” Those who reject creation in the name of science and those who reject certain scientific claims in order to defend creation often view the alternatives in exactly the same way.

The sense of a fundamental incompatibility between creation and evolution is enmeshed in a larger philosophical claim that existence is a “brute fact” — it needs no explanation beyond itself. Thus, only the emergence of new things from already existing realities or other varieties of change need to be explained. What does not need to be explained, so this position contends, is the mere existence of that which changes.

The argument is that the natural sciences are fully sufficient, at least in principle, to account for all that needs to be accounted for in the universe. Whether we speak of explanations of the Big Bang itself (such as quantum tunneling from nothing) or of some version of a multiverse hypothesis or of self-organizing principles in biological change (including randomness and chance), the conclusion many see as inescapable is that there is no need to seek any cause outside the natural order.

Those who discuss the philosophical and theological implications of contemporary cosmology tend to share similar views concerning creation and the origin of the universe. Historically, Big Bang cosmology affirms a “singularity” or starting point for our universe — a point beyond the categories of space and time, and beyond the explanatory realm of physics. This theory has been used to provide a kind of scientific confirmation for the traditional doctrine of creation.

Even Pope Pius XII once remarked that this cosmology offered support for what the opening of Genesis revealed. The traditional reading of Genesis, confirmed by the solemn pronouncement of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), is that “in the beginning” means the universe is temporally finite; the world and time began to be as the result of God’s creative word. To speak of creation and the beginning of time as intimately connected — such that one necessarily entails the other — has often informed both those who support creation and those who use new theories in cosmology to deny creation. An eternal universe, one without a temporal beginning, could not, therefore, be a created universe.

Thus, those who embrace cosmological theories that propose an eternal series of “big bangs” (as, for example, the ever-repeating collisions of giant four-dimensional membranes) or a multiverse scenario according to which our universe is but one in an infinite number of universes, call into question the intelligibility of an absolute temporal beginning, and hence, so it is thought, they call into question the intelligibility of creation itself. As Stephen Hawking once remarked, when defending his cosmological model, which denied a beginning of time to the universe: There is “nothing for a creator to do.”

In most of the discussions about creation and science, however, fundamental confusion exists about what creation is and what the explanatory extent of the natural sciences is. Creation, as a metaphysical and theological notion, affirms that all that is, in whatever way or ways it is, depends upon God as cause. The natural sciences have as their subject the world of changing things: from subatomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a change there must be something that changes. Whether these changes are biological or cosmological, without beginning or end, or temporally finite, they remain processes. Creation, on the other hand, is not a change. To cause completely something to exist is not to work on or with existing material. When God’s creative act is said to be “out of nothing,” what is meant is that God does not use anything in creating all that is.

Although evolutionary biology, cosmology and all the other natural sciences offer accounts of change, they do not address the metaphysical and theological questions of creation — they do not speak to why there is something rather than nothing. It is a mistake to use arguments in the natural sciences to deny creation. It is also a mistake to appeal to cosmology as a confirmation of creation. Reason (as well as faith) can lead to knowledge of the Creator, but the path is in metaphysics and not in the natural sciences. A contemporary argument such as the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe (various forms of what is called the anthropic principle), just like arguments in the Middle Ages from motion to an Unmoved Mover, may lead us to the existence of God, but not in themselves to God as Creator.

Creation is not primarily some distant event; rather, it is the ongoing, complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns first of all the origin of the universe, not its temporal beginning. Indeed, it is important to recognize this distinction between origin and beginning.

To speak of the origin of the universe is to recognize that God is the source and foundation of all that is, in whatever way or ways things are. To speak of the beginning of the universe, on the other hand, is to refer to the way the universe is, that is, that the universe is temporally finite and hence time itself has an absolute beginning.

Again, we need to avoid the mistake of thinking that to be created necessarily means having a beginning of time. It may well be, as the Church teaches, that the universe had a temporal beginning, but there is no contradiction in the notion of an eternal, created universe. Were the universe to be eternal, that is, without a beginning, it still would have an origin, it still would be created.

In the 13th century this was precisely the position of Thomas Aquinas, who accepted as a matter of faith that the universe had a temporal beginning but also defended the intelligibility of a universe, created and eternal. Thomas also thought that neither science nor philosophy could know whether the universe had a beginning. He did think that metaphysics could show us that the universe is created, but he would have warned against those today who use Big Bang cosmology, for example, to conclude that the universe has a beginning and therefore must be created. He was always alert to reject the use of bad arguments in support of what is believed.

Those contemporary cosmological theories, which employ a multiverse hypothesis or an infinite series of big bangs, do not challenge the fundamental feature of what it means to be created, that is, the complete dependence upon God as cause of existence. An eternal universe would be no less dependent upon God than a universe that has a beginning of time. For those who believe the universe has a temporal beginning, any theory of an eternal universe would have to be rejected, but a believer should be able to distinguish between the question of the kind of universe God creates (e.g., one with a temporal beginning) and the fact that whatever kind of universe there is, God is its Creator.

When it came to how to read the opening of Genesis, Thomas observed that what is essential to this is the “fact of creation,” not the “manner or mode” of the formation of the world. Questions concerning order, design and chance in nature refer to the “manner or mode” of formation of the world. Attempts in the natural sciences to explain these facets of nature do not challenge the “fact of creation.”

Natural selection is not an alternative to divine agency. Chance mutations do not call into question God as Creator. God causes things both to be the kinds of things that they are and to exercise the kind of causality which is properly their own. Even the reality of chance and contingency depends upon God as cause. God transcends the created order in such a radical way that He is able to be active in the world without being a competing cause in the world.

God’s creative power is exercised throughout the entire course of cosmic history, in whatever way that history has unfolded. No explanation of cosmological or biological change, no matter how radically random or contingent such an explanation claims to be, challenges the metaphysical account of creation, the dependence of the existence of all things upon God as cause.

When some thinkers deny creation on the basis of theories in the natural sciences, or reject the conclusions of these sciences in defense of creation, they misunderstand creation or the natural sciences, or both.

William E. Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars, and a member of the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford.