What is the truth about the origin of the Universe?
ATTEMPTS TO CONCILIATE SCIENCE WITH RELIGION: WHAT IS THE TRUTH ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE?
Today there is a movement that tries vainly to conciliate Science and Religion, ignoring that these two areas of human life separated nearly 400 years ago with the trial of Galileo Galilei. But under certain conditions and with much imagination it would still be possible to join the biblical story to scientific knowledge.
On the origin of the world, the Western Jewish-Christian Religion has traditionally relied on the Genesis account, written by many hands but awarded to Moses from Egypt around the year 1350 B.C.E..
In 1650, an Irish scholar named James Ussher fixed the chronology outlined in Genesis by taking the dates of different parts of the Bible and comparing these dates with several old documents and archaeological sources. If Genesis is literally true then, according to him, light, the heavens and the Earth were created on Sunday 23 October 4004 B.C.E., the seas were created on Monday, 24 October 4004 B.C.E., the continents and plants on Tuesday 25 October, the Sun, the Moon, the other planets and other stars on Wednesday 26, the aquatics beings and the birds on Thursday, 27, and land animals and humans on 28 October 4004 B.C.E.. By 29 October 4004 B.C.E., the Universe was ready and there was nothing else to tweak.
However, by observing and testing over the past three centuries since Ussher's chronology we have seen that things are a little different. Empirical evidence shows us all, believers and unbelievers, that the creation of the world (if any) is in a non-observed time, before the Universe began a major expansion known as the Big Bang and from which the heavens and light emerged 13 700 million years ago. The first stars emerged 13 thousand million years ago, the Sun 4900 million years ago, Earth, Moon and other planets 4600 million years ago, early aquatic life 3600 million years ago, the first land animals 520 million of years ago, the first plants 480 million years ago, early humans at least 3,18 million years ago and modern humans 100 000 years ago or so, and even to this day the Universe is constantly changing and evolving without we having a clear vision of where it goes.
Before accusing either side of liar, maybe we can do a mental exercise and try to see under what conditions these discrepancies could be explained.
IF THE BIBLE IS LITERAL
One option is that Genesis is really true and the Universe was created in the week from 23 to 29 October 4004 B.C.E., but God created it in such a way that it only appears to be thousands of millions of years old, just to test our Faith. This comes from the assumption that God is all-mighty and therefore could create false leads that make us believe that the Universe is very old when in fact it is only about 6000 years. It is a line of thought similar to saying that the fossils of dinosaurs we unearth were actually crafted by the Devil to mislead humans, or the case of the priest who refused to look through Galileo's telescope because that man of faith said it was a satanic instrument and therefore he could not possibly know the truth about the Universe through it.
But speaking more seriously, no one was present in the early days to know how the Universe really was, or how it evolved. All we can do is to assume that the Universe was in a certain way by understanding how it works now and by assuming that it has been operating in the same way since it emerged. But if the "laws" of nature are arbitrary and capricious and constantly changing, according to whatever God may speak, then we have no way of knowing what the Universe was like in the past, when this past was, or what changes took place. However, there is no evidence outside the religious stories to support this assumption. The simplest thing to do is to think that the physical evidence at hand are real and not fruits of a hoax or mirage.
IF THE BIBLE IS A METAPHOR
The other possibility is that Genesis is simply a metaphor and actually the Universe was created by God in the Big Bang 13 700 million years ago, so that Science and Religion are in agreement. This is what probably most of the population think, and is a good attempt to conciliate the need to live in a modern world surrounded and depending on Science and Technology, and the religious culture inherited by each person or acquired to fulfill personal emotional or spiritual needs. But still, there are two problems: one is that if the Bible is not literal but now it is subject to the interpretation of each person as the times change and scientific knowledges advance, it will be difficult to decide which part of the Bible is literal and which part is fabricated or exaggerated. We must remember that many still say that Jesus of Nazareth could indeed perform true "supernatural" miracles and not mere illusionist's tricks, and that yes he did rose from the dead and not that his body was stolen or hidden by his followers or dumped into the Gehenna. That way of seeing the Bible, according to the convenience of the moment, takes away its credibility.
Commonly this hypothesis still implies that God played a role in the fate of the Universe, either by creating the original "laws" of nature or by guiding the evolution in this or that way. Still more, God is said to affect the daily lives of people until today. But now the problem is that God fails to be as whimsical or powerful as in the previous scenario: he has to respect certain rules, certain "laws" of nature in order for the Universe have consistency and not be chaotic, impossibly unpredictable. In this hypothesis the will of God has limits. What are those limits, and why are these and not others? Why are the "laws" of nature those certain ones, and not some different ones? So far, we do not see an explanation for this. Indeed, Darwin himself discovered that evolution is actually random and not dictated by anyone to achieve some end. Of the many mutations that exist in the natural world, some survive and others do not. The drama of Life is unpredictable and there is no script given by someone which is followed to the letter. That is what we see, and outside religious circles, there is nothing telling us that we are wrong.
If both of these speculations, the literal one and the metaphorical one, are false, then either Religion is false or Science is false.
SCIENCE AND RELIGION: OPPOSING PHILOSOPHIES
When speaking of Science and Religion, let us never forget that, while both seek the truth, they use completely different systems of thought. Religion admits that truth comes from "above", through a divine revelation that certain translators (religious authorities) are responsible to deliver and explain to the public.
Science is very different because it does not support the existence of any authority to which we must heed, nor any knowledge of the outside world that can reach us through inner reflection. It assumes that the world is as it is and not as we would like it to be, this means, in order to know it we do not have to listen to great scholars nor heed to millennial traditions, but we have to look at what is around us. We have to observe, touch, taste for ourselves. It is the experiment and not the theory what tells us the truth about the world around us.
It is thus natural that Science requires that every story about the origin of the world, regardless of fame, respectability or hierarchical level of the person proposing the explanation, be based primarily on things that everyone else can see and touch by themselves, without resorting to just have to trust or not in the story or its reporter. Science is inherently skeptical. In fact skepticism, which is frowned upon in religious circles, is an essential quality of a good scientist. "Unless I see the wounds from the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe it!" (John 20:25, New English Translation [NET] Bible) is one of the phrases that best exemplifies the different views between Science and Religion: to Science that is the right and desirable attitude, to Religion it is a wrong and reprehensible attitude.
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Based on a lecture given at the USP, on 12 October 2002. Originally published in ABC Color on 16 September 2007. Photograph: The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the modern instruments that is bringing us information about the oldest regions of the Universe, by allowing us to see across distances of thousand of millions of light-years. Credit: Servicing mission STS-82 (Shuttle "Discovery"), NASA.