Religion teaches hope for everlasting life, but current scientific cosmology seems to deprive that hope of material support. In The Last Three Minutes, Paul Davies first observes how speculative it is for astrophysics to extrapolate from present trends to a handful of possible scenarios about the “end of the universe,” but then he enters with rhetorical verve into a portrayal of inexorable extinction of all material systems that could support embodied life. If these sorts of scenarios represent the only cosmologically plausible alternatives, then religious philosophy must (1) abandon the hope of everlasting life, (2) reinterpret the idea of life after death in a mystical way that does not require embodiment or any sphere to live on, or (3) rethink cosmology. I shall explore the last option.
Rethinking cosmology begins with the recognition that the term refers to two different disciplines. The first is the attempt of natural science to study the origin, history, and destiny of the physical cosmos. The second is the attempt of philosophy to articulate an understanding of the cosmos as a whole, embracing whatever persons, minds, or spirits there may be.
The simplest strategy for a believer regarding the question of everlasting life is to hold fast to the promise. Confidence about life after death stems from a relationship with God in a deepening faith experience which implies no temporal limits. That death should end all is thinkable, but it would contradict the momentum of divine-human friendship. The great religious teachers have not tried to persuade us by arguing that the promise of eternal life is scientifically plausible. It is the power of trust in spiritual truth that motivates religious philosophy. A religionist may simply affirm that God knows how to make good on the promise, however obscure its fulfillment may be. There is a heaven, and God will find a way to get us there.
Another kind of cosmology could be called conjunctive cosmology, since it adds the religious story to the scientific story. For example, John Polkinghorne in his 1993 Gifford Lectures proposed the idea of resurrection taking place after universal destruction. If one of the bleak scenarios of the future of the universe is correct, this is the way to go.
The desire to make religious hope plausible leads to reconstructive cosmology. One challenge to the idea of everlasting life uses the Second Law of Thermodynamics to predict the “heat death” of the universe as a result of increasing entropy, or disorder. The Second Law is often interpreted to predict that the universe will eventually run down, and the final state of energy organization in the universe will be the random bumping of molecules or more primitive particles. The scenario in which entropy has the final word assumes that the universe is a closed system in the sense that it receives no sustaining infusion of energy or mind-guided organization. But if the universe is open, then we can conceive of an infinite Creator continuously nourishing the creation with energy. If such energy does in fact pour forth, and if, in addition, there is intelligent management of these energies, then we can put to rest this nightmare of universal disintegration. This strategy could also be called integrative or holistic cosmology, for its way of bringing the discourses of science and religion together.
The final strategy could be called symbolic and reconstructive cosmology, since it imagines alternatives to dominant scientific views which are not taken as literally factual but as symbols of the expectation that a cosmology will emerge that is consonant with a concept of everlasting life. Although a non-scientist cannot appreciate the weight of the reasons to honor the dominant views, there are reasons to keep the door open for alternatives.
1. Scientific cosmology gives the appearance of a determined pursuit of ultimate explanations in an anything-but-God cosmology. Scientific cosmology is built on assumptions that, taken together, are inconsistent with central religious teachings. Central among these assumptions is the modern idea that the physical universe is an autonomous realm to be understood in isolation from any other alleged sort of reality such as mind or spirit. This assumption can be brought into question by raising the question of the relative importance of two considerations. On the one hand, astrophysics, say, has a need for methodological integrity. Astrophysics should not be expected to deal with possible realities outside its proper competence. On the other hand, there is the requirement that the method of a discipline must adjust to the character of the domain under investigation. If the cosmos is indeed an affair of spirit and mind as well as matter, then philosophical cosmology may be justified in giving more weight to the requirement that the method should follow the nature of what is being investigated.
2. We should distinguish between scientifically established fact and currently favored theory. Of all the fields of science, cosmology involves the highest proportion of speculative theory. Scientific cosmologists acknowledge problems in the most widely accepted network of hypotheses. Scientific cosmology is in flux because new information is coming in continuously, and every theory that tries to put all the pieces together has problems.
3. If action by a Creator is responsible for some of what scientific cosmology tries to comprehend, for example, the surprisingly early formation of galaxies three hundred million years after the Big Bang, it may prove impossible for scientific cosmology to avoid arbitrary, artificial, ad hoc hypotheses to come up with stories to explain the phenomena.
These reasons do not justify reconstructive cosmology as a literal scientific proposal. Nevertheless it is tantalizing to consider that, if we live in a centered universe, this center, however complex and massive, would provide a place for everlasting life. Kant’s idea of a centered universe is described by scientific cosmologist William Saslaw as part of “a remarkably modern cosmogony.” Kant developed his cosmology to reconcile his belief that “all these Milky Ways and higher systems move around a common center” with [Nicholas of] Cusa’s view that “an infinite universe has no center.” Saslaw quotes Kant.
Let us now proceed to trace out the construction of the Universal System of Nature from the mechanical laws of matter striving to form it. In the infinite space of the scattered elementary forms of matter there must have been some one place where this primitive material had been most densely accumulated so as through the process of formation that was going on predominantly there, to have procured for the whole Universe a mass which might serve as its fulcrum.
The way to entertaining the possibility of a centered universe seems blocked by the so-called “cosmological principle,” which asserts, despite the inhomogeneous, structured universe that we observe, that, if one considers things theoretically from a postulated, all-inclusive perspective, every place in the universe is equivalent to every other, and that the universe looks the same (almost) from every place. In other words, galaxies should appear equally distributed everywhere if viewed from get far enough away.
But why should we accept that theoretical principle? The earth goes around the sun, which goes around the center of our galaxy, which, with other galaxies, orbits around the center of the Local Group of galaxies, which orbits around the Virgo Supercluster, which is being attracted by the Great Attractor (an 1970s candidate for the center of a rotating universe, if it has a center, and if it is rotating). Now we find the Great Attractor to be near the Norma Cluster with a mass of 1000s of galaxies, which is, in turn attracted by the Shapley Supercluster with 8000 galaxies (I say “attracted” because as this narrative proceeds, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish orbits). Thus we have observational evidence of a system of centers of increasing universality.
As another key assumption, scientific cosmology also works with a bold speculation of Einstein to extend scientific cosmology beyond the galaxy to the universe as a whole. This assumption represents a further obstacle to the idea of heaven, since any candidate for a universe center might be different in nature from the stars and planets that we know close to home. If we understand the theoretical assumptions of scientific cosmology religious thinkers can find room for philosophical cosmology to consider alternative ways of piecing together observation and theory.
So what is the hypothesis of a centered universe worth as science? It is hardly even a minority hypothesis; any scientific cosmologist could apparently quickly defeat it with a combination of observation-plus-theory. That’s why I call this symbolic reconstructive cosmology. It is not to be taken as serious science, but simply as an expression of a person who finds reason to question majority views, a person who has from time to time tried to stay in amateur’s touch with the evolving conversation.
If there is no good religious reason to trust the promise of everlasting life with God, then there is no reason to hope for harmony between scientific cosmology and religious promise. But if faith is well founded on this topic, it is worthwhile to sustain philosophical cosmology, to give voice to symbols of cosmological hope, and to stay alert to data which may converge to motivate a paradigm shift. The present state of physical theory should not deprive thoughtful people of a significant source of hope, joy, meaning, and purpose.
Paul Davies, The Last Three Minutes (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1996), chapter 9.
William C. Saslaw, The Distribution of the Galaxies: Gravitational Clustering in Cosmology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 15.
Helge Kragh, Cosmology and Controversy: The historical development of two theories of the universe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
Photo Credit. P.K. Chen, “Winter stars above Mount Palomar.”