The British cosmologist Fred Hoyle coined the term “the Big Bang” as a term of derision, but it quickly caught on with the public. He had handed his opponents the most vivid (if somewhat misleading) image for the theory that our universe began as an infinitely small and infinitely dense “singularity,” which then “exploded” into the ever-expanding and ever-thinning cosmic matrix in which all of us pathetic earthlings now find ourselves.

Although by 1965 Hoyle found himself in the distinct minority among cosmologists, he never abandoned his criticism of the Big Bang theory or his advocacy of his steady-state” theory of a universe that was without beginning and will never end. He agreed with the Belgian priest-physicist Msgr. Georges Lemaître that the universe was expanding. But he rejected Lemaître’s interpretation of that fact.

This Catholic priest held that if the universe is expanding, it must have begun as a “primeval atom.” Hoyle frankly admitted that his refusal to accept this obvious-seeming conclusion stemmed from his own personal philosophical/theological reasons: A beginning implies a cause of that beginning, which then ineluctably leads to a notion of a Creator-Cause, something he rejected on a priori grounds.

I have no intention here of weighing into this dispute, which in any event far exceeds my competence. I have brought up Hoyle because of a remark he later made on interpreting scientific facts: “The word wisely used in regard to cosmology is ‘scenario.’ Science has two parts to it. It has a very accurate part that you get in theories such as quantum mechanics”this is exceedingly accurate, and anyone who challenges that is off his head.” But, he continued,

it has other parts in geology, astronomy, cosmology, biology, where theories are not really proved. They depend to a large extent for their acceptance on people making judgments . . . . I think the word “scenario” is a very well chosen word [when describing these extra-scientific judgments]. And I don’t think that people in fifty years’ time will hold anything like the views that we hold today; things will change quite a lot.

Hoyle seems to be implying that there can be no interpretation of technical scientific results without their first being cast in a greater narrative, which is only one of many possible scenarios. But which scenario we are to accept can hardly be determined by the technical deliverances of the sciences, as proved by Hoyle himself, who having accepted the fact of an expanding universe rejected the scenario of the Big Bang for extra-scientific (“philosophical”) reasons.

Ironically, in trying to account for the human craving for narratives and scenarios, Hoyle indulged in a bit of scenario-weaving himself:

If you start with half the people making one particular judgment, they pull in the other half very quickly. It’s a kind of herd instinct. I think it probably dates from the days when man was a hunting animal, and the worst thing you could do if you were in a community of, say, twenty men was to disagree about the direction in which you should hunt for the animal. It was better to choose one direction at random and all go in that direction than to split up and each go in a different direction.

This, um, scenario reminds me of those Just So Stories so beloved of evolutionary psychologists, who like to speculate that the reason a male wooer pays the restaurant bill when he takes his inamorata out on a date is because in our hunter-gatherer days the menfolk did the hunting, with their meat-consuming wives trapped back at home nursing their bambini and picking nearby elderberries: Bring home the bacon once as a caveman, and you’re stuck with the tab at the local eatery for the rest of recorded history.

But leaving aside Hoyle’s own indulgence in Just So scenarios, I do think he’s on to something: Lots of science is truly incontestable, but once those results are well and truly established, we are still stuck trying to make sense of them in an overarching narrative. Even the assumption that such results can be fitted into a larger narrative is itself an assumption without scientific warrant, as Hoyle himself seems to concede in an interview: “We tend to avoid the things that are too difficult for us; if we can solve certain equations, we tend to go that way. But the truth may lie in the difficult way. There’s no guarantee that the universe is constructed explicitly to suit our standards of intelligence.”

We can’t seem to help ourselves, we humans crave the overarching narrative that orders our facts.

It seems to me that only two truly overarching scenarios exist to explain how science as a human activity fits into the world. Moreover, each one is by definition impossible to verify by science, since it is science that is seeking admission into the overarching scenario, rather than providing its own. These two narrative frames are: the biblical one of linear time culminating in an eschaton directed by God’s providence, and Nietzsche’s scenario of pointless humans weaving their scenarios against an unfeeling universe.

In his book On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense , Nietzsche gives us this ultimate atheist scenario: “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge . That was the highest and most mendacious minute of ‘world history’”yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.” He continued:

One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life . . . . There is nothing in nature so despicable or insignificant that it cannot immediately be blown up like a bag by a slight breath of this power of knowledge; and just as every porter wants an admirer, the proudest human being, the philosopher, thinks that he sees the eyes of the universe telescopically focused from all sides on his actions and thoughts.

This atheist scenario undermines science itself. If the “knowledge” delivered up by “science” only serves to puff up a pathetic animal doomed to die in an uncaring universe, why bother with science anyway? If the search for knowledge is nothing more than a vain attempt to puff oneself up like some miles gloriosus in a Falstaffian comedy, what’s the point?

Today, one can hardly find more puffed-up braggarts than those noisy New Atheists currently mounting their soapboxes in Hyde Park, and who seem to labor under the assumption that they are doing the human race a favor by attacking belief in God. In fact, as Nietzsche saw, in his own inimitably ironic way, these atheist frat boys are really attacking science. This is because for Nietzsche”who was perhaps the only truly honest atheist in the history of philosophy”science was ultimately a moral, not an epistemological problem, a point he drove home with special force in The Gay Science (all italics are his):

The question “Why science?” leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are “not moral”? . . . [I]t is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests”even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. ”But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie”if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?

In other words, atheist “scientists” are eating away at the very foundation that makes science possible in the first place. If God is “our most enduring lie,” science is inevitably founded on that same lie. After all, science teaches that all stars eventually die out, and with them the planets that orbit them, and once those planets are consumed by the suns that gave them birth, so too will vanish the pathetic creatures that emerged from their respective planetary slimes. Sure, soon after their emergence, they began to invent such high-blown Platonic words like knowledge and truth during their brief strut upon the otherwise empty stage of the cosmos. But so what?

I am not trying to argue here against such a scenario, it being an option impervious to argument anyway, at least among those who have already adopted it as their primary framework for addressing all other questions. (I speak from experience.) But it is a scenario that can hardly be regarded as consequence-free. The battle is still between nihilism and theism. There is no third option.

What most fascinates me about the debate launched by the New Atheists is how resolute they are in ignoring this point. This is why I think that, rather than trying to argue the New Atheists (who are more dogmatic about God than any Thomist has ever been) out of their settled views, it seems best to take their very imperviousness as itself a sign of the human condition.

At least that was Pascal’s strategy in his Pensées : “We want truth and find only uncertainty in ourselves. We search for happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are unable not to want truth and happiness, and are incapable of either certainty or happiness.”

That’s the real lesson of atheism: it tells us more about the human condition than it ever can about God. As Pascal again pointed out with his usual unsparing gaze: “If man is not made for God, why is he happy only with God? If man is made for God, why is he so hostile to God?”

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Holyle’s remark on interpreting scientific facts can be found in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: A Reader’s Companion.

Articles by Edward T. Oakes

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