Does cosmology provide insights as to whether or not the universe is created? In a recent interview with Gary Gutting for the New York Times, Tim Maudlin, professor of philosophy at NYU, rejects arguments based on cosmology that seek to show that human beings have any special place: “No one looking at the vast extent of the universe and the completely random location of homo sapiens within it (in both space and time) could seriously maintain that the whole thing was intentionally created for us. This realization began with Galileo, and has only intensified ever since.”
Nor is Maudlin confident that there can be good arguments from the “fine-tuning” of the initial conditions of the universe to the conclusion that “there is a deity interested in us [sic] knowing of its existence.” When Gutting asks about the broader question of the need to explain existence itself, to find some ultimate cause of all that is, Maudlin first notes that such a cause would be, from a believer’s point of view, a weak claim, not a recognition of the kind of Creator theism posits. Furthermore, Maudlin suggests that “the initial state of the universe (if there is one) could just as well be the uncaused cause. Or if there is no initial state, and the universe goes back infinitely in time, then it can’t have a cause that precedes it in time.”
The conclusion Gutting attributes to Maudlin is that “scientific cosmology” does not offer any support for theism. To which Maudlin replies: “Atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry. . . .” Maudlin continues: “There is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act.”
One need not think comments in an interview represent Maudlin’s or Gutting’s fully considered judgments to offer some clarifications on the question. First of all, cosmology does not offer any evidence for the claim that all that is is created by God. The natural sciences, including cosmology, offer accounts of change; they do not offer an account of the very existence of that which changes. The fundamental sense of creation, affirmed by thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, concerns the metaphysical dependence of all that is on God. God’s causing all that is does not mean that God changes “nothing” into something; rather, were God’s not causing a thing to be, that thing would not exist at all; it would be absolutely nothing. God’s creative act is the on-going causing of existence. Whether the universe is eternal, without a beginning, or temporally finite concerns the kind of universe (or multiverse, if one wishes) which God creates. Cosmological reflections about the age of the universe or the transition from one state of the universe to another state, or questions about what happened before the Big Bang do not contribute to an affirmation or a denial of the universe’s being created. Whatever “origin of the universe” cosmology addresses, it is not the “origin” that creation affirms.
Metaphysics would help us to see that the initial state of the universe could not be the uncaused cause of the universe, as Maudlin suggests would be possible. Nor would we have to think that an eternal universe would be without a cause because somehow a cause must be prior in time to its effect. The latter error is evident in Stephen Hawking’s claim that since time comes to be in the universe, there is no temporal priority possible for an ultimate causal agent (since causality occurs in time). But why must one think that there is a temporal sequence between cause and effect?
Secondly, again as Thomas Aquinas helps us to see, there is a distinction between creation understood philosophically and creation understood theologically. Thomas thinks that it is the discipline of metaphysics that asks questions about the ultimate cause of existence of things, and, as he says, “not only does faith hold that there is creation, reason also demonstrates it” (In II Sent., dist. 1, q. 1, a. 2). The demonstration he offers involves a recognition of the distinction between essence and existence in all creatures, between what things are and that they are, and their identity in the Creator.
One may or may not accept Thomas’s metaphysical analysis, but at least one can see that the doctrine of creation, in its philosophical foundations, is not challenged by any discovery in the natural sciences. To do justice to Thomas’s account we would need to examine the metaphysical principles he employs and, especially today, argue for the very existence of metaphysics itself. We ought not to identify a rational account of the world exclusively with what the natural sciences describe. There is an enlarged sense of reason that includes metaphysics.
Third, the theological sense, in the Christian tradition at least, embraces all that metaphysics discloses and adds a great deal more: not only the temporal finitude of the world, but also the Trinitarian character of the creative act, and the fact that creation is a manifestation of divine love. Clearly, contemporary cosmology and evolutionary biology require the rejection of certain accounts of creation based on literalistic readings of Genesis. Too often in discussions about the relationship between science and the doctrine of creation, “creation” is identified which this type of literalism. We might remember another observation by Thomas Aquinas: What is essential to faith in the opening of Genesis is the fact that the world is created, not the manner or form of its unfolding.
Fourth, to discuss order and purpose in nature, including man’s place in nature, and in general the intelligibility of natural processes, does require careful attention to what the natural sciences tell us. Still, we need to recognize that there these questions are properly addressed in a more general science of nature, more general, that is, than any one of the empirical sciences. This more general science is traditionally known as the philosophy of nature. Here we would think about whether the very intelligibility of natural processes, especially the processes of non-intelligent agents, discloses the need for an ultimate source of this intelligibility. What roles do randomness and chance play in nature? None of these and related topics, however, concern the metaphysical question concerning creation.
Maudlin is correct that “there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity.” Experimental evidence needs to be integrated into a broader philosophy of nature if one wishes to find (or to deny) the existence of a deity, but the deity so discovered would not yet be seen as the Creator. For the latter we need metaphysics, and, for a believer, theology as well.
Also, when Maudlin observes that “atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry,” he makes a useful point, but one which needs a little clarification. The natural sciences search for the causes and regularities in the world. As Albert the Great, medieval philosopher, scientist, and teacher of Thomas Aquinas, remarked: “In the natural sciences we do not investigate how God the Creator operates according to His will and uses miracles to show His power, but rather what may happen in natural things on the ground of the causes inherent in nature” (In I De caelo et mundo, tr. 4, c. 10). It is not exactly “atheism” that is the default position so much as that there is no need to appeal to divine agency in a scientific account of nature. The created order possesses an autonomy and integrated of its own that enables the natural sciences to be the source of truths about nature. The Creator causes a world to be in which creatures function as real causes of characteristic effects.
Although cosmology does not tells us whether there is a Creator; without a Creator there would be no cosmology at all.
William E. Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science at Blackfriars, University of Oxford.