Paul Johnson

Answers to the questions the boffins dismiss as meaningless

Answers to the questions the boffins dismiss as meaningless

Text settings

A TV interviewer recently asked Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, ‘What existed before the universe began?’ and was snubbed. ‘That’s a meaningless question.’ Oh no, it isn’t. Hawking may be an expert mathematician and a distinguished physicist but he evidently knows little of the uses of English and the problems of philosophy. No question is meaningless if it is prompted by a genuine thirst for knowledge. Physicists expect us to believe their claim that the whole of matter came into existence at a single instant, about 14 billion years ago, in such a way that not merely something but everything was created out of nothing, thus breaking the fundamental laws of physics. Time, space and the principle of cause and effect came into being at the same magic moment. They say that deeper and deeper probes into space by telescopes will gradually take us into remote distances, and so backwards into time, until we reach the microsecond when the Big Bang occurred, thus proving that it happened.

It is worth reminding these scientific know-alls that their forebears were less clear on these matters and considerably less arrogant about them. A hundred years ago nobody had heard of the Big Bang. The idea of the universe being suddenly created, all at once, out of nothing, was a discredited fairy tale from Chapter I of the Book of Genesis. I wish scientists were a little more modest. Like Newton, for instance, who remarked of his assistant Roger Cotes, who died young, ‘If he had lived, we might have known something.’ Or Einstein, who said of his general theory of relativity that if any of the major empirical tests of it failed, then he would have to start all over again. After all, at this stage of the game the Big Bang is only a theory. A good deal of observational evidence indicates it may well be on the right lines, but it is still a series of mathematical calculations rather than a proven fact. Moreover, it is on the face of it an almost incredible supposition that everything that exists, including ourselves, was created or presupposed in a deterministic process, in an instant, for reasons we do not know, or no reason, by an undiscoverable agent, or no agent, there being nothing whatsoever before. Indeed, the only reason people can be brought to accept this highly imaginative scenario is that they have been preconditioned, by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to believe that it happened.

Of course the reason that astrophysicists say that inquiries by the public about what happened before the Big Bang are ‘meaningless’ is that they do not know the answers to such questions. Worse, they fear that trying to answer them, or admitting that they are meaningful, will involve them in debate about the three-letter word which, to them, is the final obscenity — G-O-D. The truth is, with the Big Bang, God — the aboriginal creative agent whom they had all thought to be dead and buried beneath a mass of scientific papers, and in the process of being banned from the schools, and so forgotten — has come to life again. The fact of an all-powerful God, who transcends all the laws of physics, and equally supplies order in the vacuum left by their non-existence, is the only explanation of the problems created by the Big Bang phenomenon. Who detonated the Big Bang? God did. What or who was there before the Big Bang? God was. You deny the existence of God? Right. What is your answer to these questions?

I hasten to add that bringing God into the equation does not clear up all the mysteries. Far from it. Since an early age I have always been puzzled by God. We know very little about Him, and need to know more. I used to badger the Jesuits at my boarding school with questions, and was more or less given the same answer that Hawkins gave the TV interviewer: your question is meaningless. But they didn’t use the word meaningless. They said irreverent, which came to exactly the same thing. But it was not irreverent. I was a pious boy, but insatiably curious too. If God had always existed, why did He suddenly decide to create the universe and humanity? Why did He do it then, and not earlier or later? The answer to that, I now see, is that He created space and time at the same moment. But what was His motive? What did He hope or intend to achieve? What exactly is God’s plan? These questions the Jesuits thought still more irreverent, indeed blasphemous. The word they liked to use about God was ‘inscrutable’. Moreover, if space-time began to exist only with the creative moment, what was God’s position before? Did He come into existence at the same instant? Was He nothing before?

At this point in the argument, I begin to think that when we consider the deepest questions about being and nothingness, it matters little whether we believe in God or not. We come to the same blank wall with either process. Those scientists, such as the Darwinians, who believe that everything in nature is random, pointless, proceeding from nothing, heading nowhere, and that there is no more moral significance in a living creature, including humans, than in a pinch of dust or a piece of rock, have no explanation of being. Their attitude is simply an abdication of thought, a cosmic despair in the ability of the human mind to devise any explanation of the most interesting and deepest problems of existence. No wonder such people dismiss anxious queries from the public as meaningless. They are not going to confess their own ignorance, indeed, their intellectual impotence. But those in the Judaeo-Christian tradition who still accept the notion of a universal architect are equally unable to give satisfactory answers about the biography of this creative being, at any rate on a material level.

Only when we eliminate the material dimension altogether do those who believe in God acquire an overwhelming advantage. If, as I think, God is essentially a spiritual rather than a physical being, and if He exists outside space and time and all the factors which owe their complexity to them, then the problems of existence begin to seem soluble. The essential thing about each of us is our soul, in which is subsumed our personality and character. Our souls have existed before space and time and will continue after the universe dissolves in a black hole (or whatever the current theory will be at the moment of matter-death) and ‘time must have a stop’, as Shakespeare put it. Death of the body is thus an insignificant punctuation in the life of the soul, which continues indefinitely. We shall all meet again. In fact, our souls being purely spiritual, we have an essential element or dimension with God, thus explaining the old Judaeo-Christian belief that we are all ‘made in God’s image’. And, because the spiritual takes no account of dimension, number or complexity, each of our souls has intimate and all-encompassing dealings with God, no matter how many souls there are in total — even if the quantity is infinite (which it probably is).

What remains puzzling is why God decided to create a temporal universe, and a material dimension, subject to space and time, in which to put the souls of his creatures to the test of life. The answer may be infinitely complex or infinitely simple. What we can be sure of is that the truth of life lies in the spirit not the flesh, and that from our coign of vantage after time has stopped, the whole history of the universe, from Big Bang to final black hole, will be spread out before us as a mere blip, a serio-comic event in the puppet show of memory.