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.