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John Byl bio

 

The Role of Belief in Modern Cosmology

(an earlier draft of the paper in Facets of Faith and Science. Volume 3: The Role of Beliefs in the Natural Sciences, edited by J.M. van der Meer. Lanham: University Press of America, 1996. pp.47-62.)

John Byl, Ph.D.

ABSTRACT

An examination of the role played by beliefs in modern cosmology. Due to limited observations, cosmological models necessarily involve the making of a number of theoretical assumptions. Some of these are very basic, such as the validity of induction and the Cosmological Principle. Others concern more detailed physical matters.

Such assumptions are very difficult to verify. Many of the basic features of big bang cosmology are inherently untestable. Particle physics has been applied to overcome various observational shortcomings of big bang cosmology. However, most of the proposed scenarios are decidedly ad hoc.

Furthermore, the observed celestial phenomena can be explained within the frameworks of a variety of different models. Proposed criteria for theory selection are largely subjective. Thus religious beliefs do play a role in the creation, assessment, and selection of cosmological theories.

A crucial epistemological question concerns the weight that should be given to divine revelation. Essential ingredients for religion include the existence of a spiritual realm and its interaction with the physical world.

 

INTRODUCTION

Cosmology is concerned with describing and explaining the universe as a whole. The object of this paper is to examine the limits of our cosmological knowledge. In particular, we shall be concerned with discerning the role in modern cosmology played by belief. How much of cosmology is based on belief? How do religious beliefs influence our cosmology? From a Christian point of view: how much of a role should be played by Christian beliefs? What, if anything, does the Bible have to contribute to our understanding of the cosmos? These are some of the questions we shall address.

Cosmological knowledge is more difficult to acquire than that of most other sciences. Part of the problem lies in the fact that there is only one universe to observe. Hence we cannot compare it to with similar objects and thus deduce its probable nature. Moreover, we can observe it from only one small region in space-time. Even then, our access to the celestial objects is relatively indirect, being limited to radiation emitted (presumably) from them. In explaining our observations we are further restricted in that we can apply only that knowledge acquired under the rather limited conditions of our local laboratories.

Thus we are faced with the problem of extending local physics to limited astronomical observations in order to derive a model of the universe. It is evident that this cannot be done without first making some theoretical assumptions about the nature of the universe. Some of these may be inherently unverifiable.  Since the observations and physics can be extended in various ways, our cosmology is very much dependent upon the assumptions made. The most fundamental problem is thus that of choosing and justifying an appropriate set of presuppositions needed to construct a model of the universe. In this we are strongly dependent upon our prior philosophical and religious prejudices as to how the universe should behave.

 

SOME BASIC ASSUMPTIONS

What kind of assumptions are generally made in cosmology? They include such broad ones as the assumption of the universal validity of local physics (including particularly general relativity), the assumption that we occupy a typical position in the universe, and the assumption that the universe can be represented by a four-dimensional space-time continuum.[1] Further, more detailed, suppositions are also commonly made. For example, the galactic red-shifts are assumed to be due to the expansion of the universe and the present universe is assumed to have evolved out of a past singularity.

 

1. Induction

Some of these assumptions are of a rather basic nature. Consider first the various assumptions of uniformity. It is generally assumed that the principle of induction is valid: that the laws of physics observed here and now are universally applicable. Moreover, it is commonly taken for granted that explanations of structure are to be given in terms of these laws.

While such uniformity principles may seem reasonable enough, they are not unproblematic. The justification of induction has been one of the outstanding problems in the philosophy of science and is now widely considered to be insoluble. As David Hume pointed out already in 1739, there is no compelling reason for believing it. Induction can't be justified by observation (since the unobserved universe is, by definition, unobserved) nor by logic (since there is no logical reason why the universe must behave uniformly). And hence the universe beyond our experience may be quite different from what we might expect.

Although induction may be the simplest, most convenient extrapolation, that in itself does not guarantee its truthfulness.  After all, how can we be sure that simple theories are more likely to be true? One is still faced with the difficult matter of identifying and justifying valid criteria for theory selection, a question to be further addressed later.

While induction is a problem also for other sciences, this is more so for cosmology, since it strives to depict the entire history of the entire physical universe. Most other sciences are much more closely tied to observation and experimentation. Furthermore, the problem in cosmology is not merely one of assuming that the laws discerned here and now apply everywhere and always: it is further assumed that laws valid under quite limited local conditions will still apply under vastly different circumstances (such as near the Big Bang singularity).

As an extreme example of an alternative model, consider the drastic notion that the universe was recently created instantaneously. In the words of cosmologist George Ellis:

a modern cosmologist who is also a theologian with strict fundamentalist views could construct a universe model which began 6000 years ago in time and whose edge was at a distance of 6000 light years...A benevolent God could easily arrange the creation...so that suitable radiation was travelling toward us from the edge of the universe to give the illusion of a vastly older and larger expanding universe. It would be impossible for any other scientist on the earth to refute this world picture experimentally or observationally; all that he could do would be to disagree with the author's cosmological premises. (Ellis 1975, 246)

Such an apparently radical view has a number of things going for it. Since it refers to the past, no present or future observations or experiments can refute it. Nor is there anything illogical about such an origin of the universe. Another physicist, Herbert Dingle, writes of this theory:

There is no question that the theory is free from self-contradiction and is consistent with all the facts of experience we have to explain; it certainly does not multiply hypotheses beyond necessity since it invokes only one; and it is evidently beyond future refutation. If, then, we are to ask of our concepts nothing more than that they shall correlate our present experience economically, we must accept it in preference to any other. Nevertheless, it is doubtful if a single person does so. (Dingle 1960, 166)

One might object that such theories are untestable, and hence not scientific. However, physicist Frank Tipler has shown that it is possible to construct falsifiable creationist models:

It is universally thought that it is impossible to construct a falsifiable theory which is consistent with the thousands of observations indicating an age of billions of years, but which holds that the Universe is only a few thousand years old. I consider such a view to be a slur on the ingenuity of theoretical physicists: we can construct a falsifiable theory with any characteristics you care to name. (Tipler 1984, 873)

The basic thrust of his model is that, while the universe may appear to be very old, this is just an illusion. (Tipler's theory, involving retrodiction barriers caused by exploding black holes, is rather technical. For further details the interested reader is referred to his paper). He notes that such an illusionary history is not unique to his theory. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics requires that, due to the observed interference of probability amplitudes, there are in reality many alternative histories that give rise to the present:

For example, although it is generally agreed that Julius Caesar existed, there is also a history leading to the present in which he did not exist. The Many Worlds Interpretation asserts that both histories actually occurred and both combined to give rise to us. (Tipler 1984, 891)

Tipler notes that this view requires that the existence of the present historical records should not be taken to imply that any past event has indeed occurred. Although Tipler claims not to believe his theory, he states that he developed it to challenge cosmologists and philosophers to give good reasons for rejecting it on scientific grounds. He asserts that his theory satisfies not only falsifiability, but most other criteria discussed in the scientific literature.

If God is omnipotent then it is at least possible that he could have created the universe instantaneously. Nevertheless, while such a theory may be difficult to disprove on scientific grounds, the prime objection to such models is the theological one that it seems to involve deception by God. However, proponents for this view counter this by asserting that since God himself has revealed a recent creatio ex nihilo he can hardly be accused of deception[2].

 

2. The Cosmological Principle

A second assumption commonly made concerns an observational feature: the universe about us appears to be remarkably "isotropic", that is, it is looks roughly the same in all directions. One obvious explanation is that we are near the center of a spherically symmetric universe. But such a solution is repugnant to modern cosmologists. As Ellis remarks:

In ages by, the assumption that the Earth was at the centre of the universe was taken for granted. As we know, the pendulum has now swung to the opposite extreme; this is a concept that is anathema to almost all thinking men...It is due to the Copernican-Darwinian revolution in our understanding of the nature of man and his position in the universe. He has been dethroned from the exalted position he was once considered to hold. (Ellis 1975, 250)

It would certainly be consistent with the present observations that we were at the centre of the universe, and that, for example, radio sources were distributed spherically symmetrically about us  in shells characterized by increasing source density and brightness as their distance from us increased. Although mathematical models for such Earth-centred cosmologies have occasionally been investigated, they have not been taken seriously; in fact, the most striking feature of published discussions of the radio source counts is how this obvious possibility has been completely discounted.

Instead, to explain the observed isotropy, the Cosmological Principle is adopted. This presupposes that we occupy a typical, rather than a special, position in the universe; it is assumed that all hypothetical observers throughout the universe would, at the same cosmic time, observe the same isotropic features of the universe. This implies that the universe can have no edges: either the universe is a finite, spherically-curved space, or it is infinite.

Since we can observe the universe from only one position - ours - there can be no direct evidence for the cosmological principle. Yet there is an indirect test: if the cosmological principle holds then the universe should be spatially homogeneous: at any given time the distribution of matter should be roughly the same throughout the universe.

The observations, however, indicate that the distant galaxies are not distributed uniformly in space. Now, to some degree this may be expected, since the more distant galaxies presumably represent an earlier epoch when the universe was denser and the galaxies were closer together. However, even after correcting for this effect, the density of galaxies appears to be a function of their distance from us. At first sight this would seem to refute the cosmological principle. Nonetheless, it is saved from falsification by postulating that galaxies evolve in time; in the past the galaxies were not merely closer together but there were also more galaxies then than now. The evolution rate is not determined independently, but is adjusted so as to make the universe homogeneous. Again quoting Ellis:

...the assumption of spatial homogeneity has inevitably been made, and has led to the conclusion that the population of radio sources evolves extremely rapidly. What has therefore happened is that an unproven cosmological assumption has been completely accepted and has been used to obtain rather unexpected information about astrophysical processes. (Ellis 1975, 250)

In short, the cosmological principle is a metaphysical belief that is saved from falsification by the introduction of ad hoc auxiliary theories, such as the alleged rapid evolution of galaxies.

The Cosmological Principle does have the advantage of yielding a mathematically relatively simple model, offering fairly easy boundary conditions to solve. Unfortunately, convenience alone is not sufficient to demonstrate veracity. It is possible to construct other models based upon different assumptions. For example, steady-state cosmology is based on the Perfect Cosmological Principle: the assumption that the universe is roughly the same not only in space but also in time. Or one could drop the Cosmological Principle altogether and build models that place us near the center of a spherically symmetric universe.[3]

Similarly, one could question also other assumptions such as, for example, the postulated big bang origin of the microwave background radiation and the notion that the galactic redshifts are caused by the expansion of the universe. It should be noted that the redshifts do exhibit some observational features that argue against the expansion explanation: the redshifts of nearby galaxies seem to be bunched together in regular intervals[4] and Arp (1987) has documented many cases where galaxies that

seem to be physically connected have widely differing redshifts. In recent times a host of alternative cosmologies have been presented,[5] some even positing a static universe.[6]

 

THE PROBLEM OF VERIFICATION

As we have seen, some of the most basic assumptions in cosmology are of an essentially unverifiable nature. Verification can be a problem also for rather specific aspects of cosmological models.

Oldershaw (1988) distinguishes between two types of untestability: (1) a theory that is untestable because it cannot generate definitive testable predictions or whose predictions are impossible to test is inherently untestable (which he refers to as "untestability of the first kind"); (2) a theory that has many adjustable parameters or is in general modifiable in an ad hoc manner is effectively untestable ("untestability of the second kind").

Many of the basic features of big bang cosmology, the currently favoured model, are inherently untestable. The most critical events supposedly occurred within 10-25 seconds after the big bang. Yet in principle we can't obtain direct information on the state of the universe prior to the decoupling of radiation and matter at 1013 seconds after the big bang.[7] The latest inflationary big bang models are heavily dependent upon particle physics, which in turn involves more unverifiable theoretical entities. Many theories of the new physics require extra dimensions: 5 to 26 dimensions is typical and about 950 dimensions is the latest record. Yet there is no known way to test empirically for the existence of these extra dimensions.[8] A further difficulty is that the conditions in the early universe (tremendously high temperatures and pressures) are such that they cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Hence the particle physics being used cannot be tested independently.

There are also numerous cases involving untestability of the second kind. Particle physics has been applied to overcome various observational shortcomings of big bang cosmology. However, most of the proposed scenarios are decidedly ad hoc. The standard model of particle physics has more than 20 parameters (such as particle masses and coupling strengths of the forces) that cannot be uniquely derived and are thus freely adjustable. There are currently at least half a dozen superstring theories. Many of the problems in particle physics are "solved" ad hoc by inventing new concepts, such as the "Higgs mechanism", renormalization, "colour", etc.[9] The prominent cosmologist P.J.E. Peebles has wryly remarked:

The big news sofar is that particle physicists seem to be able to provide initial conditions for cosmology that meet what astronomers generally think they want without undue forcing of the particle physicist's theory. Indeed I sometimes have the feeling of taking part in a vaudeville skit: "you want a tuck in the waist? We'll take a tuck. You want a massive weakly interacting particle? We have a full rack...This is a lot of activity to be fed by the thin gruel of theory and negative observational results, with no prediction and experimental verification of the sort that, according to the usual rules of physics, would lead us to think that we are on the right track...  (Peebles 1987, 372)

Also in cosmology proper, ad hoc proposals abound. To explain the recently discovered large-scale structure in the universe there are at least three theories: superconducting cosmic strings, biased galaxy formation in a WIMP-dominated universe (WIMP stands for a hypothetical class of weakly interacting particles) and double inflation. Numerous theories have been proposed to explain the supposed 90% of the "missing mass" of the universe. One suspects that, were they to be recipients of as much ingenuity and research as has gone into rescuing the big bang, alternative cosmologies could likewise be modified in order to "save the phenomena".

 

CRITERIA

It is clear that the observed celestial phenomena can be explained within the frameworks of a variety of different models. How are we to choose that which is nearest the truth?

Within the last half century it has come to be quite generally accepted that the origin of scientific theories is largely subjective. For example, Sir Karl Popper concludes that "we must regard all laws or theories as hypothetical or conjectural; that is, as guesses" (Popper 1972, 9); he sees theories as "the free creations of our minds" (Popper 1963, 192).  As Carl Hempel puts it:

The transition from data to theory requires creative imagination. Scientific hypotheses and theories are not derived from observed facts, but are invented in order to account for them. (Hempel 1966, 15)

It seems that theories are not so much given to us by nature as imposed by us on nature; they are not so much the result of rational thought as the creations of our irrational intuition. Of course, there is some constraint on our theorizing, since our theories must be consistent with observation, but this still leaves us with many possibilities.

While one might think that further research may falsify the majority of such theories, this is not easily done. A favoured theory, such as Big Bang cosmology, can always be saved from observational falsification by adding suitable supplementary hypotheses (e.g., inflation, Higgs mechanisms, multi-dimensions, various esoteric forms of "dark matter", etc.). A theory that must be supported by artificial, ad hoc devices is generally not highly ranked in terms of plausibility. Nevertheless, however difficult it may be to demonstrate a particular ad hoc theory to be true, it is even harder to conclusively disprove it.  According to Imre Lakatos:

Scientific theories are not only equally unprovable, and equally improbable, but they are also equally undisprovable. (Lakatos 1980, 19)

Recognizing that there was no logic to the discovery of theories, Popper hoped to construct a rational methodology for the objective selection of theories. He proposed that genuine scientific theories should be falsifiable; they should make definite testable predictions. However, if we were to apply this criterion to cosmology we would have little theory left over: currently virtually all cosmological models are falsified by observations. Nor does Popper offer any justification as to why easily falsifiable theories are more likely to be true than others.

Lakatos described science as consisting of competing research programmes, rather than that of competing theories. In this view ad hoc modifications are, in spite of their repugnant nature, still advanced primarily because, in the absence of better alternatives, they do explain the observations in terms of favoured theoretical principles that are guiding the research programme.

It is, of course, possible to play the game of cosmology under different rules. Various criteria for assessing theories - or research programmes - have been suggested. For example, astronomer Howard van Till (1990, 141-146) lists those of cognitive relevance, predictive accuracy, coherence, explanatory scope, unifying power, and fertility.  Yet, while such criteria may seem plausible enough, it is generally acknowledged that they are by no means rigorous and merely reflect values used in practice. Indeed, the creation of selection criteria is no less subjective than the creation of scientific theories. As Lakatos notes:

These scientific games are without genuine epistemological content unless we superimpose on them some sort of metaphysical principle which will say that the game, as specified by the methodology, gives us the best chance of approaching the truth. (Lakatos 1980, 122)

In short, cosmology, as is science in general, is plagued by the lack of definite, objective criteria that might enable us to readily distinguish true theories from false ones. While theories should, of course, be consistent with observational facts, these still underdetermine scientific theories. It is at this crucial point - choosing preferred theories - that we must generally rely on extrascientific factors.

 

THE ROLE OF RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

This brings us to the question as to what role religious commitments should play in cosmological theorizing. How should religious beliefs influence cosmology?

It is clear that religious beliefs certainly have played a role in the creation, assessment, and selection of cosmological theories. For example, the choice for or against the big bang is sometimes made on the basis of religious grounds. Thus Fred Hoyle (1975, 684-685), among others, rejects big bang cosmology at least in part because of its perceived theistic implications, while Christians such as William Craig (1980) and Hugh Ross (1991) use the big bang as evidence for God.

The rejection by creationists of a long evolutionary history of the universe is based primarily on religious commitments. On the other hand, the National Academy of Science (1980) in the U.S.A. has objected to creationism mainly on the grounds that creationism "subordinates evidence to statements made on authority and revelation" and that "it accounts for the origin of life by supernatural means". This a priori rejection of revelation and the supernatural is likewise a religious choice. In this regard it is notable that modern cosmology is marked by a pervasive naturalism that leaves little room for any religion in the traditional sense.  Yet, however much one might wish to eliminate the supernatural from science, it is quite another matter to prove that it actually is absent from reality.

Van Till has contended that extrascientific dogma should not influence our assessments and selection of theories:

Religious commitments, whether theistic or nontheistic, should not be permitted to interfere with the normal functioning of the epistemic value system developed and employed within the scientific community. Great mischief is done when extrascientific dogma is allowed to take precedence over epistemic values such as cognitive relevance, predictive accuracy...Science held hostage to any belief system, whether naturalistic or theistic, can no longer function effectively to gain knowledge of the physical universe...Science held hostage by extrascientific dogma is science made barren. (Van Till 1990, 149-150)

Van Till's exclusion of religious commitments from the selection of scientific theories follows from his presupposition that science and religion complement each other, each being sovereign in its own domain. But even this consideration, like all standards for theory selection, is itself based on extrascientific considerations. At heart we cannot avoid being guided by religious and philosophical factors in our assessment and selection of theories. It is undeniable that religious and philosophical prejudices have at times blinded their adherents to blatant deficiencies in favoured theories and to obvious advantages in rival models. It is thus important that such presuppositions be made very explicit. To minimize undue distortion and bias, our premises and criteria should at least be stated openly.

For Christians the main question to be faced at this point is the epistemological one of how highly to rate divine revelation. Granted the premise of an omniscient God who has revealed truth to us, it seems reasonable that divine revelation should speak authoritatively on all it addresses. Such a divine source of knowledge would carry more epistemological weight than mere human speculative theorizing, with all its subjectivity and fallibility.

Further assumptions would have to be made regarding the canon of Scripture and its proper interpretation. A discussion of such issues is beyond the scope of this paper but one could, for example, adopt the position that the currently accepted Bible is the inerrant word of God and that the traditional interpretation of the Bible is the intended one.

One could then construct an epistemology in which Scripture, thus defined, and observation are given an equally high rank, both being assumed to be of divine origin, with scientific theorizing given a much lower rating. A consequence of such an epistemology is that cosmological theories would be selected in conformity to both Scripture and observation. Such a fundamentalist approach to cosmology is no less scientific than other approaches; it is merely based on different philosophical presuppositions. This could well result in the rejection of most modern cosmogonies in favour of, say, the instantaneous universe discussed above. Or, alternatively, one could refuse to speculate about matters beyond Scripture and observation, adopting, for example, an instrumentalist approach to scientific theorizing.

Ernan McMullin (1981) has objected to such a strong form of what he terms the "relevance-of-theology-to cosmology principle". He asserts that the Scriptures are not to be taken to have a directly cosmological intent. To this one could respond that, while the Bible admittedly has little to say about the physical structure of the universe, it certainly does address such relevant issues as the origin and destiny of the universe, as well as pointing towards the existence of a spiritual realm.

 

RELIGION AND MODERN COSMOLOGY

This brings us to some further questions regarding the interaction between theology and cosmology. The impact of religion on cosmology goes beyond the mere selection of preferred theories. And there are greater issues at stake than those involving origins. Two chief questions of religion concern the nature of God and the question of life after death.

 

1. God and the Universe

The most basic religious belief is that of the existence of God. How is God related to the physical universe? In recent years a number of cosmologists have depicted God as a natural, evolving being who is very much part of the physical universe.

Both Paul Davies (1983) and Freeman Dyson (1988) are convinced that the evidence for design points towards a God. Wanting to avoid the supernatural, they explain design in terms of a designer who is supposed to be the outcome of a purely natural process. They envision God as a natural, evolved supermind. Davies pictures God as a supermind who can "load the quantum dice", thereby controlling everything that happens, and thus escape our attention. Neither explain how this supermind, who really doesn't come into his own until the far future, could have influenced the initial conditions and subsequent evolution up to now.  Hence, their solution merely adds to the problem of the design rather than accounting for it.

This deficiency has been addressed by Fred Hoyle (1984) and Frank Tipler (1988, 1989).  Hoyle, too, sees the necessity of explaining order (particularly the emergence of life) in terms of Designer. He, too, wants a purely natural God. Since this God is supposed to be the outcome of evolution, as well as its cause, he resorts to the rather bizarre idea that evolution is controlled by an evolved intelligence placed infinitely far in the future. Hoyle does not claim to know where this god is to be located, what it does, or what its physical form is, but its present influence is dependent upon its subsequent future status through what Hoyle calls "backward causation".

Tipler defines life essentially as information processing. As the Big Crunch is approached, life will engulf the entire universe. It will become omnipresent, omnipotent (i.e., it will control all matter and energy sources), and omniscient (i.e., the information stored will be infinite). Tipler calls this event - the final singularity - the "Omega Point". To ensure that we do arrive at such an Omega Point, Tipler proposes that the wave function of the universe is such that all classical paths terminate in a future Omega Point, with life coming into existence along at least one classical path and continuing on to the Omega point. In a sense the Omega Point creates the physical universe, but in another sense the Omega Point creates itself. Everything is predetermined by the wave function of the universe. However, the origin of the wave function itself is not explained. In essence this scheme does not differ greatly from that of Hoyle's backward causation.

The above authors believe their conception of a natural god to be more plausible than the traditional God of Christianity. Dyson (1988, 211) expresses the hope that his picture of God "might well be enough to satisfy most believers". Tipler regards his natural Omega Point god as a challenge to the existence of the traditional God, since such a supernatural entity would then be rendered superfluous.  

Whether such gods would indeed satisfy many believers is, to say the least, doubtful. These natural gods, subject as they are to natural law (except for backward causation!), can perform no miracles, answer no prayers, and have few of the characteristics generally attributed to the God of the Bible. Moreover, since they could not have existed prior to the (presumed) big bang singularity and will not evolve into superminds for a long time, their past and present influence can be brought about only through such dubious ploys as backward causation, which seems to boil down to merely a special form of supernaturalism, albeit in disguise.

A number of attempts have been made to construct gods more in accord with Christianity. We think here particularly of Teilhard de Chardin (1959) and process philosophers. Teilhard viewed Christ as the Omega Point, the ultimate goal of the evolutionary process. Process theology, as exemplified in the work of Alfred North Whitehead (1929) and his followers, also considered God as an evolving being. The world is seen as the body of God, but this God also has a mind which is, however, dependent upon his body. Creatures in the universe are considered as cells of God's body. Both God and the universe are eternal, God having created the world out of pre-existing material. God is generally thought to be omniscient with respect to all past and present events, but not with regards to the future. The future is indeterminate and not even God can know it.[10] Nor is this God omnipotent. God's acting does not contradict science; God always acts with and through other entities rather than by acting alone as a substitute for their actions. Process theologians generally reject miracles.

While such concepts of God are often presented within a Christian tradition, they fall far short of the omnipotent, omniscient God of orthodox Christianity. Moreover, Christianity has stressed that God is transcendent: he stands above and is independent of his creation. God is spirit: he is not limited to physical reality. To incorporate this transcendent, spiritual God into our cosmology the universe must be considered as larger than our 3-d physical cosmos: there must be another aspect or dimension to it.

An interesting position has been developed by Luco van den Brom (1982). He suggests that God exists spatially in his own higher dimensional universe. In his act of creation God made room for the 3-d world in his more-dimensional world. Van den Brom views the ascension of Christ as the withdrawal of Christ's body from the 3-d created world into the higher dimensional system of heaven.

Van den Brom's extra-dimensional reality is somewhat similar to Karl Barth's "superspace" and Karl Heim's "suprapolar space", except that Van den Brom attaches more concrete reality to his space than the other two seem to. John Polkinghorne (1988, 76) also postulates the existence of another realm - the "noetic" world - which includes not only mental entities, such as mathematical truths, but also spiritual entities such as angels.

Van den Brom's multi-dimensional space makes it possible to speak of God's heaven as a place outside of our space without having to consider heaven as a place in an unreal sense. We could consider heaven as having more than 3 dimensions, or as being a 3-d world parallel to our own in a 4-d space, much like two 2-d planes embedded in a 3-d space.

In such a space it is also natural that our physical world could be influenced by factors outside of it. The higher dimensional world of God could have its own laws, which would hold along side of the laws of our 3-d world. These higher laws and dimensions are not open to scientific research. Miracles could be explained as the intrusion of higher dimensional factors into our 3-d world.

 

2. The Future: Life After Death

Beliefs in cosmology concern not only the past and the extent of the universe, but also its future. Tipler emphasizes that the universe will continue to exist for at least 5 billion years:

Almost all Christian theologians adopt a much shorter temporal perspective. This is as great an error - and as great a misunderstanding of mankind's place in nature - as believing that the universe was created a few thousand years ago. (Tipler 1988, 316)

However, most cosmologists predict that, in the long run, life in the universe is doomed to extinction via either a Big Crunch or a heat death.

A crucial theological question concerns the question of life after death. The central hope of Christianity is that of the return of Christ, the last judgment, and eternal reward or punishment. The Bible speaks of the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. And these events will occur relatively soon - not billions of years in the future. ThusBiblical eschatology is rather different from that of modern cosmology, which offers little hope for the future: neither for individual immortality, nor even for the survival of life in any form.

None of the natural gods discussed above can grant us subjective immortality (i.e., an individual, conscious life here-after). Some cosmologists may believe that life may survive collectively, but this is of little consolation to the individual. Even Teilhard affirmed that at death our body decomposes and our soul, being tied to the body, cannot survive as a high order of consciousness. Although Teilhard brings Christ into the picture, it is really a very much diminished Christ who offers us no eternal salvation.

Most process theologians reject the notion of any individual immortality. According to Ogden (1975), man will continue to live on only in God's cosmic memory, of which we won't be conscious. A similar position is taken by Charles Hartshorne (1962, 254), who considers the notion of an actual heaven and hell to be a dangerous error. According to process theologian John Cobb (1965, 63-70), a major difficulty of the separation of body and soul is where to place the soul; we can no longer conceive of heaven and hell as spatial places. In Newtonian cosmology souls or mental substances fitted in so ill with the space-time continuum that it did not seem too strange to postulate another sphere, a spiritual realm, where human souls belonged. But in the evolutionary cosmos this distinction between mind and matter cannot be maintained. If minds emerged in the physical universe then they must belong in that universe. There seems to be no longer a "place" for life after death.

The Dutch astronomer Herman Zanstra (1967) concludes that Teilhard's rejection of the immortality of the soul does not allow for a true religion in the full sense. According to Zanstra, the chief problem for religion clearly is whether the soul can be detached from the body and lead an existence independent of the body without perishing.

If all processes in the soul are merely a different aspect of bodily processes, which are entirely governed by the laws of physics, then when the body dies the soul will cease to exist. Such a view has no room for God as a Spirit; such parallelism means atheism. Zanstra opts for dualism with interaction: soul and body are separate entities, influencing each other but yet having a certain degree of independence. His supernatural view of the world includes conscious spirits, where consciousness has existed before the physical universe began, and will continue to exist while our universe is reduced to dust and ashes.

It seems, then, that an essential ingredient for true religion (i.e., one which posits both a supernatural God and subjective immortality) is the existence of a spiritual realm wherein God and soul can exist. Again, a multi-dimensional model such as that of van den Brom, would offer a solution. Within the framework of such a worldview, where the deeper reality is spiritual rather than physical (i.e., where the physical universe is just a subspace, a shadow, of a larger more-dimensional universe), the contents of the Bible fit very readily.

On this point any form of complementarity or consonance between modern cosmology and Christianity breaks down. Any one who believes in an afterlife must also believe in the inadequacy of modern cosmology as a description or explanation of reality. The notions of a supernatural God and subjective immortality would seem to form rather permanent dissonances between modern, naturalistic cosmology and Christian theology.

 

CONCLUSIONS

In summary, we note that much of modern cosmology is speculative, ad hoc, and not very easily testable.  Adequate, objective criteria for selecting theories most likely to be true are lacking. Thus we should treat all cosmological models with caution. The universe may well turn out to be quite different from that of any current model. Due to the speculative nature of cosmology, a large role is played by philosophical and religious beliefs.

A prime religious consideration is whether the physical universe is all there is. Belief in a transcendent God carries with it a belief in a reality larger than our physical space-time. Allowance for a spiritual dimension to reality opens up the possibility of non-physical causes for physical events. God is free to act in miraculous ways. This in turn leaves open the possibility of instantaneous creation, miracles, the incarnation, resurrection, and life after death.

A Christian approach to cosmology must stress the epistemological supremacy of Scripture. Conformity to Scripture should be a prominent criterion for theory selection. Although the Bible gives us little detailed information regarding the present physical structure of the universe, it is very much concerned with its origin and destiny, as well as with the larger, spiritual reality that includes its Creator. Its view of the origin, future, and extent of the universe differs drastically from that depicted by big bang cosmology.

In short, Christians should be aware of the limitations of modern cosmology and, particularly, of the underlying extrascientific presuppositions. They must not permit modern cosmology to unduly modify their religious beliefs but, on the contrary, should hold on to the faith, construct a cosmology consistent with it, and look forward with confidence to the return of Christ.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

I wish to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Aid to Small Universities Program, Grant No. 481-90-0032) for funding in support of the research and presentation of this paper.

 

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    [1]see, for example, the discussion by Stoeger (1988).

    [2]see, for example, Andrews 1985, p.64.

    [3]see, for example, the two-centred model of Ellis (1978).  A more recent model is that of Rao and Annapurna (1991).

    [4]for a popular account see Gribbon (1991).

    [5]see, for example, Ellis (1984).

    [6]for example, Ellis (1978), La Violette (1984), Marmet and Reber (1989).

    [7]Oldershaw (1988), p.1077.

    [8]Oldershaw (1988), p.1077.

    [9]Oldershaw (1988), p.1078.

    [10]see Nash (1983), pp.27-28. This book contrasts process theology with classical theism.

 
 
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