The Big Bang and God
As a collaboration between theological ethicist Theodore Walker, Jr. and astronomer and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe, The Big Bang and God: an Astro-Theology is a unique and enjoyable exploration of the relationship between science and theology, centered around a central theme: convergence. At first, this convergence is disciplinary, the result of a decades-long collaboration between prominent astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe in new and interdisciplinary fields such as “nuclear astrophysics,” “astrochemistry,” and “astrobiology.” Though not widely known, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe also believed that this scientific convergence was accompanied by a further convergence with theology, one that goes beyond the claim that the universe is precisely tuned by a cosmic intelligence. Taylor and Wickramasinghe instead claim that the characteristics and features of discovered natural phenomena actually articulate necessary theological claims about the nature of God, the created world, and the God-world relationship. This ultimate convergence is appropriately called an “astro-theology.”
The story begins in the in 1946, with Fred Hoyle’s argument that all elements heavier than helium were synthesized in stars—“we are actually made of stardust” (11). Hoyle’s collaboration with Wickramasinghe in the 1960s would show that interstellar dust was not inorganic, but “largely carbonaceous and organic” (27). Initial skepticism about the presence of complex organic molecules in space would be dispelled by new techniques in astronomy, which would show that interstellar clouds account for a staggering one-third of the mass of carbon in the universe. On Earth, 99.9999% of these organic molecules are produced by living organisms, suggesting that interstellar organic molecules might also originate from living organisms. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe would present findings that interstellar dust clouds potentially contained bacteria, and that these bacteria may have traveled to earth by means of comets and their debris. This theory of bacterial “seeding” by comets was called “cometary panspermia,” and sought to explain not only the staggering quantity of organic molecules in interstellar dust, but also the emergence of life on a young Earth.
While the theory sounds unusual, it remains a viable scientific theory. Its mechanism is plausible: the cosmos is filled with organic molecules and possibly bacteria, and about 50-300 tons of comet matter falls to earth every day. The authors point to varied supporting evidence: the organic appearance of microstructures on meteorites, the presence of microorganisms in the stratosphere, and the extraordinary survival of microbes in extreme conditions like space. Given the extreme improbability that amino acids could randomly combine into the 2000 enzymes necessary for life (a chance of 10^40,000), Hoyle could not believe that life arose from accidental combination in a “primal soup” on earth; instead, he said, “the universe has to ‘contain’ the genetic information for evolution if such a step-wise process is to lead from nonlife to life”(31), leading Hoyle to conclude that a superintellect must be guiding the cosmic development of life.
According to the authors, phenomena described by these scientific theories cannot prove theological claims; rather, they are considered “exemplifications.” Astro-theology is a kind of “transcendental” argument; it does not ask “What can we deduce about God from these natural phenomena?”; instead it asks “Given these natural phenomena, how must we conceive of God and the world?” The cosmic scope of the process that begets life—heavy elements born of stars, organic molecules and bacteria being carried across the universe by comets—leads the authors to argue that the process-relational thought of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne best articulates the God and God-world relationship “exemplified” by these natural phenomena. This implies two primary doctrines: 1) “panentheism,” in which “God is the all-inclusive whole of reality” (38), whose close connection to the world enables “panoramic provisioning” of this cosmic process; and 2) “panpsychism,“ which “holds that all actualities have aspects or individual components that are more or less psychical/experiential” (49), which helps explain the interconnectedness of the world, from the simplest forms to the most complex organisms, social organizations, and even divine unity.
Overall, The Big Bang and God is a genuinely interesting and approachable work, ably organizing and presenting a broad, interdisciplinary topic for the non-specialist. Occasionally, the argument loses focus, for example, when parsing thorny locutions like “postmodern constructive science” or digressions on the technicalities of process thought. These topics are related, but unnecessary for such a brief and broad work. One might also object to Walker and Wickramasinghe’s thesis that the scientific “exemplifications” point towards a distinctly Whiteheadian and Hartshornian process-relational model, which is presented as the only viable alternative to “classical theism.” This claim seems to unnecessarily foreclose other possibilities. One might concede that the “exemplifications” require a panentheistic understanding of the God-world relationship, but why must it be the panentheism of Whitehead’s “dipolar theism” or Hartshorne’s “dual transcendence”? Similarly, one might affirm a dynamic interconnection between the smallest particle and more complex, living organisms, but why must it be in the form of “panpsychism” or “panexperientialism”? If other streams of theological thinking can affirm both panenetheism and dynamic interconnection, why should (or must) we choose process-relational thought? Most would agree that the process-relational model preferred by the authors is an excellent fit for the natural phenomena presented, but is it the only one?
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is how unexpectedly interesting it is at every turn: The topic comes alive, and the authors never cease to offer up interesting and creative possibilities. If this pushes readers to think of science and theology in new and productive directions, then the future of “astro-theology” looks quite bright.
Corbin Boekhaus is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University.
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