“Oh hide the God still more!”
—Alexander Pope

These days orthodox Christians and skeptical physicists disagree over nothing—yet their disagreement is literally of the first importance. For the “nothing” that is at issue is the void that immediately preceded the Big Bang, the cosmic explosion 15 billion years ago in which the universe began. When first formulated almost 40 years ago by George Gamow, the Big Bang Theory tipped the philosophical scales decidedly in the direction of traditional Christians. After all, before then no one except Christians had believed that the physical universe appeared suddenly from nothing. Previously scientists generally had believed, as did the ancient Greeks, that the universe had always existed in some essentially stable form.

Of course, a few Christians have not subscribed to creation ex nihilo (John Milton, for instance, rejected it), and even those who have accepted it have confronted perplexities not resolved by Professor Gamow (Augustine admitted the difficulty of answering the heretic who wished to know what God did before He made heaven and earth). Still, the new theory vexed modern pagans. Precisely because of metaphysical considerations, many scientists clung fideistically to a steady-state model of the expanding universe long after A. A. Penzias and R.W. Wilson discovered strong evidence—a thermal “echo”—of the Big Bang. Some materialists were especially distressed by the further discovery that a universe with galaxies, heavy elements, and life possibilities evidently required a precisely engineered Big Bang. Accounting for the oddly precise variables of these Initial Conditions was embarrassing for almost everyone but believers.

But new scientific breakthroughs are shifting the terms of the sciencereligion debate once again. Indeed, in Superforce British physicist Paul Davies outlines a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) now being formulated by leading theorists that can explain the entire universe by applying quantum mechanics to an initial “false vacuum.” As this strangely energized and unstable void decayed, the infant cosmos felt a fleeting pulse of “supergravity,” a potent repellant force not operative since the first microseconds of time and space. Davies and his colleagues are now confident that all extant matter and physical forces can now be defined as “fossils” of this “superforce.” And Davies is overjoyed that it is finally possible to dispense with “the theological concept of creation ex nihilo” and regard the world simply as “a consequence of the laws of physics, without the need to assume that the universe was set up in a very special state initially.” In a feat of oneupmanship, Davies argues for a creation not only ex nihilo but ab nihilo, out of nothing and by nothing.

Assessing the new theory, however, requires not only careful study of its specific features, but a correct understanding of the nature of science itself One of the most popular misconceptions of science is the notion that scientific theories are based entirely on observable fact. This empiricist fallacy is traceable all the way back to Francis Bacon, the first of a long line of publicists who have championed science without understanding how it was done. At times scientists themselves fall into the empiricist error when explaining their work. Both the empiricist error and its implicit refutation are found in Christine Sutton’s history of the recent discovery in Germany of the constituents of a new form of light.

Sutton, another British physicist, argues that unlike the philosophers of ancient Greece, who relied on their minds and their imaginations for explanations of nature, modern physicists have “an altogether different attitude.” “Experiment,” she writes, “is the exploratory tool. . . . In each and every case experimental data have provided the scaffold upon which the edifice of theory is built.” It is hard to take Sutton’s empiricist assertions seriously, however, since much of her own book describes experiments designed to test theoretical conjectures born of nothing but an intellectual craving for simplicity and order. The denouement of The Particle Connection—the discovery of the “W” and “Z” particles—was in fact predicted by those who believed, a priori, that electromagnetism and nuclear weak forces share a unitary root. For all of the advances in technology and mathematics, today’s leading scientists still resonate to the themes of Thales and Pythagoras.

Despite the promise of its subtitle, most readers will find little exciting in Sutton’s tediously detailed but philosophically naive work. (Fortunately, Davies discusses all the major experiments Sutton describes, but with far greater clarity and insight. Why Simon and Schuster published both books simultaneously is a mystery—unless they have feminist acquisition editors.) For all of her technical expertise, Sutton is quite mistaken in her notion that the best theories in physics are “rooted in general principles forced upon us by the way that nature really is.” The truth is that physicists are not “forced” to their theories by any array of natural facts but are guided by a legacy of nonempirical philosophical choices.

An Azande witchdoctor, no less than a particle physicist, has his own set of general principles for explaining “the way nature really is,” and it is unlikely that Sutton could show him any experiment or calculation that would dissuade him from his views. An Azande could interpret every cloud-chamber image, every radioactive glow, by invoking his own mythology of spirits and demons.

Occultist explanations might well contain a germ of truth, but they are not science: they provide no basis for quantifying present observations nor for predicting future phenomena. Science not only makes such predictions but seeks to do so on the basis of principles consonant with the established theories used with other types of phenomena. The current attempt to bring the entire universe and all of its apparently disparate forces—subatomic and macroscopic—within one unifying mathematical paradigm brings us to the very acme of Western science.

Because of the cultural prestige accorded scientists since the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, and because relatively few people really understand the mathematical principles and unitary rigor informing science, “scientific” has acquired mesmerizing power in popular culture. A few schematic diagrams, a little chemical analysis, or some conjectures about the nature of the solar system is all that it takes to convince the average audience that they are in the realm of science.

Only because of such widespread confusion about the nature of science was Immanuel Velikovsky able to provoke 30 years of controversy with his idiosyncratic speculations about the history of the planets. After making a comparative study of catastrophes related in various ancient traditions, including the Old Testament, Velikovsky proposed in 1950 that the earth had twice experienced a close encounter with a comet that eventually became the planet Venus. Based on this scenario, Velikovsky made several conjectures, some of which (e.g., that Venus is hot) turned out to be correct. However, as Henry Bauer demonstrates, Velikovsky’s work cannot be properly considered science because even his accurate “advance claims” were only “lonely facts.” Nothing was integrated into any larger framework, nor was any account made of established paradigms. “Since we have [in Velikovsky] no satisfactory theory to account for the existence of the solar system as a whole,” writes Bauer, “we are not much bothered by any data concerning physical conditions on the planets.”

Velikovsky indeed took several events (e.g., the plagues in Egypt, the halting of the sun by Joshua) out of a meaningful but nonscientific context and reduced them to mere props for an ad hoc assemblage of propositions. But even a true scientist must truncate the religious and imaginative significance of Old Testament or ancient Mayan stories when treating them scientifically. (Though “scientific creationists” usually forget this.) For, as Bauer notes, scientific truth is “a limited kind of truth” which is “useful in concrete ways [but] not a viable basis for human activity as a whole.”

Primitives are not the only ones hard to persuade that scientific usefulness for making predictions is the key to reality. Oxford philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has argued that science is utilitarian and “does not deal with reality at all.” Sir Isaac Newton defined gravity not only with his famous formula, but also with a little-known metaphor: God is the Piper, gravity the music. Given Newton’s pair of quite different definitions—the formula and the metaphor—we must decide: Which is more fundamental? Which is transparent and which opaque? Newton’s metaphor—which he coupled with the belief that angels superintended the planets—is clearly not scientific, since it was not derived mathematically and seems useless for making falsifiable predictions. Yet Newton thought it more true than his mathematics.

Most scientists, however, do not traffic in metaphors. Instead they share with Davies the belief that all of nature is “written in mathematical code.” Few of them, however, admit with him that “we do not know the reason for this” and that adherence to “mathematical beauty and elegance” often constitutes “a sort of irrational faith.” But why choose this irrational faith over other faiths—say, theosophy or Moloch-worship? Davies explains: only through mathematics are scientists able “to understand, control, and predict the outcome of physical processes.”

Here then is the crux of the matter. Mathematical science is the icon of irrational preference not because its epistemological roots are necessarily deeper than those of religion or art. Rather, mathematical science is preferred because it at once satisfies an aesthetic reverence for form and fulfills a Promethean yearning for omniscience. If every power and element in the cosmos can be circumscribed within the predictable bounds of number and formulae, then man may hold the universe within his mind as an intellectual possession, a conquest. The patterns of human thinking then define the patterns of the possible, and modern scientific man may scoff at the Old Testament Deity who archly declared, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Science furnishes modern man with guarantees against the incomprehensible, with shelter from all spiritual agents, mysterious forces, and dark surprises.

No wonder Davies rejoices: “We can at last comprehend a universe free of all supernatural input, a universe that is completely the product of natural laws accessible to science.” This is a long way from the spirit of Blaise Pascal, who did his mathematical and scientific work believing “It is possible to know God so long as we do not insist on understanding Him.” And as comforting as Davies’ ghostly materialism may be to rationalists, it does not bear close scrutiny. Quantum nihilism only partly accounts for the scandalous Initial Conditions, for we still do not know what created the “false vacuum” preceding the Big Bang. Even Bacon knew better than to search for the cause of causes. Nor can anyone yet explain how this vacuum acquired such a surcharge of energy. More fundamentally, we must ask how the laws of quantum physics got themselves “embedded” in high-power nothingness.

With laudable candor, Davies admits these are problems not yet solved. He remains hopeful, though, that a group of American theorists in Massachusetts and New York will soon supply a complete set of equations for “the cosmic bootstrap,” even if this does require the repudiation of the nothing-from-nothing premise that has guided Western thought since Parmenides. Davies is optimistic, too, that if scientists remember that their formulae describe processes that produced man, they will maintain a sense of purpose in a rationalized and atheistic world. Steven Weinberg, a pioneer in GUT formulation, feels otherwise. Recently he wrote: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

Some other scientists reject godlessness in both Davies’ cheerful and Weinberg’s downcast versions. They believe in the new GUT’s and God. Newton would no doubt have belonged to this group and would probably have interpreted Weinberg’s equations—and any forthcoming refinements from MIT—as simply transcriptions of the first very high notes the divine Piper chose to play.

But to make such a Newtonian move from mathematics to metaphor means surrendering hopes for scientific omniscience. Forces not in thrall to number and beings impossible to exorcise with formulae cannot be acknowledged without undermining the theoretician’s aspirations for holding the entire world in his hand. But if modern man lays aside the arrogance of explanation, what new posture can he adopt as he contemplates the galaxies? In a world of disease and natural catastrophe, it is easy to agree with the Azandes and many modern novelists in seeing nature as the mask of warring spirits indifferent or hostile to man. The Big Bang then becomes a terrifying thump in the cosmic night. But if men share with Newton the conviction that all natural forces—including “supergravity”—are manifestations of an incomprehensible goodness revealed more fully to prophets and apostles than to scientists, then they may face the loudest eruptions in the poised humility of faith.


[Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature, by Paul Davies (New York: Simon and Schuster) $16.95]

[The Particle Connection: The Most Exciting Scientific Chase Since DNA and the Double Helix, by Christine Sutton (New York: Simon and Schuster) $16.95]

[Beyond Vehkovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, by Henry H. Bauer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) $21.95]