Religion

Is the Universe a Closed System?

My wife and I and our three children lived for a number of years amongst the Danis in West Papua. Like many tribal societies the Danis were largely self-sufficient; almost everything they needed was available in the environment around them. They grew their own sweet potato, raised their own pigs, got their water from nearby springs, made their net bags from plant fibres and heated their huts and cooked with wood from the casuarina trees they planted in their old gardens. Swampy ground provided the reeds for the women’s skirts; the gourds used to clothe the men were grown in the village compound. In the past they lived a claustrophobic life with enemies on all sides, and they rarely, if ever, wanted or needed to leave their own tribal homeland.

What about the universe? Is it a self-sufficient, self-contained system? Those who believe in naturalism are sure that it is. Atheists along with pantheists think that this universe is all there is, that everything can be explained in terms of what goes on inside it. Everything is connected to everything else. Naturalism by definition thus automatically excludes the supernatural. There are no exits out of the natural world we live in, nor are there any doors by which anything outside can get in. Indeed there is no outside. All matter and all life must somehow be generated within this self-contained system. Strict adherents of naturalism don’t believe we have free will, for free will presupposes that we are capable of independent action outside the interconnected system that is our universe. Stephen Hawking, for example, says that “human free will is an illusion and there is no such thing as objective reality.”[1]

The view that the universe is a closed system logically implies that the universe must have always existed. It is hard to conceive what it would mean for the present if there was no end to the past. It implies that the present is going backwards instead of forwards. What happens today could have happened yesterday or progressively further back into the past. Indeed it would mean that every possible change that could have happened would have already happened and that the universe would be static. Immanuel Kant considered this scenario “absurd”.[2] Notwithstanding its inherent irrationality, Thomas Gold, Hermann Bondi and Fred Hoyle in 1948 postulated the Steady State theory in which the universe had no beginning and no end and was expanding with new matter constantly being created. However, there are so many stars in the universe that if the universe had always been, the night sky would be a blaze of light. As it is, we only see the stars whose light has had sufficient time since the beginning of the universe to reach us. Also given infinite time, the force of gravity although weak would have overwhelmed every other force and caused every object in the universe to collapse into each other. However, for now, the centrifugal force of our revolving planet is well able to resist the gravitational force of the sun.

It logically follows that if the universe is not infinitely old, it must have had a beginning. According to Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest, the universe came into existence 15 billion years ago in a massive explosion in which all mass and energy were instantly created. When Einstein heard him give a lecture on the subject at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, he jumped to his feet applauding, and said that his presentation was the most beautiful and satisfying explanation of creation that he had ever heard.[3] Evidence for the Big Bang was soon forthcoming. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, radio engineers working for Bell Laboratories in the United States, heard a persistent hum coming from a large horn-shaped antenna in 1967. Thinking it was a fault in their equipment, they tried to eliminate it, even climbing into the horn to clean off pigeon droppings, but without success. They finally concluded that it was microwave radiation coming uniformly from all directions in space that was consistent with a temperature of minus 270 degrees Celsius, just over three degrees above absolute zero. They considered this cosmic background radiation was a leftover from the Big Bang. As well, Edwin Hubble discovered that the spectra of light from celestial bodies revealed that the wavelengths appeared longer than they would have been if these bodies were stationary, showing that they were moving away as the universe continues to expand. This also was in accord with the Big Bang theory.    

Why did the Big Bang happen? The suggestion that the universe created itself makes no sense. The universe can’t pre-exist its own existence in order to create itself. Perhaps the natural laws created the universe? But this is to confuse agents with processes. Natural law is the pattern into which events conform, they are not themselves events. C.S. Lewis said, “in one sense the laws of Nature cover the whole field of space and time; in another, what they leave out is precisely the whole real universe—the incessant torrent of actual events which makes up real history. They must come from somewhere else.”[4] Nor could the universe just suddenly appear for no apparent reason. Even the atheist philosopher David Hume thought this was going too far. “I have never asserted so absurd a proposition as that anything might arise without a cause.”[5]

In contrast, Lawrence Krauss, an American physicist says, “in modern parlance, ‘nothing’ is most often unstable. Not only can something arise from nothing, but most often the laws of physics require that to occur.”[6] In other words, because we now have “something” where there was “nothing”, “nothing” must be unstable. If “nothing” can have qualities like “stability” and “instability” then it must be “something” and not “nothing”. And how do you get the laws of nature out of “nothing”, so they can require “nothing” to turn into “something”? Krauss has denied himself help from clearer thinkers by banning them from this discussion. He said, “‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are physical concepts and therefore are properly the domain of science, not of theology or philosophy”.[7] G.K. Chesterton said, “It is absurd to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything.”[8] Atheists, however clever many of them undoubtedly are and however much more reasonable than theists some of them consider themselves to be, always founder at this obstacle. To reason like Lawrence Krauss is to travel in an endless circle. The physicist Paul Davies has shown the way out: 

It takes a lot to believe that this intricate universe with so many characteristic, contingent features, just happens to be. Can we really accept it as a brute, inexplicable fact? Yet a single, simple, infinite mind (though the logic of even its existence may be perplexing to us) seems an altogether more plausible candidate for something that exists of necessity.[9]  

There is enormous ideological resistance to postulating an all-powerful, all-wise being as the creator of everything that there is, but when every other possibility has been examined in the light of reason, that is the only one that is left standing. While naturalism purports to explain why everything is the way it is in our universe, it cannot explain in a scientific and coherent way why everything came to be in the first place. David Bentley Hart states, 

There is after all nothing inherently reasonable in the conviction that all of reality is simply an accidental confluence of physical causes without any transcendent source or end. Materialism is not a fact of experience or a deduction of logic; it is a metaphysical prejudice, nothing more, and one that is arguably more irrational than almost any other … Richard Dawkins does not hesitate, for instance, to claim that “natural selection is the ultimate explanation of our existence”. But this is a silly assertion and merely reveals that Dawkins does not understand the words he is using. The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all. This question Darwin and Wallace never addressed, nor were they so hopelessly confused as to think they had … Even the simplest of things, and even the most basic of principles must first of all be, and nothing within the universe of contingent things (not even the universe itself, even if it were somehow “eternal”) can be intelligibly conceived as the source or explanation of its own being.[10] 

Our universe is not a closed system. There is an outside to it and God is there. And if he is outside, can he come in? He did in the person of Jesus. What he did while he was here is recorded in the Gospels, but his life was short and ended on a Roman cross. Three days later his grave was empty, and he was seen by a number of people over a period of forty days. It was this event, called the Resurrection, which launched the Christian faith. While the essentials of the other major world religions would be largely untouched were it to be proved that miracles did not occur, this is not true of Christianity. To preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the Resurrection. So much is this the case, that the Athenians misunderstood Paul’s sermon and thought he was preaching about two gods, Jesus and Resurrection (Acts 17:18). They laughed at the idea that a dead person could come alive. Because Greeks believed that the body was a kind of prison from which the soul needed to escape, even members of the Christian congregation at Corinth had doubts about whether the believers would be resurrected in a body after they died. It is a sign of how convinced Paul was of the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, that he used it as the reason why Christian believers would experience a bodily resurrection: 

If there is no such thing as the resurrection from the dead, then Christ was never raised. And if Christ was not raised then neither our preaching nor your faith has any meaning at all. Furthermore it would mean we are lying in our witness for God, for we have given our solemn testimony that he did raise up Christ—and that it is utterly false if it should be true that the dead do not, in fact, rise again! For if the dead do not rise neither did Christ rise, and if Christ did not rise your faith is futile and your sins have never been forgiven. Moreover those who have died believing in Christ are utterly dead and gone. Truly if our hope in Christ were limited to this life only, we should, of all mankind, be the most to be pitied!

[1 Corinthians 15:12–19]  

Some modern intellectuals have a problem with the Resurrection, indeed with anything supernatural. For example, A.C. Grayling thinks “it is just plainly obvious that all the historical religions are a hangover from the less knowledgeable and more superstitious infancy of mankind”.[11] Is it true that mankind has had to wait for modern science to provide them with the tools to enable them to distinguish miracles from natural events? This assumption doesn’t apply to the miracles of Jesus. They generated awe and wonder precisely because they were contrary to the laws of nature. When Mary Magdalene and some other women said they had seen Jesus alive, “it struck the disciples as sheer imagination, and they did not believe the women” (Luke 24:11). Nor did they believe Cleopas and another follower of Jesus who said they had walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Nor did Thomas, having been absent when Jesus came to the upper room where the disciples were, believe that Jesus was alive.

Did the Resurrection happen? Many reports of miracles are false, just as many reports of non-miraculous events are false. People believed that some things were miracles that were later shown to be perfectly explicable by natural law. But can the Resurrection be explained in this way? The explanations for it fall into two main categories: the disciples were somehow deluded, or they instigated a massive confidence trick. The delusion theories include such things as hallucinations and visions. These would have to occur over a period of six weeks and be applied to large numbers of people if they are to accord with Gospel accounts. Multiple hallucinations experienced by hundreds of people are a priori so improbable as to be regarded as impossible by most people. However, as for some people almost no amount of evidence is sufficient to convince them that a dead body could become a living person, the most improbable natural explanation will always be preferred to believing that a resurrection has occurred. 

If fraud was involved, then the disciples faced formidable difficulties. The Resurrection happened in Jerusalem, the spiritual centre of Judaism during the Passover time when the city was flooded with thousands of extra visitors. When Paul spoke of the Resurrection to the Roman governor Festus and King Agrippa, Festus concluded that he was out of his mind. Paul replied 

I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus. I speak nothing but the sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner.

[Acts 26:24–26]  

If it was a clever con, why wasn’t it perpetrated far away from prying eyes? Why was it done in a place where their opponents were so powerful? Why were the followers of Jesus willing to be imprisoned and in some cases to die for something they knew to be untrue? For those early Christians the Resurrection of Christ was not a hallucination or a vision or even a made-up story to teach a spiritual truth, but an actual physical reality. 

Also the personality of Jesus needs some explanation. Many atheists are reluctant to criticise him, though some, like Dawkins, attempt to find flaws in his personality and in his behaviour. As C.S. Lewis said: 

The historical difficulty of giving for the life, sayings and influence of Jesus any explanation that is not harder than the Christian explanation, is very great. The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me add) shrewdness of his moral teaching and the rampant megalomania that must lie behind his theological teaching unless he is indeed God has never been satisfactorily got over. Hence the non-Christian hypotheses succeed one another with the restless fertility of bewilderment.[12]  

What evidence do we have that the Resurrection actually happened? No one actually saw it happen, but a large number of people saw Jesus alive after his death. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, Cleopas, James the brother of Jesus, and the eleven disciples were said to have seen him. Paul wrote that he “was seen simultaneously by over 500 Christians of whom the majority are still alive, though some have since died” (1 Corinthians 15:7). Presumably he was inviting sceptical people to go and talk to these witnesses. Luke tells us, “For after his suffering he showed himself alive to them in many convincing ways, and appeared to them repeatedly over a period of forty days talking with them about the affairs of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Sir Edward Clarke, in a letter to the Rev. E. Macassey wrote: 

As a lawyer, I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. Inference follows on evidence, and a truthful witness is always artless and disdains effect. The Gospel evidence for the resurrection is of this class, and as a lawyer I accept it unreservedly as a testimony of truthful men to facts they were able to substantiate.[13]  

Detail about the resurrection is recorded in six separate New Testament books: the four Gospels, Acts and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. These accounts were either eyewitness or by people who got their information from eyewitnesses. John, after he referred to himself in his Gospel, spoke of himself in the third person. “Now it is this same disciple who is hereby giving his testimony to these things and has written them down. We know that his witness is reliable” (John 21:24). Luke begins his Gospel with the words: 

In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for sometime past to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

[Luke 1:1-4] 

When the journalist John Cornwell interviewed the novelist Graham Greene at his home at Antibes he said when he finished: “It sounds as if belief is a bit of a struggle for you.” Greene replied: 

What keeps me to it … is St John’s gospel. It’s almost a reportage—it might have been done by a good journalist—where the beloved disciple is running with Peter, because they had heard that the rock has been rolled away from the tomb, and describing how John manages to beat Peter in the race … and it just seems to me to be first-hand reportage, and I can’t help believing it.[14]  

C.S. Lewis, who was professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University, had this to say about the Gospels: 

turn up John. Read the dialogues: that with the Samaritan woman at the well, or that which follows the healing of the man born blind. Look at the pictures. Jesus doodling with his finger in the dust, the unforgettable “and it was night” (John 13:30). I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views, either this is reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell, or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learnt to read. I would recommend him to read Auerbach.[15]  

If we put aside for the moment the fact that the Resurrection was a miracle, and consider it as a historical event, then the evidence for it is very good. Few historical events have the documentary support the Resurrection has. We accept historical events as having occurred because of the authority of eyewitnesses.

Lewis comments, “For of course authority is a kind of evidence. All of our historical beliefs, most of our geographical beliefs, many of our beliefs about matter that concerns us in daily life, are accepted on the authority of other human beings …”[16] For some people none of this cuts any ice. Paul Monk, for example, says, “But the resurrection is an event patently at odds with every known reality of biology and there can be no scientific warrant for it.”[17] He believes a priori that miracles cannot occur. However, miracles, if they happen, are exceptions to the norm. They cannot be fitted into the pattern of events that are explained by natural law. How can the discovery of the way things seem to almost invariably work, prove that there never can be an exception? Numbers of people claim to have experienced miracles or witnessed them. Paul Monk would have to prove that all reports of miracles are false, something that neither he nor anybody else can do. Absolute uniformity in nature is a belief, because those events that are observed only cover a minute fraction of the actual events. Miracles can be dismissed only if our knowledge of causation is so complete that we can dismiss divine causation. Albert Einstein said: 

To be sure the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted in the real sense by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has never been able to set foot.[18]  

So powerful is the historical evidence for it, that if it wasn’t for the fact that the Resurrection was a miracle, it would be accepted. G.K. Chesterton said: 

Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles can consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.[19]  

Science deals with things that are repeated; things that can be expressed in natural laws. History deals with things that happen only once, and that is why history is studied in the arts faculty of a university, not in the science faculty. Science cannot prove or disprove miracles. That is why it is pointless going into a laboratory for clarification. You have to read and evaluate the documentary evidence.

Because the universe normally works as regularly as a machine, some people think it is a machine. Because natural law is impersonal, some people assume that it has been impersonally created. But surely God, like any person, can act in a habitual and orderly way without being thought to be less of a person. It was said that the philosopher Immanuel Kant would leave his home in Konigsberg in Germany every day precisely at 3.30 p.m. and walk to the end of the street and turn around and come back. So invariable was this habit that citizens could set their clocks by where he happened to be on his walk. However, one day he began to read Rousseau’s book Emile and became so engrossed in it that he was late. Surely God, like Kant, is not bound by what he habitually does. Surely he can sometimes break out and do something new like the creation of the universe or the resurrection of Jesus. I imagine that God does not distinguish between natural events and miracles as we do. Both are equally his and both are equally in his power to perform. Augustine said, “When a miracle happens, it appears to us as an event contrary to nature. But with God it is not so; for Him nature is what He does.”[20]

Anthony Bloom was a bishop of the Russian Orthodox church in Western Europe, Great Britain and Ireland. His early childhood was spent in Russia, and subsequently in Persia where his father was a member of the Russian diplomatic corps. When the communists took over in his homeland, the whole family was forced to leave, finally settling in Paris in 1923. He joined a Russian youth group and was angry when the leader asked a priest to speak to them. He was an atheist and didn’t want to waste his time but the leader said, “Don’t listen. I don’t care, but just sit and be a physical presence.”[21] The view of Christ the priest presented was repulsive to him and when he got home he borrowed his mother’s copy of the Gospels to see if it supported what the priest had said. He picked the shortest Gospel, Mark, so as not to waste time. He wrote: 

I do not know how to tell you of what happened. I will put it quite simply and those of you who have gone through a similar experience will know what came to pass. While I was reading the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I became aware of a presence. I saw nothing, I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was a simple certainty that the Lord was standing there and that I was in the presence of him whose life I had begun to read with such revulsion and such ill-will. This was my basic and essential meeting with the Lord. From then I knew that Christ did exist.[22] 

This experience convinced Bloom of the truth of the Resurrection: 

I discovered something absolutely essential to the Christian message—the resurrection is the only event of the gospel which belongs to history, not only past but also present. Christ rose again, twenty centuries ago, but he is the Risen Christ as long as history continues. Only in the light of the resurrection did everything else make sense to me. … It was in the light of the resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history. History I had to believe, the resurrection I knew for a fact.[23] 

Many atheists misunderstand why people believe in God. It seems to them that people should treat God as a kind of object that needs to be proved by logical argument. But God is a person who is directly present to the human spirit. He is not at the end of some tortuous investigation, but closer to us than our nearest and dearest. He is not an inference, but a presence. John Baillie wrote: 

The witness of all true religion is that there is no reality which more directly confronts us than the reality of God. No other reality is nearer to us than He. The realities of sense are more obvious, but He is more intimate, touching us as it does so much nearer to the core of our being.[24]  

However far afield and however far back in time we cast our investigative net we can never find a time or place where people were unaware of the supernatural world.

The universe is not a closed system. The impervious membrane that seemingly surrounds our universe is full of holes. The outside is constantly coming in. God in many and various ways breaks into our natural world. Because it denies this, naturalism is powerless to make sense of human experience and is unable to provide a rational explanation for existence.

While belief in the existence of the supernatural has been the commonplace experience of mankind, atheism has not been. The first atheists were found among the sophists in Greece in the fourth century BC.[25] To counter them, the philosopher Plato produced what were the first arguments for the existence of God.[26] Atheists in arguing against Christianity think they advance their cause by attacking these arguments. But arguments for the existence of God are afterthoughts for Christians. Although they may strengthen their faith; they are not the cause of it.[27] Robert McLaughlin says that we shouldn’t have “to rely on abstruse arguments to prove the existence of God”.[28] He is perfectly correct. Philosophical proof of God’s existence is an unnecessary superfluity. The British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington wrote: 

In the case of our human friends we take their existence for granted, not caring whether it is proven or not. Our relationship is such that we could read real philosophical arguments designed to prove the non-existence of each other and perhaps even be convinced by them—and then laugh together over so odd a conclusion. I think that it is something of the same kind of security we should seek in our relationship with God. The most flawless proof of the existence of God is no substitute for it; and when we have that relationship the most convincing disproof is turned harmlessly aside. If I may say it with reverence, the soul and God laugh together over so odd a conclusion.[29]

 

Peter Barclay wrote a memoir of his Papua New Guinea experiences in the March issue.



[1] S.Hawking and L.Mlodinow, ‘The Grand Design’, Bantam, New York, 2010, p.32.

[2] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam, London, 1988, p.8.

[3] Richard Brennan, Heisenberg probably slept here, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1977, p.79.

[4] C.S.Lewis, Miracles, Fontana, London, 1960, p.63.

[5] David Hume, Letter to John Stewart, 1754 quoted in Dinesh D’Souza, What’s so great about Christianity, Regency Publishing Inc.,   

   Washington D.C., 2007, p.125.

[6] Interview with Sam Harris on January 3, 2011 on SamHarris.Org

[7] Interview with Sam Harris on January 3, 2011 on SamHarris.Org

[8] G.K.Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Doubleday, New York, 1933, p.174.

[9] Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, Penguin, London, 1984, p.48.

[10] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009, p.103.

[11] Quoted by Robert McLaughlin in Mythbusters, Quadrant, September 2010, p.87. 

[12] C.S.Lewis, Miracles, Fontana, London, 1960, p.112-113.

[13] Quoted in John Stott, Basic Christianity, IVF, Downers Grove, 1971, p.47.

[14] The Importance of Doubt, The Guardian, August 30, 2007.

[15] C.S.Lewis, Christian Reflections, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1967, p.155.

[16] C.S.Lewis, Screwtape proposes a Toast, Collins, London, 1965, p.63.

[17] Letter in Quadrant, October 2010, p.5.

[18] Albert Einstein, Out of my later Years, Quality Paperback Books, New York, 1956, p.28.

[19] G.K.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Fontana, 1961, p.149.

[20] Augustine (on miracles), Literal Commentary on Genesis, c. AD 391.

[21] Anthony Bloom in Rupert Davies (ed.), We believe in God, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1968, p.25.

[22] Anthony Bloom in Rupert Davies (ed.), We believe in God, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1968, p.26.

[23] Anthony Bloom in Rupert Davies (ed.), We believe in God, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1968, p.26-27. 

[24] J.Baillie, Our Knowledge of God, Oxford University Press London, 1939, p.155.

[25] J.Baillie, Our Knowledge of God, Oxford University Press, London, 1939, p.47.

[26] J.Baillie, Our Knowledge of God, Oxford University Press, London, 1939, p.108.

[27] J.Baillie, Our Knowledge of God, Oxford University Press, London, 1939, p.132.

[28] Quadrant, September 2010, p.85.

[29] From his Swarthmore Lecture, ‘Science in the Unseen World’, Allen and Unwin, 1980, p.43.

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