Catherine Collins


by Catherine Dalzell (Mrs Catherine Collins).

The central point in the Christian doctrine of creation is the liberty of God, not the finitude of time. The point is that the universe begins in the heart of God, is guided throughout its course by his provision, and will return to him, as its last end. What you see around you was CHOSEN; it did not simply happen.

In addition, the Church has also taught that the universe is finite in time. But as to what it means for time itself to have a beginning, doctrine has little to say. It could be that the universe has looked from the very beginning much as it does today. It would then be a sort of instant tradition - looking timeless, even when it was new. Or, it could be that the passage of time works irreversible change upon the physical universe, just as it does in human history, and in the evolution of life. It would then be a problem of physics to describe these changes, and if they were subject to mathematical formulation, perhaps even derive an approximate figure for the age of the universe.

In " A Brief History of Time" , one of the most successful non-fiction books published in this century, Stephen Hawking relates how far scientists have progressed in this, and his own considerable contribution. Amongst other results, he and Roger Penrose showed that General Relativity implies that at some point in the past, the universe had zero volume and infinite mass density. This point would represent the beginning of time.

From this result, Hawking drew two conclusions: one theological and false; one mathematical and correct. The false conclusion was that the presence of an infinite value in the equations - a singularity - indicated a free hand for the Creator, and seemed even to demand his presence. The correct conclusion was that the presence of a singularity implied some problem with the mathematical model employed.

Armed with this insight, and the techniques of quantum mechanics, Hawking sketched a new model for the early stages of the universe which eliminates some of the singularities. In possession of a more satisfactory theory, he then drew a second false theological conclusion, namely that there was now little work for a Creator to do. Even if he did exist, and (so to speak) turned the switch on creation, he had few choices im setting things up.

If this argument were correct, it would mean the end of Christianity, since it eliminates the freedom of the Creator, and with it a personal God. And as he presented it in " A Brief History of Time", surrounded by scientific detail, it has an insidious power to convince.

Esssentially, the argument turns on the nature of mathematics and its relation to the world it describes. If we have a smooth and coherent model for the beginning of the universe, one that uses the same mathematics that we use to model chance and deterministic occurences, must this imply that the universe exists through chance and necessity? Conversely, if God is involved, would we not expect to find singularities in the equations?



Lets clear out the singularities first. The infinity of mathematics represents the unboundedly huge and the infititesimally small. It is a material criterion - bigger than big. The infinity of God is a spiritual criterion - it means powereful and free. And just as human intelligence is more evident in an aphorism than in a rambling story with no point, the creativity of God is better revealed in the flash of a hummingbird than in the gaping infinities of mathematics.

Hawking' second model does not launch the universe from a singularity, nor from a standing start, like a swimmer diving off the edge of a pool. He had already proven to himself that this was not possible. If I have understood it correctly, he posits a whole class of "possible universes" as given through their curvature and mass density, weighted by different probabilities of occuring. With the passage of time - very little time, in fact - their average converges to the configuration predicted by General Relativity and the universe we observe. It is a lovely image in some ways - as if every possible world were to shimmer on the edge of reality for an instant, before the laws, the space, the time, and the energy we have actually have came into focus.

But does this mean that the universe is self-starting? If you can explain the development of the universe through pure thought and logic alone, would this not mean that the universe has arisen from necessity, and not in the freedom of God? Perhaps; but Hawking is a long way from having such a theory. His equations are derived either directly or by analogy from other branches of physics, and these ultimately rest upon observation of the world we already have. He has built a lamp in one corner of the universe, and shone its light on another corner.

Basically, this is all physics does. It elucidates the rational consistency of the world - a consistency in which Christians have always believed, precisely because we believe that creation reflects the mind of God.

The mind of God, however, is not the mind of a mathematician, nor is a mathematical result a direct slice of divine thought. Mathematics is like a shadow cast upon the man by material creation, when backlit by the light of reason. And like any shadow, it is both too sharp and too thin to be real. In mathematical physics, a beginning is a point in time and space (classical) or a distribution over such points (quantum). But the real beginning of time was an event, like the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. First the conductor creates the silence, from the attention of the players. Then he establishes the rhythm, but still before a single note has sounded.

Finally...but there is no finally, and already you are in the middle of it. The great phrases fill the concert hall, not as a succession of points, but as music present and entire to the ear. The beginning? Like all beginnings, it was a decision and a command. Similarily, the beginning of time is in the liberty of God: LET THERE BE LIGHT!

Reproduced with permission from the December 93 issue of the Catholic World Report - Second Spring Section.

Section Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder and Catherine Collins 2000

This Version: 1st April 2001


Catherine Collins