The Big Bang, creation ex nihilo, and “God of the Gaps”: thoughts on Chapter 3 of “Until the End of Time” by Brian Greene

Chapter 3 of Brian Greene’s book Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe explains how the laws of thermodynamics are theorized to have set in motion the Big Bang and how matter and stars can form from the forces of gravity and entropy. The paradox which drives the chapter is how could so much complex organization exist in a universe driven by entropy, where everything naturally moves from a state of order to disorder. He argues “a proper exegesis of the second law [of thermodynamics] renders an intelligent designer unnecessary” (45) to explain the order and complexity we observe in the universe.

That said, there are various points in the chapter where Greene notes that some things are still beyond our best understandings:

“I don’t know why reality is governed by quantum laws. Nobody does.” (50)

“The best we can do is piece together observations and calculations to build confidence in our explanations” (51)

“Notwithstanding centuries of scientific progress, we are no closer to answering the question raised by Gottfried Leibniz–‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’–than we were when the German philosopher first expressed this lean distillation of the mystery of existence.” (52)

“But what or who arranged the special low-entropy configuration of the early universe? Without a complete theory of cosmic origins, science can’t provide an answer.” (53)

I appreciate the intellectual humility with which Greene presents his explanations. As a social scientist myself, I applaud the transparency with which the author discusses the scope and limitations of his field of study.

My read of Chapter 3 is that physicists are much more confident about their explanations of what happened after the Big Bang (including the formation of an ordered universe from gravity, entropy, and other basic laws of physics) than why it happened in the first place.

At this point it seems easy to jump in and insert God into the equation at this point. Indeed, in broad strokes this account largely seems compatible with creation ex nihilo, or at the very least, does not disprove the possibility.

That said, my read of history is that Enlightenment theists have for many centuries been quick to attribute much of what is not understood to God (“we don’t know why that is, so it must be God causing it to happen”). When new evidence emerges that provides a materialistic/scientific account for what was previously unknown, the “God” variable then shrinks to account for what is still left unknown. (This is the “God of the Gaps” paradigm.)

I suppose, then, that a model of Life, the Universe, and Everything that integrates both science and theology could place God as the “cause” of the configuration of mathematics, quantum laws, etc. as well as the low-entropy state of the pre-Big Bang universe. It would then attribute more explanatory power to materialistic factors once the Big Bang kicks off the beginning of the linear timeline of the universe, as much of it can be explained in the absence of divine intervention. That said, any model should also admit the possibility that future scientific discoveries would lead us to modify that model and explanation.

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