Big Bang: Is there room for God?

By Victoria Gill


The discovery of the Higgs boson is so fresh that the exhibit in Cern's museum has not yet been updated.

In the exhibit - a short film that projects images of the birth of the Universe onto a huge screen - the narrator poses the question: "Will we find the Higgs boson"?

Now that the Higgs has finally been spotted - a scientific discovery that takes us closer than ever to the first moments after the Big Bang - Cern has opened its doors to scholars that take a very different approach to the question of how the Universe came to exist.

Media caption,
Hear what happened when scientists and religious scholars met to discuss the birth of the Universe

On 15 October, a group of theologians, philosophers and physicists came together for two days in Geneva to talk about the Big Bang.

So what happened when people of such different - very different - views of the Universe came together to discuss how it all began?

"I realised there was a need to discuss this," says Rolf Heuer, Cern's director general.

"There's a need for us, as naive scientists, to discuss with philosophers and theologians the time before or around the Big Bang."

Cern's co-organiser of this unusual meeting of minds was Wilton Park - a global forum set up by Winston Churchill.

It is an organisation usually associated with high-level discussions about global policy and even confidential exchanges on matters of international security, which perhaps emphasises how seriously Cern is taking this exchange.

But even the idea of a "time before the Big Bang" is impossible territory for physicists.

It is a zone of pure speculation - before time and space as scientists understand it came to exist, and where the laws of physics completely break down.

So does that make it a realm where science and religion can come to an understanding?

One of the meeting's most outspoken participants, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, says definitely not.

"One gets the impression from a meeting like this that scientists care about God; they don't," he says.

"You can't disprove the theory of God.

"The power of science is uncertainty. Everything is uncertain, but science can define that uncertainty.

"That's why science makes progress and religion doesn't."

But the suggestion that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible was a point of contention during the meeting.

John Lennox, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, is also a self-declared Christian. He thinks the very fact that human beings can do science is evidence for God.

"If the atheists are right the mind that does science... is the end product of a mindless unguided process.

"Now, if you knew your computer was the product of a mindless unguided process, you wouldn't trust it.

"So, to me atheism undermines the rationality I need to do science."

But this seemingly intractable God versus science debate was only a part of the meeting.

Prof Heuer said he wanted the participants to "develop a common understanding" of one another's viewpoints.

But even exchanging ideas was, at times, tricky; scientists and philosophers often speak a very different language.

Image caption,
The discovery of a "Higgs-like particle" preceded this religious and scientific meeting

Andrew Pinsent is research director at the University of Oxford's Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion. He is also a trained physicist who once worked at Cern.

"We have to educate one another in the terms that we use," he says.

For example, he explains, "philosophers have been discussing the meaning of [the word] truth for centuries".

But for many physicists, it is uncomfortable territory to use that word when talking about what we know about the Universe and the Big Bang.

Prof Krauss says that the word is at the heart of "one of the fundamental differences between science and religion".

"People who are religious believe they know the truth," he says.

"And they know the answer before even asking the question. Whereas, with scientists, it's the exact opposite.

"In science, although we use the word truth, what really matters is if it works.

"That's why it's a sensitive issue, because if you know the truth, there's no need to deal with this little question of whether something works or not."

Despite the barrier of opposing world views and incompatible lexicons, Dr Pinsent believes that engaging with philosophy could help science to better address the very big questions.

"There has been no new conceptual breakthrough in physics in a quarter of a century," he says.

He says this is partly because science in isolation "is very good for producing stuff" but not so good for producing ideas.

He invokes Einstein as an example of a truly philosophical scientist.

"[He] began by asking the sorts of questions a child would ask," says Dr Pinsent, "like, 'what would it be like to ride on a beam of light?'"

And Rolf Heuer is open to the idea of bringing philosophy into Cern itself.

"I wouldn't go so far as to let them run experiments here," he jokes, "but I wouldn't see any problem to have a philosopher in residence."

Too specialised?

The main conclusion of the event has been simple: keep talking.

"We face a problem in our culture of hyperspecialisation," says Dr Pinsent.

"This ignorance of other fields can cause problems, like a lack of social cohesion."

And although Prof Krauss said the meeting felt at times like "people who can't communicate trying to communicate," even he sees some value in this somewhat esoteric exchange.

"Many people of faith view science as a threat," he said.

"I don't think science is a threat, so it is useful for scientists to show that they don't necessarily view it that way."

As one contributor put it during the meeting: "Religion doesn't add to scientific facts, but it does shape our view of the world."

And since Cern is searching for clues about how that world came to exist in the first place, it wants to see how its discoveries might fit into any world view.

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