Did God create the universe and detail all that is in it, has been, or will come to be? Or, is the whole arrangement a cosmic accident? Are these two viewpoints, common ones, the only two options? Or, is there a third way to look at this magnificent panoply we call the universe — a third way that accounts for the cause-and-effect understandings of science and also understands the role of God as ultimate creator and thereby provides greater knowledge of the Deity?
Dr. George Coyne, S.J., Director Emeritus of the Arizona-based Vatican Observatory, thinks there is. He provided his view of the third option in a marvelously detailed yet lucid presentation sponsored by the Albertus Magnus Society at Dominican University in River Forest, IL, in November 2011. Coyne sees human beings as “Children of a Fertile Universe,” whose existence depends upon the interaction of “Chance, Destiny, and a Creator God.”
Chance and Necessity
Chance refers to events that don’t have to happen, but are influenced by probability. Destiny refers to events that have to happen. If everything occurs by chance, a role for God is difficult to discern. If everything is controlled by destiny, one must identify the governing factors, which may be scientific cause and effect, or may be actions of a divine power. In fact, current science strongly indicates that the natural world has come into being through a combination of chance and necessity.
Chance is of course unpredictable, but one must decide whether necessity depends upon God, science, or both. Because of this unavoidable issue, the “God Question” is embedded in any pursuit of natural understandings.
Whatever the source of destiny, Coyne sees our universe as by nature fertile. It continually gives rise to the new.
But this fertility has required an expanse of time and space that to us is unimaginable. Coyne points out that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, and that it comprises 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars (ten thousand to the twenty-seventh power). Since the time of the Big Bang, there have been three generations of stars, and in each new set of stars, heavier elements have formed. These heavier elements, such as iron, are necessary to the metabolism of any life form.
Also, during this immense span of time, aggregations of matter within the universe have continued to move farther apart, and to compose galaxies, star systems, planet, and other formations. To date, we have sighted more than 500 planets and planetary systems; we have not so far found one like earth, but scientists believe it is only a matter of time and the improvement of technology before we do. An earthlike planet seems necessary to provide appropriate conditions for life.
It took the last one third of the age of the universe — about ten thousand trillion years–for amoeba-like life to morph into self-conscious life. Coyne believes that this process followed principals of Darwinian evolution (although Darwin did not know about genetics). Organisms change and they must adapt to the environment, which is also changing. Organisms that cannot adapt — die. Because change is continual, more complicated organisms will appear. There is also a tendency for complexity to break down, but it is obvious, so far at least, that an increase of complexity has won out over simplification, as chance and destiny have interacted.
Thus, we human beings have come to exist in a fertile universe of chance and destiny, Coyne says.
Coyne’s thought has been shaped by a lifetime of study and leadership in both science and theology. Born in Baltimore in 1933, he joined the Jesuit order at age 18. Beginning then, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a licentiate in philosophy at Fordham University, obtained a doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown University (1962) and completed theological work preparatory to ordination as a Roman Catholic priest (1965).
He was sent to Arizona, the epicenter of U.S. astronomical research, and joined the staff of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, where he made scientific discoveries and became a professor in 1970; meanwhile, in 1969, he also became an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory (still in Italy). By 1978, the Vatican Observatory had established its main facility in Arizona, and Coyne became its director; that same year he became Associate Director of the University of Arizona Steward Observatory, where the Vatican Observatory staff has offices. He retired as Director of the Vatican Observatory in 2006 but remains on the Observatory staff and directs the Vatican Observatory Foundation.
Clearly, Coyne’s life has virtually embodied the interaction of religion and science, and he has brought his own clear and creative thinking to the dialogue. In the 1990s he participated in a series of conferences on divine action that the Vatican Observatory organized in collaboration with the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley. He thinks of evolution as a modality of divine action. Many of these issues are examined in his book Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning, co-authored with Alesand Omizollo. For his scientific research, leadership, and other achievements, Coyne has received seven honorary doctorates.
Obviously, he knows the world as a scientist. He believes that God created the universe, although he cannot prove that scientifically. The question he ponders asks: Now, what kind of God would create a world that works like this?. The assumption he makes is: We have an elegant universe, with dynamism and creativity of its own, and God wanted it that way. The conclusion he draws is: God designed a continually creating universe, not one that was predetermined and this conclusion introduces indeterminacy. “Could God know that I myself would come to be?” Coyne queried. He believes the answer is no, because all is not predetermined.
He calls this his “universal view of creation” and he summarizes his reasoning as follows:
- A science that pretends to find or deny God actually belittles God.
- Science as such tells us about the universe, not about God.
- If I believe in God, the universe as science sees it also tells me about God.
- God is not like an engineer who designed the universe to run forever in the same way.
- God, as the universe reveals, is a loving parent.
A loving parent nurtures — and then lets go.
Carol Rausch Albright lives in Chicago and is a visiting professor of religion and science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She has written and edited numerous books and articles and is best known for her work in the area of neuroscience and complexity studies, ideas that are explored in her most recent book Growing in the Image of God (2002). Carol’s website, www.carolalbright.net, contains more information on her work in religion and science.