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Is the Big Bang a Proof of God?

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Karin Oberg is a professor of astronomy at Harvard University who also teaches Aquinas at the Thomistic Institute. Who better to ask about whether or not the Big Bang gives us slam dunk evidence for the existence of God?


Does the science of the Big Bang prove that God is the creator? Scientist Karin Oberg is next.

Cy Kellett:

We’ve got a big time topic for you this time about whether or not the Big Bang proves that God is the creator of the universe. And we thought if we’re I ask a big question like that, we need a big time guests to give us an answer. So we got professor Karin Oberg. She’s a professor of astronomy at Harvard university. She’s got a whole bunch of fellowships, a Sloan fellowship, Packard fellowship, a whole bunch of others. She’s a very, very smart person and she’s a Catholic. And so she understands the world from both a Thomistic perspective and from a modern scientific perspective. And we said to her, “Can you let us know, does the Big Bang actually give us proof of God’s existence?” Here’s what Dr. Karin Oberg had to say.

Doctor Karin Oberg. Thank you so much for being with us today on Catholic Answers Focus.

Karin Oberg:

Well, it’s a pleasure to be with you. So thank you for having me.

Cy Kellett:

Well, first I want to ask a very basic question and I hope I don’t offend you with that, many of my questions will be very basic. I’m not going to ask you about organic molecules in comets or anything like that, because I don’t know anything about those things.

Karin Oberg:

Well, I love organic molecules and comets, but also like basic questions though.

Cy Kellett:

All right. Fair enough. Here’s my basic question. Is the Big Bang, is that the moment or the instant of creation? Or is creation something we should think of separate from the Big Bang?

Karin Oberg:

We should think about it as separate. So that’s the very short answer, but I’m sure you have some followups on the why.

Cy Kellett:

That’s exactly it. So it seems like a very creative moment. It seems like the whole universe just bursts into existence at that moment, but is that not what science teaches us about that moment?

Karin Oberg:

I mean, it’s a great question. And I think it’s such an intuitive place to go to that this is really a moment of creation. And I think many of us who are scientists and also people of faith, well, we don’t see it as proof for creation, and I’ll come back to that in a moment, it is certainly very suggestive and I think really beautiful icon of creation. And that’s how I would see it, providentially, we have been provided with this image, which I think is the closest we could ever get to what creation is like.

Karin Oberg:

But no, it does not prove creation. It’s not creation as we typically think of theologically. So it is a Catholic teaching that God created the world out of nothing. We don’t know if the Big Bang came out of nothing. So that’s one, I think very important thing. What the Big Bang theory describes is the very early and very rapid expansion of the universe from something so tiny, we can’t even imagine it, into the giant universe of you also country to imagine that we have today, but it doesn’t describe where that initial thing that was expanding came from.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. Are there things, however, that from a scientific perspective that we could say about that thing. I mean, I hate to say it’s a thing because it’s everything we’ve ever seen, everything we’ve ever known is there, but in a tiny infinitesimally small spot. Are there things that we can say about that? Or do we just have to accept that it exists and not say anything about it?

Karin Oberg:

So we can speculate about its origins also from a scientific point of view. So one speculation has been that this initial, what’s sometimes been referred to as sort the primordial nucleus or primordial soup, something very, very primordial atom, that that came into existence spontaneously out of what’s referred to as sort of a quantum vacuum. It’s as close to nothing as a physicist would get, but it’s not actually nothing because there’s still the laws of quantum physics would be there, which is definitely something. So there are a scientific speculations about where this initial, sort of root of the Big Bang, this initial thing came from, but it’s not something that we can prove with observations or experiments because we can’t actually look outside of our universe.

Cy Kellett:

Something you said struck me, I don’t want to interrupt you if you, but recently, a few years ago, there was a book by a famous physicist. I think it might’ve been called Something From Nothing in which the argument was made that the universe came from nothing, because it was, like you said, this kind of quantum state, but you’re saying something quite contradictory that it’s not something from nothing. There had to be something in order to get the Big Bang.

Karin Oberg:

Maybe.

Cy Kellett:

Oh.

Karin Oberg:

So let’s take a step back.

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Karin Oberg:

So, yeah, so part of this I think is a semantic question. So when a physicist talks about nothing, the closest to nothing you can get is this so-called quantum vacuum. But the laws of quantum physics are still there. And that might be a physicist version of nothing, but it’s not a theological nothing or a philosophical nothing, because there is still a law. There is still… It’s empty, but there are still structure. There’s a structure to it.

Cy Kellett:

It’s not just theological and philosophical, but that’s not a common sense nothing, either. If you ask somebody, “What’s nothing?” They wouldn’t go, “Well, it’s a quantum vacuum where all the laws of quantum mechanics exist.”

Karin Oberg:

Maybe. But I think with actually many people wouldn’t do to think of a nothing, as let’s say the space between stars. If there’s nothing there, then people say there’s nothing there. Right?

Cy Kellett:

Got it.

Karin Oberg:

So I think there is something intuitive about it. So I don’t want to sort of bash the physicist too much, but it’s not what a theologian or a philosopher would be with nothing. So that, I guess, is answer one. The second is, does that mean that the Big Bang had to come out of something? Well, if it wasn’t created out of nothing by let’s say God, yes. Then it would have had to come out of something. So that’s a big if.

Cy Kellett:

I see. I see. So we either… Oh, I see. Okay. So it is possible that you could say, “Well, actually even that quantum vacuum didn’t exist.” I mean, actually we do say that. We said at some point, even the quantum vacuum doesn’t exist. However, God did the act of creation. There is a time where something comes out of nothing where God makes all of it out of nothing.

Karin Oberg:

That’s right. And we don’t know if that’s happened at the beginning of our universe, or if there was something before that our universe came into existence out of. So that’s, I’ll say opaque to us, because we can’t look outside of our universe. But we do know, I think by philosophical consideration that something doesn’t come out of nothing, unless it is created by something that is being in itself. And of course we know by faith who that someone that’s.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So it is conceivable then that the creation of our universe is a thing that might have happened many times. Or, not our universe, but something similar might have happened many times.

Karin Oberg:

Yeah. I wouldn’t put it past God that he could have created multiple universes, nor can we say that we don’t know if there is some superstructure from which our universe has sort of come into existence out of, and potentially multiple universes, could have come into existence out of. So I don’t know if that makes sense, but it still doesn’t answer the question, whether it was natural process or whether God sort of brought into existence multiple universes.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So, and either way, neither would be a denial of God as the ultimate creator, it would just be a matter of, well, it would push creation into a realm that we don’t know about right now.

Karin Oberg:

That’s right. That’s right.

Cy Kellett:

So you are a professor at Harvard. And if I said to you, where is the universe? You don’t have an answer for that.

Karin Oberg:

I do not know where the universe came from through the scientific method. I have some idea where it came from through other means.

Cy Kellett:

But what I mean is you don’t know where it is right now. You don’t know whether it’s in some greater superstructure or if it’s not within some greater superstructure.

Karin Oberg:

So that’s great. I don’t know if it’s all there is or if it exists within something else. That’s right.

Cy Kellett:

And they let you teach at Harvard.

Karin Oberg:

They do. Not cosmology, though. I should be-

Cy Kellett:

Fair enough.

Karin Oberg:

Transparent.

Cy Kellett:

You said you have your suspicions though.

Karin Oberg:

I do have my suspicions. Actually I’m more than suspicion suspicious is too weak. I guess, being coy. But yes. And I think there are other ways of knowing then through the scientific methods, we already mentioned two, either through philosophical reasoning or through theological revelation and speculation.

Cy Kellett:

So does that mean, you would say you think that the… Whatever existed before the Big Bang or that the moment before that to make that is the moment of creation or no?

Karin Oberg:

I mean, there could be one way to put it. I think maybe just simpler, I think there was a moment of creation and I don’t know when that moment occurred. But yes, I think there was, and I would say both were philosophical and theological reasons.

Cy Kellett:

Right. Both philosophy and theology point to the insufficiency of matter to and energy to just exist without being rooted in a more profound being.

Karin Oberg:

That’s right. That’s right.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So, and I said that I understood it, but I just strung together a bunch of words. I know you understand it, but I’m not sure about it. But okay, so the creation out of nothing is a necessary conclusion of theology and philosophy, but is it a question that as a scientist that you just don’t ask.. Or do you see what I’m saying? You wear the crucifix around your neck, you’re sitting with another scientist and the two of you are working in that person wears a Darwin t-shirt or whatever there, you know, an atheist t-shirt, I don’t know what the symbol is for an atheist. And you respect each other and value each other as scientists. Do you just prescind from that question? Do you just… That’s not a question that’s in the scientific realm or how do scientists negotiate that question?

Karin Oberg:

Well, I don’t think it’s one that’s within the scientific realm. So you can even do cosmology can do astronomy whether or not you choose to address that question. I think like most people, scientists are curious about the world. I mean, that’s part of why they became scientists. So I’m sure also several of my atheist colleagues at some point have asked themselves this question, but it’s not something that comes up in daily work or daily discussions.

Cy Kellett:

Because it doesn’t need to?

Karin Oberg:

It doesn’t need to.

Cy Kellett:

So in other words, you can, as a scientist, start with certain assumptions about the laws of physics, for example, without having to say, who gave us the laws of physics.

Karin Oberg:

Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. And I think just… So that’s sort of empirically true. I mean, I look at so again, my atheist colleagues who are amazing scientists and they, they clearly get by without asking sort of one question more. And so I think that’s just empirically true.

Cy Kellett:

But does it, let me ask you this as a scientist though, do you ever have concern that say a young person was a person of faith, but of impressionable faith and wanted to study say, I don’t know, Astro, what is it called? Astrochemistry is that what you do?

Karin Oberg:

So I do astrochemistry, but it’s a sort of sub field within astronomy or astrophysics. So either of those things works.

Cy Kellett:

Would you have any concern about, I’m not trying to get you to talk anybody out of studying the sciences, but what I’m saying is, does science challenge, faith? Or would you feel, no, that person is safe studying science?

Karin Oberg:

I think that depends. So I think if you have had a good formation about, what we know through revelation, what we know through theological speculation, I think there is zero risk with studying science. In fact, I think it’s just something that sort of trains your mind, that you can bring them with you into theology and in your relationship with God. I think where there is the risk, is if you have been taught how to read Genesis, for example, in an unhelpful way. And then if you are told that you get become convinced that let’s say the Big Bang theory provides a better explanation of the early working, like the early universe than Genesis does.

Karin Oberg:

And then based on that, you draw a conclusion that you contrast the Bible. So I think there are definitely people who do become very challenged by studying, studying different scientific topics, but it’s biology or astronomy. But I think that’s mostly our fault that we haven’t actually taught people, especially young people, what it is that our faith, the Catholic church, the teachings of the church, what can be guaranteed to be true, and what parts of the Bible, where we do need to bring in some knowledge from other parts of life, to have the best possible weeding.

Cy Kellett:

I feel very sympathetic to that because we talk to people all the time who have lost their faith for one reason or another. And this is really, as a world-class scientist yourself and a Catholic, a fellow Catholic kind of, I think, a warning or an alert to the catechist to be careful how you teach creation, how you teach the Bible.

Karin Oberg:

Absolutely. And I think part of it is just being humble and asking for assistance, but still daring to talk about it because I think what happens often, and I don’t trust statistics on this, but from talking to students, is that they have never actually been catechized on science and religion growing up. Which means that they have learned of the relationship between science and religion from other channels, such as different kinds of media channels, which typically present, not really Catholicism versus science, but other kinds of Christian interpretations that say of Genesis, and then they identify with that sort of media narrative where they stand in this proposed conflict. So I think part of it’s just staring to talk about it, even if you get things wrong then, and then it’s better to have those discussions and then bring in experts.

Cy Kellett:

Now, is this also why you, again as a scientist, a Harvard scientist, you’ve worked with the Aquinas or excuse me, yeah, the Thomistic Institute. I’m sorry, the class is called Aquinas 1010 that I was going to refer to, but with the Thomistic Institute, to try to speak as both a scientist and a Catholic about how these things can be better conceived of?

Karin Oberg:

Absolutely. I mean, I just love working with the Dominican’s to start with, so whenever they want me to do something with them, I pretty much say yes. But the point of what we’re doing right now is within the Aquinas one-on-one program, but it’s a science and religion course within that framework. And it is really to present, I think, in a straightforward, but still pretty high level way, what science teaches, what faith teaches and why there’s actually not a conflict between them, even though you’re often told otherwise.

Cy Kellett:

And you can just Google to Thomistic Institute and we’ll put the notes on the show so people can find it, the Aquinas 101 course. So is this something that you, as a Catholic, feel an obligation to do as a scientist to kind of… Because I have to say science, at a certain level, is accessible to all of us, but then science becomes about pieces of equipment and theoretical structures that we don’t have access to. And so if a scientist says to us, “Well, if you really knew the science, you’d stop all this God stuff.” In a certain sense, we’re vulnerable because we don’t have access to the particle accelerators and it’s an opaque world to us entirely. So the argument from authority is actually very powerful because we’re vulnerable to it. Now you have the authority. Is this a part of your calculation and wanting to speak about this?

Karin Oberg:

It is. And I guess I should plug one more thing, which is the Society of Catholic Scientists, which is an organization that I’m a part of.

Cy Kellett:

Dr. Stephen Barr, also a physicist, right?

Karin Oberg:

He’s our fearless leader in that. And then, yeah, part of the reason that we came together was exactly for this to provide a counter narrative and then to provide a platform from where to reach out into different communities and make sure that we don’t let the sort of the militant atheist you [recite 00:19:11]. I mean, I should say that we sometimes overestimate how many scientists who are that sort of militant atheist. I teach and work at a very secular place, and I have had a super easy time being a Catholic here and being very outspokenly Catholic. So sometimes they just media likes to have good conflict’s going. People like watching good conflicts playing out. And they’re actually not as many of them as you might think. And it’s not the norm in academe that you have very militant atheist views.

Cy Kellett:

Now, if I may ask you just personally, were you a scientist first and then a Christian and a Catholic, or how did it all work for you?

Karin Oberg:

That’s right. So I am adult convert. So I went through my undergrad education, which was in chemistry before I had a very powerful moment of conversion. So I went from being agnostic, never atheist, but agnostic to being a practicing Christian in about an hour, just under an hour.

Cy Kellett:

Wow.

Karin Oberg:

Rapid conversion.

Cy Kellett:

Praise God, that’s beautiful.

Karin Oberg:

Yeah. I read Mere Christianity and I was completely convicted. And then it took me another few years to go from a Mere Christianity into the Catholic church. So I was a scientist before I converted, became a Christian, and I had my PhD in astronomy before I entered into the church. So I never experienced myself this conflict between science and religion. I think I entered into the church already being very comfortable with the truths revealed via science. And just assuming that if there was an apparent conflict that that was going to resolve itself. I never went into thinking that there was going to be any conflicts that were intrinsic, since all that I’ve seen so far was that the two ways of getting to the truth did not actually get in each other’s way. So I had to learn what these conflicts are supposed to be, and then try to address them

Cy Kellett:

At the very beginning of this conversation that we’re having, you used the word suggestive, to say that the Big Bang is suggestive of the work of the creator. I wonder, because I sensed a little bit of this at that point, that you also are anxious in our catechesis not to over promise on the other side as well. That is to say, “Well, the Big Bang proves God is the creator.” Or maybe, you can help me with this one too, because you hear about this fine tuning. And maybe you would use the word, not proof, but suggestive, there as well. So do you have any concern about the enthusiastic Christian person who wants to say, “Really? I mean, if you really follow the science, it proves God.”

Karin Oberg:

I don’t think that’s helpful to go down that route. I mean, I think you can definitely air in either direction. But I think if you, if you do say something such as “The Big Bang theory proves creation,” and then you do have an atheist who is also a good philosopher, I think they can even just read St. Thomas Aquinas and you’ll actually get the very good argument for why you can’t prove what are the world has the beginning or not. Does that then sort of cast out and whatever else you’re trying to say. So I think we always want to try to be conservative on the claims we’re making and the same thing would have fine tuning. I think there are both naturalistic and theological possible causes for fine tuning, and they’re not mutually exclusive. So I think it’s similar there. But, and I think this is interesting but, the world that we know today, is a very suggestive. It’s much more suggestive of a creator then, I think, the universe that people thought they were living in a hundred years ago.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So could you please expand on that. I’m fascinated by that point.

Karin Oberg:

Yeah. So I think philosophically, we know whether the universe is infinite in time or not. You need to create to sustain it. I mean, the sort of famous proofs for God’s existence, the word is contingent and everything is contingent, needs someone to sustain and convene. But I think it’s easier to ignore that if you actually, from a scientific point of view, think you have proof that the universe is infinite in time, which people did think in the early 20th century. It’s much more difficult to ignore creation, I think, when you have something like the Big Bang, which I said is this incredible image of what’s of creation, even if it’s not the moment of creation itself.

Karin Oberg:

And the same thing, as we have gotten to understand the laws of physics better and realized that we live in a universe that seems to be better fine tuned for having stars, planets, life in it. And there’s no reason from physics that we can tell why you do have this fine tuning. That, I think, it becomes very suggestive of that we live in a universe that has been created with a purpose. But I would definitely use the word suggestive. I would use words like icons, rather than proofs. I think that it’s the accurate way of describing it.

Cy Kellett:

However, what you just said suggests that the Catholic person who wants God to be known and loved by every person, should really have great confidence in science. Because as you said that this moment maybe in the year 1900 is not the moment that we live in in 2020. And it’s because of science that we have so many of more suggestions of God’s fatherhood.

Karin Oberg:

I mean, I think so. One of the things that I teach here is a course on science and religion. And I’m going to say that students today, I mean, who are Big Bang physics kind of students, they do find it quite intuitive that the world needs to have some sort of origin. It didn’t come out of nothing, it hasn’t always existed. It needed to somehow be created. And that doesn’t mean they’re going to turn into theists. But I think this kind of argument is more compelling today. It shouldn’t be philosophically, but we are intuitive people, and when we see that some initial moment of our universe, I think that is actually, that’s really helpful for pushing us then in thinking about creation.

Cy Kellett:

Not in terms of science, but just in terms of our own history, does it seem at all suggested to you that the source of the Big Bang theory comes from a Catholic priest?

Karin Oberg:

It’s awesome, isn’t it? It’s fantastic. I think this is one of those providential moments where this would the modern cosmos, as we now know, it was first born into mind of a Catholic priest and a very good physicist and mathematician too. And then it’s always risky to try to do sort of counterfactuals or figure out what it was that allowed him to have this idea when others didn’t, at the same time. But I think we can at least speculate that people who are wedded to the idea of an infinite universe in time, infinite in time, which was the case for most physicists at the turn of the century. For them, it would be more of a barrier to get from the theories and the observations at the time to an expanding universe with a beginning, while if you are this theologically open to this idea of a beginning, what would think that that would help in conceiving that idea and interpreting the data in that direction.

Cy Kellett:

Maybe we’ll leave it with this question then, that the work of the scientist in many ways is a work of imagination. The imagination has to be able to imagine other options, other possibilities, and the imagination is informed by the faith life.

Karin Oberg:

Absolutely. And I think, I mean, one of the things that we hold to be true as Christians is that God is the source of all truth. And that’s why we can be confident that a truth that we get from theology can never actually contradict a truth that’s been learned through science if they are properly understood. And it would make sense to me that if you train your mind and multiple disciplines, and if you stay as close as you possibly can, to the source of truth, that that would help your imagination also in the scientific realm.

Cy Kellett:

Wow. Your work is in exoplanets and the possibility of life out there. And at sometime, could we talk to you about that as well? And the theological implications of that?

Karin Oberg:

Absolutely. I would be very happy to come back.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, okay. Great. Good. Just tell me, because I know, you know. Are there aliens or not? Are they out there or not?

Karin Oberg:

I don’t know.

Cy Kellett:

Come on. You have to be in on the secret programs. I know Harvard is part of the secret programs. All right, you’re not allowed to-

Karin Oberg:

If I do, would you have me come back and actually talk about it?

Cy Kellett:

Yes, I would. If you give me an insight into that. Dr. Karin Oberg, she’ll teach you astronomy if you go to Harvard university. Thank you so much. It’s a great pleasure.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, also, I want to just say again, go to the Thomistic Institute and I look up Aquinas 101. You can learn more from Dr. Oberg. Dr. Karin Oberg. Thank you.

Karin Oberg:

Thank you.

Cy Kellett:

I felt like throughout that whole episode, Dr. Karin Oberg and I came across much of the intellectual equals. I felt like we were pretty much on the same level. And if you ever need me to I’ll explain organic chemicals inside of comets to you or whatever else you need. But I have to say, I’m one of those people who finds it very comforting, and maybe this is a childish reaction on my part, to meet world-class scientists who share the same faith that I do. I feel like they’ve fought through a lot of stuff that I haven’t thought through. And it’s just comforting, I guess, comforting and reassuring to know, not that I was doubting the faith. I just like getting that kind of a reassurance that people who can do things that I have no ability to do, and probably will not in this life, unless than maybe on the hit by some kind of media that gives me magical powers, in this life ever have the power to do so.

Cy Kellett:

I hope you enjoyed the conversation. If you have an idea for a future episode or a future guests, to send it to us. [email protected] is our email address. Focusatcatholic.com. Also, if you’re watching this on YouTube, look down there, find the bell, do the magic, like and subscribe that helps us grow this podcast. If you’re watching, if you’re listening on Apple podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, any of the other podcast services, please give us the five star review and maybe you words to promote the podcast and you can support us financially at givecatholic.com. Just go to givecatholic.com, give any amount to support this podcast and make sure you write a little note that says, this is for focus. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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