Chapter 9 is entitled The Things God Has Made: How Science Enlarges Our View of Life and Death. Wallace gives a lot of talks at churches. A frequently asked question is, “What happened before the Big Bang”. On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable question, when people ask this they are picturing something existing before all the stars and galaxies show up, even if it’s just empty space waiting around for the big boom. So he’ll explain that empty space is not a thing. Even space containing zero normal matter and set to a temperature of absolute zero – a condition known as the quantum vacuum – simmers with short lived electromagnetic fields and particle-antiparticle pairs popping into and out of existence. The answer is that nobody knows what happened before the Big Bang because there was no space or time for anything to happen in. Both space and time were produced by the Big Bang; and it stands as a wall with no seeing through it or around it. He will usually tell the audience that, as sensible as the question sounds, asking what happens before the Big Bang is a little like asking what’s south of the South Pole. The question is out of bounds by definition.
Wallace’s point is that the question is not just prompted by scientific curiosity but there lurks a theological question as well. Behind the question he hears, “Yes, all this evolution business is fine, but it’s really God that wound it all up and let it rip, right? People want to make sure that he hasn’t pushed God out of the picture, that there is a place for the Creator in an evolving cosmos. But there is a faulty assumption at work here, the fallacy of God-of-the-Gaps. It says God works in those places science can’t reach, such as before the Big Bang. But the history of science shows that, time after time, science has advanced into quarters previously thought beyond its scope. This kind of thinking results in God shrinking, because it means whenever science advances, God retreats.
But God is present in all creation, whether there exists a natural proximate explanation or not. Wallace then invokes the anthropic principle: the philosophical consideration that observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. Proponents of the anthropic principle reason that it explains why this universe has the age and the fundamental physical constants necessary to accommodate conscious life. It’s the observation that life would not be possible anywhere in the universe if the values of various physical constants differed by small amounts.
My friend, the physicist David Heddle, liked to explain the responses to the anthropic principle fall into 3 categories with his poker analogy:
- Suppose I take a deck of cards
- I tell you that unless I shuffle them and deal you a royal flush of hearts (one try) you’ll die
- And then I do just that…
There are three competing explanations…
- If I didn’t deal that way, you’d be dead, and we wouldn’t be talking about it, so no big deal.
- There are an infinite number of universes, in most of them you died, but there is an infinitely large subset in which you lived.
- The dealer cheated so that you would live.
The point is that nothing is evidence for God or everything is. The world is a miracle, as are we in it.
But the story is not all starlight and fine, sturdy creatures. If you turn the coin of evolution bright side down and consider its opposite face, you’ll encounter a nasty, brutish affair that runs on chance and death. You’ll see that Homo sapiens is riding the leading edge of a great red tsunami, a four billion year tidal wave of violence and suffering. Here Wallace recites the litany of evolution; death is the rule; survival is the exception. The horrors of parasitism, the endless deaths of creatures so that a few survive, matriphagy – the eating of offspring by the mother – common in scorpions, spiders, and crabs. Even big mammals like chimpanzees, sloth bears, and lions, are known to eat their young without warning and without known cause.
These too, are the things God has made. “God’s eternal power and divine nature” has apparently been expressed by billions of years of inefficiency, arbitrary suffering, and violence. God may have opted for the long road, but it’s a hard and bloody one, too. Wallace has two thoughts about this.
“First we often forget how shocking is the fact that we find ourselves in within a universe in the first place and are able to bear witness to it, know it, form sentences about it, and communicate with one another about these things we call life and death. We should periodically be reminded of the gratuitous and astonishing gift of existence. Art and stories and poetry and music and science and walks in the woods and acts of love large and small have the power to draw us back into the wonder, the fountainhead of both faith and science.
When we lose our capacity for wonder, we dishonor existence and forfeit the ability to place death and suffering in their proper context. The thought of that great red tsunami will overwhelm us only if we fail to back up, take a larger view, and see all life as a gift. I do not mean to downplay death or minimize suffering but to suggest wonder, which I think of as a pointed awareness of and gratitude for the gift of existence, as an antidote to their poison.”
“Second, the Creator has not abandoned us on this beautiful but bloody planet. God knows firsthand the worst our violent universe can dish out. God weeps, God suffers, God dies, and God lives. Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection reveal a truth of the universe as fundamental as relativity and quantum mechanics…
Jesus, no less than you and me and T. rex, was born into the flow of evolution and is therefore intimately bound up not only with human beings but with every single creature that has ever lived and will ever live, no matter how strange or insignificant…
When we accept evolution, we see that God is woven into the very fabric of all material reality, not just the human or even the conscious part of it. In taking on the violence and suffering inherent in physical reality, Jesus transforms it, revealing the great love of God for all creatures and all things everywhere, here and throughout the cosmos.”