Recent developments in astronomy have implications that may go beyond their contribution to science itself. In a nutshell, astronomers, studying the Universe through their telescopes, have been forced to the conclusion that the world began suddenly, in a moment of creation, as the product of unknown forces.
The first scientific indication of an abrupt beginning for the world appeared about fifty years ago. At that time American astronomers, studying the great clusters of stars called galaxies, stumbled on evidence that the entire Universe is blowing up before our eyes. According to their observations, all the galaxies in the Universe are moving away from us and from one another at very high speeds, and the most distant are receding at the extraordinary speed of hundreds of millions of miles an hour.
This discovery led directly to the picture of a sudden beginning for the Universe; for if we retrace the movements of the moving galaxies backward in time, we find that at an earlier time they must have been closer together than they are today; at a still earlier time, they must have been still closer together; and if we go back far enough in time, we find that at a certain critical moment in the past all the galaxies in the Universe were packed together into one dense mass at an enormous density, pressure and temperature. Reacting to this pressure, the dense, hot matter must have exploded with incredible violence. The instant of the explosion marked the birth of the Universe.
The seed of everything that has happened in the Universe was planted in that first instant; every star, every planet and every living creature in the Universe came into being as a result of events that were set in motion in the moment of the cosmic explosion. It was literally the moment of Creation.
From a philosophical point of view, this finding has traumatic implications for science. Scientists have always felt more comfortable with the idea of a Universe that has existed forever, because their thinking is permeated with the idea of Cause and Effect; they believe that every event that takes place in the world can be explained in a rational way as the consequence of some previous event. Einstein once said, "The scientist is possessed of a sense of infinite causation." If there is a religion in science, this statement can be regarded as its principal article of faith. But the latest astronomical results indicate that at some point in the past the chain of cause and effect terminated abruptly. An important event occurred-the origin of the world-for which there is no known cause or explanation within the realm of science. The Universe flashed into being, and we cannot find out what caused that to happen.
This is a distressing result for scientists because, in the scientist's view, given enough time and money, he must be able to find an explanation for the beginning of the Universe on his own terms-an explanation that fits into the framework of natural rather than supernatural forces.
So, the scientist asks himself, what cause led to the effect we call the Universe? And he proceeds to examine the conditions under which the world began. But then he sees that he is deprived-today, tomorrow, and very likely forever-of finding out the answer to this critical question.
Why is that? The answer has to do with the conditions that prevailed in the first moments of the Universe's existence. At that time it must have been compressed to an enormous-perhaps infinite-density, temperature and pressure. The shock of that moment must have destroyed every relic of an earlier, pre-creation Universe that could have yielded a clue to the cause of the great explosion. To find that cause, the scientist must reconstruct the chain of events that took place prior to the seeming moment of creation, and led to the appearance of our Universe as their end product. But just this, he cannot do. For all the evidence he might have examined to that end has been melted down and destroyed in the intense heat and pressure of the first moment. No clue remains to the nature of the forces-natural or supernatural that conspired to bring about the event we call the Big Bang.
This is a very surprising conclusion. Nothing in the history of science leads us to believe there should be a fundamental limit to the results of scientific inquiry. Science has had extraordinary success in piecing together the elements of a story of cosmic evolution that adds many details to the first pages of Genesis. The scientist has traced the history of the Universe back in time from the appearance of man to the lower animals, then across the threshold of life to a time when the earth did not exist, and then back farther still to a time when stars and galaxies had not yet formed and the heavens were dark. Now he goes farther back still, feeling he is close to success-the answer to the ultimate question of beginning-when suddenly the chain of cause and effect snaps. The birth of the Universe is an effect for which he cannot find the cause.
Some say still that if the astronomer cannot find that cause today, he will find it tomorrow, and we will read about it in the New York Times when Walter Sullivan gets around to reporting on it. But I think the circumstances of the Big Bang-the fiery holocaust that destroyed the record of the past-make that extremely unlikely.
This is why it seems to me and to others that the curtain drawn over the mystery of creation will never be raised by human efforts, at least in the foreseeable future. Although I am an agnostic, and not a believer, I still find much to ponder in the view expressed by the British astronomer E. A. Milne, who wrote, "We can make no propositions about the state of affairs [in the beginning]; in the Divine act of creation God is unobserved and unwitnessed."