View by:  Subject  Theme  Question  Term  Person  Event

Closing Reflections

The three cosmic questions considered in this volume are of significantly different kinds. One is a rather straightforward empirical question that may be able to be answered in the next century. One is a more theoretical question for which it may be very difficult to generate sufficient empirical evidence to discern which of the theoretical alternatives, if any, is most adequate. One of the questions is not strictly a scientific question at all but one on the broader philosophical or religious interpretation of the findings of science.

An Empirical Question

Are we alone? We may well have a definitive answer to that question before the end of the 21st century. Within a decade or two we are likely to have a better idea of the degree to which life in the universe is ubiquitous or rare. The more life, the more likely that some of it, given a rich ecological context, will have evolved functional capacities comparable to human intelligence. It is also worth noting in passing that even on Earth it is likely that non-human intelligence will appear in the next century. From a religious perspective, an encounter with an extraterrestrial intelligence (or a homegrown artificial intelligence) will call for an expansion of the theological horizon, but is unlikely to undermine religion, as such, except for those traditions that are constitutively committed to a very small, homocentric universe.

A Theoretical Question

Did the universe have a beginning? This is a theoretical question that sounds as though it were an empirical one. At present, Big Bang cosmology seems the best explanation of the development of the universe from an early hot, dense state. Evidence is mounting that some inflationary version of Big Bang cosmology will also be supported by the growing body of observational data. However, it is unlikely that any observation or set of observations will be able to definitively determine whether ours is the only universe there is, whether it is finite but has no beginning point, or whether it is but one of an ensemble of universes evolving in some meta-spacetime. This is not to say that observational evidence will not make some of the theoretical proposals seem less plausible than others. It is to say, however, that the question of cosmic beginnings will remain a matter of theoretical judgment rather than evidentiary conclusion.

The great religions of the world have different notions of cosmic history and the situation of the universe in time. The western Abrahamic faiths have a more linear view of cosmic history, with a beginning and an end toward which universal history is moving. The eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism have a more existential view of history, situating the universe temporally in a timeless present. In this context there is a complex dance between cosmological theory and theological or religious understanding. Because all religious perspectives have some assumption about the nature of the cosmos, particular theoretical alternatives about cosmic origins will be more or less congenial with particular religious traditions. Because theories tend to be underdetermined by the evidence, the judgments of cosmologists between the various theoretical alternatives may be shaded by extra-scientific commitments including religious ones.

A Religious Question

Is the universe designed? Is the cup half full or half empty? The question of cosmic design is not strictly a scientific one. It is of the nature of science to seek natural (as contrasted with transcendent or ultimate) explanations for natural phenomena. It is in the effort to discover the foundational order of the cosmos, its most basic laws, that a transcendent domain is approached (but not necessarily a transcendent orderer).  The answer to the question of cosmic design, yes or no, is a religious interpretation of what can be known or reasonably believed about the structure and history of the cosmos rather than a direct conclusion required by that structure and history. It is a religious interpretation because the religious quest, in its most generic sense, addresses the question of personal meaning in the midst of all the dimensions of our experience of life. To be sure, the credibility of particular religious claims must be judged in relation to what we know reliably about the structure and history of the cosmos. But it seems to be a distinguishing feature of human nature that we as a species do make such claims.

In the end the papers in this volume do not answer the cosmic questions they consider. In the final account, perhaps we are not all that different from our hominid ancestors who first looked at the heavens and wondered. If anything, we today have access to a richer, more varied and complex vision than they did. Yet like them we are drawn to the question: What does it all mean? Even if we say, “Nothing,” we have expressed a religious stance in the midst of the cosmos.

Contributed by: Dr. Jim Miller

Topic Sets Available

AAAS Report on Stem-Cells

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, Emergence
Big Bang Cosmology and Theology (GHC)
Cosmic Questions Interviews

Cosmos and Creator
Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
CTNS Content Home
Darwin: A Friend to Religion?
Demystifying Information Technology
Divine Action (GHC)
Dreams and Dreaming: Neuroscientific and Religious Visions'
E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom
Engaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
Evangelical Atheism: a response to Richard Dawkins
Ecology and Christian Theology
Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?
Evolution and Providence
Evolution and Creation Survey
Evolution and Theology (GHC)
Evolution, Creation, and Semiotics

The Expelled Controversy
Faith and Reason: An Introduction
Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging, and Healthcare in the 21st Century

Francisco Ayala on Evolution

From Christian Passions to Scientific Emotions
Genetic Engineering and Food

Genetics and Ethics
Genetic Technologies - the Radical Revision of Human Existence and the Natural World

Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics
Getting Mind out of Meat
God and Creation: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Big Bang Cosmology
God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion
God the Spirit - and Natural Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)
History of Creationism
Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Issues for the Millennium: Cloning and Genetic Technologies
Jean Vanier of L'Arche
Nano-Technology and Nano-ethics
Natural Science and Christian Theology - A Select Bibliography
Neuroscience and the Soul
Outlines of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)

Perspectives on Evolution

Physics and Theology
Quantum Mechanics and Theology (GHC)
Questions that Shape Our Future
Reductionism (GHC)
Reintroducing Teleology Into Science
Science and Suffering

Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS/Vatican Series)

Space Exploration and Positive Stewardship

Stem-Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
Stem-Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief

Stem-Cell Questions
Theistic Evolution: A Christian Alternative to Atheism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design...
Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions
Unscientific America: How science illiteracy threatens our future
Will ET End Religion?

Current Stats: topics: >2600, links: >300,000, video: 200 hours.