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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

Related Topics:

Cosmic Questions - Home
Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
The Cultural and Scientific Background
Before the Beginning?
Does it Matter Religiously?
Was the Universe Designed?
Cosmic Evolution and Design
Is the Universe Designed?
Religious Reflections
Are We Alone?
Life in the Universe
Intelligent Life in the Universe?
Theological Reflection

AAAS Program of Dialogue on Science Ethics and Religion

Related Media:

Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Was the Universe Designed?
Are We Alone?
Interview Index