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Vatican astronomer ponders God, cosmology

By Sean McLachlan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 9, 1999
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The director of the Vatican Observatory last night told astronomers and students that God and science are not irreconcilable.

"God may be bigger than you think," said Father George V. Coyne, a Jesuit astronomer.

He paraphrased Galileo to dispute traditional visions of God in his talk "Is there a God of the Cosmologists?," presented as part of the Steward Observatory Public Lecture Series last night.

Coyne outlined the arguments for and against the existence of God used by two important theorists, Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking, asserting that both worked with incorrect assumptions.

Newton theorized that because the universe was of limited mass, gravity will eventually make it collapse in on itself. Because this has not happened, Newton stated that God must be stopping it.

Coyne disagreed, saying that by trying to prove God in this fashion means "you are trying to be as rational in your belief as you are rational in your science, and that's quite dangerous."

Where It's At

The Steward Observatory Public Lecture Series is held twice a month.
Lectures are Mondays at 7:30 p.m. in Steward Observatory room N210.
The next lecture will be "The Dark Side of the Universe", presented by Dr. Matthias Steinmetz on Feb. 22.
More information is available by calling 621-6524 or on the Steward Observatory website.
Arguments that seem logical may eventually be disproved, Coyne said. Later researchers discovered other reasons for the continued expansion of the universe. God was no longer needed in the equation, he said.

"Using God to explain something or not to explain something is wrong," said Coyne.

Stephen Hawking made a similar mistake, according to Coyne. In his famous book, "A Brief History of Time," Hawking gives a scientific explanation for the creation of the universe. Because of his theory, Hawking felt, there was no need for a creator.

"We don't need God at all if we need Him to explain things" Coyne responded, "The God he [Hawking] threw out is not the God I believe in."

Both of these scientists believed that God could be proved or disproved by showing whether or not he was necessary to explain the universe. Coyne said that this is an incorrect assumption.

"It is always implied that if you throw out purpose you throw out God," he said "I think this is a fallacy, a fundamental fallacy."

Coyne said that the complex history of the universe eventually led to conditions favorable to life. Stars were born out of primordial clouds of gas and dust, flaring to life when they reached a critical mass capable of supporting nuclear fusion. After billions of years, they often exploded into novas, creating giant clouds of matter that became the birthing places of a new generation of stars. As this process continued, elements needed for life, such as carbon, were formed.

"To get enough carbon to make a human being, you need three generations of stars," said Coyne. "The universe developed a way to reflect upon itself, namely the human brain."

Coyne points out that a great deal of chance was involved in the creation of humanity, but given the vastness of the universe and the long time scale involved, there were many opportunities for life to be formed.

Coyne, however, said he does not believe that God forced the universe along this path. He envisions a God that created the conditions of the universe and then let it develop.

"He is like a father or a mother," Coyne said.

The God Coyne describes is beyond human understanding, beyond the limits of scientific rationality. God, according to Coyne, is a loving God, but one that allows the processes of nature to take their own path.

"That" said Coyne "is a much richer God to me than the God of Newton."