Saturday, May 20, 2023

The Theme Song for The Big Bang Theory--Scientific Cosmology or Divine Creation?


The Big Bang Theory was one of the most popular television shows of all time, and its reruns continue to attract viewers.  It ran on CBS from 2007 to 2019, with 279 episodes over 12 seasons.  

The theme song that begins each episode was written and sung by a Canadian singing group named the "Barenaked Ladies."  Here's the full song, which goes beyond the first nine lines broadcast on the show.

Our whole universe was in a hot dense state
Then nearly 14 billion years ago, expansion started (wait)
The Earth began to cool
The autotrophs began to drool
Neanderthals developed tools
We built a wall (we built the pyramids)
Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery
That all started with the big bang
Since the dawn of man is really not that long
As every galaxy was formed in less time than it takes to sing this song
A fraction of a second and the elements were made
The bipeds stood up straight
The dinosaurs all met their fate
They tried to leap, but they were late
And they all died (they froze their asses off)
The oceans and Pangaea
See ya, wouldn't wanna be set in motion by the same big bang
It all started with the big bang
It's expanding ever outward but one day
It will pause and start to go the other way
Collapsing ever inward, we won't be here, it won't be heard
Our best and brightest figure that it'll make an even bigger bang
Australopithecus would really have been sick of us
Debating how we're here, they're catching deer (we're catching viruses)
Religion or astronomy, Descartes or Deuteronomy
It all started with the big bang

Music and mythology, Einstein and astrology
It all started with the big bang
It all started with the big bang

The first sentence is a remarkably pithy and accurate statement of the Big Bang Theory:  "Our whole universe was in a hot dense state, then nearly fourteen billion years ago, expansion started."  Notice that this offers a purely scientific account of the origin and evolutionary history of the universe with no reference to God as the Creator of it all.  Here there is no "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."  It recognizes both science and religion as products of human cultural evolution: "Religion or astronomy, Descartes or Deuteronomy.  It all started with the big bang!"  But it relies on science rather than religion to explain the evolution of the universe.

This is fitting for a show that is all about scientists who are also atheists.  Almost all of the leading characters are scientists.  Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter are physicists at Caltech.  Howard Wolowitz is an aerospace engineer.  Raj Koothrappali is an astrophysicist.  Bernadette Rostenkowski is a microbiologist.  Amy Farrah Fowler is a neuroscientist.  Actually, the actress who plays Amy--Mayim Bialik--has a Ph.D. in neuroscience.  The only leading character who is not a scientist is Penny, who is a waitress.  Her ignorance of science becomes a running joke.  The comic theme running through the show is the social awkwardness and autistic behavior of all these nerdy scientists.

To make sure the scientific discussions were accurate, David Saltzberg, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, served as the science advisor.  Also, Mayim Bialik sometimes offered advice about biology.  Some prominent scientists were so interested in the show that they were willing to make cameo appearances, which included Stephen Hawking and Neil de Grassie Tyson.  

Hawking and Tyson are both atheistic scientists.  I have written about Hawking's atheism.  But I have also written about many prominent scientists today who are religious believers--such as Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich, and Deborah Haarsma.  That The Big Bang Theory makes no reference to scientists like this suggests that the producers and writers for this show are deliberately promoting the claim that modern science must be atheistic.

Much of the show revolves around Sheldon and his life story.  He grew up in East Texas in a Southern Baptist family that struggled to understand him because he was a child prodigy with an IQ of 187, who used his intelligence to make scientific arguments against religious belief.

Since 2017, CBS has broadcast a spin-off prequel--Young Sheldon--about Sheldon's childhood in the 1980s and 1990s.  The theme of scientific cosmology as supporting atheism against religious belief continues in this show.  

Pastor Jeff is the minister of the Southern Baptist church where the Cooper family goes every Sunday.  The young Sheldon is determined to show everyone that he can use science to refute Pastor Jeff's religious beliefs by arguing that the Bible's story of Creation is denied by the evidence for the natural evolution of the universe and human life.

One example of this conflict between science and religion is the third episode of the second season (airing on October 4, 2018) entitled "A Crisis of Faith and Octopus Aliens."  This episode begins with the Cooper family attending church on a Sunday.  Pastor Jeff is delivering his sermon, and suddenly Sheldon raises his hand to ask a question.  He challenges Pastor Jeff to tell him what God would look like in an alien planet inhabited by octopuses.  Would God look like an octopus?  Jeff struggles to answer.

Then, that Sunday afternoon, Sheldon's mother Mary receives a phone call and is told that the 17-year-old daughter of her friend Stephanie Hanson had died in an accident.  Mary and her husband George go to the funeral.  Throughout the week, Mary is troubled by the question of why an all-good God would torture a good Christian like Stephanie by killing her innocent child.  She talks with Pastor Jeff, but he cannot give her a satisfactory answer.

On Saturday night, Mary takes her mother to a bar named "Lucky's Place," where they drink and play billiards.  She tells her mother about her religious struggle and how this has depressed her mood.  She is drunk, and she is driven home by her mother.  Her husband George takes her to bed.

The next day, Sunday, she does not go to church, and she does not say a prayer at the family dinner.  Her husband and children are shocked to see these signs that she is doubting her faith in God.

Later, in the evening, Sheldon comes out to the front porch of their house to talk with her and attempt to comfort her.  Here's the scene:

Notice that even though Sheldon is an atheist, he makes a scientific argument for the existence of God based on the "fine-tuning" of the universe.  The strength of gravity must be mathematically precise--neither too strong nor too weak--to make it possible for the universe to exist as a place where human life can emerge.  Isn't it unlikely that that could be just an accident?  Doesn't this logically suggest the need for God to design the precise conditions that make the universe and life possible?  Sheldon indicates that he is still an atheist, but he does see this as a scientifically logical argument for religious belief.

Mary responds by saying that her problem with God is not a matter of logic in her head but what she feels in her heart.  Sheldon then makes another argument that might appeal to her heart.  In a world of over five billion people, how likely is it that I would have the one woman who is a perfect mom for me?  Mary is moved by this, and she thanks God for giving her Sheldon as her child.  In the voice-over, the adult Sheldon tells the viewers that he didn't tell his mom that he shouldn't have to share credit with God for making the argument that comforted her.

One of the YouTube clips of this scene has a comment from "B Sharp" about Sheldon's first argument:  "I love Young Sheldon, and this is a sweet moment.  However, Sheldon is using the fine-tuning apologetics argument, which is fallacious.  The universe wasn't created for humans.  Humans evolved to exist in this universe."

One could also respond in a similar way to Sheldon's second argument.  That a son loves his mother is not an unlikely event that requires some supernatural intervention, because parent-child bonding is an evolutionary adaptation of human nature.

But then what if evolved human nature includes a natural desire for religious understanding--for transcendence and transcendent meaning?  This emotional desire is not based on pure logic, and therefore it cannot be refuted by logical argument.  And, therefore, as Rebecca Goldstein has shown, the emotional longing for religious transcendence prevails over scientific reasoning, particularly when science faces fundamental mysteries in the universe that cannot ever be explained by reason alone; and thus Revelation cannot be refuted by Reason.  Perhaps this is what Mary Cooper meant when she pointed to what she felt in her heart.

Nevertheless, the fine-tuning argument is one of the best scientific arguments for God as the Intelligent Designer of the universe.  Christian astrophysicists like Owen Gingerich and Deborah Haarsma like to invoke this argument.  And yet, I have written some posts indicating the flaws in this line of reasoning.

It is not really clear, for example, that scientific cosmology shows that the universe is precisely fine-tuned for life, and particularly human life.  Most cosmologists agree that the universe will come to an end, and that all life will be extinguished.  Consider, again, the theme song for The Big Bang Theory:

"It's expanding ever outward, but one day it will pause and start to go the other way, collapsing ever inward, we won't be here, it won't be heard.  Our best and brightest future that it'll make an even bigger bang!"

Does the end of the universe in a big collapse mean that far from being fine-tuned for life, the universe has been fine-tuned for death?  Or should we have faith in those eschatological religions that promise eternal life after death?

That's the topic for the next post.

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