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[The following passage is an excerpt from David Berlinski’s interesting book, The Advent of the Algorithm, 2000.]

“Yes,” said the cardinal, “but what lies before the big bang? I am asking in ignorance.”

“Nothing.”

Nothing?

“Nothing.”

“But my dear Professore Dottore, surely this troubles the intellect, no? There is nothing for all eternity, and then—poof—there is something.”

The professor Dottore shook his head vigourously. “No, no, Eminence,” he said. “There was no eternity before. This is a mistake.”

Ah,” said the cardinal, “eternity a mistake.”

“I am talking only of science, Eminence,” said the professore Dottore apologetically. “Space and time were created with the universe. They have no prior existence.”

“Then there is no time before this big bang of which you speak?”

“It seems difficult to grasp, Eminence, but just as there is no point north of the North Pole, so there is no time prior to the big bang.”

“Then there is nothing to explain the creation of the universe.” The cardinal motioned with his hand to the walls of the great room, heavy with lovely silken tapestries in shades of warm vermilion. “All of this, this grandeur,” he said, “just happened for no reason whatsoever? Is that what you believe?”

“No, Eminence,” said the professore Dottore, “I believe that ultimately the laws of physics explain the existence of the world.”

The cardinal shifted his considerable bulk backward, so that he could withdraw his forearms from the table and rest them on the carved wooden armrests of his chair.

“This you must explain to me,” he said. “The laws of physics, they are symbols, no? Things made by man?”

“Well, yes,” said the professore Dottore, “in a sense this is right. Mathematical symbols. But they are not made by man.”

“Who then?”

“I mean,” said the professore Dottore, “that they are not made at all. They are just what they are.”

Ah,” said the cardinal, releasing a stream of air over his full lower lip. “They are what they are.”

The professore Dottore shrugged his thin shoulders as if to say he was helpless before the facts.

“But whatever they are,” said the cardinal, “they are not physical objects, these laws, no?”

“The laws of physics do not exist in space and time at all. They describe the world, they are not in it.”

“Forgive me,” said the cardinal, “I thought I heard you say that everything in the world could be explained by the behaviour of matter, no? It would appear that you meant everything in the world except the reason for its existence.”

“Eminence, every chain of explanation must come to an end.”

“Is it not convenient that your explanations come to an end just before they are asked to explain a very great mystery?”

The professore Dottore shrugged his thin shoulders once again. Like all of us, he had been warned that the cardinal was a man of prepossessing rhetorical power, and he was, I imagine, still enough of a Catholic not to wish to press his own arguments.

“It would seem to me,” said the cardinal, sipping again at his Valerian-laced Benedictine, “that if you were serious about this search of yours”—and here he paused for emphasis so that the entire table hung on his every word—“that you would be looking for laws that in the end explain themselves as well as everything else.”

The professore Dottore looked up attentively but said nothing. Neither did anyone else. The blue cigar smoke continued to drift upward, the moment of tension gathered itself and then collapsed, and then the cardinal, with a warm throaty chuckle, said something in his own slangy Italian dialect to the men sitting directly around him, who threw up their hands and laughed; but speaking no Italian myself, I had no idea what he said.

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