281 Something, Not Nothing

    If I stumble over something in the dark, I know something’s there.   It’s not something I’m dreaming about, something solely in my mind.  What it is I know not, though when carefully inspected it’s obviously a stool.  That it’s there I’m certain—such sensory information can be painfully indubitable.  It’s something!  What it is I may later determine, finding it’s clearly a four-legged steel stool, useful for reaching things on high shelves but injurious to the bare foot!  Why it’s there, however, involves an altogether different kind of reasoning, as Aristotle famously demonstrated in his Metaphysics.   When asking why the stool was there—or why it was made of steel rather than wood—I unconsciously assume the truth of an ancient philosophical proposition:  Ex nihilo nihil fit—nothing comes from nothing.  The same reasoning process ensues when I venture into the world around me.  That there’s material stuff I encounter is indubitable.  What it is I can ascertain through certain tests.  But why it exists requires a philosophical, not a scientific way of thinking.  

Empirical questions we rightly investigate using scientific means.  But there are deeper  questions which cannot be similarly pursued since they address non-empirical realities such goodness,  beauty, and God.  Thus Einstein allegedly said “scientists make lousy philosophers.”  In ancient Greece most pre-Socratic thinkers were empirical, monistic materialists, though some did think a mysterious kind of infinite, non-material Being existed.  “The decision of this question,” Aristotle said, “is not unimportant, but rather all-important, to our search for truth.  It is this problem which has practically always been the source of the differences of those who have written about nature as a whole.  So it has been and so it must be; since the least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold” (On the Heavens, I, 5; 271 [5-10]).  

Aristotle’s insight is nicely illustrated in Lawrence M. Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing:  Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York:  Atria, c.  2013).   A noted physicist-turned-cosmologist, Krauss tries to show, as the book’s title says, how the universe literally came from nothing.  Realizing the linguistic pit he’s digging, however, he tries to re-define the word “nothing” to mean, it seems to me:  “well, almost nothing,” since there’s a mysterious but necessarily material realm that magically gives birth to the material world.  Krauss also realizes the word “why” brings with it all sorts of philosophical baggage—especially denoting a rational direction and purpose to the cosmos—which he resolutely refuses to consider.  So he declares that scientists such as himself deal only with “how” questions—the only ones worth pondering.   And “the question” he cares about, “the one that science can actually address, is the question of how all the ‘stuff’ in the universe could have come from no ‘stuff,’ and how, if you wish, formlessness led to form” (#130 in Kindle).  Dismissive of  both philosophy and theology, he insists that he and his guild alone can provide the answers to life’s important questions.  But he slides, incessantly, from “how” to “why” questions, showing how  “scientists make lousy philosophers.”  

On one level, A Universe from Nothing offers the general reader a fine summary of what scientists have discovered during the past century.  It is indeed a fascinating “cosmic mystery story”—-filled with dark holes and quarks and dark matter—told with zest and skill.  We have before us an amazing amount of data regarding the age and shape of the material world, though the conclusions reached regarding the data certainly changed with time.  “String” theories have given way to “multi-universe” hypotheses.  The “steady-state” position once championed by distinguished physicists has been replaced by the “big-bang” view now accepted by most “authorities.”  To theists who for centuries have believed God created (ex nihilo) all that is, the big-bang notion fits easily into their cosmology—the universe simply came into being, in an instant, as God spoke it into being.  An eternal, purely spiritual Being could easily bring into being all that is.  But to materialists such as Krauss there must be a purely material Source—and he devotes this treatise to showing how it might in fact conceivably exist.  And as he chooses to use the word, “‘nothing’ is every bit as physical as ‘something,’ especially if it is to be defined as the ‘absence of something’” (#241).  

There is thus an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to Krauss—words simply mean whatever he chooses them to mean.  “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’”  So too Kraus insists words such as “nothing” mean what he wants them to mean, not what they really mean!   (And, to confuse matters even further, important word meanings shift as the book’s argument develops!).  There is thus an enormous amount of data accompanied by only a passing awareness of logic—a vital part of the philosophical thinking he disdains!  That he first asked the late Christopher Hitchens to pen an introduction to this treatise—and then turned to Richard Dawkins who assented to do so—indicates the “new atheist” agenda undergirding this book!  That Dawkins could have  seriously referred to the “selfish genes” and “memes” so memorably lampooned by the Australian philosopher David Stove shows how poorly “scientific” superstars lack basic reasoning skills!  And a similarly deficiency blemishes Krauss’s presentation.  

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In Why Does the World Exist?  An Existential Detective Story (New York:  Liverright Publishing Corporation, c. 2012), Jim Holt employs his journalistic expertise  to explore what Martin Heidegger labeled the greatest of all philosophical questions:  Why is there something rather than nothing at all?  That  is the “super-ultimate why” question!  For many years Holt has pondered this and voraciously read first-rate tomes regarding it—as is evident in his “philosophical tour d’horizon” and “brief history of nothing.”  For this book, however, he primarily conducted interviews around the world with the foremost thinkers who are trying to fathom the mystery.  Unlike Lawrence Krauss, Holt understands that the ultimate origin question requires a “meta-scientific” approach, for as the great Harvard astronomer Owen Gingrich said, this is essentially a teleological, not a strictly scientific, question.  

Holt interviewed thinkers such as diverse as Adolf Grunbaum, a distinguished philosopher of science, a dogmatic atheist who simply dismissed the question as meaningless, and Richard Swinburne, a devout Eastern Orthodox theist who has devoted his life to demonstrating the validity of the traditional belief in “God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”  He talked with David Deutsch, who thinks quantum physics justifies a “many worlds” or “multiverse” hypothesis—if there are an infinite number of universes, then it is quite probable that our universe would have just popped into existence.  Then he sought out Steven Weinberg, who wrote The First Three Minutes and is widely regarded as one of the greatest 20th century cosmologists and said:  “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”  Yet in his Dreams of a Final Theory, published in 1993, he admitted there was simply too much physicists don’t know for any of them to pontificate on ultimate issues, illustrating an “epistemic modesty” that “was refreshing after all the wild speculation I’d been hearing over the past year” (p. 155).    

Since Plato postulated the eternal existence of intellectual forms, many mathematicians have been Platonists of some sort, believing, as Alain Connes says, “‘there exists, independently of the human mind, a raw and immutable mathematical reality’” (p. 172).  Connes is a distinguished French mathematician who shares Kurt Godel’s confidence in the reality of this non-material numeric realm.  “How else can we account for what the physicist Eugene Wigner famously called the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences’?” (p. 172).   Another world-class mathematician, Oxford’s Roger Penrose, is an “unabashed Platonist” who takes “mathematical entities to be as real and mind-independent as Mount Everest” (p. 174).  When interviewed, Penrose said there are really three worlds, “‘all separate from one another.  There’s the Platonic world, there’s the physical world, and there’s also the mental world, the world of our conscious perceptions’” (p. 177).      

John Leslie, considered by many “the world’s foremost authority on why there is Something rather than Nothing,” confesses he thought when he was young that he’d found the answer to the question.  But then he learned, ‘“to my horror and disgust,’” that “‘Plato had got the same answer twenty-five hundred years ago!’” (p. 197).  Subsequently he developed “extreme axiarchism,” positing that “reality is ruled by abstract value—axia being the Greek word for ‘value’ and archein for ‘to rule’” (p. 198).  “‘For those who believe in God,’ he thinks, ‘it has even provided an explanation for God’s own existence:  he exists because of the ethical need for a perfect being.  The idea that goodness can be responsible for existence has had quite a long history—which, as I’ve said was a great disappointment for me to discover, because I’d have liked it to have been all my own’” (p. 199).  

Holt ends the book rather as he began it—interested in all sorts of interesting theories but persuaded by none!  Though the question he’s asking is fundamentally serious, there’s a certain intellectual detachment, almost a levity, to the book.  But it does provide an interesting survey of the cosmological scene, leaving the reader to sort out what’s important or irrelevant to him.

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When the erudite Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft says “This is, quite simply, the single best book I have ever read on what most of us would regard as the single most important question of philosophy:  Does God exist?  It will inevitably become a classic,” one is wise to read carefully Michael Augros’ Who Designed the Designer:  A Rediscovered Path to God’s Existence (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, c. 2015).   Unlike the many works of apologetics that rely on cosmology, with its heavy load of scientific theory and evidence, this treatise simply asks us to reason carefully.  Rather than think inductively, collecting facts, we must think deductively, following reason.  Simple, self-evident assumptions—absolute, universal propositions such as the Pythagorean theorem—carefully developed into arguments, lead necessarily to certain indubitable conclusions.   “As the argument advances,” he promises, “I will never ask you to believe in some else’s findings or observations.  Instead, all the reasoning will begin from things you yourself can immediately verify” (p. 12).   That “equals added to equals make equals” or “every number is either even or odd” cannot be denied simply because they are self-evident.  

So Augros begins with the simple truth that children incessantly ask why?  “This endearing (if sometimes trying) property of children is human intellectual life in embryo.   In its most mature forms of science and philosophy, the life of the human mind still consists mainly in asking why and in persisting in that question as long as there remains a further why to be found.  Ultimately we wonder:  Is there a first cause of all things?  Or must we ask why and why again, forever, reaching back and back toward no beginning at all?  Does every cause rely on a prior cause?  Or is there something that stands in need of no cause, but just is?” (p. 9).  In response, Augros unambiguously intends “to show, by purely rational means, that there is indeed a first cause of all things and that this cause must be a mind” (p. 10).  In many ways he simply seeks to fully demonstrate the elegant simplicity and persuasiveness of the ancient Kalam argument so successfully defended in our day by William Lane Craig:  

Premise 1:  Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

Premise 2:  The universe began to exist.

Conclusion:  Therefore, the universe must have a cause

Then let’s begin!  Whenever we reason we seek to find the causes of things.  To Aristotle:  “Evidently there is a first principle, and the causes of things are neither an infinite series nor infinitely various in kind” (Metaphysics).  On this point, “Twenty-five centuries’ worth of great philosophers and scientists nearly all are agreed” (p. 30).  But this cause is not necessarily temporal!  The universe might well be eternal and still stand in need of a First Cause!  An acting cause, such as a potter making a vase, is simultaneous with, not prior to, the product he’s producing.  “Recognizing causal priority as distinct from temporal priority opens the door to first cause of an eternal effect” (p. 32).  Thus “the great thinkers who all insist there is a first cause used the expression first cause not to mean (necessarily) a cause before all other causes in time, but a cause before all others in causal power.  It meant a cause of other causes that does not itself depend on any other cause.  It meant, in others words, something that exists and is all by itself, without deriving its existence or causal action from anything else.  And it meant not a thing stuck in the past, but a thing existing in the present” (pp. 32-33).  Ultimately, “it is impossible for things caused by something else to be self-explanatory.  There must also be something by which things are caused and which is not itself caused by anything” (p. 37). 

Granting the certain existence of a first cause, however, is only the first step in demonstrating the existence of God, Who Is the First Cause and whose Mind sketched the blueprint for the universe—the Latin word for “turned into one.”  Unlike the Greek polytheists, who assigned events to various gods, monotheists following Moses think there is only One true Cause of all that is.  Carefully considered, the material world—matter-in-motion—could not have caused itself and is quite evidently “the first thing from the first cause” (p. 66).  “Matter is not the first cause.  It is impossible for it to be so.  Matter is subject to motion.  The first cause, on the other hand, is not” (p. 60).  Only a non-material Being could be a self-mover, moving everything else.  The ancient Chinese thinker, Lao-Tzu, noted that “‘to turn a wheel, although thirty spokes must revolve, the axle must remain motionless; so both the moving and the non-moving are needed to produce revolution.’  This reasoning sounds the death knell for the theory that matter is the first cause.  Matter, energy, and fundamental particles are all subject to motion.  The first cause [the axle] is not” (p. 62).   

Thus the first cause must be non-material, incorporeal, spiritual.  Given our immersion in material things it is, admittedly, difficult to conceive of purely non-material realities!  But just as a mathematical point (which has no parts) is not a visible dot on the paper but a necessary, indivisible reality-without-parts, so too there are metaphysical realities that utterly transcend the physical world.  And the first cause, though not material, is “the most intensely existing thing” of all!  There is a hierarchy to the universe, leading from fundamentally material to essentially non-material beings.  Plants are superior to rocks, and animals are better than plants, and human beings are higher than fish and pheasants.  “Mineral, vegetable, animal, human.  These kinds of beings form a ladder of sorts.  Ascending from one rung to another, we find something more capable of including beings within its own being” (p. 91).  Higher beings possess more fullness of being.  On the highest rung, possessing the most being, is the Supreme Being, giving being to all lesser beings.  And since it is axiomatic that “nothing gives what it does not have,” we conclude that everything that exists owes it existence to the One who most fully exists, who simply IS.  

Since we are thinking beings making sense of all sorts of things, it follows that the Supreme Being is the ultimate Thinker.  Even atheistic scientists cannot but acknowledge the seeming intellectual dimension to the cosmos.  Thus Richard Dawkins cautions his fans to beware of taking seriously the “apparent” design of things.  And Stephen Hawking confesses that the “apparent laws of physics” seem to be amazingly well-designed to make for a life-welcoming universe.  But atheists cannot open the door to such non-material realities as “purpose” without bringing into question their materialist dogma.  So the evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin confessed:  “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow cope us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create and apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.  Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door’” (pp. 147-148).  But, Augros counters, even our limited minds can “understand all things, at least in a general way” and then conceptualize a universe.  Using our limited minds we legitimately envision an Omniscient Mind knowing all things—a First Cause responsible for their existence.  Indeed:  “The intelligence of the first cause of all things explains the look of design everywhere in the universe” (p. 113).  

Rightly discerned, this omnipresent design gives things their distinctive beauty and goodness.  Wonder, both Plato and Aristotle noted, is basic to the philosophic quest—pausing to note the sheer givenness of all that is, reflecting on its mysterious configurations, delving into the why-ness of what’s beheld.  Thus Whittaker Chambers, writing about the sheer beauty of his infant daughter’s ear in Witness, dated his break with Communism to that moment.  He was overwhelmed with wonder while gazing at “the delicate convolutions of her ear—those intricate, perfect ears.  The thought passed through my mind:  ‘No, these ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view).  They could have been created only by immense design’” (p. 100).  Then there’s a fascinating passage in Sir Arthur Conan Dole’s Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, where Watson recalls Holmes reflecting on “What a lovely thing a rose is!”  Gazing at the color and configuration of a moss-rose, the great detective declared:  “There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion.  It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner.  Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.  All other things, or powers, our  desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance.  But this rose is an extra.  Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.  It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”  As we wonder (with Chambers and Holmes) at the beauty and goodness of beings, we cannot but think there must be a first cause, a Supreme Being, responsible for all this.  

In the book’s “Epilogue,” Augros notes he stands on “the shoulders of giants” such as Aristotle and Aquinas.  Though primarily relying on ancient and medieval thinkers and differing in his approach from Rene Descartes, he shares some of the “first modern” philosopher’s confidence that:  “The existence of God would pass with me as at least as certain as I have ever held the truths of mathematics.”  Thinkers such as Descartes have ever worked by “deducing the logical consequences of timelessly valid principles.  It is not by chance that those principles have arisen in the thoughts of great minds again and again down through the centuries.  They are the common heritage of the human mind.  ‘Nothing comes from nothing.’  ‘What is put into action depends on what acts by itself.’  ‘Nothing gives what it does not have.’  ‘Some things are nobler than others.’’  And on and on.  Such are the laws of being, expressed in terms too universal for science to employ, let alone refute.  We are free to ignore them, since the explicit recognition of their truth is in no way necessary for our daily existence.  . . . .  The just quietly await our notice.  The conclusion that God exists, when deduced from principles like these, is true and hard-won knowledge, worthy of the name” (p. 208).  

That such laws of being point persuasively to the existence of God is the conclusion of this highly readable treatise.  Thus, with Thomas Hibbs, Honors College Dean at Baylor University I say:  “I know of no other book about the existence and nature of God that is as readable and enjoyable as this one.”