Jun 11, 2008

Ex Nihilism: Getting to the Beginning

Aristotelian metaphysics provides some insight into how many people conceive of God. Aristotle taught that if something happened, then something else must have made it happen. We follow the reasoning back until we reach the ultimate, the primordial Something: God, the Unmoved Mover that started everything else in motion. Now, Aristotle thought that matter was already there, but the Gnostics, though they couldn't deny the simplicity of Aristotle's logic hundreds of years later, insisted that matter itself would have to be a happening that required a beginning. For the Gnostics, Aristotle's Unmoved Mover was the Monad: the One, the beginning who was the beginning alone, creating all the universe from nothing—the ex nihilo creation.

There may be things that are appealing about the explanation of creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing, following Gnostic logic. By the end of the second century, the appeal of this reasoning had made inroads within Christian theologies, inroads which have grown now somewhat ubiquitous in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologies. In the face of so many who espouse this belief, I state that I don't see why it must be the only way to view God's creative power, as some claim. For me, it presents more problems.

If we assume that God created all things out of nothing, omnipotently, we likely assume He has unlimited creative powers. We also assume that He created it with some purpose: most link their belief in God with some form of afterlife, usually a heaven and hell . We go to heaven to glorify God forever and to hell to be punished forever. I will not talk in depth about my problems with that statement now, but I will say, if God intended us to go to Heaven forever, why did He not just create us already there? Why bother suffering? If He could create anything logically imaginable (no married bachelors or other illogical conundrums), He could have created us with the memory or experience or development or righteousness or whatever we needed from the very beginning to bypass all the hurt. Whatever may be beneficial from suffering and evil could be avoided by a logical, omnipotent ex nihilo creator. Whatever learning we would need could be programmed into us, like kung fu being programmed into Keanu Reeves' matrixed brain.

The problem with this Gnostic view of ex nihilo is that it makes God the ultimate perpetrator instead of the ultimate source of goodness. If we can create things ex nihilo, why bother with means? Ever? If all we were created for in this life is some ends, but that ends could have already been made from the beginning, for me, life seems to lose some of the purpose that is discovered through belief in God. God could have made me already in heaven, but didn't. This move undermines His love.

Therefore, I reject the notion of ex nihilo creation by absolute omnipotence, and I do so on philosophical, scientific, scriptural, and spiritual grounds. This only serves as my explanation as to why I choose to believe as I do, and is not intended to discount those who believe in boundless ex nihilo creation.

Momentarily leaving the realm of philosophical arguments, I turn to scientific laws. I believe in the law of conservation of matter. In relatively unscientific terms, this law says that matter is not created or destroyed. In other words, I believe that matter is eternal—it has always been around. For the scientifically oriented reader, I assure them that matter, energy, strings, branes—or whatever stuff the fabric of the cosmos is really made up of, deep down inside—that stuff is what I'm referring to; there has always been stuff around. Stuff will always be around. (Define "always"? Read Stephen Hawking: he opens up possibilities that are fascinating.) Regardless, there is room for my belief based on scientific grounds.

Some readers may insist that their holy writ suggests that God unequivocally created everything out of nothing. I will presume that my readership is likely most familiar with the Judeo-Christian creation. As a note to the reader, I will not be arguing at this time for any stances on the authority, symbolism, fallibility, or humanity of holy writ: for my purposes here, I will assume that the Pentateuchal description of creation is credible enough to be discussed to our advantage.

As I understand the Hebrew text that recorded the account, the word throughout the creative account usually interpreted as "create" comes from the Hebrew word "bārā'" which means to fashion, to shape, to organize, etc. In other words, God organized things from a chaotic or entropic state to fit His needs. So, without diving into the other symbolism and wording in that record, I find plenty of room to allow for my belief on scriptural grounds. I feel I am vindicated in the Judeo-Christian text; however I recognize that there passages in the Quran which I cannot exegete.

On spiritual grounds all I can write is that the experiences that I have had with God allow room for such a theory. I do not claim absolute truth, for I cannot claim at this point how the world came to be, but I do claim it being a valid option, spiritually.

So, if we believe that the universe was created from already existing something, it opens up a number of possibilities: maybe the universe was all wound up into a Planck-length spot, and maybe God initiated a massive dispensation of the stuff, an exodus, if I may wax allusive. Or maybe He knew of the explosion and used what He needed for His purposes. Or maybe hyperdimensionality provides an alternative entrance for matter which God facilitated. For me, there are numerous possibilities, enriched by science, philosophy, scripture, and personal experience.

The possibility that I hold on to about God's creation is that He organized all (or at least some significant portion) of the flying debris that now composes the universe into something to suit His purposes. Now this cannot be proven or disproven by science, but the more I study science, the more I learn about possible tools that God may have used.

Now, my point with this post was not to explain why not believing in ex nihilo creation helps solve the logical problem of evil. That will come soon. Rather, my point was, observing that most who believe in God seem to take the stance of ex nihilo creation, that someone such as I who does not believe in this Gnostic calculation may still have valid beliefs. I submit that, if we remove some of the restraints on God's attributes that even great thinkers have imposed, we may find innumerable possibilities of the existence of God unfolding.

Now, I have used observations from various fields to suggest that my belief system is rational. No matter how rational, how scientific, or how cogent our argument, we can’t let that undermine the truth that the only way to know something that cannot be proven by science is through God. May we continue to use our intellect, studying the sciences and educating ourselves, remembering that the knowledge we can acquire here is a pale shadow of the knowledge that is available from a benevolent God.

And a short post-script, I would like to state that I find no contradictions between God and science. I will likely have more posts on this statement, because it seems to be troublesome for a good number of investigators on the topic of God. I have read a number of people's views on the matter, coming from varying belief systems, some obviously closed-minded, fixated on their eloquent point of view: for example, some of the authors of the recent John Templeton Foundation essays on the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" Though I will not be arguing for the compatibility of God and science here, I restate: I don't find the God I believe in to be in anyway incompatible with science.

That said, I have heard of other views of God that seem to me to be incompatible with science. But even with that statement, I believe that people with such notions of God can still be educated: perhaps they are satisfied with some explanations that do not satisfy me. I try to use my brain as logically and as thoroughly as I can. No matter the belief system, I need to encourage my intellectual and spiritual pursuit and the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of others: let them worship, study, or dwell upon how, where, or what they may. I would only expect to receive the same. Together we can thrive.

I will likely write similar statements again and again, because I believe that searching for understanding is one of the most valuable pursuits we can have in this life, regardless of belief system. More comments about God and science will come later.

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