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Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

NASA photo via Flickr/CC

My good friend Elliott Sober, perhaps today’s leading philosopher of science, is being roughed up by the New Atheists. Recently in a book, Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?, and then in a lecture that he gave at the University of Chicago, Elliott argued that if mutations are guided by God down at the quantum level, science cannot lay a finger on this claim. I should say that I don’t think that Elliott thinks that this claim is true and also that it is not original with him. Physicist-theologian Robert J. Russell has been pushing something like this for some time now. Elliott is simply making a technical point. He wants to show that science is not all-embracing. There is room for claims of a non-scientific nature.

Jerry Coyne, the biologist, for one, and Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematician, for another, have been all over Elliott on this one. The kindest thing that has been said is that what he is up to is “a trivial exercise and a waste of time.” As it happens, I myself am not too keen on guided mutations, quantum level or not. They smack too much of the kind of theistic evolution against which Charles Darwin argued with his good friend, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray. So let me try something else, which is neither trivial nor in my opinion a waste of time.

What about what Heidegger has called the fundamental question of metaphysics: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I would argue that this is a really important question and that not only does science not answer it, it does not even set out to answer it.

Wittgenstein’s response was that this is not a genuine question, but this it seems to me is declaring victory by fiat. “We won. Let’s leave.” The fact that it is not a regular sort of question, like “How many oranges are there in the basket?” does not mean that it is not genuine. It doesn’t seem an obvious phony question like, “How tired was Tuesday last week?” At the very least, a lot of people including me think it is a question that makes good sense.

Scientists like Lawrence Krauss seem to think that science can answer the question. Now we can go back beyond the Big Bang, to bubbles in space or that sort of thing. We can keep going back, presumably, infinitely. But this is still not the answer to the question. We want to know what keeps the whole business in being, and why such things as the laws of mathematics hold eternally. Aquinas was quite clear on this. Although on biblical grounds he thought that there was a beginning, on philosophical grounds (like his inspiration Aristotle) he could countenance an eternal universe.

The point I am making is that science is not even trying to answer this question. With the coming of mechanism in the Scientific Revolution, science assumes that we have a machine-like entity, and goes from there. Of course you can trace back the copper or plastic of the machine, indefinitely if you like. But science is not trying to answer why there are materials to make the machine in the first place.

Faced with the fundamental question, you can be a skeptic like me. “I don’t know.” But I don’t see that science has ruled out the Christian answer. The universe exists because it was created and is maintained by a good God. Clearly such a God could not be a contingent being, like you or me. If He (or She or It) were contingent, then He would be open to the sophomoric question: “What caused God?” God must in some sense be necessary. I should say that whereas someone like Anselm (author of the ontological argument) seems to think of this necessity as logical necessity, Aquinas (like Augustine) inclines more to a kind of material necessity. This is often known as “aseity.

Does this at once run us into a contradiction? Let me say that I am not sure that it does, although an awful lot of unpacking (that I am neither able nor inclined to do) is needed. I suspect that the best way to go at the problem is to follow the route taken by Plato in the Republic: to try to get at God (that Plato identifies in some way with the form of the Good) through mathematics.

It might of course be that mathematics is nothing but marks on paper, just conventions or things made up wholesale. But a serious argument can be mounted – most practicing mathematicians think no such argument need be mounted – that mathematics exists independently, and that we humans somehow discover (not create) it. The Euler identity is simply not a fiction, but a real, human-independent fact. It is moreover in some sense both necessary and eternal.

Of course, it is a stretch to go from the Euler identity to God, and I am not sure that one can. The point I simply want to make here is that I don’t think it is immediately stupid to talk about necessary existence, even for God. There is at least the thin end of a very large wedge for a Christian answer. And this being so, I would argue at least in the spirit of Sober (actually in his book he talks about the significance of mathematical Platonism) that one should continue to be wary of sweeping claims about the all-powerfulness and scope of science.

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