Why is there something rather than nothing? It’s the central cosmological question and in my opinion, the best argument for the existence of God. After all, how could something just appear out of nothing? It defies a scientific explanation. And if the answer is that this something of the universe is eternal, that answer itself is a theory of God. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Montaigne had a great deal to write about religion and this is the first time I’ve been confronted with reflecting on it. It’s not something I do often or with great comfort, but if one has given himself the duty of writing in the style of Montaigne for 107 days, then one has to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Being a strong ecumenist, Montaigne argued forcefully against the horror of religious conflict. Yet he was also a cultural conservative – both in temperament and in stature – and that both drove and required Montaigne to take orthodox religious positions. As always, he makes a strong rational case for his stances. But I come very close to disagreeing with everything he writes about the topic.
I’ll start with Montaigne’s conclusion, which makes the case that if you are going to count yourself as a member of a religious group, then you are duty bound to accept the tenets of that religion:
We must either totally submit to the authority of our ecclesiastical polity or else totally release ourselves from it. It is not for us to decide what degree of obedience we owe to it…. Vainglory and curiosity are the twin scourges of our souls. The former makes us stick our noses into everything: the latter forbids us to leave anything unresolved or undecided.
It’s a reasonable argument, one I hear quite often and also one that I held onto for a number of years. The Catholic Church, for example, has a strong theology and a hierarchy that interprets the theology. If you disagree with this, I used to believe, then you aren’t a Catholic and should simply move on. But a recent book by philosopher Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, convinced me to rethink this position. Taylor is a dedicated Roman Catholic and an eminent scholar and I found his book to be one of the most refreshing examinations of modern religious thought that I’ve ever read.
The key thought of Taylor’s book is that both the secular and religious spheres operate within a “social imaginary.” Here, Taylor uses a quote from Wittgenstein to illustrate what he means by the social imaginary:
In general, we have here what Wittgenstein calls a “picture”, a background to our thinking, within whose terms it is carried on, but which is often largely unformulated, and to which we can frequently, just for this reason, imagine no alternative. As he once famously put it, “a picture held us captive.” We can sometimes be completely captured by the picture, not even able to imagine what an alternative would look like; or we can be in somewhat better shape: capable of seeing that there is another way of construing things, but still having great difficulty making sense of it in a sense, the standard predicament in ethnology.
The social imaginary is the context of the world. And in the middle ages, that context was enchanted. An interplay of religious and secular factors since the Renaissance has created a new social imaginary where it is possible to not believe in supernatural forces. However, as Taylor points out, this social imaginary doesn’t exclude the possibility of belief and neither does it require one to accept old ideas of belief as the only acceptable options.
This sounds right to me. Given the fact that the civilized world basically gave up creating new religions two millennia ago (with all due respect to the Church of Latter Day Saints and various cultish religions like the Scientologists), if one wants to be in a community of belief, the only choice available is to worship within existing structures. And if one does not want to accept the given church dogma, Taylor makes a compelling case that churches do adapt to the changing social imaginary. Advancing unorthodox and heretical positions is the only way for affect a church over time. Recent changes to the Roman Catholic Church’s position on contraception prove the point.
The difficulty for me, however, is that I find the entire foundation of religions as they now exist untenable. I believe that human beings have made a critical error in describing God – we continue to anthropomorphize our deities. God, our forefathers decided, must look like us. God must reason like us. God, because the world would be so chaotic without a decent architect/author/engineer, must be a creator. We’ve described God in ways that make sense to us … and have in turn made God nonsense. The greater hold humanity gets of our own reason, the better we’re able to describe a universe that no longer needs an architect, author or engineer; natural forces can explain all of it.
But that does not solve the central riddle – why is there something instead of nothing? On this point, I find some of what Montaigne has to say about religion useful, because he makes a solid argument that we need humility in the face of the universe’s mysteries:
Reason has taught me that, if you condemn in this way anything whatever as definitely false and quite impossible, you are claiming to know the frontiers and bounds of the will of God and the power of Nature our Mother; it taught me also that there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities and potentialities.
To prove Montaigne’s point, return to the world of physics that I discussed a few days ago. The deeper we delve into the mathematics of cosmology, the stranger the theories become. For string theory to work, our world needs more than the four or five dimensions we sense, it needs nine or ten dimensions. For the Big Bang to make sense, we may require multiverses or bubble universes. And for the math to work out for any of the theories, it’s entirely possible that we’ll need infinite universes replicated into eternity.
These possibilities should inspire awe, just as Montaigne says the powers within our own small planet do:
We ought to judge the infinite power of Nature with more reverence and a greater recognition of our own ignorance and weakness. How many improbable things there are which have been testified to by people worthy of our trust: if we cannot be convinced we should at least remain in suspense….If we understood the difference between what is impossible and what is unusual, or between what is against the order of the course of Nature and what is against the common opinion of mankind, then the way to observe that rule laid down by Chilo, Nothing to excess, would be, Not to believe too rashly: not to disbelieve too easily.
For me, the question isn’t whether an unexplainable force exists in the universe, the question is whether it bears any relevance on the lives we live. I find the theory that we live among infinite, eternal universes to be the most plausible cosmology of all. The idea that we’re in an infinite loop, one that is self replicating, destroying and creating, seems right to me. Somewhere right now, there are numerous versions of me in parallel universes typing just as I am, just as there are numerous ones that gave up this project seconds ago and numerous others that had no reason to begin it.
The question to me is not whether God interferes with these worlds – because there would be no sense in doing so, everything that could happen has and will happen in infinite universes – the question is whether these parallel actors can influence our universe and whether our actions can influence there’s. Are we hermetically sealed off from one another? Or do the actions within each universe interplay with the actions of the others? Do we exist within parallel space? Does this space ever bump up against ours?
Nietzsche began to examine the ethical considerations of this cosmology with his theory of eternal recurrence. But maybe the cosmos is even stranger than Nietzsche imagined. Maybe we can and do act the same way into eternity … but perhaps we alter the fates of parallel worlds in every action we take. Perhaps there is something akin to karma at play, and when our actions influence the multiverses in a certain way, a recurrent loop ends and no longer needs to repeat.
It’s a strange idea that perhaps leads nowhere, but no stranger than this partial thought from Montaigne:
When Plutarch (leaving aside the many examples which he alleges from Antiquity) says that he himself knows quite definitely that, at the time of Domitian, news of the battle lost by Antony several days’ journey away in Germany was publicly announced in Rome and spread through all the world on the very day that it was lost; and when Caesar maintains that it was often the case that news of an event actually anticipated the event itself: are we supposed to say that they were simple people who merely followed the mob and who let themselves be deceived because they saw things less clearly than we do!
Mere superstition, perhaps. But earlier today, I discussed tomorrow’s Chicago elections with a friend and mentioned that I was impressed with the education policies of Mayoral candidate Miguel del Valle. When asked what in particular impressed me, I couldn’t quite answer, so I read some of his position papers and found nothing terribly ground breaking. Then I recalled how I formed this opinion – it was more an impulse than a rational conclusion. I remember watching one Mayoral candidate debate and was struck by del Valle’s temperament during the education questions … he seemed frustrated with the other candidates’ embrace of educational fads and the elite idea that schools need to be more businesslike.
In short, my view was based on intuition that del Valle was just as frustrated by the status quo education policies as I am. But while I thought that this was just a personal idiosyncrasy, my friend shared with me that he’d talked to numerous other people who said much the same to him. While I don’t believe that there’s something supernatural at play, neither can I fully explain how and why political candidates appeal to certain people. I work in the field of political communications, yet I find this area to be a great mystery, one that is never explained by polls or issue analysis.
I don’t accept Montaigne’s view of theology, but like him, I do embrace the strangeness of the universe. Some things might be beyond rationality and explanation:
Apart from the absurd rashness which it entails, there is a dangerous boldness of great consequence in despising whatever we cannot understand. For as soon as you have established the frontiers of truth and error with that fine brain of yours and then discover that you must of necessity believe some things even stranger than the ones which you reject, you are already forced to abandon these frontiers.