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Why is there Something rather than Nothing? - Philosophical Reflections on Atheism at the Interface of Science and Religion Why is there Something rather than Nothing? - Philosophical Reflections on Atheism at the Interface of Science and Religion
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-12-30 12:02:21
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The Eye of the Helix Nebula

“Philosophy Begins in Awe!”

"I am attempting humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is."
--Albert Einstein, from "My Credo" (1932)

“The starry sky above me, the moral law within me”
--Immanuel Kant, from the epitaph on his tomb

The three quotes above just about summarize the philosophy of Nature and Science from Socrates to Kant. Two are from philosophers who also loved science and cosmology and one is from a scientist who loved philosophy; none of them saw philosophy and science as mutually exclusive. Moreover Martin Heidegger begins is famous Being and Time with a question which Einstein considered both scientific and theological.

As we celebrate the Christmas season and the coming of a New Year, maybe there's a way we can, indeed, bring atheists and theists and the disparate factions and religions together on our little planet. Instead of focusing on the old definitions of "God", that many reject, or on how differently we see and honor "God" across the many religions (consider how the three Abramitic religions which have the same God have opposed each other for centuries), maybe there is a way to use this once divisive term to bring us all together; which does not mean to reduce the whole operation to a mere linguistic exercise, a play on words. In order to avoid such a pitfall we need to bring on the stage the evidence of modern cosmology.

What follows is a brief revisiting of Ovi’s last thematic explorations on spirituality via the analysis of two books just out (March 2015 and December 2015) by philosopher Nancy Ellen Abrams titled A God that Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of our Planet; and the other by Richard Greene titled E=MC2 and The New Definition of God which can be downloaded at http://www.TheNewDefinitionofGod.com

The first book by Abrams is a brave attempt to explore the interface of science and religion, or spirituality, if you will in order to initiate a more productive, lively and inspired discussion on the topic. If for nothing else, the book is admirable because it dares to pose many of the important and challenging questions that arise at the intersection of contemporary cosmology, spirituality, and atheism; a search which beckons us all, believers and non-believers alike.

The book is in fact nothing less than a serious contemplation on the existence and/or nature of God, something that Aristotle was also interested in some 24 centuries ago. It makes for a very worthwhile read. Perhaps one of its best ideas is the description of "god" as an "emergent" phenomenon, one that is literally greater than the sum of its parts. For example, a living organism is composed of unthinking atoms that individually just obey the laws of physics, but when aggregated into a human body, a totally new and wonderful thing emerges. The premise of the book is that God is also an emergent phenomenon and moreover, that creation is not a one shut deal but it is an ongoing phenomenon.



Those of us who have remained “religious” remember that as children we were taught the concept of revealed religion via "faith"  but as we matured and became more intellectually autonomous, some of us  became agnostics or atheists. We simply were not certain on how things came about in the Universe, and how it could have just "happened," and could there be a God? Those of us who were more philosophically inclined perhaps posed to themselves Heidegger’s question: “why is there something rather than nothing?” Or perhaps we wondered if on finding a watch in the street it would be irrational of me to say that the watch made itself and it has no maker; on the other hand we are aware that God can never be proven scientifically. Which is which? The book, as mentioned above, is a brave attempt to supply some answers, or at least cast some doubts in the minds of assorted agnostics and atheists, and even believers.

Let’s have the author speak for her theory. Throughout the book she reminds us that"God" is a word. If we define it, even subconsciously, as something that cannot exist in our universe, we banish the idea of God from our reality and throw away all possibility of incorporating a potent spiritual metaphor into a truly coherent big picture. But if we take seriously the reliable — and, thus, invaluable — scientific and historical knowledge we now possess, we can redefine God in a radically new and empowering way that expands our thinking and could help motivate and unite us in the dangerous era humanity is entering. In other words, if Aristotle and Aquinas could arrive at the idea of God minus the advantages of modern science, we ought to be able to do likewise.

So Abrams reminds us of “one of the most exciting scientific revolutions of our time,” the revolution in cosmology. In the 1970s, the great cosmological mystery was this: If the Big Bang was symmetrical in all directions, why isn't the expanding universe today just a bigger soup of particles? Instead, beautiful spiral and elliptical galaxies are scattered throughout, but not randomly; they lie along invisible filaments, like glitter tossed on lines of glue. Where several big filaments intersect, great clusters of galaxies have formed. Why? What happened to the soup? Where did all this structure come from?


She then gives credit for her inspiration to her cosmologist husband, Joel R. Primack, is “one of the creators of the theory of cold dark matter, which answers these questions by telling us that everything astronomers can see — including all the stars, planets and glowing gas clouds in our galaxy, and all the distant galaxies — is less than half of 1 percent of the contents of the universe. The universe turns out to be almost entirely made of two dynamic, invisible presences unknown and undreamed of until the 20th century: dark matter (invisible matter not made of atoms or the parts of atoms) and dark energy (the energy causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate). They have been in competition with each other for billions of years, with dark matter's gravity pulling ordinary (atomic) matter together and dark energy flinging space apart. Their cosmic interaction with ordinary matter has spun the visible galaxies into being and, thus, created the only possible homes for the evolution of planets and life…Over the decades, as data confirming this story began to trickle — then pour — in from telescopes and satellites, we kept wondering: What does it mean for us humans that we're not living in the universe we thought we were in? Today, astronomers worldwide accept the double dark theory as the modern story of the universe, but they have not answered this question. Someone must. Does God have to be part of our understanding of the universe? No. But if scientists tell the public that they have to choose between God and science, most people will choose God, which leads to denial, hostility to science and the profoundly dangerous mental incoherence in modern society that fosters depression and conflict. Meanwhile, many of those who choose science find themselves without any way of thinking that can give them access to their own spiritual potential. What we need is a coherent big picture that is completely consistent with — and even inspired by — science, yet provides an empowering way of rethinking God that provides the human and social benefits without the fantasy. How do we get there?”


And here are her conclusions: science can never tell us with certainty what's true, since there's always the possibility that some future discovery will rule it out. But science can often tell us with certainty what's not true. It can rule out the impossible. Galileo, for example, showed with his telescope that the medieval picture of earth as the center of heavenly crystal spheres could not be true, even though he could not prove that the earth moves around the sun. Whenever scientists produce the evidence that convincingly rules out the impossible, there's no point in arguing. It's over. Grace lies in accepting and recalculating. That's how science moves forward.

And this is her most extraordinary statement worth pondering: “What if we thought this way about God? What if we took the evidence of a new cosmic reality seriously and became willing to rule out the impossible? What would be left? We can have a real God if we let go of what makes it unreal. I am only interested in God if it's real. If it isn't real, there's nothing to talk about. But I don't mean real like a table, or a feeling, or a test score, or a star. Those are real in normal earthbound experience. I mean real in the full scientific picture of our double dark universe, our planet, our biology and our moment in history.”

Then she mentions the characteristics of a God that can't be real: 1) God existed before the universe. 2) God created the universe. 3) God knows everything. 4) God intends everything that happens. 5) God can choose to violate the laws of nature. The point here is that “this list pretty much agrees with most atheists' reasons for dismissing the existence of God. But this is no place to stop. We've merely stated what God can't be. We haven't considered yet what God could be.”

So, basically, what Abrams is stating is that we ought to redefine the definition of God. If we do, this will change the course of cultural anthropology and redefine its future. As far as she is concerned there is something in this universe that is worthy of being called God. Her answer is yes “God could be real.”

I predict that the critique of the above theory about God will soon be coming and it will take this form: what Abrams may have done is not so novel: she has taken a transcendent God (which the Buddhists think can never be defined within immanent time and space, and therefore it is better not even to mention and to talk about Her/Him) and made Him/Her immanent within a material universe; and so we are back to pantheism or immanentism of panantheism. The fact is that God will never be defined and discovered by the mere means of science: physics or biology or even abstract mathematics.

Nevertheless, the book makes for a fascinating read. If it serves no other purpose, it will have put some doubts in the mind of the non-believers among us, that the theories excluding the existence of God may not be so well-thought out as we have assumed all along. The believers, on the other hand, will have to reflect on Aquinas’ assertion that reason does not have to contradict faith and that the two in fact can be in harmony with each other. When faith contradicts reason and common sense, one has to suspect a cult may be afloat. As per Aquinas faith and reason are complementary to each and can in fact support each other. For example, Aquinas saw nothing strange in conceiving God as existing eternally with the universe; that conception did not contradict reason, as far as he was concerned.


Let now consider with Greene the nebula depicted above called Helix, which some have dubbed "The Eye of God." Some of our ancient ancestors had similar thoughts. They understood that God was too big a concept to try to squeeze into one word and so they put in a dash or an underscore between the G and the D, or left the "O" out entirely. That partially or completely empty space would communicate the unfathomability, the ineffability, the infinite nature of the Almighty. This is supported by the sheer visual impact of the Helix Nebula resembling an eye, the eye being what is missing between our consciousness of God and His transcendence. Greene’s special insight is that nebulae actually create life; that these massive and extremely beautiful aggregations of gases, create life as well as stars and planets and virtually everything else in the physical Universe. They are co-creators of sorts, the nurseries of galaxies and solar systems and also contain the elements for plants and animals and humans to develop and thrive. In other words, the atoms and molecules in our bones and heart and skin and brain and everything around us are created inside of these astronomical phenomena. As Karl Sagan loved to quip: “we are made of the stuff of the stars.”

So, in a way of speaking, nebulae continue the work of what many regard as "The Almighty" in creating, and re-creating the Universe. Creation is not static but an ongoing phenomenon, a journey toward a destination we barely comprehend at the moment. One way of thinking about this is that God created the physical universe 13.8 billion years ago with a flash of light called "The Big Bang." Since the stars that God created generally only live 10 Million - 10 Billion years, the entire Universe as we know it would have gone dark and died about 4 billion years ago, except for this amazing universal recycling system.

As the biggest stars in the Universe run out of their nuclear fuel they actually explode - a sort of secondary (or tertiary, etc.) "Big Bang" and spew their guts billions of miles into the Cosmos. Over the next thousands and millions of years the elements from the insides of these exploded stars come together and form new elements and, eventually, form new stars and new planets. That’s why Sagan could authoritatively proclaim that the universe is eternal. Well, Aquinas said it could be eternal. The difference between Aquinas and Sagan is that Aquinas says that the universe could be co-eternal with God as an emanation from God, while Sagan says that since it is co-eternal God has nothing to do and therefore He does not exist. Sounds a bit utilitarian: if you cannot produce stuff, you are useless and we can dispose of you.

And so we arrive at some leading questions. What if we added this scientific understanding to how we depict The Creator"? What if we evolved and updated our definition of "GOD" by bowing to science (which if there is a "GOD", he, she or it would have most certainly also created) and depicting "GOD" in a way that we now know is related to the actual, proven physical creation of stars, planets, our own bodies and The Universe itself?

This image, this way of writing this extraordinarily important and complex three letter word, applies to all of us Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha'is, all indigenous religions and every other religion on the planet. It does not have to be idolatry, the worshipping of a material reality, but a symbolical penultimate way of conceiving the power and majesty of the ultimate Creator who transcends the material. For after all, every single one of us, no matter our religion or belief in or about God was created by a nebula. Every single atom in our body comes from one. Nebulae bring together the many hot, excited, diverse elements of exploded stars and cosmic dust. Perhaps its imagery can bring its sevem billion diverse creations here on Earth together as well.

So, it feels accurate, not to mention beautiful, good and true, whether you believe in some sort of Supreme Being, or not, to honor these mini-"Creators" that we can now actually see by putting them front and center in a new, scientific depiction of the word we use to denote "The" Creator. Why was Einstein, an eminent scientist, obsessed with finding out how the universe is built, in discovering the so called “unified theory” which would explain everything in the universe? Let us reflect on his succinct answer: “so that I may know how the mind of God works.”

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Emanuel Paparella2015-12-30 23:19:05
Perhaps a footnote is appropriate under this piece on existence and creation. Admittedly the approach was mostly philosophical but the very subject matter and the Christmas season we are in also cries out for at least a brief mention of the mystical approach. Mystically speaking, there is no better answer to the philosophical question “Why is there something rather than nothing” than that given in the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel. It is read in all Christian churches for Christmas. Here it is verbatim translated from the original Greek into English:

Prologue to the Gospel of St. John (1: 1-14):

“1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. 9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

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