Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Brief Essay about Nothing

Why is it not the case that nothing exists—no rivers, grass, trees, rocks, animals, people, stars, empty space, etc.? In short, why is there nothing at all? My question is about cosmogony, that is, about the genesis of the ordered universe. The Judeo-Christian answer to the question, learned in religious schools, is the myth of creation.1 The first account of Creation (Gen 1:1-31) begins as follows:2

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness (Gen 1:1-4 RSV).

From this account God is depicted as initially calling into being, or generating from nothing, an amorphous watery mass without firmament into a dark void (Gen 1:6-10). God brought order to this chaos, and then filled the earth with life.

Does one need God to explain the genesis of an ordered world? If so, then the explanation for the genesis of everything is based on religious belief, but sectarian religious belief will not satisfy some as an explanation for there are other Gods and other cosmogonies competing with the Genesis narrative.3 The objection to using theology to explain the genesis of an ordered world is that there is absolutely no verifiable evidence that anything preceded the universe as we know it.

Modern evolutionary theories for the genesis of the universe do not address the originating cause (if cause there be). Theories are of three types:

a universe which starts from a point origin at a finite time in the past and expands continuously to become infinitely large after an infinite time;

a universe whose radius has a certain value at the initial moment of time, and thence expands to become infinite after an infinite time;

a universe which expands from zero radius to a certain maximum and then collapses to zero again; this process of oscillation being capable of indefinite repetition. Within each of these main categories a large number of possible models can be constructed differing in various points of detail.4

The competitor to these evolutionary types is the steady-state or continuous theory of creation.

The steady-state model is an alternative to the Big Bang Theory of the evolution of the universe just above. In the steady-state model, the density of matter in the expanding universe remains unchanged due to a continuous creation of matter, thus adhering to the perfect cosmological principle, a principle that asserts that the observable universe is basically the same at any time as well as at any place.5 The history of the universe on the steady-state model extends to an indefinite time in the past and future.6

While the steady-state model enjoyed some minority support in the scientific mainstream until the mid-20th century, it is now rejected by the vast majority of cosmologists, astrophysicists, and astronomers, as the observational evidence points to a hot Big Bang cosmogony with a finite age of the universe, which the steady-state model does not predict.7 The theory of a steady-state universe is seriously challenged by the evidence that the universe is expanding. This demonstrated reality makes the “Big Bang” theory of the genesis of the universe far more plausible, and raises in an urgent way the question of what generated the “Big Bang”—unless we decide that the question is unanswerable.

            The question “what generated the universe” or put another way “why is there nothing at all” I personally find to be unanswerable, but for me it is an important question. It makes me more confident in the proposition that “God” is. “God” in this case, however, is not the personal God of Judeo-Christian faith, but rather the nonexistent point of origin whence all began.8 What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Virtually every society has a myth of creation to explain the origin of everything. See J. E. Wright, “Cosmogony, Cosmology” in NIDB 1:755-763.
2The second account is Gen 2:4-3:24.
3See for example the short collection of myths of the world before creation from the Pacific basin: Carl Sagan, Cosmos (Wings, 1980), 256-60.
4Young, Exploring the Universe (Oxford, 1971), 419-20.
6Young, Exploring the Universe, 411.
7https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steady-state_model ; Young, Exploring the Universe, 380-81.
8Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019): “Matter and Spirit: Making Sense of it All,” 174-77; and also for an earlier version: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2015/08/matter-and-spirit-making-sense-of-it-all.html

18 comments:

  1. That's an odd question, "Why is there nothing at all?" Leaving aside the problem of whether there was time at all before the Big Bang 13.7 Billion years ago, presumably there was nothing at all 14 billion years ago. There couldn't be a "nonexistent point of origin" before there was an origin. So presumably God began 13.7 billion years ago and, I suppose, stopped being at that point too. Once the nonexistent point of origin has done its originating what purpose does it serve? What is gained by labeling the point of origin with the term "God" and then subtracting the personal from it and declaring it nonexistent? Why not label it "Cat" without feline characteristics and nonexistent?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good Morning Steve (Stevan right?)
      Good questions all. Time is a concept invented by human beings for earth's cycles about the sun. So as far as anyone knows before the decimal point (on the big bang theory) was ignited (or ignited itself) there was nothing at all (where did the decimal point come from?); anything before the big bang rolled out all the starstuff I refer to as "God"--surely "it" well deserves such an epithet. Somehow "cat" as an epithet for the initiator of all we see about us does not do what ignited the decimal point justice.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

      Delete
  2. Hi Charlie,

    Do you mean to say, "Why isn't there nothing at all?"

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg Pa.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good rainy morning Gene. The first statement in the blog is most clear: "Why is it not the case that nothing exists?" Your version of the question asks about the something that the question presumes is "there." The form I prefer is why is there nothing at all?
      Cordially
      Charlie

      Delete
  3. Hi Charlie.

    You wrote: "From this account (Genesis 1) God is depicted as initially calling into being, or generating from nothing, an amorphous watery mass..."

    Does not the passage read as if other stuff already existed before the first creative act of God "calling" light into existence: movement (by God), darkness, water (the face of the deep//the face of the waters)?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Charlie,

    Regarding the phrase "...the non-existent point of origin from which all began," I would raise the following issue:

    Is not "non-existence" or "nothingness" outside the range of human experience, inaccessible to human perceptual and comprehension processes and, therefore, nonsense. It would seem that the closest humans can come is the ides of emptiness, but that requires some version of a boundary.

    For humans, it seems to me, something always has been, is, and always will be.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Charlie,

    I see the modern hypotheses of the origin of the universe as new myths, ways to reconcile the unknown, in this case the ultimate “foundation myth.” The questions of generation of the universe will probably remain unknown, just explained in a way a particular age appreciates them, presently analytically instead of lyrically (metaphorically). As far as modern hypotheses, I’m not particularly interested, because they don’t have an entertaining narrative. (I prefer Chekov to Asimov.) There is a rather old one I’m “partial to.”

    It seems to me that The Secret Book (Apocryphon) According to John (2nd c. ce.) has a pre-Genesis origin story that includes a “big bang,” or at least an emanation (the Barbēlō) from the First Principle that was the precursor of the material world and the Genesis narratives. I sort of like the language: The Barbelō “... became a womb for the entirety [all spiritual beings], for it was prior to all,... and the eternal aeon among the invisible. And the emanation, that is, the Barbēlō, made a request of the invisible virgin spirit, that it be given prior acquaintance (prognōsis). And the spirit consented...” (Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures. 31, bracketed words I added to define). That’s some good stuff! This First Principle should not be confused with the craftsman, Ialdbaōth, who copies the spiritual universe making a material universe, including humanity. The creator of the material world , where Genesis begins, is a flawed character, arrogant, ignorant and selfish. (One sees this in the Garden of Eden fable, if one looks without a religious lens.)

    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Dennis,
      There is another interesting "creation" story of sorts at the beginning of the Paraphrase of Shem.
      Charlie

      Delete
    2. Thought some might be interested in Native American creation myths!

      http://www.celebrate-american-holidays.com/Native-American-Creation-Stories.html

      https://www.gaia.com/article/native-american-creation-myths-uncovered-explained

      https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TheCreationStory-Iroquois.html

      http://www.native-languages.org/creation.htm

      https://www.crystalinks.com/nativeamcreation.html

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa

      Delete
    3. Charlie,
      That was quite a story! I have a copy in Robinson’s Nag Hammadi Library, but heretofore hadn’t read it. Thanks. It will take some work to fully appreciate it... The metaphor of the “crooked root” piqued my interest, since “root” played a part in The Apocryphon, Gospel of Truth and other writings.

      Gene,
      Thanks. I collect books about Native Americans, including some which speak of their religious stories, but I am a bit skeptical about the historicity of them because they were recorded after several centuries of Christian missionaries intertwining with them and/or those who recorded them overlaying their “spin.” I wonder how much this influenceed the content of the stories and how did those who record the stories, probably honestly, inject their religious views into them. Being a skeptic, I would probably, before I accepted them as a reflection of pre-European religious stories, set up a methodology to look at the individual ones, somewhat like the Jesus Seminar did with the acts of Jesus, also incorporating several other disciplines (anthropology, cartography from the time, ethnology, and, in the case of some of the groups, like the Delaware and Cherokee, diaries of the missionaries...) Things like that and even how we interpret them within our culture. I have given it some thought, but other “projects” intrude.

      An example of this influence: In the myth is probably evident in “How the World was Made,” a Cherokee story recorded in the late 1800’s by James Mooney (Myths of the Cherokee), there seems a kinship with it and Genesis 1, and portions of Genesis 8. (One nifty part of the story is this: When the buzzard was sent to look for firm and dry land, he got very tired and his wings flapped and where ever they touched the ground a valley was made and when they turned up a mountain was created.) I hear whispers of the Noah’s Ark story, which was from Gilgamesh, and brings up a point. Oral tradition is generally fluid over time, influenced by the influx of immigrants and the effects of culture upon culture. The aforementioned writings (Apocryphon, Gospel of Truth, Paraphrase of Shem can be dated to around the middle of the fourth century (Nag Hammadi) and the first two are cited in the second century, I think by Irenaeus.

      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

      Delete
    4. Hi Dennis, Agreed. The problems of historical research seem overwhelming.

      Gene

      Delete
  6. Hi Charlie,

    One alternative to God-talk about Nothing and/or her unavailability:

    The following ideas were originally set forth in a 6000 word essay that I unsuccessfully attempted to publish several years ago, titled "Relational Deity."

    In the deliberations of Westar’s God Seminar in recent years, as reported in The Fourth R and else where, it is my impression that God language has moved from a noun denoting comprehensive power to a verb denoting limitation. I prefer the term "I Am" (Exodus 3:14) to try to get away from the masculine associations with the word "God" in the West. I suggest the following "weak verb" definition: I Am is the persuading or energizing of relational completeness.

    Available tools include populist common sense and emotion, historical intuitions of great minds, poetic grasp of the human condition, the natural human curiosity and hope for world transformation, the fruit creating Spirit championed by the Pauline literature, the mystic vision of the flow of humanity into I-Am, the historical drive toward ever increasing environmental, cultural and psychological freedoms, and examples of the infusion of the breath of life into tragic and hopeless contexts.

    As part of the larger picture, energy output for relational completion seems to empty into spiritual leaders, and through them into humanity, so that talking to Jesus, for example, is also talking to I-Am, as much as one can understand it to be so. The question becomes: Will I become a participant in the relational completion out-put of l Am persuasion?

    I remember being influenced in Seminary by the Episcopal priest Malcom Boyd's book, “Are You Running With Me Jesus?" (1965) The book is "a series of prayers and ruminations on the relationship between Christianity and the current social and political scene (e.g., the Kennedy and King assassinations)."

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa

    ReplyDelete
  7. Good Rainy Evening Charlie,

    One nice thing about participating in your blog is that we have plenty of social distancing from one another! So thank you for giving us something to do while we hunker down at home :-)

    1) I'm trying to figure out your definition of nothing- is your definition of "nothing" equivalent to "non-existence?" Are the two words interchangeable?

    2) What about empty space- do you consider that to be "nothing?"

    3) The main interest of your blog seems to be "point of origin" and "where it all began." I wonder why that question is so significant? If we knew the answer, how would it benefit humankind? To me, something that large and profound is too big for the human mind to contain in a conceptual net... Do you think 20 consonants and five vowels are capable of explaining something as vast and comprehensive as the point of origin of the entire universe? Many thanks as usual, Elizabeth

    ReplyDelete
  8. Good Sunday Morning Elizabeth,
    A bit rainy and chilly outside, but not bad inside where we are "sheltering in place" from the panepidemic.
    Sorry to be so long in getting back to you but things have been a bit hectic around here.
    I take "nothing" to be nonexistence.
    I would, however, maintain that empty space is something. To be able to recognize that space is empty, it seems to me that there must be two identifiable points that the empty space is between. Or there must me some identifiable point in the distance that reveals the emptiness. If there is nothing there I suppose that means that neither is anyone there to observe.
    As to your number 3: People "explain" God all the time with much authority--even though explanations do not agree. I don't know how helpful it is to the human condition to discuss unanswerable questions but it is rather interesting--like the middle ages conundrum: how many angels can dance on one pinhead at the same time.
    Stay safe!
    Charlie

    ReplyDelete
  9. Good Evening Charlie, I hope you have plenty of food and toilet paper on hand... We are very lucky to not live in Illinois. i asked a doctor friend why Missouri's number of cases is so much less than Illinois, and he said part of it has to do with international airports. STL is no longer a TWA hub- if it was we'd see a lot of more this. I'm glad you made your move before all this craziness happened and I'm sure your daughter is glad to have you close by. Craig's parents are in separate assisted living facilities and he is unable to see them but can call them.

    Why do you think there's a "beginning point" of existence? Is there a possibility existence has always existed? In other words, why does the fact that the universe seems to be expanding rule out the possibility that it has always existed? Did you ever study Hinduism and the theory that there is no existence and this is all a dream- and do you find the possibility that this is all a dream to be unsettling?

    Thank you again and glad you are staying strong and healthy, Elizabeth

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good morning Elizabeth,
      That must be difficult for Craig's parents living in separate assisted living facilities. Fortunately Peg (83)and I (soon to be 86) are able to live yet without assisted living,
      Why do I think that there is a beginning of existence? Off the top of my head there are two things that lead me to that conclusion: the fact that the universe is expanding and beginnings/endings seem to be the way of the universe--for example suns die/explode and turn into black holes. The expansion is likely due to a massive explosion "at the beginning." I think what you suggest with "has always existed" is what is referred to as the "steady state" of the universe. If I were to give up the "big bang" as the most plausible of creation theories I would opt for the repeating universes. But one can hardly be dogmatic about creation theories.
      The idea that we are dreaming after the Hindu idea? Personally I agree with Decartes who concluded: "I think therefore I am." That is to say I am not a figment in my dream.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

      Delete
    2. Thank you Charlie... quick question about Descartes and Hinduism: Is there a difference between being the thinker of the thoughts and the dreamer of the dreams? Thinking is done consciously; dreaming is done unconsciously. But the dreamer and the thinker are the same person. Since both dreams and thoughts are mental images- is there any difference between the two? In other words- since thoughts are not real, how can they prove you are real? Thoughts are only words/images going around in your head. The act of thinking is real, so is the act of dreaming.... Whether this is all a dream or a thought, everything you ever experience evaporates very quickly. Elizabeth

      Delete
    3. Hi Elizabeth,

      The following description is an interpretation of info at the Stanford Library site.

      Beyond Reach: The Advaita Vedanta tradition in Hinduism eliminates perceived reality. Built on the intuition that the space-time world is illusion, Ultimate or Brahman reality can be neither its creator or ruler, neither mind nor will. Brahman reality is unlimited, without parts or attributes, with no internal diversity, no self-awareness or knowledge, unknown to causality.

      So there is no thinker or dreamer or self-awareness. This conversation doesn't exist.

      Charlie hasn't mentioned it but I would recommend his collection of essays, including his own, by some of the great religious thinkers of out time:

      Hedrick, Charles W. When Faith Meets Reason. Polebridge Press: Santa Rosa, Calif., 2008.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

      Delete