God in a meaningless universe

Say the universe is meaningless.

Problem: “Meaning” in the contemporary West is either a very rich or very muddled term- we’ve either put our finger on a very living, multifaceted and profound thing, or we’ve hopelessly conflated any number of very distinct ideas. The term first means “to signify” when said of words, which then stretches to include symbols, though it is not at all clear that symbols mean things (does the statue of liberty mean the welcoming of immigrants? Did a pre-Nixon dollar mean some amount of gold?)  The term then stretches to include purposes larger than signification, and can be watered down till the point where it is a synonym for “important”.

But this is the wrong line of analysis. The term can be viewed as the opposite of vanity as used in Ecclesiastes. Things are either meaningful or in vain. Meaningful things progress to some fixed goal/perfection/ point of rest; and it is the absence of this in the universe that so horrifies and bores Coheleth. The universe just goes on. Time passes without going getting further from or closer to anything. The rivers flow into the ocean and never fill it up. Any eschatology of “a last day” cannot be read off the days themselves.

Notice that it is precisely the regularity of nature that makes Coheleth call it vain. He is seeing things from a fundamentally scientific point of view – not in the sense that he is forming hypotheses and setting up experiments (these are only means, anyway) but because he sees all the acts of nature as mere repetitions and instances of eternal, regular laws.

So then, we have both a divine and existential warrant to viewing the universe as meaningless, based not only on theology but on the horror of seeing the algebra of the world. Once the splendor of the simple equation wears off, you realize the ontology of the equation is that time and history just roll on – they are, as Aristotle would put it without seeming to notice what he was saying, potentials without any corresponding act. In this sense, human beings have known for a very long time that science makes the world meaningless.

So there it is, a meaningless world. What now?

1.) The first response almost doesn’t need to be said. This isn’t the whole truth of the universe. Leaving aside the protests of scientific philistinism, there are obvious meanings in the human world which spill over into the larger animal and organic world (hunters chase deer because they want to kill them whether the hunters men or wolves; and anything that acts to hydrate itself can be seen as drinking, whether it is a man, a cow, or a shrub.) The fact that living beings incorporate (the putatively meaningless) elements and physical processes of the world into their being at the very least problematizes the meaninglessness of the universe.

The response to all of this is to say that the meaningless part of the universe, even if not the only part, is the fundamental part. Nature is whatever happens always or for the most part, and the universe for the most part is not living. Chalk the things that find meaning in the world up to a rounding error – nature is regularity, law, vanity. 

2.) So let’s say the fundamental story of the universe is meaningless. But we need to be more precise since meanings can be given to things which lack that meaning of themselves. We can all decide to stab Caesar when he turns down Tillius’s request, though not because there is an intrinsic connection between refusing him and being stabbed (in fact, the lack of any such intrinsic meaning in the act is one of the reasons why we choose it as the moment to stab him). But to draw this distinction between meaning intrinsically and just meaning problematizes the question. Meaning, after all, is usually imposed on something that does not have it of itself and thus presupposes a meaningless substrate. To take absence of intrinsic meaning as evidence of lack of meaning is the same as to say that a word is not in English because none of its letters necessarily spell an English word. The universe is intrinsically meaningless to the Creator in the same way that sound is intrinsically meaningless to a spoken word. Considered in this sense, the intrinsic meaninglessness of the universe was a prerequisite for its having a divine meaning.

True, no Thomist is going to argue that the universe lacks intrinsic meanings altogether. But time and history can be vanities, and history is precisely the theater in which Judeo-Christian tradition sees God as working. 

Is there a universe?

For the majority of Western intellectual history, the universe was a single place. It had a center and a periphery, and these locations had real physical significance (notice that geocentrism and heliocentrism are not really contrary theories: the theory of geocentrism involves the whole universe, whereas heliocentrism, at least as we understand it, is a theory about a vanishingly small part of the universe.) The physical events at the center were under the control of the events at the periphery, and this order of causality arose from a real division in the order of being, since the causes at the periphery were immutable and changeless whereas the events at the center were corruptible. This difference in being required a real difference in the physical structure of the things in different places, and the places themselves had a natural order among themselves. Notice the picture: the universe is a single unified place, where all the parts have degrees of being and orders of causality, and all that we can go out at night and look out and up at is an organism whose action we can trace back to a single action with a single time.

But all that’s false. So now what?

The unity in the universe is no longer a causal unity of all the parts working in concert. There might be a gravitational pull of everything on everything, but it doesn’t give rise to a gravitational system, that is, to a hierarchy of gravitational masses. The gravitational center of the universe is not the sort of center that gives rise to a hierarchy – it appears to be an accidental result of the mere sum of gravitational attractions – and similar considerations apply to all the forces of nature. Whereas Aristotle could assign a meaningful physical position and causal power to any celestial body, we are unable to see any compelling reason why any one of them should be there as opposed to in any other random place. It doesn’t even make sense for us to assign a position to the stars, as though the place we see them at is a part of any order to the whole.

The upshot of all this is that we are able to raise the question of whether all this stuff is a universe at all. If by “the universe” you mean “all the physical stuff there is” then there is certainly a universe, but it doesn’t appear to be anything beyond an entity we make by fiat. One could just as well assign a name to “all the cultures there are”, but to name such a thing doesn’t make for a single natural entity, even if we can find some common features among all of them or give some narrative of how one came from another in an historical progression. From where we stand now, it appears that “all physical stuff” is like “all governments”: neither forms a concrete unity outside of thought, even though we can find some common features among all of them (that all physical stuff arose from one big bang does not make it one single organism). Aristotle’s idea that the unity of the pure act is reflected in the universe by making the universe a single unified act is, for the moment, a failed hypothesis.  The truer hypothesis appears to be the Parmenidean and Platonic idea that the universe is a more homogeneous and undifferentiated stream of becoming which we understand only according to its phenomenal character and not according to universal relation of in the things themselves. There is still involve some real relation of the universe to the unchangeable, but it is the unchangeability of thought as such, whether the thought of a human mind, or of that which transcends the whole of this order of becoming. As a consequence, metaphysics or wisdom becomes more sharply cut off from science, as everyone appears to believe it must be.

Some objections to a proposed Catholic view of the universe

I attended a lecture today by Dan Toma, a biology professor who moonlights (with some big-enough names in Catholic Philosophy) as a teacher of what he argues is the Catholic view of the universe, and who claims that the findings of modern and contemporary science can be easily put in terms of this Catholic view. The dominant feature of this view is a hierarchical structure of the universe, ascending from the non-living to the living, and through the various grades of life from the material to the immaterial. Dr. Toma spent much of his lecture articulating the hierarchical theory of the Pseudo-Areopagite and speaking about the various developments that St. Thomas made to it. Dr. Toma argues that this theory of the universe was the common one until the Renaissance, when it was replaced by a different and conflicting view of the universe which reduces all things to material parts. I raised some of these objections in the Q+A (FWIW, I raised only #2 and #3 below. I wasn’t a Q+A time hog).

1.) We change our views of the universe when our old views are no longer persuasive. This persuasion might be forced or resulting from ignorance, but as a view becomes more and more long lasting and widespread, it becomes less and less probable that those who hold it are simply dupes, and the medieval view has been dead for at least 500 years. At the bare minimum, we need to appeal to some pretty subtle causes to explain how it didn’t deserve to die.

2.) The cosmos is a place or places, and so a hierarchy of the cosmos requires a hierarchy of places. In the ancient and medieval view of the world, there was such a hierarchy: the earth was in the well-defined center place and was the place of change, straight motion, and corruption; and the heavens were a place of circular motion, intrinsic immutability, and circular motion. The only way we can have a hierarchical universe now is if we say (a.) place is not significant to the universe, so it is not important that there is no hierarchy of place or (b.)  the sort of natural places it still makes sense to speak about (the womb as a place of a baby) can tell us something significant about the universe as a whole or (c.) we need an entirely different account of place. The first two options are dead-ends, the latter requires a great deal of work that I don’t see being done.

3.) While there is still a clear hierarchy in the Cosmos running from the non-living to man, this does not appear to be due to any causes within the Cosmos (St. Thomas was uncertain what cause was responsible for this order of species). Even if we decide to call selection and drift causes (which is not the easiest thing to do, given the role that chance plays in the process) they are only causes of the multiplicity of species and not of a hierarchy or order.

4.) The ancient and Medieval world had intricate accounts of the causal hierarchies that obtained between the heavenly “spheres” and the corruptible world. Such hierarchies are no longer discernible in the universe taken as a whole. There do not appear to be any equivocal causes in physics, and if there are they play a minor role. The sun cannot be said to cause generation as such, Saturn no longer causes the conservation in things, nor is the warlike temperaments caused by being conceived under the influence of Mars. This does not mean, as some have suggested, that St. Thomas’s first way collapses, but it does mean that the sort of hierarchy among mobiles that St. Thomas believed was manifest to sensation is no longer discernible in the universe as a whole.

5.) There is some reason to question whether our ascent to God should run though physical science at all. It was all well and good for Aristotle and St. Thomas to build so much physical science into their philosophical accounts of the world – they had never seen a system of physical science collapse under refutation. We contemporary people have seen two systems collapse: Aristotle’s and Newton’s. Do we even want to work the accounts of physical science into discourses about God and the loftiest things?

6.) It is not clear to what extent contemporary science seeks to understand the world. Such understanding is obviously one of its goals, but there seem to be other goals too which are not altogether compatible with pure understanding. There are a good number of noble lies that every scientist works with for the sake of making things, building a system, gaining power over nature, etc. “Noble lie” is jocose – in fact all they are doing is using dialectical definitions as opposed to searching for definitions of the precise nature of the thing studied. This dialectical way of proceeding makes it difficult for the one who wants to know “what is X?”  Too often, the scientific answer to such a question is “I dunno…but let me show you what I can do with it!”

7.) While metaphysics is an account of reality that is distinct from physics, everyone is rather vague as to how our mind gives rise to it. No one has yet given an adequate account of how “separation” or “the third degree of abstraction” can give rise to a concept of transcendent reality as opposed to a vague grasp of physical things (the best account was perhaps Aristotle’s, when he said that there is a divine part of man, which most is man, though he gave no details of the mode of knowing that gives us being as such).

The ugliness of a finely-tuned universe

While I am critical of Roderick Long in the previous post, I thought his critique of “fine tuning” arguments was quite good:

As for the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” to support life, this claim presupposes that physical laws other than the present ones are possible. But as an Aristotelian, I reject any form of possibility other than “compatibility with the nature of the actual world.” Just as explanations make sense only within the realm of existence, so the distinction between possible and impossible does so too.

I’ve been bothered for a while that “fine tuning” arguments, since without assuming that nature is essentially chaos in need of order, there is simply nothing for God to tune up. Nature taken in this way is essentially chaotic, disordered, and unintelligible, and all that is chaotic, disordered and unintelligible is ugly.

Again, the essential disorder of the universe which is “tuned up” in fine tuning arguments is either purely logical, or it really belongs to nature. Taken the first way, there is no real fine tuning of the universe; taken in the second way it presupposes a sense of nature that no one has ever experienced. I certainly agree that if water did not expand when it froze that life would likely not arise, but I’ve never experienced water as undetermined to this state, and I have no reasons to assume that such water is possible. I agree that if molecule X had different forces, it would not be stable, but all my experiences with the molecule X show it with the forces it has. In fact, without these, it would simply not be what it is. This is also true of its parts, and the parts of those parts all the way down.

Fine tuning arguments play on one of the great blind-spots of modern thinkers- the muddling of logical and real possibility. The arguments can only swiftly reach a conclusion because we think we can go from imagining things happening in a different way to concluding that there is a real possibility that they could have been so. Descartes famously  muddles these two when he assumes he must take an evil deceiver as a real possibility (indeed the true original sin of modern thought is not “how do I know that I know?” but the more fundamental error of identifying logical and real possibility). Again, Analytic philosophers – especially the theists – are prone to make the same sort of mistake (Plantinga’s argument for mind-body dualism is a good example; so is the popular Analytic claim that God exists because he is possible; and  in general the interest one takes in the ontological argument is proportionate to the degree to which he muddles the diverse kinds of possibility… and talk about “possible worlds” is a category of its own in this confusion…)

Grades of the universe III

Beyond physical beings, every existing thing is, as Aristotle said,  “just what it is and nothing more (De Anima, 3:5)”. How are we to visualize a universe of such beings?

One of the basic observations of bodily existence is the mutual impenetrability of bodies. The reason for this was only found out recently. Bodies don’t just exclude each other, they positively repel each other by a force naturally arising at the most elemental level of their existence. Bodily existence, precisely as bodily, excludes and drives out others, and this necessity of exclusion requires the homogeneity of space. In the universe beyond physical existence, space is not necessary; not because everything exists in a point, but because everything exists communicably.

Just as the existence of bodily things gives rise to space since all of its parts both exclude each other and other things, so too the action of the body gives rise to time, since all the parts of the operation of a physical thing exclude each other. Time is the appropriate measure of the action of something acting as a physical thing: just as a hot thing heats, so too an existence which excludes its parts from each other acts with an operation which excludes its parts from each other.

Though these temporal operations are of different kinds, Aristotle showed long ago (and no one usually disagrees with him) that the foundation of all these operations is local motion. As an operation is no longer the act of spacial existence, it no longer advances in its operation by local motion. As existence becomes more communicable, it more advances as numbers do: the way our knowledge is both communicable above all things, and advances by discrete “moves”, like the way we move immediately from the premises to the conclusion, or from one number to the next in counting.

Grades of the universe, II

Plato was the first to see the real distinction between what something is and and this individual. At one point in his career, he took this real distinction in the most straightforward sense and posited a separate, distinct world containing  what something is. Aristotle denied that the real separation should be taken in this way, but he was not entirely clear on how to preserve it. In his Metaphysics, he seems to want to account for the difference in terms of the distinction between matter and form, but he recognizes that his whole argument against Plato requires including matter in what something is.  Avicenna divided matter into “particular sensible matter” (or “signate” or “signed by quantity”) and common sensible matter, and said that the former constituted the individual as such while the latter was a part of what it is. St. Thomas adopted the last distinction.

The distinction in matter is based on the ambiguity of matter. It both enters into the account of what something is and is the reason why some individual is really distinct from what it is. Matter is best viewed as a kind of by product of the failure or lowness of the existence of some existent thing. By “lowless”  we mean that we visualize material beings as the term of diminished existence, a term which specifies a point that is so low that something other than what a thing is enters into its very interior structure and thereby becomes a part of what it is.

Material existence marks the point where existence becomes so obscure that we might even think it contradictory. Parmenides was right: if the things around exemplify being in a pure and unqualified way, then they do not come to be (How can being come to be? From what?) Parmenides affirmed the antecedent, but it is more reasonable to deny the consequent. What then? We conclude that the things we know first do not best exemplify what we mean by being or existence. We have gathered an idea from the things around us which is not perfectly verified by the things around us.

Grades of the universe pt. 1

St. Thomas saw man as finding in fulfillment and purpose as a part of the universe, but he also saw the universe as mostly composed of angels. The physical part of the universe (the cosmos) was the last stop before sheer non-being (although it admitted of several grades). The Angelic universe exceeded the magnitude of the cosmos by as much as the cosmos exceeded the earth. The comparison admits of an obvious problem- the angels don’t take up space, and there is no giant super-place for them to roam around in. One cannot compare the physical and the non-physical by the comparative size of their bodies. What then?

We recognize some difference between what something is (a dog, a man, a globe, a color) and an individual thing, which leads us to the reality of something that accounts for why something is an individual as opposed to being what it is.  Since in art the reason why we can make many individuals of one sort is because we have enough stuff to make them of, we call the stuff one makes out of (or matter) the reason why individuals are somehow alienated from what they are. We don’t say that there is an alienation from what they are in the sense that there is some separate “what a thing is” apart from matter. To posit such an existence would be to miss the the way matter is an essential constituent of cosmic things. The division within cosmic existence is inseparable from it.

In man, we come to a limiting case. He is at least aware of the difference between individuals and what they are- he is aware that his mind separates out “what is” and makes  “what is” out of its own mind stuff. And yet man only separates out what is not separate in itself. Hos mind, wholly separate from things, only separates things that are not separate in themselves. Hardly the most noble object for a mind to play upon.

In one last tug, the cosmos snaps out into what is simply what it is, and nothing more. We allow the imagination to see this world with a sort of space and time, but as concessions to the weakness of intellect. We will use the terms to make analogues.

The Universe as Hallowed Ground

The imperfect is being caused by the perfect. Any attempt to deny this accounts for the imperfect only accidentally, and not insofar as it is imperfect.

Considered under the restriction of the natural order, a natural being which exists by a supernatural principle is the most perfect natural being and is thus the cause of all of the actions of nature. But human nature is such a being. Therefore human nature is causing all of the motions of nature.

The causality of man is clearly not an agent causality (or then nature would be art) but a final causality according to its perfection.

In order to give rise to man, nature needed to rise up to higher and higher levels of existence, but in so doing, some particular thing existing at the lower level must pass away. Carbon can only be forged in the heart of a dying star. The Star must give itself up in order that man might live. If it were to hang onto its existence, with all of its celestial grandeur and incalculable power, not even plankton could exist.

The universe, therefore, is best understood as a solemn and hallowed ground, like Gettysburg or Thermopylae or even Calvary. It is the place in which all things have laid down their life in order that we might live. Unless a grain of wheat fall to the earth and die, etc.

(I wondered the other day about when I would hit my 1274th post, since St. Thomas died in 1274 and so I have an attachment to the number. As it would happen, this post is number 1274, and it happens that I get to write it on today’s feast.)

Aristotle and the everlasting universe

Aristotle claimed that motion must always be, and have been. This is the same sort of principle as is found in the law of conservation of matter and of conservation of energy: “__________ cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only change modes/ forms”. A principle like this will always rest at the basis of any natural science, as St. Thomas proves in the first half of the third way. Taken in this way, we can speak meaningfully about the eternity of the universe, for it is clear that there is something in the universe that can neither come to be nor can pass away in the primary sense of those terms: matter, energy, motion, form, etc. cannot come to be like “this man” or “this motion” or “this color” or “this particular quanta of energy”. In fact, it is by assuming that the universe is eternal in this way that we can prove that it must have come to be from nothing, for we can distinguish even among various aspects of the eternal realities of the universe.

On how we know of the fullness of the universe above the material universe- UPDATED

We know that the angelic universe exists because we prove that God must be,

And we prove that God must be because we know that the merely material universe exits as a certain effect. We know this merely material universe is an effect from its imperfect existence; i.e. from its potency.

This potency is not only manifest in itself, but in its various modes of imperfection:

(in the five ways)

1.) though being moved
2.) through being caused as such
3.) through the necessary with cause
4.) through imperfect being in some transcendental order
5.) though being directed

What St. Thomas says about the imperfection of human life and human happiness can also be used to demonstrate the existence of God.

In general, since potency is never apart from act, potency connotes division and multiplicity, the multiplicity connotes composition, composition connotes being an effect, from which a cause can be necessarily inferred.

At times, it seems that we demonstrate the divine existence from the perfection of the universe: such beauty and order must come from God… or some such argument. But even here we are in truth appealing to imperfection, for we recognize in those moments that such order could not have come from the merely material universe.

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