Wednesday, July 18, 2012

First Cause

With my doctoral writing done for a few months, I find myself finally able to turn back to the Believer's Guide manuscript.  It's stewed and bubbled in the background for a few months, but the window of editing opportunity has finally opened up, as...finally...has the chance to start fishing around for publishers.  A book proposal or three have come together over this week, and have been churned out to midsized and smaller presses.

Because of all of this, I'm getting back into reading and thinking about the core concepts of the book, which inevitably stirs some entertaining mind-wanderings.  One of those is the whole "first cause" conundrum.

In a discussion group last month at my tiny church about the compatibility between faith and science, a well-informed and regular participant presented an opinion that I for a long time held myself.  It was a variant on what is often called the "First Cause" argument.

For those faith folk who don't buy into the reflexive fundamentalist 6,000 year old universe thing, "First Cause" has come to be understood in the context of our observable time and space.   Looking out at the way that creation has banged out bigly, and how it appears to have begun at a point of inscrutable singularity beyond which nothing can meaningfully be known, science-friendly believers have seen the possibility of God on the far side of that event.

Beyond that first moment lies God, we've thought.  And we're not wrong.  We're just not right in the way that we thought, either.

This is one of the many challenges the Many Worlds interpretation poses for the faithful.   Because that moment?  It's not the boundary.  On the "other side" may lie an infinity of other realities, or just a single scraping of reality against reality.   Yeah, Stephen Hawking described the number of other potential universes as 10 to the 500, but I know physicists.  The technical term for when they start pitching out numbers that high is "spitballing at infinity."

What Hawking is saying is that the multiverse itself might well be functionally infinite and eternal.  And if it's infinite and eternal, there can be no first cause.

Which, to be honest, works just fine for faith, with very little muss or fuss.  Why?  Because while First Cause arguments make some sense relative to time and space, they have never been meaningful statements relative to being outside of the bounds of our time and space.  Some unpacking of that is in order, eh?

From faith we know that God is eternal, but we know more than that. We understand existence as not being limited to the bounds of the flow of time and space, and understand being in God's presence as partaking of that eternity.   Being eternal, timeless, and without cause is an integral aspect of God's identity.

But when we've tried to explain this to skeptics, the conversations always go the same way.

Jesus-dude:  "Everything had to come from something.  So that something is God."
Skeptic:  "Oh yeah?  Well, what did God come from?"
Jesus-dude:  "Nothing.  God has just always existed."
Skeptic:  "But if everything has to come from something, then God has to come from something."
Jesus-dude:  "No, because God is God."
Skeptic:  "But everything has to come from something.  You're not making any sense."
Jesus-dude:  "That's because things work differently in the universe.  God's not part of everything we see and hear."
Skeptic:  "Oh, c'mon.  How can there be anything outside of our universe?  That's wackadoodle."

And to be honest?  The skeptic does have a point.   There's some tension in that thinking.  Or, to be more plain about it, did have a point.  If Many Worlds gains more purchase as a cosmology, the whole classical First Cause argument isn't worth arguing over.  It's just no longer relevant.

If the universe is an infinite and immeasurable multiverse, then ascribing causality is functionally meaningless when considering that infinity.  And saying "first" is equally meaningless.   How can there be a "first" if being stretches out to places where time has no meaning?

And into this kwazy cosmic yarp, the faithful have to ask: at what point did God create?  Could we still refer to God as the "Creator?"  The answer returns: Sure.  At every point, always, back farther than we can see, and forward beyond the scope of our vision.   It's just that parsing out God's infinitely generous self-expression from God's nature becomes a meaningless exercise.

I really am enjoying this manuscript.


  1. This is an interesting line of thinking. But it seems to me that it bears precious little resemblance to the God of your putative religion.
    "In the beginning...."
    Well, no. There is no beginning.
    "I created the heavens and the earth."
    Um.... there is no causation?"
    "But... I am the Alpha and the Omega."
    Well, no. There is no Alpha, nor any Omega.

  2. Browning, Browning, Browning.

    My religion is considerably more than your willfully half-informed conception of it. For all your study, I know it better than thee.

    Ah well. So it goes. Glad you find this interesting! And I hope that little name-stone remains firm in your hand. Funny how such totems are less than the real thing, yet still so very precious.

  3. Okay.

    That is totally incoherent.

    But, okay....

    No, if I am misunderstanding something, please feel free to explain.

  4. Really? Huh. Seems plain enough on the front end, although if the reference to the gift your own child left you was a bit obscure, forgive me. You know, the rock with the names written on it, so you'd remember them while they were away? That one?

    It wasn't much of a segue, I'll admit, but I found it such a warm, sweet story that I'd been thinking about it, and felt obligated to mention it. These things are so much easier to get in actual FTF conversation.

    Let's go through your texts, why don't we?

    The Hebrew word beresheet, which begins Genesis 1:1 and comprises the entirety of your first quote, does not literally render "In the beginning." It is, as reflected on extensively in the rabbinic tradition, more accurately rendered "in a beginning." This has resulted in Talmudic scholarly speculation that God had made many worlds before this one.

    The second, well, I'll assume that's Genesis 1:1 again. Remember, this post is about "first cause" in the context of eternity, not the absence of causality in the realms of the temporal. Our time and space seem to have come into being at some point, making such a statement perfectly coherent in terms of the earth and our sliver of the multiverse.

    The third? You know how dearly I love John of Patmos, but the concept of Alpha and Omega is relatively clear. It's a perfectly acceptable way of saying "I am the span of all things. I extend as far as it extends." Which, as it turns out, is really rather much farther than we thought. And is it that there is no Alpha, nor any Omega, or that there are more Alphas and Omegas than we can shake a cosmological stick at?

  5. Ohhhhh! Yeah, somehow I didn't get the stone reference in this context. It came across like a snarky metaphor for my "willfully half-informed conception." Thank you. I'm glad you liked the story.

    I am more that willing to own "half-informed," and willing even to allow that it is a good deal less than half, but I am unwilling to admit that I am "willfully" so. I think all my arguments with you amount to my quest to understand what you believe and how you can believe it.

    That is interesting, the bit about "a beginning." Glad to learn that. And again, it's an interesting line of thought. I suppose I should have said that it seems at odds with the beliefs of most of your co-religionists. But even your apologetics here for the passages referenced in my flippant little dialogue seem to imply that the Bible is more or less silent on the matter of the multiverse at large, and all references to creation and beginnings and causation refer specifically to our local corner of it. Am I right?

    Will you believe me when I say that I am very eager to read your book?