Cosmology: or, The Divine

Humans have a biological need to explain things. It’s one of the aspects of our brains that has kept us alive this long. Suppose caveman Zog eats a plant and dies six hours later. His friends, Grok and Bonk, see this happen. Grok makes the connection: eating the plant caused Zog’s death. Bonk is blissfully free of the need to explain things in such tangled causal relationships, eats the same kind of plant, and dies. Grok’s genes are passed on.

Ever since the beginnings of human religion, the biggest thing we’ve felt the need to explain is our own world’s existence. Every culture in history (that I’m aware of) has had a creation myth, but in classic Darwinian fashion, only a few of these have survived to the modern age. With the development of rationalism, though, some of those myths have needed bolstering through philosophical means.

One of these means stems from the idea that every effect has a cause. This has so far been universally confirmed in our observation of our world, and seems to be a good premise to go on. The result is the idea of the “first cause,” or the thing that jump-started the universe. First proposed by Aristotle, the “cosmological argument” was refined by theologians in both the Christian and Muslim traditions, with Thomas Aquinas doing the honors in the former case and the students of the Kalam tradition in the latter.

Let’s examine that argument. The problem with believing that our universe requires a first cause is that whatever caused it would itself also require a cause. For the first cause argument to make any sense, somewhere there must be something infinite. Those religious scholars knew this, and used it to bolster their claims for an infinite, omnipotent, personal God.

If we’re going to say that something Infinite is required for our causal universe to exist, though, we don’t necessarily have to say that the infinite thing is prior to our universe. Thanks to some excellent astronomical work in the early twentieth century, we do know that the universe is expanding, and subsequent discoveries point to a violent sort of “beginning” that caused the expansion, some fourteen billion years ago. There are two possible causes to explain that beginning. First, an explanation that is “within” the universe: the expansion/contraction theory, which claims that the universe itself is the required infinite, and has been “beginning” and “ending” throughout an eternity of iterations. In this case, no extra-universal first cause is required.

The second possible cause is some external force, not contained by the space-time of our universe. If we say that there is such a force, what can we know about it?

The problem here is simple lack of information. We are incredibly limited here on our little rock, and I think it very likely that astronomers even a few centuries in our future will look back on our current data as primitive at best. Imagine a community of natives of a south Pacific island, circa 1000 AD, with no conception of other peoples or other places, and with only the foggiest ideas about the nature of the great blue expanse they live on. Our own attempts to speculate about what exists “outside” our universe are far more ambitious, and less informed, than those natives’ speculations on the origins of their ocean.

Still, we are trying, and some of our best minds (Stephen Hawking et al.) are working on the problem. From those preliminary ventures, our best guesses tell us that the first cause, if it exists, could be a number of non-divine things — a “multiverse” of which our universe is only a part, and in which any given universe’s beginning is the effect of the operations of interacting elements within the multiverse.

So, an intelligent entity outside of our universe isn’t logically necessary to explain our existence. But, for the sake of covering our bases, let’s assume there is one, the Something referenced in the prelude. Because the Something lives outside of our universe, we cannot observe It directly. And because we cannot observe It, there are only two ways we can know anything about It: first, by observing Its work (our universe), and second, if It speaks to us (divine revelation).

The problem with the first method is, again, a result of the limits of our own minds. There’s a classic argument from design which states that if you find a watch in the woods, you know it’s designed. Taking the analogy further, you can also learn things about the people that designed it. That is, in fact, what the entire science of archaeology is all about — finding lost objects and deducing context from the way they were made, the materials that were used, and so on.

The reason we can do that is because of something called empathy. To go back to the caveman example in the first paragraph, suppose Zog’s salad only made him ill, and didn’t kill him. If Grok possesses empathy as well as the ability to determine causal relationships, Grok is able to “feel” Zog’s pain, and then connect the plant to those feelings, and thus avoid discomfort himself. If we find a watch in the forest, we can know things about the creator of the watch because we already know that they’re human. If we find an artifact constructed by a nonhuman race, we will only be able to understand it (and by extension, them) to the level that we’re similar to them.

Now let’s pretend that the argument from design actually works (it doesn’t, but we don’t have time to go into it). How much can we know about the Something by looking at Its creation? If It was a human, or human-like, we could know quite a lot. We could say that It valued order, and enjoyed a good spectacle, and had either a deep sense of tragedy or a twisted sense of humor. or possibly both.

But any being capable of creating our universe would be, by virtue of pure complexity, vastly, even incomprehensibly, dissimilar to any individual human. Even the things that we value — order, beauty, color, love — only exist in our subjective human perspectives, and we have no way of knowing if the Something shares those values, or anything like them. If there is a Something, empathy with It is very likely impossible. We should take it as a warning, by the way, that humans love to anthropomorphize: to describe natural forces and events, and other animals, with human values and emotions. It’s built into our brains to try to fit the Something, if there is one, into our limited human terms. Just as with thunderstorms, earthquakes, mountains and bears, however, doing so is probably a mistake.

So if we can’t understand anything about the Something by looking at Its works thanks to Its dissimilarity to us, the only remaining method by which we might know it is divine revelation. This, then, is your choice. Without conceding divine revelation, the only rational mindsets regarding cosmology are to be atheist (no intelligent first cause until proven otherwise) or hard agnostic (it’s currently impossible to prove or to prove otherwise, or even to know anything at all about the subject).

If you base your entire subjective world-model on the idea of divine revelation, though, you’d do well to keep a few possibilities in mind. First, people lie, for profit or merely for fun. I suspect a few cults out there are based on such lies. Second, people can be crazy — there really are people out there who hear voices in their heads. Though we now are beginning to understand the neurological and psychological reasons behind those voices, they would have been regarded as divine or demonic throughout nearly all of human history. Third, people can just be wrong. C.S. Lewis gave the famous three-part argument regarding Jesus, that he was either lying, crazy, or telling the truth. There’s also the possibility that he was simply wrong — that the things he’d been told about himself could be reconciled with Jewish prophesy, and so he assumed that he was in fact the Son of God. There are several people out there who believe the same thing, and a few of those who have enough charisma to make it stick.

Then, of course, there’s the possibility that the Something has been misquoted, which is what Muslims believe about Christians, or the rather unnerving idea that the Something might be lying. As stated above, if the Something (or a something claiming to be The Something) we have no way of checking its facts. Religion, in other words, can only be founded on blind (by definition) faith in divine revelation, and in faith (not necessarily blind) that that revelation is actually divine, and has been passed on through the generations intact.

I personally find that string of unlikelys a bit too long — but that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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  • Or there’s the possibility that Jesus was right in a way no one understands: we are all Sons of God, children of the Divine (especially if the Divine doesn’t exist!) and part of a single universal process.

    We should email back and forth.

  • [...] I discussed my choice to reject religious truth as valid (for our purposes, at least) in a previous essay. The euthorian rejection of metaphysics stems from our pragmatic approach. If you make a claim [...]

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