a finished beginning?

In addition to believing that the universe was created 6,000 years old, many Christians assume that it began in a ‘perfect’ state.  I’ve 3 main problems, scientific, biblical/theological & linguistic, with this view:

Scientifically, I can imagine some form of string theory or multiverse theory being interpreted or mis-interpreted in such a way that the ‘first stuff’ from which everything we know ‘came from’ was somehow ‘perfect’.  But in addition to being devoid of any observational evidence (says the likes of Paul Davies), I’m not even sure what physical characteristics would be required for a ‘perfect’ universe.  But suffice to say that nothing we yet see seems to be even close – by anyone’s standards or definitions of ‘perfect’.

Biblically and theologically, not only do the creation narratives use the term ‘good’ rather than ‘perfect’ to describe the creation, in addition, the very first description of the state of creation, quite clearly in the second verse of the Bible, is tohu va vohu (‘formless and void’).  God here is not pictured as a deistic god whose creative activity touches creation singularly and solely at it’s first instant, then leaving it ‘on its own’ as it were.  Rather, the picture is of a Creator who not only initially creates (creatio ex nihilo or creatio originalis) a creation that is other than and distinct from himself, but who creates a creation which is not yet what it will be.  The Creator thus keeps on creating (creatio continua) and ordering the creation – bringing it toward the final goal, end or telos , which in Christian theology is nothing but a full renewal, and healing of it: New Creation (creatio nova).  As Wesley writes of Genesis 1:2, “The Creator could have made his work perfect at first, but by this gradual proceeding he would shew what is ordinarily the method of his providence, and grace.”

Linguistically, in just about any language you slice it, the term ‘perfect’ inescapably describes the state of being finished, completed or perfected.  It seems (contra Wesley above) a flat contradiction that we could (or indeed that God would) call any thing finished at its beginning.

causal chain

Think of causality as a chain.  (Leaving aside Aristotle’s other varieties of causation [formal, efficient and final] we’ll just focus on material causation alone…)

  • Much of the chain we can see with our eyes
  • Quite a bit more of the chain has been brought into view with modern technology and scientific methodology
  • The rest of the chain (actually, even some/most of it seen with technology/science) we can only see with our intellect/imagination, using things like reason, logic, philosophy, etc.

As our technology and methods get better and stronger, we can be sure that more and more of the chain will come into view, so to speak…  But now, as always, we cannot know how far down the causal chain we are looking.  What we may think of as 95% down the chain may be only .0001%.  (Or the chain may be infinite, if you believe that infinity is not just a mathematical concept, but has a real example – the physical [multi/uni]verse).

Enter Hawking and Mlodinow’s new book, ‘The Grand Design’ – or I should say, enter the internet flurry of talk over the new book (Ken has nicely collected the relevant links), as most people (myself included) have not read the book yet.  I have only seen the claim that physics has answered the question of why there is something rather than nothing, as well as the idea that God wasn’t ‘needed’ for the Big Bang, etc.

What this is claiming is not only that we’ve seen the final link in the causal chain – we know there are no other links.

(note: what follows is not pretending to be interaction with the new book, but rather reflecting on the issues raised by it.)

I can imagine the atheist response, “Well, you think God is the final Link in the chain, so you are also claiming ‘there are no other links’.”

At one level, I don’t disagree.  Indeed, what the atheist must (or at least tends to) claim for Nature, the theist claims for God.  Both think they have identified the Thing beyond which no other ‘T[t]hings” lie.  Based on the admittedly tiny quote I’ve seen from a NZ Herald story, Hawking seems to think that the law of gravity is the ‘Thing’ that is just simply there?  I’d be interested to see if he deals to the obvious question that this begs – namely the question of the origin or cause of the Law of Gravity.

Also related to the discussion seems to be Quantum Indeterminacy.  I’ve never ever understood how this could even begin to contribute to the question of why something rather than nothing.  Claims that matter is being spontaneously created at the quantum level go way beyond anything we can actually observe.  This is where language needs to be precise.  Rather than saying that matter flicks back and forth in/out of existence, we ought to say that it flicks in/out of observability – given our current technology and methodology.

And even if we were certain (which we cannot ever be) that we were looking at the final link in the quantum causal chain, how do you ever run an experiment to test for divine action?  Most conceptions of God as Creator (well at least non-Deistic ones) hold that God is not just the Creator in terms of ex nihilo, but also in the sense of creatio continua; faithful, sustaining, moment-by-moment, on-going creative action.  If we believe, as we do, that the Creator is to be credited (ultimately) for the lengthening of a single blade of grass, then we also believe that Quantum behaviour, however known/unknown, is also dependent (ultimately) on divine creative action.

But at another level, I do disagree.  For God should not be thought of as just another link in a chain, let alone a chain of physical causation.  God should be thought of as the Anchor at the end of the chain – which is not the chain itself, but nonetheless has a permanent, fundamental and foundational relationship to the chain.

All analogies eventually break down, so I’m under no illusion that this one has great lasting power.  But nonetheless, imagine a person happening upon the end of a long chain that goes around a corner or out of sight.  The chain is moving.  It seems to me that the atheist claim is that nothing is moving the chain – it moves all by itself.