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Monday, March 15, 2010

The Nature of Existence: An Insane Prospect of Knowledge

I've been reading a book called Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments For God Just Don't Add Up by John Allen Paulos. One particularly potent quote caught my attention, but not in the way you might expect:
[W]hy did He create the particular natural laws that He did? If He did it arbitrarily for no reason at all, there is then something that is not subject to natural law. The chain of natural law is broken, and so we might as well take the most general natural laws themselves, rather than God, as the arbitrary final "Because." On the other hand, if He had a reason for issuing the particular laws that He did (say, to bring about the best possible universe), then God Himself is subject to pre-existing constraints, standards, and laws. In this case, too, there's not much point to introducing Him as an intermediary in the first place. (8)
What interests me about this quote isn't that Paulos is essentially arguing that God is an arbitrary selection for our origins, but that the very nature of existence as we know it, whether one accepts God or not, is fundamentally unknowable. We desperately try to grasp at why anything exists at all, both in science and in religion, but ultimately, we don't know, and probably never will. Belief, no matter how strongly you hold it within yourself, is always already a broken system, because it can never make firm its inherent hopefulness that it is correct. You can never "know" that God exists, nor can you ever "know" that he doesn't exist, any more than you can "know" the theoretical first cause (which Paulos discusses in-depth a few pages earlier) in any terms whatsoever. Why? Because the moment you establish the first cause, there are always going to be questions about what caused it. Causation is inevitably endless, infinite in its possibilities.

And what is so important about this? I think part of why we are such a religious species is precisely because it offers comfort for us in being able to claim that we know how it all began. We never read the theoretical endpoint and realize that there is no answer for why anything exists, let alone ourselves, because the curiosity that would lead to what I would call the insanity of eternity is stopped by the phrase "God did it." I don't meant that as a slight here (though I've certainly used it as such elsewhere). If anything can be said to be glorious and wonderful about religion, it is that it has, in various forms throughout our existence, laid to rest that most fundamental and terrifying of questions: why do we exist?

I think that is the problem for me as a non-religious (if not atheist) individual. I cannot accept the God hypothesis precisely because I need to know what is beyond that, what brings the Creator into existence or, if the Creator doesn't exist, what brought that initial spark into being, and so on. Curiosity consumes me in this pursuit, as it does many who question reality, existence, and our place in the cosmos, religious or otherwise. Just getting to the theoretical endpoint is, for me, one of the most terrifying things humanity can ever attempt to achieve. I'll explain why.

When (if) we reach that endpoint--and I use "theoretical" for this term precisely because the eternal is without a true endpoint--we may very well come to a series of revelations about what we understand about the universe:

(i) That everything began for no reason whatsoever, and that every atom is nothing more than a cosmic accident in which there are no answers, no comforts, and no truths that can be ascertained. The very idea that existence "just is," for no apparent reason, without cause or obvious meaning, is something that terrifies me. I am not terrified of existence being meaningless; I'm terrified of the moment at which we come to understand that existence is nothing, because we can always create our own meaning in existence.

(ii) That if there is a God, he is spawned from the same meaningless nothing that permeates the cosmic ether. God must have a cause just as anything must have a cause. God is empty, a metaphor that, should he exist, tries to make meaning out of nothingness, and succeeds in only bringing us back to that nothing.

(iii) That contemplating existence in concrete, clear, and significant terms, outside of the realm of base answers (i.e. "God did it" or "It just is") means coming to terms with limitations, with voids, and with the eternal. It is knowing that we cannot know, even if we do know, as abstract and absurd as that may sound. To make that more clear: imagine knowing that existence began as a whiff of quantum fluctuations, and that we can finally say for certain that that was the theoretical endpoint. There still would be the unanswerable question, even in knowing the endpoint, and that question could never be answered, no matter our determination and ability. The eternal is both part of existence and what makes existence incommensurable.

No wonder we have spent our short time on this planet trying to understand these things through metaphor, invention, and belief in the supernatural. Comfort in thinking we know lets us ignore our own limitations.

But am I thinking in too negative of terms about this? Is questioning existence and explaining it away as incommensurable and fundamentally a downer too problematic for its own good? How would you think of existence without creating an unknowable endpoint? I don't know. Maybe existence is supposed to be unknowable, or maybe it's a question we're supposed to spend our cosmic lives trying to answer, only to get nowhere at all for a purpose we can't quite comprehend until it's too late.

I don't know.

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  1. Anonymous4:16 PM

    Your discussion of God interests me - if he exists, he created us to give meaning to his own existence, or something like that. That's an intriguing idea. It's a very anthropomorphic God, but it's very difficult to think of him in non-human terms, although some try.

    Personally, I choose to give meaning to my own life, and I think that we have responsibilities to others no matter what. I don't think that everyone would feel a loss of meaning even if we did somehow prove that everything came into existence through some set of natural processes, with no creator and no predefined meaning. As it is, even those who say they know what God wants of them don't really.

  2. I think what I was trying to get at is the idea that the theoretical endpoint can't be a natural or divine moment (the endpoints are different in scientific/naturalistic and religious viewpoints). We fashion meaning for our existence in two distinct ones (sometimes as a mixture), but when we get to the endpoint, that meaning is lost because there's no possibility to say "we are here because of X and that makes us special." It becomes a kind of meaningless accident.

  3. You can find answers to your exact questions in a new documentary on that very subject, coming out this summer:

  4. Thanks for the link!