Saturday, May 4, 2013

Nothing is Something


Lawrence Krauss, a physicist in an recent interview with Krista Tippett on her podcast “On Being,” talked about “dark matter.” For many years, scientists considered dark matter to be nothing but a huge void between particles in the universe; an empty space; nothing. Now they’ve discovered that it weighs something, and weight means that there must be something there. “30 percent of the universe roughly is this dark matter,” stated Krauss. “[It] is made, we’re reasonably convinced, of some new type of elementary particle that doesn’t exist here on earth.” The title of his recent book is: A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. So this nothing has become something.

This caught my interest because of the ancient argument between Augustine and Pelagius about creation. Augustine argued that God created the universe “ex nihilo,” meaning “out of nothing.” Pelagius argued that God created the universe “ex Deo,” meaning “out of God’s own essence.” What caused the discussion was the first two verses of Genesis one: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep . . . .” What exactly was this “formless void?” Was it something or was it nothing? We all know where the argument ended up; creating the world out of nothing is the dominant view of creation in Western theology, while Pelagius was thrown out of the church as a heretic.

It is interesting how those verses in Genesis use phrases similar to what physicist Krauss uses, when he is anything but a believer. The “formless void” and the “darkness” form the “dark matter” or the what was thought to be “nothing.” From this “dark matter,” or “void,” comes Augustine’s idea that God created the universe out of nothing. Pelagius would say that by God speaking the universe into being (“And God said”), creation came out of the very essence of God. One view sees God as transcendent and distant from creation while the other sees God as imminent and personally involved with creation and its creatures. One is a materialistic view of creation that allows for domination and exploitation of the created order while the other is a spiritual view of creation that calls for reverence and respect for the created order.

So if, according to physicists, this “dark matter” or “formless void” is actually something rather than nothing, Augustine’s doctrine of ex nihilo is no longer valid. The question remains, did God create the universe out of “something” or out of God's own essence? Or was that “something” really God’s very essence?

It is also interesting that at the time of these discoveries by physicists, there is a growing interest in Pelagian thought through Celtic spirituality and the writing of Philip Newell. One of the main tenants of Celtic spirituality is reverence and respect for nature, stemming from the view of ex Deo. For them, God is revealed through both the “big (the size of the cosmos) book” of nature and the “little (able to be held in one’s hand) book” of sacred scripture. This interest in Celtic spirituality comes as a result of seeing where Augustine’s materialistic view of nature and creation has taken the planet. Interest in sustainability and creation care is cropping up everywhere, even in some unlikely places. Evangelical Christians have formed an organization called “Evangelical Environmental Network” (http://www.creationcare.org/) to raise awareness on issues of creation care.

The time is ripe for vindicating this supposed heretic from the fourth century. The time is ripe for treating nature with reverence and respect rather than something to be dominated and exploited. The time is ripe for viewing creation as coming from the essence of God (ex Deo) rather than out of nothing (ex nihilo). After all, nothing is something. 

4 comments:

  1. Have you read Ilya Prigogine's book "The End of Certainty"? I'm curious to see how you would integrate that paradigm of physics into a creation of the universe by a creator God.

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  2. No I haven't! I am not a physicist, and I probably wouldn't understand half of what I'm reading! But I'd be interested in seeing your synopsis of that paradigm. Perhaps I could make some comments.

    Thanks for reading the blog and your comments.

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  3. Sorry for not responding sooner, Profe! Progogine's universe is an indeterministic one. Contemporary quantum physics uses probability to map the happenings of the universe, but still assumes there is an ultimate equation(s) that the universe abides by. Prigogine goes a step further and says that the universe itself is probabilistic, that there is an inherent element of uncertainty engrained in the fabric of the universe itself. The universe does not "know" what will happen before it happens. (this is extrapolated from research done on complex thermodynamic systems which take what are called "forks in the road", events during a reaction where it seems like the system chooses a path, an event that can best be described by human language of chance or happening) The universe itself is one big complex thermodynamic system. Therefore, one aspect of this paradigm sees the big bang basically as a quantum flux, a flux from nothingness to +1 and -1. Apparently, the "nothingness" or the "speck" that was there before the big bang was still a complex thermodynamic system, but a system at equilibrium. However, the system reached a fork in the road and decided to flux. I don't know if this makes any sense, it is difficult to grasp what the heck is going on especially when the math that these conclusions are based are way above everyone's heads but a select few.

    I thought that this account of the origin of the universe and of the existential nature of the universe would be interesting to think about God with. Perhaps the element of uncertainty leaves room for a mysterious, creative force that works within the uncertainty. Thus the nature of God would then be most closely felt when one is at most peace with uncertainty, with going with the flow, just letting things happen (the fundamental characteristic of having faith, right?) With that faithful embrace of the future, one is trusting the uncertain elements to play out in a way that was supposed to happen. Supposed to, not by equation, but by the creativity and chance that is God.

    Any thoughts? I would love to hear what you think about all of this. :)

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  4. Brad,
    Thank you for providing me with a summary of Progogine's universe! Although I didn't grasp completely the ideas, I have read and heard a lot about how quantum physics is moving science farther away from thinking that everything can be explained, to a posture of wonder and awe--almost a mystical stance. This, along with much that has happened in the the 20th century, has caused a lot of ambiguity--what you call uncertainty; mystery. I like that! I am careful, however, about how I use faith. For some, faith is an intellectual agreement to a certain set of creeds and beliefs. For me, faith is experiencing the mysteries of God without having to explain them. For example, I believe God created the world, (ex Deo--out of himself, not out of nothing), but I don't believe that he did it in seven earth-bound days. To use the "fork in the road" analogy, my son always says, "when you come to a fork in the road, take it." Perhaps his little witticism explains the "flux." :)

    This discussion of ambiguity/uncertainty/mystery, endears the religious mystics but threatens the religious fundamentalists (of all religions)--they even go to war to defend their "beliefs." I intend to do a future blog post on this ambiguity from where I sit as a spiritual pilgrim.

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