Pagan Theology: The Problem of Anything

I have been arguing with myself about posting about the matters herein discussed. I am sure many readers will ask, “What in the world does any of this have to do with Paganism?” Since my overall agenda is to argue that current Paganism is just as genuine a religion as any other, I need to demonstrate that a Pagan theology can provide adequate answers to the fundamental questions that any mature religion must be able to answer. Perhaps many people will find the content of this and subsequent blogs to be useless and boring. De gustibus non disputandum est. (Look it up.) I supposed I will be writing only for people who also believe those questions must be answered. As for whether what follows is a Pagan theology at all—well, that’s a different sort of question. I do know some other Pagans who have done the hard work needed to have a truly well-informed opinion about such matters.

Prolegomena

A one-dimensional, linear logic is inherently inadequate for dealing with important philosophical questions, which are always personal, not abstract. A two-dimensional map is better; a three-dimensional model even better. And since a philosophy must evolve to deal with a continually changing reality, it needs to be four-dimensional, like the spacetime we experience. (A higher-dimensional model might be even better in theory, but would not be practical.) In such a model, important concepts will be mentioned not just once, but whenever they are essential for a line of thought along a trajectory through the model.

I. The Problem of Anything

Philosophy must often begin by questioning something so apparently obvious that almost no one ever thinks to wonder about it. One such question is, Why does anything exist at all? Of course, if nothing had ever existed and never could have existed and does not exist now, then we would not exist to ask any questions. We therefore must admit that the first axiom is that Something does exist. Exactly what and how are then questions to investigate. We also cannot assume that the Something is a thing with a physical existence; that is, it need not be either matter or energy, which are several steps down the ontological ladder.

It has been assumed in Christian theology and in atheistic materialism (and in between them) that at some time in the distant past nothing existed and that everything at some time arose out of that nothing. But why should we assume that? Does the assertion that “nothing existed” have any real meaning? Perhaps it lacks a real referent, just as “square circle” or “green sound” lacks one.

Further, why assume that all things must have a beginning? Isn’t it just as reasonable to suppose that the Something might always have existed? The concept of “beginning” assumes the existence of time, which is an aspect of our five-dimensional reality, but is itself not primordial (I’ll come back to that). Hence, if time existed, then one cannot assert that nothing existed. Even using a past perfect tense or any other tense assumes the existence of time, since our verbal tenses in English are what we use to organize our experience of time; our verbs, whether of action or being or becoming, all fundamentally assume the existence of time. (That’s not true for some other languages; Hopi “verbs,” for example, express a probability for whether a statement is true.) Hence one must assert Something always exists—and then try hard to remember that the assertion is not intended to assert the existence of time.

There are other difficulties with the idea that once upon a time nothing existed or, equivalently, with the idea of creation ex nihilo or, for that matter, with interpreting the Big Bang that began our particular universe as having proceeded out of nothing. Such an interpretation imposes a theology on that physical fact. The physicists do not know what preceded the Big Bang, but they are not assuming there was nothing before it.

First, if within nonexistence, there was no chance at all that anything might ever exist, then nonexistence would always continue—but even that statement assumes the existence of time. Saying either “Nonexistence exists” or “Nonexistence does not exist” creates a verbal paradox.

However, suppose that within nonexistence there was even the smallest possible chance that Something might exist. Suppose that chance were only one in a googleplex raised to the googleplex power a googleplex number of times—i.e., 10100 itself raised to the 10100 power 10100 times, a number so huge that it would be physically impossible to write it out fully in this universe as a 1 followed by that many zeroes. Nevertheless, given unending time, that one chance would eventually happen. However, time is not primordial; as John Wheeler said, when one gets deep enough into the mathematical analysis of reality, time drops out of the equations. As Kant proved, time is not an objective reality that we perceive; rather, it is a way we organize the sense data we receive into a construct that enables us to survive. (I’ll provide a more detailed discussion of time later.) That is, time does not exist relative to infinity. Therefore eventually is instantly: that small chance is realized; Something exists. But where did that one small chance come from? It did not “come from” anywhere. It must have always existed; more precisely, it always exists. Our difficulty in grasping this is, again, our assumption that all things must have a beginning.

Second, consider the traditional theological concept of “creation ex nihilo”—that is, the creation of everything out of nothing. A major difference here from the purely materialistic interpretation above is that the emergence of everything from nothing is considered to be purposeful, not accidental; that is, the concept of “creating” has been added to the mix. Further, of course, it is “God” that is believed to have done the creating. At this point in the discussion, we need assume only that “God” means (1) an intelligent being (2) who is capable of intent and of somehow causing things to exist and (3) who has always existed, that is, always exists. We do not (yet) need to consider any other traits of “God” included in the Abrahamic religions. Without assumption 3, however, we would have made no progress in dealing with the issue of existence, for we would then have to ask “What existed before God?” and would face an infinite regress.

Is that traditional concept philosophically adequate? I think not, for two reasons.

First, this “God” who always exists is definitely not “nothing.” This “God” is a conscious being, who may not exist in the form of matter or energy, but, as was specified above, the Something that exists need not exist in those forms. (Let me note that I am here not counting a “spiritual” existence somewhere outside of our universe as a viable possibility.) In brief, if “God” exists, then the creating arose somehow out of the reality of that “God,” not out of nothing.

Second, given the authority of Scripture in the Abrahamic religions, one can reasonably ask whether the concept of “creation ex nihilo” is based on or supported by or even consistent with what is said about creation in either of the two stories in Genesis or in the poetic accounts of creation in the Writings. One must answer, No, it is not.

In Genesis 1—which, remember, began with neither name nor number—the opening line served as a title and overall description: “First, God created Heaven and Earth.” The next sentences begin describing the actual process. They say, “Earth was shapeless and empty; the depths were dark; and the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters.” However one might interpret all that, it is definitely not a description of “nothing.” This little passage was probably originally independent from the astrological sequence that follows and was cutting-edge science about 500 BCE.

On the first day, the day of the Sun, which rules light, God creates light to offset the darkness that was over the deep. On the second day, the day of the Moon, which rules the sea and other waters, God separates the waters, which already existed, into the upper waters of the heavens and the lower waters of the sea. Similarly, dry land is raised from below the sea (as Thales had surmised) and vegetation begins to grow on the day of Mars, whose Mesopotamian precursor was a god of agriculture. Sun, Moon, planets, and stars are created on the day of Mercury, Hermes, or Woden, the god who rules science and astronomy. Fish and birds are created on the day of Thor, Jupiter, or Marduk, ruler of the sky and the sea. Finally, humans and other mammals are created on the day of Ishtar, Venus, or Freya, the goddess of fertility. The seventh day was the day of rest in the Mesopotamian calendar, from which the Jewish calendar was derived. It was the day of Saturn or Cronos, the god of the long-lost Golden Age.

The other creation story, in Genesis 2 and 3, is even further away from any concept of “creation ex nihilo.” In fact, it is a totally different story, with very different concerns. In it there is no mention of the creating of light, sky, sea, sun, moon, planets, or fish. Genesis 2:4 is again a title for the story, which begins by saying there was land, but neither rain nor vegetation. Here God begins by creating a man and only later creates trees, vegetation, animals, and, finally, a woman. These two stories cannot be harmonized. Any attempt to do so merely creates a third story, one that is not in the Torah.

To wrap up this first installment: (1) the concept of “creation ex nihilo” has no basis in science, philosophy, or Holy Scripture; (2) the concept of a “God” as a causative, intelligent being will need further exploration.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    A few minor corrections, Aidan.

    10 to the 100th power is not a googoplex, it’s just a googol; a googoplex has a one followed by a googol of zeroes.

    Second: physicists have a theory about what was before the big bang, and why there are parts of the universe that were able to be where light has not reached since the big bang, i.e. the “inflationary model of the universe,” which suggests that our universe exists in the equivalent of an air bubble in Swiss cheese, and that there is a “something” substrate (the cheese) that is ever-expanding, and has other bubbles within it that are also presumably universes. Interestingly, from within, these universes appear infinite; but from without, they appear finine. Some kabbalistic notions seem to echo this in strange ways…But, for a very good explanation of the scientific side of this matter, I’d highly recommend Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

    • aidanakelly

      Tanks, PSVL, I’ll look for that.

  • Dave Burwasser

    We have to keep in mind that the Big Bang theory is a retrodiction, that is, it looks at the evidence and “predicts” what happened in the past. The evidence is of an expanding universe; the retrodiction is that all this stuff was once all together. The theory modestly does not talk about conditions before T=0 because there is no evidence to bring to bear.
    An alternative is Steady State cosmology, which imputes continuous creation of hydrogen universe-wide, so the universe was not more dense in the past because there was less of it. IIRC the lack of sufficient intergalactic radiation was the death knell of Steady State because the requisite density of intergalactic hydrogen was absent. (“IIRC” because I’m recalling what I was taught 50 years ago.)
    This is a minor correction, like that of PSVL, because it is not necessary to mention the Big Bang anywhere in your post, which is about philosophy, whereas the Big Bang is merely physics (says the ex-physicist).

    • aidanakelly

      You’re quite right, Dave, in terms of physics. What I was getting at is that to look at the Big Bang model and interpret it as an example of creation ex nihilo is to impose a theological interpretation on it. I think some geneticists have traced mitochondrial DNA back to an original pair of humans in southern Africa about 200,000 or 2,000,ooo (or whatever) years ago. Isn’t that evidence of some historical basis for the story of Adam and Eve? No, it’s evidence that the culture that produced the story was a society who had been stock breeders for millennia and who therefore knew that a stable stock line had to go back to an original breeding pair. My brilliant son Even points out that the progenitors need not have been only a pair, but could instead have been a small pool of genetically almost identical relatives. Genesis 2-3 was intended to be haggadah, a teaching story or parable, not history.


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