Atheism and Possibility

Atheism and Possibility December 20, 2011

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

The concept of natural creative power (natura naturans) is found in both Wicca (where it is the ultimate deity) and in atheistic philosophers (who do not deify it).  Natural creative power is the ultimate immanent power of being; it is being-itself.

Unfortunately, being-itself, as the deepest and most abstract of all universals, also seems to have little or no meaning.  The concept of being-itself is so purely formal that it is like pure formal logic.  Pure formal logic does not assert the existence of any objects at all.  It is entirely devoid of ontological content.  Fortunately, being-itself manifests itself in many ways; it manifests itself in the various less abstract categories of being.

Within the scientific ontology outlined previously, being-itself divides into universals and particulars.  Particulars divide into the mathematical, the geometrical, and the material.  This division is equivalent to the division of being-itself into the abstract and the concrete.  The abstract includes universals and mathematical objects; the concrete includes geometrical and material things.  It really doesn’t matter how you slice it.

Categories gain ontological content only by being contrasted with other categories.  Thus the category of mathematical being has ontological content: in mathematics, to be is to be mathematically possible, and to be mathematically possible is to be consistently definable. Poincare writes that “in mathematics the word exist . . . means free from contradiction” (1913: 454).  And Hilbert wrote to Frege that “if the arbitrarily given axioms do not contradict one another with all their consequences, then they are true and the things defined by the axioms exist” (in Frege, 1980: 39-40).

So far, the best way to make this precise is via set theory.  While being-itself is purely logical, and so has no content, mathematical being is not purely logical: it is defined by the addition of one non-logical sign to the vocabulary of the predicate calculus.  This sign is the membership sign.  It is implicitly defined by the axioms of set theory.  Mathematical universals now supervene on various objects in the iterative hierarchy of sets.  The result is that the category of the abstract has been fully defined.

But what about the category of the concrete?  Here to exist is to be physically possible, and physical possibility must be made precise via some theory of possible universes.  Many atheists are scientific naturalists, and, as such, they are entirely free to affirm the existence of other worlds – that is, of other physical universes.  Current physics and cosmology contains many empirically justified (but not verified) theories that assert the existence of other physical universes.  Quantum mechanics, inflationary cosmology, and string theory all posit, in their own ways, other universes besides our own.   Max Tegmark is one of the foremost advocates of other universes (1998; 2003).  It is entirely reasonable to say that there is evidence for other universes.  Of course, to say that there is evidence for something does not guarantee that it exists – merely that positing its existence is reasonable.

Many philosophers have attributed the existence of other universes to the activity of natura naturans – to the activity of the natural creative power of being.  The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce developed an impressive evolutionary cosmology in which his version of natura naturans spawns an ever-branching tree of universes.   And Donald Crosby, the atheistic religious naturalist, affirms that the creative power of being also spawns an infinite plurality of universes.  He affirms that there is an “endless succession of radically different cosmic epochs spun off by nature in its fundamental role of natura naturans” (2002: 41; Crosby often talks about the multiverse in his 2002: ch.2).

The cosmologist Lee Smolin has developed a theory that advocates a branching tree of universes (1992; 1997).  His theory is based on the natural creative power of black holes.  One version of inflationary cosmology explicitly depicts physical reality as a branching tree of universes. Here the creative power of nature generates universe after universe.  This version of inflationary cosmology is the eternally self-producing universe theory (Linde, 1994).  It says that physical reality is a self-generating fractal:

Recent versions of inflationary theory assert that instead of being an expanding ball of fire, the universe is a huge growing fractal.  It consists of many inflating balls that produce new balls, which in turn produce more balls, ad infinitum. (p. 48) . . . one inflationary universe sprouts other inflationary bubbles, which in turn produce other inflationary bubbles.  This process, which I have called eternal inflation, keeps going as a chain reaction, producing a fractallike pattern of universes.  In this scenario the universe as a whole is immortal.  Each particular part of the universe may stem from a singularity somewhere in the past, and it may end up in a singularity somewhere in the future.  There is, however, no end for the evolution of the entire universe. (p. 54) . . . One can draw some optimism from knowing that even if our civilization dies, there will be other paces in the universe where life will emerge again and again, in all its possible forms. . . . Our cosmic home grows, fluctuates and eternally reproduces itself in all possible forms, as if adjusting itself for all possible types of life that it can support. (p. 55).  (Linde, 1994)

There is no guarantee that these other universes exist.  However, their existence is empirically justified.  Thus it is rational for scientific naturalists, and atheists inspired by scientific naturalism, to affirm that they do exist.  These other universes are not parts of our universe, and are not observable from within our universe.   But they are not supernatural; on the contrary, they are entirely natural things.  Nature is big.


Crosby, D. (2002) A Religion of Nature.  Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Frege, G. (1980) Philosophical and Mathematical Correspondence.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Linde, A. D. (1994) The self-reproducing inflationary universe.  Scientific American 271 (5), 48-55.

Poincare, H. (1913) The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science Science and Methods.  Trans. G. Halstead.  Lancaster, PA: The Science Press.

Smolin, L. (1992) Did the universe evolve? Classical and Quantum Gravity 9, 173-191.

Smolin, L. (1997) The Life of the Cosmos. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tegmark, M. (1998) Is ‘the Theory of Everything’ merely the ultimate ensemble theory?  Annals of Physics 270, 1-51.

Tegmark, M. (2003) Parallel universes.  Scientific American 288 (5), 40-51.

Other posts in the series so far:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

The Increasing Prevalence of Woo

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

Revelation versus Manifestation

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