Sunday, August 10, 2008

The center of the circle…

…is itself not circular. The space in which all shapes exist is itself shapeless. The cause of all things is itself neither a thing nor caused.

I realize this essay is long, about 4000 words. But I think it works best on a second reading. Perhaps just skim it once and then pick back through parts of greater interest or obscurity.

I recently had an animated discussion with a good friend of mine about the nature and existence of God, among other, now tenuously, now closely related, things. I want to get some of the ideas on "paper" before they evaporate, as it were.

A major turning point in the discussion came when we looked at the so-called "cosmological argument" or, the "First Cause" argument (henceforth, CA). My friend seemed to think it had to do with seeing God as the first step in a sequence, like the finger that knocks down the first domino in an ensuing cascade. This conception of the CA led him to ask, as so, so many people do, well, if God created the world, what created God? I knew he was subject to a common misconception about the CA, namely, that it has to do with a temporal or causal sequence, when in fact it deals with an ontological primacy to be found in God.

With the CA, one must take seriously the terms proposed. The actual notion of God presented in the CA is not so much a 'first' cause as an 'absolute' or, better, 'uncaused' cause. It is an important difference to say God is the uncaused cause of existence, versus saying He is the first cause of all things. The problem we have with this claim, is that we have no intuitive grasp, or 'hands-on' experience, of something like an uncaused cause. Because we are inherently temporal, sequential, contingent creatures, we think of all such ideas in temporal, successive concepts. We need help conceiving of something so far beyond our normal experience.

So consider two questions, intended as heuristic analogies. First, what is outside the universe? Second, what follows the last step in a sequence? If we imagine the universe floating or expanding in something larger, like a balloon inside a box, we are actually not taking the meaning of "the universe" seriously. The nature of the universe is that it is, and thus encompasses, all that exists spatiotemporally. Even the air we imagine, reflexively, inside the box containing the universe, touches the outer 'boundary' of the universe, and thus properly belongs to the universe itself. Our mind has no way of imagining space outside space, but, for better or worse, we think we can imagine something like that really existing, because we can conceive of it. Conceiving of something is not the same as imagining it. As Descartes said, we can conceive of a polygon with 512 sides, but we have no way of imagining it. Loosely, we can articulate and understand much more than we can visualize and draw. The reason this question should help with the CA, is because, by forcing us to acknowledge that the definition of something––the universe––trumps our intuitive grasp of it, we can loosen our cognitive abilities to acknowledge the (uncaused) ontological primacy of God rightly trumps our lack of an intuitive grasp for such existence.

The second question––more or less, where do you walk after your last foot step?––is important because it once again forces us to take an abstract definition on its own terms, regardless how cognitively perspicuous or inscrutable it may seem. When people ask, "What came before God?" or "What caused God?", they should pause to reflect on two contrastively analogous questions, namely, "What follows the last step?" and "What does the last step cause?" If I ask you what letter comes after Z in the English alphabet, you can see easily that it is a nonsensical question. Z, by definition, just is the end of the line and it is futile to try thinking beyond it. Likewise with God, but in the reverse direction. The definition of God being presented in the CA, is that He is the uncaused cause of all existent things. So, despite how much we might want to ask what preceded Him, we must take His primary, metaphysically antecedent existence just as seriously as we do the ultimacy of Z. And no matter how much we are tempted to ask what caused God, we must realize that such as question is just as absurd as asking what is effected by the last step in a sequence. By definition, nothing further can be caused by the last state in a system, since the last state is the last caused state. Just as we look askance at someone that kept asking what followed Z, so we should look askance at someone who asks what caused an uncaused cause and what preceded the timeless source of all being. The terms may not make intuitive sense, but the questions make no legitimate sense once the terms are accepted ex hypothesi.

If we picture a vastly long iron chain, we might consider the CA as saying God is just the first, or perhaps first and 'biggest' link in that chain. But no. The CA is actually saying something like God is the very metal out of which each link is made! It is futile to squabble over the possible or impossible existence of an actual infinite, since the point of the CA is far removed from such mathematical, pictorial abstractions. The CA holds not simply for the first flick that sets off the dominoes, but in fact speaks to the inherent contingency of every link throughout the whole chain. God is the ground of being which provides for each link its place and solidity in the chain, whether that chain is a thousand or a thousand trillion years long, or, indeed, even whether it is eternally long. Chains can be added and subtracted easily; but as soon as the iron itself is removed 'out from under' them (ontologically speaking, of course), the entire chain simultaneously ceases to exist. The problem, again, is that we are so well educated as to be unwise. Because we are so familiar with number lines, we imagine the CA is talking about a simple temporal number line. If God is 0, the starting point, then obviously something could be before Him, say, -1 or even -∞. But this is not what the CA is getting at. Rather, the CA is saying something like, God is the number line itself.

Immediately, this might suggest pantheism ('all is God'), or panentheism ('God is all'). But actually the classic use of the CA forestalls even this heresy. Consider the blessed number line. The hash mark 1, while it 'partakes of' the number line, is not identical to the number line. It is, after all, just 1, while the number line encompasses infinitely more has marks. The 1 can be abstracted from, picked off, the number line and examined as a discrete, quantifiable entity. But the number line defies such abstraction. It exists prior to and even without all the number in an undifferentiated wholeness, like a circle. Indeed, only until the numbers–-specific existent things––are placed on the number line, does it actually become a 'number' line. Without them, the line is still whole and perfect. The numbers are simply discrete markings on the otherwise unknowable line, which allow us to learn things about the line, yet without exhausting it. It does no good to object that the line depends on numbers just as much as they depend on it, since the line exists in a way unlike all, or any one, of the numbers. The number of hash marks on the line can be one or ∞; either way, it still exists absolutely in a way the numbers do not. Indeed, the only thing the numbers do for the line, is give increasing 'access points' into knowing the line. The line contains within it all the potential numbers, while no number, nor any set of them, contains the line in the same way. In willing to create the many 'numbers', entities, that make up the cosmos, God expressed a necessarily small fraction of the possible numbers that could be supported by the undifferentiated and absolute 'line' of His being.

Let us continue with geometry. Consider a circle. What makes it a circle? The first thought might be to say that a ring makes a circle. But no. Only a ring of points equidistant from a common center actually makes a circle. Let us ponder this circle, this point. A point has no shape. It has no size. It has no motion. It has no color. And so forth. Also, significantly, it depends on nothing else in the so-called geometric world for its existence. It is absolute and undifferentiated. You cannot use anything else to make a point. A point provides its own existence, and eternally so, since it can exist without relation to any other shape, plane, space, or place. A point exists everywhere and nowhere. It also cannot be divided or expanded or duplicated into something else, without, that is, losing its 'pointedness'. Because a point has no size, it has no parts; it is invisible and intangible. And because a point necessarily exists as a single one, any addition of other points would make only lines, planes, circles, and so forth. This point is an analogy for the absolute simplicity of the divinity. If you take up a pencil and try to draw a shape––say, a simple straight line, or a curve––you must both conceptually (though perhaps not consciously) and sequentially begin with a point. As soon as your mind conceives the shape you wish to draw, the circle has formed its potentiality in the geometric world. And, as a second-order consequence, as soon as you put pen to paper, the point is the first step of the line. As in geometry there is no getting beneath or behind the lowly point, so in theology there is no getting behind or beneath the Almighty, which, again, is just the point of the CA. The point is the 'uncaused cause' of all geometrical reality; God is the uncaused cause of all actually existent reality.

Again, this analogy leaves no room for pantheism, as if all shapes 'are God', since all shapes are 'made of' points. Rather, this analogy reinforces the key point (heh heh) of the CA, which is that all things exist by virtue of God, yet are not God. A line cannot exist without a point first existing. But a line, by definition is nothing like a point, since a line is extended, differentiable, contingent, and so on. The point gives all things their proper shapes, yet nothing is ever pointlike except the point, which, again, can only exist as the One Point (for two points are not points, but a line). All the points on a line are only points by analogy, since true points, being indivisible and unlocalizable, are not 'part' of anything and certainly not linear––just as all the existents entities in the world are beings only analogically compared to God's absolute existence.

Consider something else interesting. Around a point there exists an infinitude number of possible circles, all different by the size of their diameters and, presumably, by the contact that have with different tangents and planes. This shows us again, by analogy, how God, in His pure, featureless, motionless ontological primacy, contains around (if not now 'within') Himself the entire scope of all possible reality. And because the point is not limited by location, it could instantiate a circle around it on any section of the geometric field (which I think suggests the laws of nature as we know them could be very different, just as the same pattern cut from many different kinds of fabric will be interestingly different). Once a specific circle is formed around its center, all points in the circumference are equally close to and equally removed from the center. Even if the vector of motion were clockwise, and the points were 'set off' in a sequential, temporal fashion, all the points equally depend on the center for their existence. A point at 270˚ may depend on all the degrees preceding it temporally (269˚, 268˚, etc.), but they all depend on the center for their existence. The circle depends on the point in a way the point simply cannot depend on the circle.

This dependence, from the perspective of the circumferential (indeed, circumstantial!) points, is also a form of intimacy, from the perspective of the center. By being equally removed from, or transcendent to, the circle, the center is also permanently omnipresent to all points in the circle. The center, like God, not only provides the shape for the total structure of created reality, but also provides the analogous 'content' for any and every segment of the circle; segments are 'full of' points, just as all existent things are 'full of' being, yet only dimly and analogously so. We exist by God's transcendent, central power, and we exist as a cluster of points, yet all this is only a dim analogy of His true and inexhaustible being. The various segments of the circle are the proper subject of science, since they are quantifiable segments of the created circumference, and can be analyzed in many ways. As soon as science, however, posits these segments as absolute features of the circle, or, worse, as self-sustaining sections independent from some 'point out there in the heavens', it mistakes its true role and shatters the contingent integrity of the circle.

I think these reflections are very helpful for the highest aim of our intellects, namely, mediation on God and His power. But perhaps it will be objected that all this is just an analogy, and that it certainly prove the existence of God. The world, after all, is not a circle. It may be beautiful, as Euclid knew, but geometry is not necessarily indicative of the real world. Granted, to a small degree.

The point of my 'theometry', as it were, is to establish a logical pattern for how we see the world, not an actual blueprint for the world. The world does not have a circular shape, since much of the world is abstract and immaterial, and thus shapeless and unshapable––but the world does have a conceptual shape. Anything that exists has a shape. Concrete things have a concrete shape; abstract things have an abstract shape. A block of wood has a square shape; 'block of wood', in turn, has a formal, abstract shape. By "abstract shape" I mean the formal nature of anything as it understood in differentiation from, and, I suppose, in relation to, anything else. A block of wood is shaped in our minds in reference to the space around it, or to the object upon which it is resting, or to the light and shadows in which it is nestled. It is also more abstractly shaped by the series of actions that led to its being carved and placed in view. It is also shaped, abstractly, by considering its metaphysical dependence on God. The point is that a thing's conceptual shape can take on almost as many shapes as a thing's physical shape can. (By 'thing' I also mean a state of affairs or a set of terms.) As soon as something is regarded as something, it takes on a new dimension, a sort of aesthetic depth.

The word 'aesthetic' is very important here. I believe aesthetics is one of the most important, and perhaps one of the most neglected, branches of philosophy. Aesthetics includes nearly all other branches of philosophy, and does so in a way that accords with our human nature as observers, beholders, indeed, worshipers. All things are responsive to the world, the 'outthereness', by virtue of the common share of being they have as creatures of God. Humans are even more highly responsive to the world because our hearts are, as St. Augustine says for all time, restless until we rest in God. We are open to world, on the sensible plane, because we are open to God, on the insensible plane. (The problem, with idols, I mean, is that when we seek to satiate the openness of the latter plane with goods from the former plane, we only go hungry and mad.) We are born audience members, instinctively seeking the greatest show on earth. We are, in a word, created to worship. This aesthetic, liturgical root in our nature accounts for our insatiable ability to seek and see patterns, order, beauty, shape in the welter of empiricalia (sensibilia). The world has an almost infinite number of possible poses it can show us because we bring an almost infinite number of aesthetic impulses to its canvas.

So, while the world is not a circle, it is something contingent that has a specific shape. The shape in question depends on from what angle, in what light, through what filter, and with what emotion we look at it. Physics has demonstrated time and again the irreducibly specific nature of the material universe, a specificity that shouts contingency. For, anything that is one way specifically could exist another way specifically. And this 'could' is the essence of contingency. The universe demonstrates quantifiable specificity on every level, in every nook and cranny, and this is because it is the farthest thing from an eternal, infinite, homogeneous, undifferentiable, nonspecific pantheistic eternal cosmos. From another perspective, however, the universe is a great light show for children. Are they wrong to see faces in the heavens when physicists are busy seeing the heavens in our faces? (We are all stardust…) Is the poet wrong to see the world as a great symphony of light when the physicist is busy seeing the world as a cacophony of dark matter? Neither one is right or wrong in their proper modes of perception. Only when they impose their aesthetic lens on someone using a different lens, will their be a dispute. Only when the poet tries to strangle the physicist's vision with a glistening portrait of Mother Nature, or the physicists tries to explode the poet's vision with a humming portrait of the unified filed theory, will there be a clash. The thing that unites them is not their specific vision of the cosmos (i.e., how big its circumference is or what its texture is), but their bedrock commitment to the idea that the cosmos has a shape at all. Just as no section of the circle can escape the omnipresent primacy of the invisible center

Consider the Ecclesiastes-like somberness of Bertrand Russell's words in "A Free Man's Worship" (1902):

…even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

There are at least two great ironies here. One is that these words are surely among the more immortal words penned by man, though they are driven by a consuming vision of the mortality of all man's words and works. (Methinks he protests too much!) Art, including beautiful rhetoric, is hoisted as a flag of protest against the futility and finality of the world. Art repudiates doom. Art is created as a lasting sign of the human trace upon the world. So even when it accentuates or, as the case may be, glorifies, the frailty of all human efforts, it is intended to outlast the passing flux and be a lasting marker of the unlasting, an intransigent icon of the transient, a feud with futility. (I explored this topic in my story, "From the Forest Itself", if you care to brave the telling of that torturous tale.)

In any case, the second irony in Russell's is what really concerns us. Even by painting such a grim picture of the world, Russell did just that––painted a picture. He took a heap of meaningless debris and formed it into a coherent collage of despair. Even when he said the universe is meaningless, he ascribed to it a total meaning, namely, utter meaninglessness. I could just as easily imagine an artist taking a heap of garbage and calling it "Life". It may strike hard against hope and good cheer, but it still strikes artistically, meaningfully, 'shapefully'. We simply cannot escape giving a larger coherent shape to the world as we experience it, even when we say the world shape is ugly, erratic, and pointless. And this is a crucial inevitability. For to live as creatures that inevitably and automatically give a shape to our experience, is to live as beings inevitably and automatically confronted by the point of origin in the same way every segment of a circle is confronted with its central point. The reason the world inevitably takes on a shape in our eyes, is because the world is radically contingent on God as its shapeless shaper, as the uncreated creator. This, then, is what the CA is getting at: even if the world seems like bad art (as criticisms of the design argument would have it), it still seems like art, and ineluctably so, because it depends for its existence on God in the same way a circle cannot help but be shaped by its center.

The aim of science is to give a coherent picture of the world. But if science cannot account for its own 'shaping' tendency, it falls to religion to give that ultimate level of order and aesthetic depth to the world. Believing in the universe––an empirical object which we can never observe––is necessary for understanding it and admiring it as one 'piece'. Likewise, believing in the Creator, and beholding the world as one 'piece', is even more crucial for knowing and admiring nature's beauty. Dostoevsky is right: The world will be saved by beauty. The world can only be called 'the world' if it is beheld in the mind's eye as one thing with one ultimate shape. And that shape is nothing other than a shape-transcending abstractness as incense vessel, shining mirror, rocking cradle for the glory of God among us. Just as the specific events in the flux of spacetime all depend on God as their uncaused cause, so the entire structure of the cosmos depends for God as its absolute index of shape.

Because we see contours, dimensions, shapes, and forms––in a word, art––everywhere, the dot, as the absolute source (ipsum esse) of all distinct existence, concrete and abstract, is everywhere, and in everything, yet not every-thing. Nothing does or can create the dot (not the least because it has no shape or dimensionality as which to exist exist), but the dot can create everything. The world we behold, and influence, is a world rife with forms, with software, as James F. Ross puts it in his essay, "The Fate of the Analysts" (about which I have blogged before: "A goodly, if not great, chain of being"). How various sectors of reality are 'framed', does not negate the fact that they are in-formed (hylomorphically dematerialized) and beheld as specific, contingent structures, which are rooted by sheer grace in the ontic primacy of God. Such, at least, is the long view of my aesthetic cosmological argument for the existence of God.

I need to mention at least two sources of inspiration for much of this essay. First, the idea of God as the center of a circle, was shown to me by Wolfgang Smith in The Quantum Enigma. Second, the idea of using Bertrand Russell bleak portrait of the cosmos as an instance of the inevitability of 'aesthetic depth', was given to me by one of the books I read in the past three or four months, though I cannot recall which book or author it was.

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