A First Cause

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In a letter to today's New York Times book review section, mathematician John Allen Paulos defends himself against the charge that his latest book attacks religion despite being "innocent of theology". His defense, interestingly enough, is not to deny that he doesn't know much about theology; on the contrary, he admits his own ignorance, but then claims that you don't need to know much about theology in order to be able to make sweeping statements about religion.

To justify this point, he goes on to say,

But how much theology is required to observe, for example, that assertions of God's existence suggest the obvious question, Who made God? If he's simply there and needs no explanation, then why not just say that about the world itself rather than multiply mysteries?
I used to say the same thing back when I was about 20 or so.

But then, what I later came to realize is that a unitary, all-encompassing, boundless, infinite God is not of the same order of reality as a bounded, limited, contingent universe. God is, if he/she exists, by definition that which nothing is greater than, and than which nothing greater can even be conceived; therefore it makes perfect sense, as part of the very definition of "God", that God is uncreated, because there could not be anything greater than God that would create him/her. I have no trouble, on the other hand, conceiving of the possibility of something that is greater than the world. The world doesn't seem so infinite or perfect. I can imagine something greater than the world. The question of who created God, the Ultimate Reality and the Ground of Being, doesn't even make sense, given the definition we are working with; but the question of why there is something rather than nothing at all, on the other hand, is a difficult one, at least for me, to make sense of, unless I accept that there is ultimately some uncreated and infinite reality that lies behind the something that we observe. This is one reason why I came to believe in God, and this is one reason why I eventually rejected the argument that Paulos expressed in the above quote, and which I had embraced when I was twenty.

One key point about my own take on the Cosmological Argument is that, as an adherent of process theology, I do not see God as an omnipotent being who simply forced the world into existence via a single, all-powerful creative act. But the important point is not whether we are talking about a traditionally theistic God versus a panentheistic God; instead, what I think matters is that, from my point of view, there is an infinite, uncreated Reality, which serves as the wellspring from which the world evolved. The "how" of that dependence depends on one's specific theology.

None of this, of course, serves as a proof that God exists. Maybe the world does just exist for no reason whatsoever. Maybe we just are--period. But this gets back to my earlier point about science being about "what" and religion being about "why". One possible answer to the question of why there is something instead of nothing is simply to say that there is no reason--the world exists just because. That would be the atheistic response. Religion, on the other hand, is for me a way of saying that there really is a reason why we exist. And for me, that reason, is God.

7 comments:

Matthew said...

"God is, if he/she exists, by definition that which nothing is greater than, and than which nothing greater can even be conceived; therefore it makes perfect sense, as part of the very definition of "God", that God is uncreated ..."

Good, succinct presentation of the ontological argument, which, now that I think about it, may be the best of the classic arguments for the existence of God. At least for postmoderns.

Thanks for your regular posts, by the way. They frequently make my brain do that thing where I know there's some important idea in there, floating right outside my ability to apprehend.

math233 said...

I like your posting despite its being kindly critical of me. More information about my book, Irreligion, including its brief first chapter is available at
http://www.math.temple.edu/
paulos/irrel-revs.html
I suspect (hope) you might like it more than you now think.
Best, John Allen Paulos

Mystical Seeker said...

Matthew, I'm glad you enjoy the posts here, and thanks for contributing to the discussions.

Frank said...

Aristotle and Aquinas would be proud!

Kay @ Aletheia said...

Great post Mystical. You articulated my thought processes exactly!

Chris said...

I agree, Mystic. I think that the recent Evangelical penchant to stress the personality of God does great violence to the philosophical viability of theism. Not that it's not pleasant to think of God as personal...

cipher said...

But how much theology is required to observe, for example, that assertions of God's existence suggest the obvious question, Who made God? If he's simply there and needs no explanation, then why not just say that about the world itself rather than multiply mysteries?

Just passing by. I'll offer for your consideration that almost the entirely of Buddhist philosophy is based upon this premise, and it's a system every bit as comprehensive and complex as the corpus of Western philosophy.