Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Last time, we talked about the common sense insight that a purely contingent universe has to borrow its existence from Something that isn’t contingent. This very simple insight is so simple that a lot of people who dislike it have spent a lot of time trying to come up with ways to avoid it. Some people think they can escape the logic of it by supposing that our universe is just one bubble in an infinite foam of other bubbles called the Multiverse, or that some collision between two other universes produced this one. But this is, of course, mere mystification by multiplication and only pushes back the problem since our contingent universe doesn’t somehow stop being contingent if you say there are million or a trillion other contingent universes (for which, by the way, we have absolutely no evidence).
All it means is that the problem got bigger, since you could suppose there is an infinite number of other contingent universes crashing into each other and you still don’t have an answer to the question “Why is there any contingent universe, whether one or a zillion?” At best, all of the above is just adding more boxcars to the train, not giving us an Engine.
Another proposal for getting around the problem comes from Stephen Hawking, who is a fine physicist but an amateur philosopher. He declares:
As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
Hawking’s trouble, of course, is that he claims to give us (with his right hand) a universe that appears spontaneously “from nothing”. But then with his left hand, he actually gives us a universe that comes from “laws of gravity and quantum theory”. In short, he’s not really giving a universe that comes from nothing, because laws of gravity and quantum theory aren’t nothing. They are something. And they, like all the rest of contingent nature, beg the question, “Why is there gravity and a quantum vacuum of elegantly fine-tuned physical laws which has a fluctuation from which all of time, space, matter, and energy emerge?” Hawking has not really provided an argument for creation from nothing because he does not understand what “nothing” means.
Nor does he really seem to grasp what “contingency” means. Like many moderns, he seems to think that as long as you can come up with an explanation for how the cosmic pool cue hit the first cosmic cueball 13.5 billion years ago in the Big Bang, you’re in clover. But the great philosophers such as Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas aren’t saying the universe is contingent because it had a start. They are saying it is contingent always and everywhere and at all times, whether it has a start or not.
For Aristotle, it was a given that the universe had always been here. (Recall that it wasn’t until the 20th century that anybody had the scientific instruments to figure out that those faint smudges of light in the telescope were not stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, but were, in fact, other galaxies—and that they were all moving away from each other at enormous speeds, meaning that the universe was expanding and therefore had a beginning.) So Aristotle isn’t asking “How did the universe start?” He’s saying, “This eternal universe, by its nature as a collection of contingent stuff, is contingent. Therefore, it has to be contingent on Something that is not contingent.”
Similarly, his great student St. Thomas Aquinas saw no particular reason—except for the testimony of Scripture and the Christian Tradition—that the universe hadn’t been here an infinite amount of time. He took the idea of a universe with a beginning on faith because that’s what the Bible and the Church taught, not because that was what his senses revealed. But he said we could just as easily suppose that this universe has been here an infinite amount of time and that would not get you an inch closer to a non-contingent universe. Because at the end of the day a nature made up entirely of contingent stuff—stuff that depends on something else in order to exist at all—can’t make itself be. Everything that moves is still moved by another, even if it has always been happening. The train of boxcars, no matter how long, still needs an Engine.
In short, what Hawking also fails to grasp is that the universe isn’t just contingent a long time ago at the Big Bang. It’s contingent right now—this very second, right there where you sit reading this article. The carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and trace elements in your body that were formed when a star exploded 5 billion years ago are not yesterday’s creation, because you are today’s creation. They are part of the fact that God is creating the universe right this very second: holding you and the rest of creation in being and creating the absolutely new and unique thing in the universe that is you, reading this sentence for the very first time in all of history. Creation is not a long ago thing. It is a thing occurring throughout every square inch and every nanosecond of space and time all along. And yet none of it need have happened and none of it could happen if everything in this entire contingent universe did not borrow its small and temporary being from Something that is eternal and permanent Being.
Note that I say “Being”, not “a being”. That’s because God is not just the Big Kahuna at the head of the Big List of Every Single Thing in the Universe. God is not “a being” as, say kangaroos, apples and air molecules are beings. He’s not an item in an inventory of other items who just happens to have won all the Omniscience and Omnipotence cards in the cosmic lottery. He is not in competition with all other beings, jostling for space and priority. He is, rather, Being or Existence itself. All of us contingent beings (the technical term is “creatures”) participate in Being and go in and out of existence. But Being or Existence itself can’t go in and out of existence. It just is. That’s why the question “If God made everything then who made God?”—while it may be a fun Gotcha for high school sophomore bull sessions—is not really the crushing comeback some might think. Only natural and contingent beings demand something else to explain their existence, change and movement. Being or Existence Itself does not borrow existence from something else and therefore does not require such an explanation. It is not contingent. It simply is. Existence exists. If it did not, we would not be having this conversation and nothing would be happening since there would be nothing.
So the basic intuition when we contemplate contingent nature—and all of nature is contingent—is that there must be Something beyond nature (the technical term is “supernatural”) that is not contingent: some unthinkable uncontingent Engine that is not the universe itself causes the contingent universe to exist since the universe itself, like the teeny weeny things that comprise it, has not the power to make itself exist. Therefore, there must be some sort of Uncaused Cause beyond the natural universe. “And this,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “everybody understands to be God.”
Taken in isolation this sort of evidence for God gives a solid—but still pretty chilly and abstract—picture of a God who, at least, exists. But a God who merely exists is not necessarily a personal God nor even a good one. So is there anything else we can glean from natural revelation? Yes,there is. Of which more next time.