Such questions haunt the religious mind as never-resolvable puzzles that can only be put to rest by positing a supernatural mind. Why is this?
I think the most illuminating answer to why such questions persist in the apologetic arsenal of most religious thinkers, is one which does not help their religious cause. And this has chiefly to do with the role that the imagination plays in the very conceiving of such questions.
Consider this: When a thinker is asked to contemplate the universe, he is naturally going to start imagining all the suns, planets, moons, galaxies and other things that we have come to think of as residents of the celestial realm. For example, I cannot personally see Uranus or Aldebaran or Galaxy EGSY8p7.
But I can imagine these things.
Naturally, deep-space telescopes and artist depictions have certainly helped sharpen the acuity of my imaginative prowess when contemplating such distant phenomena, but even artist depictions are imbued with a heavy dose of imagination, while imagery obtained through the use of telescopes often looks like just a blip of light, when in fact it is supposed to be what a swirling cluster of “billions and billions” of stars looks like from here.
And as helpful as these are in giving the imagination models of what interstellar concretes might look like if we could see them, it’s a far cry from perceiving everything in the universe in one shot. But we don’t need to perceive everything in the universe in order to form the concept ‘universe’ any more than we need to perceive every shoe that exists now, has existed in the past and will exist in the future in order to form the concept ‘shoe’. That’s the beauty of concepts: we form them from the statistically insignificant sample of units which we have actually occasioned firsthand, and yet their content is limitless, thanks to the power of measurement-omission.
“Universe” is a very useful concept, but along with it comes a tendency, ever so seemingly irresistible, which inclines thinkers to giving the imagination a creative role in informing its content, when in fact, as a concept, this use of imagination is neither required nor actually intended. The power of our imagination is more a result of our ability to form concepts than an engine which makes it possible. (Again, for that we must tip our hats to measurement-omission.) The economy of the concept ‘universe’ can be misleading if we’re not careful – specifically, if we do not guide our thinking by the primacy of existence.
According to Wikipedia, as of March 5, 2016, “there are a total of 509 known multiplanetary systems, or stars with at least two confirmed planets, beyond the Solar System.” The closest of these is Gliese 876, which I had never heard of before writing this blog entry. On first hearing, this name, “Gliese 876,” is just a term without an object of reference known by me, other than what I can glean from description of course. In response to reading “Gliese 876, with 4 confirmed exoplanets, is the closest multiplanetary system at 15 light years from the Solar System,” my imagination has already started to kick into gear. But that’s where I need to exercise caution: what is real and what I imagine will forever be existentially distinct, for one is actual and the other is merely imaginary.
Once we’ve been asked to contemplate the wonders of the universe, thereby inviting the imagination to start filling in what we do not know and what we will never actually see for ourselves, we start to think of (again, think of) the universe as populated by all these things which, deep down, we know we’ve created in our imagination. Consider just one of the exoplanets comprising Gliese 876. Is it big or is it small? Is it rocky or is it gaseous? Is it hot or is it cold? Does it have polar ice caps? Does it have rings? Does it have land masses separated by oceans of liquid mercury? Does it have an atmosphere full of clouds made of vanadium? Does it have life? If it does have life, are its life forms based on barium or on cobalt?
Obviously, I could never answer any of these questions by reference to objectively validated facts, none that I have at my disposal anyhow. But that doesn’t stop the mind from imagining. In fact, the absence of known facts acts in its own way as a spur to the imagination: our minds naturally require content in what we are contemplating, so when we don’t find it by looking outward at the world and integrating the facts we discover in a non-contradictory manner, our imaginations are standing by, ready to supply that content as a stop-gap, if for nothing more than the immediate purpose of having something in our thoughts rather than a contentless void of nothingness.
But if I’ve gotten this far, and throughout the task of contemplating one of the exoplanets belonging to Gliese 876 I have failed to keep consistently in mind the distinction between what is real and what is merely imaginary, then I may find myself departing radically from reality and losing sight of what distinguishes fact from fantasy.
Now if we contemplate the question “Where did it all come from?” without deferring to the primacy of existence to keep us honest, then we have already set the stage in favor of the primacy of consciousness. Since I have already used my imagination to envision all these things – the stars, planets, moons, galaxies and nebula that I have imagined as the ingredient units informing the content of the concept ‘universe’, I might continue down the path of carelessness and be inclined to supposing that some kind of conscious activity was involved in the generation of what actually does exist.
Thus while I might recognize that what I imagine Gliese 876 to be really is imaginary, thus acknowledging that my own consciousness was not responsible for the existence of Gliese 876 (and everything else in the universe, known and unknown), I might, if I’m not careful (again, if I don’t consciously hold the primacy of existence as my objective standard), casually assume that some form of conscious activity mirroring my imagination was actually involved in bringing Gliese 876 and everything else into the universe into being, as if they were products of wishing from nothing.
Now of course, when it comes to defending what is clearly a fantasy, it does not help the mind’s progress towards knowledge when subjective affirmations are defended on the basis of fallacies. For example, in defenses of beliefs in deities (which themselves can only be imagined), the appeal to what we do not know never seems to be very far from reach. For example, we might have the following kind of exchange:
Person A: Where do you think the universe came from?
Person B: Gee, I really don’t know.
Person A: Well, it had to come into being somehow, right?
Person B: Well, I guess so.
Person A: But how? It couldn’t have just created itself out of nothing, could it?
Person B: I suppose you’re right about that. Seems rather odd to say that something just created itself.
Person A: That’s why I believe in God. What other explanation is there?
Person B: Yeah, I suppose you’re right. I have no other explanation.
In this way the doctrine of “creation ex nihilo” mirrors the “assertion ex ignorance” modeled in such “reasoning”: just as the universe was supposedly brought into being from a void by force of will, so is the “knowledge” that the universe was so created brought into the believer’s mind from ignorance by a force of will. It’s the primacy of consciousness run wild in the guise of an inquiring intellect.
But notice the hidden assumption that is key to all this: Only if we start with nothing, with non-existence as one’s starting point, can we then insist on some explanation for the fact that existence exists. But that just begs the question: Why begin with non-existence when we already know that existence exists? If we begin with the fact that existence exists, which we know to be the case, then such questions prove to be fallaciously complex.
In the following passage, Leonard Peikoff eloquently diagnoses the pattern of succumbing to the primacy of consciousness that continues to go unchecked in the minds of many today:
The religious view of the world, though it has been abandoned by most philosophers, is still entrenched in the public mind. Witness the popular question “Who created the universe?”—which presupposes that the universe is not eternal, but has a source beyond itself, in some cosmic personality or will. It is useless to object that this question involves an infinite regress, even though it does (if a creator is required to explain existence, then a second creator is required to explain the first, and so on). Typically, the believer will reply: “One can’t ask for an explanation of God. He is an inherently necessary being. After all, one must start somewhere.” Such a person does not contest the need of an irreducible starting point, as long as it is a form of consciousness; what he finds unsatisfactory is the idea of existence as the starting point. Driven by the primacy of consciousness, a person of this mentality refuses to begin with the world, which we know to exist; he insists on jumping beyond the world to the unknowable, even though such a procedure explains nothing. The root of this mentality is not rational argument, but the influence of Christianity. In many respects, the West has not recovered from the Middle Ages.(Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 21; emphasis added)
Rather, the argument here is that any contemplation of the universe which goes unchecked by the primacy of existence is at risk of falling prey to a slippery slope of imaginative flights of fancy which culminate in the untenable conclusion that existence is a product of consciousness, a conclusion that is already implicit in a thinker’s own careless handling of the matter in question.
by Dawson Bethrick