Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pruning and Weeding in the Garden of Eden: Religion and the Big Bang

Peeling layers off an onion is a proverbial metaphor for religious, philosophical, and psychological matters alike. This is not to say that these matters are synonymous or even reduce to the same basis. As concerns the religious or theological domain, the metaphor of levels to be peeled away to get at a distinctive essence may suggest that superficial uses of terms like religion and god may refer to phenomena that are actually within other domains and thus not at all of the dimension claimed. That is to say, people may be inadvertently sloppy as a matter of general habit with regard to what counts as religious or theological in nature. 

In short, too much extraneous content may have inadvertently gotten in (no doubt with the help of plenty over-reaching hands); interlarding flora and fauna from other lands presumed by now to be as native-born have eclipsed the theological dimension to the extent that it is barely recognizable.

If peeling off the outer layers of religion can prompt people to question their basic assumptions regarding the phenomenon of religion, I suspect that many of us may be surprised to discover just how much our ancestors have allowed “the burning bush” to grow over into foreign lands, and thus how much pruning is necessary to distinguish the theological dimension as unique to itself.

In his Natural History of Religion, David Hume suggests that the homo sapiens brain has great difficulty holding onto the notion of divine simplicity—such as in the divine as pure, undifferentiated spirit—and thus tends to render the divine more and more in human terms over time. Hence in Hinduism, the various deities have come to be depicted as stone icons bearing the likeness of humans (combined even with body parts of other animals, such as is the case with Ganash, the elephant-headed deity).

I submit that the human brain also has the tendency to take it for granted that the referent of an abstract word (i.e., linguistic symbol) is shared rather than distinctive to a particular mind. In asking other people, “Do you believe in God,” for example, we typically take it for granted that we have the same thing in mind with respect to that which “God” refers. Problematically, this erroneous assumption permits the gradual encroachment of matters extraneous to (i.e., outside of) the religious domain coming even into the default of what we typically assume as counting as religious in nature.

As just one example, people have confused or conflated the theological and metaphysical domains, even reducing the former to the latter. All too easily perhaps, we characterize God in terms of reality, a metaphysical concept. God as the source or condition of all that exists (i.e., Creation) as well as existence itself (i.e., reality) functions here as a metaphysical condition. If that which god refers is metaphysical, then theology is essentially a metaphysical theory; religion reduces to philosophy (metaphysics or at least existentialism).

To be sure, cosmological claims such as that God created the heavens and the Earth or the cosmos, permeate extant religions even functioning as a foundational article of faith. God created quarks and thus atoms, not to mention space and time. Immanuel Kant, a major philosophy of the eighteenth century, suggests in his Critique of Pure Reason that the human mind structures such basic contours of what we perceive of the world—such appearances known to us as space and time being distinct from things in themselves, or reality. Theologians (as well as many philosophers, such as Hegel) claim that their domain includes and in fact is based in the latter—the Real. Especially in a materialistic age, the reality claims in “God as the Creator” include the domain of physics (and chemistry) as virtually synonymous with that of metaphysics (i.e., existence and reality).

This model (from NASA) presumes a beginning, which dovetails with the storyline in the Biblical book of Genesis. Does it make sense to add time and even God into a physical process? 

Hence, God is popularly said to be the “first cause” of the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe. Accordingly, reality or existence prior to the primordial blast would presumably invalidate theism—the belief that God (i.e., not only as the Creator) exists. The conception of God is conditional on what is known in physics. Should the universe as we know it have come through rather than out of the Big Bang when all matter and energy were presumably at one point in space (before time), the physics would by cyclical rather than linear (i.e., a beginning, middle and end). Creation or even Aristotle’s “first cause” cease to make any sense in terms of the universe.

In the early 1970s, Steven Hawkins theorized that quantum gravitational effects produce a repulsive force such that black holes eventually “evaporate” or explode outward rather than reach infinite density in a point. Physicists have concluded that the universe may not have begun with the Big Bang. Rather than starting from a point (i.e., singularity), the explosion could have followed a previous contracting phase going to a maximal compact state, which then triggered the explosion. In line with Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal recurrences,” the universe may “bounce back” following each contracting phase, again and again.[1]

Lest it be concluded that science would once again be pitted against religion should the alternative theory get empirical support, the anticipated tension can be transcended. I submit that the either/or dichotomy is false, as it is premised on the assumption that religion includes physics (and metaphysics).[2] To create energy (and thus mass, as E=mc2) is not the same as to be the source or condition of reality; physics can thus be distinguished from metaphysics. Furthermore, the theological meaning of “God as Creator” can be distinguished theologically from scientific and metaphysical theory and knowledge; otherwise, the theological claim would not have its own distinct basis.

What is that basis? What is the content of religious faith in God as the Creator? How is creating in theological terms distinct from making (i.e, faire, machen)? I contend that the distinctly theological dimension has by now become nearly unrecognizable, or hidden, precisely because we and our forebears have unwittingly painted religion with so many colors borrowed from other paintings. Perhaps even more astoundingly, the human brain seems to “short-circuit” when it comes to presuming that it knows (and in fact cannot be wrong) what it knows concerning what counts as religious truth. This cognitive-neurological defense-mechanism keeps us from discovering how far off the map we have “sailed.” If my theory is accurate, the path back to “good gardening” lies in pruning back the otherwise fecund plant by disentangling it from the branches of others and asking what the plant is as distinctive and whole unto itself.

[1] Katia Moskvitch, “Black Hole ‘Information’ Paradox May Have Been Resolved,” Huffington Post, March 14, 2014.
[2] Peeling back yet another layer, the assumption itself premised at least in part on the historically-held assumption that religion must include everything or otherwise be invalid. This assumption is similar to the other historical assumption that morality must come out of religion to have any validity and force. These premises invite the theological dimension to “jump fences” as though with impunity.