Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fr. Barron and Ex Nihilo Creation

I just watched a clip on Word On Fire with Fr. Robert Barron. Fr. Barron is an affable, intelligent Catholic priest who follows his vocation perhaps to a fault, and all to convince the world (or maybe just himself) that science cannot prove, nor should it ever try to prove, that God does not exist. The problem, as Barron sees it, is that science cannot find God because God is not a scientific being. Science can only illuminate for us  the what, while the "why" is reserved as the playground of Philosophy and Religion.

There are definable differences, obviously, between science, philosophy, and religion. Science is the means by which we try to know and understand what our universe, and our reality, actually is. Philosophy and Religion, on the other hand, are attempts to understand what it all means. In other words, philosophy and religion interpret what science discovers. The difference between philosophy and religion, however, is that the former tries to arrive at that meaning by proving prior interpretations wrong, while the latter often tries to do so by proving prior interpretations right. Each tries to find the "truth," but by moving in opposite directions.

 To use another analogy, think of the family. Both philosophers and theologians can be thought of as families who pass down and inherit from their fathers and mothers the DNA of their ideas and arguments. But philosophy is more ravenous and religion more reserved.  Philosophy will eat it's young after sharpening its teeth on the bones of its elders, while religion teaches its young to respect and protect its elders. Indeed, philosophy is a cannibal while religion is a vegetarian. Philosophy is liberal while religion is conservative. Or, to use a Biblical reference, Philosophy is Cain and Religion is Able. 

   Fr. Barron mentions the Greek phrase, "ex nihilo nihil fit: which means " from nothing comes nothing." This is an expression first argued by Parmenides. The Roman poet Lucretius also used a similar term in his work De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things). "This term is associated with ancient Greek cosmology," and was not just "as presented... in the opus of Homer and Hesiod, but also in virtually every philosophical system - there is no time interval in which a world didn't exist, since it couldn’t be created "ex nihilo" in the first place."

 While Parmenides accepted this idea as true, Lucretius rejected it as false. Many Christians rely on this argument as the backbone of their reasoning for faith in the existence of God.  Today, however, there are cosmologists,  physicists, and even Christian theologians who actually agree more with Lucretius than Parmenides.


Here's the first problem, as I see it, with the Ex Nihilio Creation Arguments that Fr. Barron seems to ignore or miss altogether: If the idea that "nothing comes from nothing" is an absolute law that somehow proves, or at least suggests, that God created everything, then where did God come from? If God was eternally there, than He is an example of something that did not come from something else.  In fact, whatever God "was" was there  just as eternally as God himself. And if whatever "was" God was there just as eternally as God was there, how can we tell the difference between the presence of the god-like-stuff" that was not God and God? Another way to put it is, how do we get from the idea that "something" created the universe to the idea that that "something" must necessarily have been God?

If we argue that God is the exception to the rule of Ex Nihilio nihil fit, then we are admitting there are exceptions to the rule without proof that God is the only exception. On the other hand, if we are admitting that God, rather then creating everything from nothing, instead created it from Himself, than we are admitting that "God" can not be "changeless" and "immutable."  What we don't have, however, is an explanation for why Fr. Barron is willing to accept a religious explanation that contradicts the rule he defends, but rejects numerous scientific explanations that defend the rule he willingly contradicts.  And if there is at least one exception, as Fr. Barron is willing to accept, where is the proof that there cannot be a million others?   


  In addition to the theological arguments against an Ex Nihilio Creation, there are some scientific explanations that propose that "everything" did not in fact come from "nothing" as Fr. Barron suggests.  One explanation is the Zero energy universe and another is called "quantum fluctuation."

 The Zero- Energy Universe  is "a widely supported hypothesis in modern physics ... which states that the total amount of energy in the universe is exactly zero." This is the only kind of universe that could come from "nothing," argues this hypothesis. "Such a universe would have to be flat in shape, a state which does not contradict current observations that the Universe is flat with a 0.5% margin of error." 

 A "zero-energy universe" is a universe in which the amount of positive energy in the form of matter is exactly canceled out by the negative energy in the form of gravity." The Free Lunch Interpretation of a zero-energy universe says the negative gravitational energy that contracts is balanced with the positive energy that expands. The idea is that these two energies are constant and opposite, and thus "inflate" a flat universe. Such a view has been considered to be consistent with astronomical observations.

Additionally, there is also what is called a "quantum fluctuation." In this idea, "A gravitational field has negative energy. Matter has positive energy. The two values cancel out provided the universe is completely flat. In that case the universe has zero energy and can theoretically last forever"

Lastly, there are some Cosmological arguments suggested by "physicists Paul Steinhardt (Princeton University) and Neil Turok (Cambridge University) that offer an alternative to ex nihilo creation. Their proposal stems from the ancient idea that space and time have always existed in some form. Using developments in string theory, Steinhardt and Turok suggest the Big Bang of our universe was a bridge to a pre-existing universe, and speculate that creation undergoes an eternal succession of universes, with possibly trillions of years of evolution in each. Gravity and the transition from Big Crunch to Big Bang characterize an everlasting succession of universes.
These ideas do not prove there is no God, nor do they prove that everything did or did not come from nothing. They only show that there is more than one way of looking at the question of "where did everything come from?" and that we can answer that question without necessarily having to jump to the conclusion that God did it His cosmological conservatory. 
All of these ideas, as well as the ones that follow, can be found here:( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex_nihilo)
And as always, I encourage the reader to look deeper, and dig further, into what they believe and why.  


In addition to the scientific arguments above, there is also opposition within modern Christian theology.

Thomas Jay Oord (born 1965), a Christian philosopher and theologian, argues that Christians should abandon the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Oord points to the work of biblical scholars, such as Jon D. Levenson, who point out that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo does not appear in Genesis. Oord speculates that God created our particular universe billions of years ago from primordial chaos. This chaos did not predate God, however, for God would have created the chaotic elements as well. Oord suggests that God can create all things without creating from absolute nothingness.
Oord offers nine objections to creatio ex nihilo:
1.    Theoretical problem: One cannot conceive absolute nothingness. (Indeed, Fr. Barron simply assumes two things when he uses the word "nothing".
1.    That everyone knows, and agrees, on exactly what "nothing" means
2.    And that "nothing" means exactly the same thing in our existence of time and space, as it would in every other possible existence, even those without time and space.
2.    Biblical problem: Scripture – in Genesis, 2 Peter, and elsewhere – suggests creation from something (water, deep, chaos, etc.), not creation from absolutely nothing.
3.    Historical problem: The Gnostics Basilides and Valentinus first proposed creatio ex nihilo on the basis of assuming the inherently evil nature of creation, and in the belief that God does not act in history. Early Christian theologians adopted the idea to affirm the kind of absolute divine power that many Christians now reject.
4.    Empirical problem: We have no evidence that our universe originally came into being from absolutely nothing.
5.    Creation-at-an-instant problem: We have no evidence in the history of the universe after the big bang that entities can emerge instantaneously from absolute nothingness.As the earliest philosophers noted, out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo, nihil fit).
6.    Solitary power problem: Creatio ex nihilo assumes that a powerful God once acted alone. But power, as a social concept, only becomes meaningful in relation to others.
7.    Errant revelation problem: The God with the capacity to create something from absolutely nothing would apparently have the power to guarantee an unambiguous and inerrant message of salvation But an unambiguously clear and inerrant divine revelation does not exist.
8.    Problem of Evil: If God once had the power to create from absolutely nothing, God essentially retains that power. But a God of love with this capacity appears culpable for failing to prevent genuine evil.
9.    Empire Problem: The kind of divine power implied in creatio ex nihilo supports a theology of empire, based upon unilateral force and control of others.
In addition to these nine objections by Oord, there are other contentions from Jehovah's Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Process theologians.

Nor are such objections limited to Christians. The Vedanta schools of Hinduism reject the concept of creation ex nihilo for several reasons as well. For example:
1.    both types of revelatory texts (śruti and smti) designate matter as eternal although completely dependent on God—the Absolute Truth (param satyam)
2.    believers then have to attribute all the evil ingrained in material life to God, making Him partial and arbitrary, which does not logically accord with His nature
The Bhagavad Gita (BG) states the eternality of matter and its transformability clearly and succinctly: "Material nature and the living entities should be understood to be beginning-less. Their transformations and the modes of matter are products of material nature
So it is not just atheists and scientists that disagree with Fr. Barron. Even in Fr. Barron's home turf of religion there is disagreement with, and arguments against, the idea of Ex Nihilo, Nihil fit. 


Although these arguments do not necessarily prove who is right or wrong regarding this idea, it does prove that Fr. Barron is breaking his own rule. That is, for Fr. Barron, it is not that "from nothing comes nothing," but that "from nothing" comes his own idea of God. The "nothing" that Barron says can produce "nothing" has in fact produced an idea, and that idea then fills the "nothingness" with a reflection of itself. Fr. Barron, like countless others, then gazes upon that idea until he falls in love with it, never realizing it was merely his own reflection. In this way, the Theist becomes like Narcissus, and simply falls in love with his own beauty. 

In the end, I can only guess at, and give meaning to, the reality around me, which is all that anyone can do. Fr. Barron is not wrong when he does the same thing, but he over simplifies an idea in order to reach his preferred conclusion. The ideas Barron touches upon, however, are far more complicated, interesting, and unsettled, than he leads his audience to believe. As such, the only defense we have against deceptions of every kind and degree is not to believe what others believe simply because it is easier to do so, but ultimately to think for ourselves regardless of the difficultly that entails.  And for anyone who took the time to read this, I certainly hope you will continue to do just that.


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