Friday, September 21, 2012

The Paradox of Existence

"Cogito Ergo Sum" - I think therefore I am.  When the French philosopher Rene Descartes dug to the bottom of his philosophy, the only thing he found there amid the tattered ruins and bombed out shelters of his former beliefs, was the reflection of his own doubt.  Those doubts  "became a fundamental element of Western philosophy, as it was perceived to form a foundation for all knowledge. While other knowledge could be a figment of imagination, deception or mistake, the very act of doubting one's own existence serves to some people as proof of the reality of one's own existence, or at least that of one's thought."

"The statement is sometimes given as Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum (English: "I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am"). A common mistake is that people take the statement as proof that they, as a human person, exist. However, it is a severely limited conclusion that does nothing to prove that one's own body exists, let alone anything else that is perceived in the physical universe. It only proves that one's consciousness exists (that part of an individual that observes oneself doing the doubting). It does not rule out other possibilities, such as waking up to find oneself to be a butterfly who had dreamed of having lived a human life." *

Despite the complexities of existence expressed above, and everything in it, Peter John Kreeft offers "the argument from the existence of things" as a good reason to believe in God. Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King's College and author of numerous books on Christian philosophy, theology and apologetics. The premise of his argument for belief in God is simple: the very existence of things suggests there is a God who created those things. .
 According to Prof. Kreeft, the cause of all existing things must be an "uncaused being," a being that has existence by its own essence, a Necessary Being.  This "being," however, is conjured up by an immaculate conception of God from a trinity of unproven assumptions. First, it assumes that the "cause" of the universe is necessarily an "uncaused being" without explaining how we know the "cause" was not the result of  a "caused being" or even a group of "uncaused beings." Nor does it explain why we should conclude that whatever "caused" existence necessarily constituted an intelligent "being" rather than just the stuff of "being." Second, it assumes that this "uncaused being" must be an eternal God. But how do we know such a "being" didn't itself have a beginning or die when it gave birth to existence?  Third, it assumes that "existence" must of had a starting point before which nothing else existed.  But how can we know there was any such starting point?  Maybe, in other words, existence - in one form or another - has always existed. These assumptions are patently relied upon in both the argument itself and the conclusion it wishes to advance. None of these assumptions, however, can be verified. They can only be assumed, and nothing more.

So, what is existence? Or more specifically, what does it mean to exist? The answers, which range from the extremely complex to overly simple, demonstrate that there is no one clear, concrete definition of what we mean by the word “existence.”  Instead, defining “existence”  can range from the elusive to the illusory. The truth is  we’re still trying to figure out what we mean when we talk about "existence." Some people believe that "existence" has just always existed. Others, like Descartes, doubt if existence can ever be known in any true sense. And for still others, like the anti-realists, the Mahayana Buddhists, and the solipsists, “existence” may not exist at all.  

  Beyond the philosophical hurdle posed by existence however, lay the more difficult questions posed by the existence of physical reality itself. Despite the accomplishments of people like Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and countless others, physicists are still trying to understand not just what constitutes the material of physical “existence,”  but how and why it all works the way that it does. Physical reality for some may be just an illusion that disappears the more we look at it. For others, like scientist Leonard Susskind, the "entire universe may be just a hologram “painted” on the cosmological horizon." Attempting to unscramble this riddle posed by our reality has become the holy grail of modern physics. It is hoped, especially with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, that one day such a theory will explain the what, how, and possibly even the why, of this mysterious and mercurial thing we call “existence.” Until then, claims about the origins of "existence" and everything in it, presuppose an understanding of our "existence" that, for the most part, simply does not exist.  

   This argument, however, assumes we have an adequate understanding of "existence" in order to trade the "what" of that existence for the "who.”  By supplying the "who," the theist provides answers for the what, how, and why of existence, but also opens a Pandora's box of other potential "who's." Maybe the universe, for example, is simply a hairball coughed up by Gods mischievous cat, in a red and white hat, and bow tie to match. Or maybe it was Zeus, or Apollo, or Cindy Lou Who. From Mount Crumpit to Timbuktu, to that Boson-ville in the CERN-thing-a-ma-doo, once we open the door of  "who," any 'who" down in Who-ville can just walk right through. 

 The ultimate paradox posed by "existence" is the claim that an "uncaused being" existed to create existence. Hence some "existence" had to exist in which the "uncaused being" existed. If we simply say that God was without existence, or that he existed in a way we cannot comprehend, then we are admitting that we have no idea at all what "existed" in this sense, so why should we call it a "God," and of the Christian variety no less?

Finally, the fatal flaw of this argument is its inability to explain the biggest "thing" of all - God.  If God exists, in other words, than he is a "thing" that disproves the very logic of this argument. This is because, if the existence of "things" proves the existence of a God who created those things, then who created the biggest "thing" of them all, God? And if God can be a thing that did not need to be "caused" by some preceding "uncaused being," than God is an exception that disproves the rule. And if the rule can be disproved by God, than we must either accept the rule that disproves God or accept a God that disproves the rule, but we can not have it both ways. Once again, as with so many of the arguments that try to "prove" the existence of God, God is the ultimate evidence that disproves the rule.

 On the other side of this argument about the origins of existence is the question of "cause." What does it mean to say something “caused” existence, anyway? Does it mean that something “caused” existence out of something else, or out of nothing at all? The former implies that maybe God was not alone before he created existence, while the latter implies that, if he was "alone" per se, he was not unchanging. Also, arguing that something “caused” existence only begs the further questions of "what caused the ‘something’ that caused existence" and in what "existence"did that something exist? Simply saying that an ‘uncaused being’ created everything out of “nothing” is to build a belief in God with the cornerstone of a self-contradiction. For if God has always existed, than some kind of "existence" has always existed as well, or God would have had to create his own existence. Ignoring these inherent contradictions makes terms like "an uncaused being" and "out of nothing" operate as little more than verbal wands that allow the theist to pull the rabbit of God out of a hat of abstraction.  

 To infer that God “caused” existence, when there is no hard evidence to justify such a conclusion, is to spy our own humanity in the heavens and call it divine. Basically, we are projecting a larger-than-life image of ourselves onto that blank canvass of pre-existence we call “nothingness,” and then attributing to that vision all the intention of creating existence that we have in building a church. The intentionality that we attribute to those forces, however,  are ultimately our own, for the only thing that we can see when looking into the void is a reflection of ourselves looking back.  Religion is the curse of Narcissus, in other words, with humanity falling in love with its own cosmological reflection, until the dream of martyrdom reunites the two in the baptismal waters of a pond called Heaven.

  Believing that there is an author of our existence is the result of a simple, almost inescapable, logic - since watches come from watch makers, existence must come from an existence-maker. The symmetry and simplicity of this conclusion is far to powerful, and for many it is far to comforting, to ever resist. The truth of this conclusion is that we look at a watch and think of how we would have made it if we were a watch maker, and then look at existence and think the same thing.  Finding the origins of existence by rifling through the contents of our own thoughts, however, is like finding the origins of cotton by rifling though the contents of our own sock drawer. In many ways, the answer we reach is ultimately shaped by where we are forced to search.  That search is animated by our desire to know the meaning of life and death just as much as a watch maker is animated by a desire to know the time of day or night. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the intention produces a result that so resembles the desire. In other words, our desire to know the meaning of life and death prompts us to manufacture a meaning to life and death.  

It is ultimately this question of intentionality that we must consider when determining if existence was “caused” by the power of random chance or by the providence of a divine choice. "Intent" describes the the state of mind in which an act is performed, and it requires a conscious intelligence to be exercised.  Although a watchmaker can consciously “intend” to make a watch, for example, a tree can not consciously intend to make a tree because seeds, unlike watch makers, do not have the intelligence to exercise "intent. That the tree results from the seed is different from saying that the seed ‘intended’ the tree. Similarly, to say that the existence of things suggests there is a God is to infer that the existence of things is the result of an "intent," by God, to create existence. Hence, this reasoning finds God by simply describing "existence" as having a necessary starting point where it was intentionally created, and then calling that "creator of existence" God. But how do we know if there was ever any such 'absolute' starting point at all? And even if there was, did God, before that point, necessarily "not" intend to create existence?

Take the human body as an example of the difference between the "intent" of a conscious intelligence and the evolution of an organic process. It does not grow because our "intent" is to get older (or indeed, many people would intend quite the opposite), it simply grows - period. Hence, to conclude that "existence" was “created” with some kind of “intent” to, say, produce human life, is largely contrary to the very biology of how human life itself actually functions. The author and environmentalist Paul Hawken, for example, pointed out that “the human body has 100 trillion cells, and 90% of those are not human cells. They are fungi, bacteria, and micro organisms.” Hence, "the thing that makes us human is not necessarily human, and human beings then may be the back story” of existence itself.  Point being, most of our physical existence is biological even though much of our perception of existence is psychological. And perhaps is is because we experience existence mostly on a psychological level that we tend to attribute psychological properties, like “consciousness” and “intent,” to so many events that are purely biological in nature.

Intention is just one of the human attributes that we regularly assign to God. Indeed, everything we know of God conforms perfectly to our humanity, including our reasoning, our emotions, and even at times our mortality. Anger, jealousy, forgiveness, compassion, love, hate, wrath, disappointment, vengeance, and everything else, are all possessed by the God this argument alleges to exist. He even (allegedly) “created” the universe with all of the meticulousness of a watch maker making a watch. In fact, for all of his omnipotence and omniscience, the God, especially as described in the Old Testament, is remarkably human. No wonder so many people so often presume to know so much about a "being" they've never seen or met - "he-she-or-it" is exactly like they are. Most of the things in existence itself, on the other hand, seem to behave like anything but how we are. Indeed, even the origin and development of our own body conforms more to that of a tree than a watch. So why must we conclude that the whole of "existence" was necessarily formed more like a watch than a tree?

Hence, what “caused” existence is a question that requires us to define what we mean exactly by “caused.” And just because my language and my imagination tend to attribute human properties to processes that may be purely biological in nature, does not mean that my intelligence was necessarily “caused” by some greater intelligence operating in the void of pre-existence. It may only mean I am projecting myself onto that void, calling it “God,” and then using that projection as both the measure and the author of all things. Hence, by the lure of our own reflection, we may accidentally and ironically confirm Protagoras' statement that “man is the measure of all things.” And this is the very thing the theist argues we should never do. 

Ultimately, even if we accept all of the assumptions this argument depends on, and conclude some kind of intelligence created existence, such an answer only opens the door to more questions. In a web series called "Atheism and Critical Thinking," for example, UK artist and secular humanist QualiaSoup points out that "even if some kind of intelligence initiated the existence of our universe," we would still need to ask, what is the nature of that intelligence? Was it single or collective? Was it interested in the universe, or humans? Is it even aware of our tiny planet? Is it capable of communicating? And perhaps more importantly, does it still even exist?**

In sum, the answer for Kreeft is the destination he reaches because of the path he chooses to follow through the ambiguity of his question. From the myriad meanings for “caused” and “existence” available, the questioner can freely choose the definitions that allow him to arrive at the answer he prefers. That answer is often determined not only by how the questioner defines those terms, but by how those two terms are seen to relate to each other. If, on the one hand, the relationship is viewed to be more detached - like the watch and the watch maker - the inquirer may likely prefer a more divine, theistic answer. If, on the other hand, that relationship is seen to be more organic - like a tree from a seed - the inquirer may prefer a more mechanical, atheistic answer. Both options demonstrate that every road one can travel to the idea of God can equally be traveled away from an idea of God, with the direction we move determined by the definitions we choose to follow.  And while Prof. Kreeft has chosen to follow the well worn, familiar definitions and relationships that allow him to arrive safely at the answer he seeks, I, as Robert Frost put it, ‘I choose the definitions less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.


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