Self Existence

One of the major points of contention between atheism and theism in the modern popular debate, is the question of self-existence, or what theology calls Aseity.  Modern atheists will often critique theists who say that the universe needs to have an origin, but God can exist on God’s own.  The Atheists will often respond that theists give no good reason why God should be able to exist on God’s own, but the universe cannot.  This post is an attempt to explain what is meant by self-existence in its theological usage.

In short, self-existence is the property of a thing that exists and does not depend on any other thing for its existence.  It does not, as might be thought, mean that a thing causes itself to exist.  This would be a logical contradiction.  Instead, a being with self-existence has no cause, and simply exists on its own.  Because it has no cause, it must exist, for when we look for a cause of its existence, there can be none, and therefore no contingency involved in its being.  Thus, if a self-existent being exists, it also necessarily exists.

This should be distinguished from all other things that are not self-existent.  A wombat is composite and caused, and thus might not have existed.  It has its being in the composite parts and the universe that it exists in.  Its being is contingent on its creation in the past.  Thus any of these things might have been different, and therefore is neither self-existent nor does it possess necessary existence.

The concept of self-existence is what traditional theism applies to only one thing, God.  This is because God is believed to be simple, meaning that God is not made up of many different parts.  When we say that God has a mind, and power, and will, we are not saying that God has three different things that are all put together.  We are arguing that God, in God’s own being, is wholly and totally simple such that whatever it is that we call “mind” in God is the same thing that we call “being” which is the same thing that we call “power.”  However, they are not exactly like what we would call mind, being, and power[1].  For the way we define these things is dependent on definitions that exist within our universe.  Mind, power, and being all are categories that we understand as functioning within a physical system.  However, when we say that God has mind, power, and will, we are saying that God is something that we do not know, but that is best described with these terms, for we have no others to terms.

Now, when skeptics propose that the universe could be self-existent, we must be very specific about what we mean.  It seems that there could be two specific meanings to saying the universe is self-existent.

1.  The Material Universe

What some skeptics may mean when they say that the Universe is self existent, is that the whole composite universe of matter and energy, laws, fields, and so on, is itself self existent.  If this is the case, then the universe must be necessary.  But modern physics does not say that the universe is necessary, or at least not the universe defined like this.  Instead, there seems to be a general agreement that the universe as we see it might have been very different if one of a number of different factors had been slightly off, and there is no sense that they must have been the way they were.  As well, any system that involves randomness, which they state that the universe has[2], cannot be necessary as it depends on randomness resulting one way and not another.  Thus we see contingency in the universe when it is defined as the whole composite system.

2.  The Framework of the Universe

What some other skeptics might mean when they say that universe is self existent, is that the basic framework of the Universe is necessary and not contingent.   The very ground of the universe, the laws which determine how things exist, and how they interact, are self-existent.  Now this is far better than saying that the material universe is self-existent.  However, there are some major problems here as well.

First, we would have to postulate that there is in fact only one real law of the universe that defines how everything exists.  If there are multiple laws, we must ask what context they exist in together to interact with the universe.  Do they derive from each other?  If so, then the multiplicity of laws can exist within the context of the first law, and thus we really have only one law, even if we can identify many elements to it[3]. Now this doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem, as many physicists appear to be trying to find the one most basic law of the universe, one that unifies Quantum and Newtonian mechanics.

But what does cause a bigger problem is that that one law, or one law with many emanating laws, does not create matter/energy.  The one law determines how matter/energy act and interact, but it does not produce either a context for matter/energy, nor does it produce the matter/energy themselves.  There is no indication that the one law of physics has ever produced a single piece of matter, no indication that it has in fact ever caused anything to happen at all.  It is a descriptor, and the One Law of Physics, if it exists, will simply describe all objects and events in the universe.  For it to have any effect on anything, it must have a universe to work on, it cannot produce it.

Thus we find that even a self existent unified law of the universe, while it could exist, cannot be the origin of the universe…with one possible exception.

If the laws of physics somehow found a way to produce the material universe, we must see that they are outside of the universe.  For they cannot be made of matter or energy, or else they are merely the composite contingent universe we described in section 1.  But if they are neither matter, energy, nor space, nor time (for these are also part of that composite universe), then they are by definition supernatural.  They are outside of the universe in a way that Theists propose that God is.

It is possible that the law behind the universe, the one that determines why things do what they do, is conscious and powerful.  If it were conscious and powerful, it could choose to create matter, and be able to do it.  It could order all things, determine all things, and have the power to create them.  Being conscious, it could choose what laws applied to what objects, and perhaps, sometimes change how the laws apply.  Such a Law would also be a Mind, a mind that stands outside of the universe and determines that it should exist.

But then, this is Theism.

[1] See my previous post on “Beyond Words” to get some idea of what this means.

[2] A dubious assertion.  Instead, it seems that it would be more honest if they said simply “we do not see why these things happen.”

[3] Some may see a connection here between this logic and the logic of begetting and procession in the Trinity.  They would be right to do so.


A Changing God

This blog post was originally intended to address my views on Process Theology, but I found that I am not quite equipped to write that blog post yet.  These posts are not works of erudition, and will generally come from the top of my head.  Thus, while much of what appears here is the result of research and study, this work is not intended to be the equivalent of a journal article.  Thus, I need to spend more time considering the arguments of Process Theology before I give my thoughts on them.  However, there is an idea that seems to be common to both Process Theology and Open Theism, that of the ever growing and changing God.  As I understand this theory, it is used to explain how God appears to change God’s mind in scripture, explains how God might not know the future perfectly, and allows us to have a closer more intimate sense of this God who, like us, is learning as God goes along.

In this post I am going to address these three elements, a God who learns, the Scriptural witness, and the intimacy of God.

First, the concept of God “learning” is an especially difficult one.  When we say that someone learns something, we find that what we mean is that a person or animal, or even a computer, collects a bit of data or makes a connection between existing data, that the person, animal, or computer did not have before.  In matters of humans and animals, this is accomplished through the rearrangement of chemistry in the physical brain.  In computers, it is the storage of information on some kind of physical medium.  In fact, what we mean by learning is the rearranging of physical matter for a controlling mind, whether conscious or not, to access at a later date.  There is a change in the biochemistry of creatures, and the magnetic orientation on a disk for computers.

But can we say this about God?  Does God have a physical makeup that can change, rearrange, and store new information about the universe in the way that we do?  Do we suppose that God is a composite being that must, based on God’s different parts, access information, new and old, with perfect ability?  Do we suggest that God knows the way we know, but rearranging atoms and molecules for data recovery?  Is the epistemology of God such that it is comparable to our own?

Let us look closer at what we mean by “learning.”  When I learn a thing, those biochemical processes in my brain arrange to create information.  That information has the quality of either being true for false; or depending on the complexity of the idea, varying shades of these two qualities.  Some aspect of my own knowledge is now conformed, however imperfectly, to the state of reality, physical, logical, and spiritual.  The whole field of Epistemology is concerned with how this whole process happens, and how far it can go.

But, surely God knows in the way that we do not, knows intimately every thing and event in a way that is not simply “knowledge about” but true “knowledge of.”  There is not something in God that merely conforms to the external realities around God, creating some kind of knowledge in God like our own. This God knows creation in something like the way that scripture means when it said VeAdam Yada et-Chavah ishto.  The knowledge of God is closer and more personal than our limited “knowledge about” creation.  For God to “know about” creation as we do, God must be distant from it as we are.  Instead, God knows in an ineffable way every subatomic particle, and every nebula as they are eternally.

Now that does not mean that there are not beings that stand between God and ourselves who may have modes of knowledge comparable to ours; but God, if simple, not-composite, and eternal, cannot be made up of…well…things.  For if God is composite, one must as the simple question:  Where did these parts of God come from?  If they are before God, who/what put them together to make God?  If such a being exists, then we are dealing, not with the supreme God, but merely a lower being, a deity like the gods of the Greeks or Norse who, part of the natural universe, may be subject to the rigors of learning, changing one’s mind, and making mistakes.  If such a being is who we call God, then that may be well and good, but we must realize that there is a higher, more perfect being, one who really represents what all of the theologians actually call God.  Such a thing has been tried before, one is familiar with the Metatron of Jewish history.  The Little YHWH who comes close when GOD cannot.

This brings us to the Biblical issues.  In scripture there are numerous situations where it seems that God changes God’s mind, repents of God’s deeds, and even makes mistakes about the future through prophecy.  If one requires that scripture be literally perfect, then these are great difficulties that require appropriate response.  However, such a literal view is not held even by scripture.  As we see in the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures are interpreted in multivalent ways, of which very few are literal.  Nowhere in the Bible itself does the book say “Please read all texts as literal history.”  Good Biblical Scholarship has addressed several of the questions of God’s apparent repenting, as well as the extremely simple option of interpreting scripture as the chorus of imperfect voices all testifying to a perfect God in their own halting ways, complimenting and contradicting each other at turns.

The alternative is a very difficult one.  Instead of imperfect voices attesting to a perfect God, demanding that the Bible is literally true and therefore shows us God’s learning process, suggests that we have perfect voices attesting to an imperfect God.  Now we know that human voices are not in fact perfect, so how is it that we make the leap to say that they who speak about God are infallible, while the God who they speak about, and who ostensibly is inspiring them, is fallible.  If God is learning, growing, and perfecting as time passes, how do we trust the power of this god, three thousand years ago, to get the story telling quite right?

Now I turn to the third point, that of a God who is close, who is changeable, who I can Identify with.  How am I to relate to a God who stands immutably outside, above, or beyond time?  How can I, composite being that I am, relate to the One whose aseity is identical with His will?  And how can I, who loves through the expression of physical media, voice, touch, and action, appreciate this supposed love that God has for me in this infinite, matterless state that God seems to be in.  This seems a hopeless situation.

I mentioned the Metatron earlier, the mediator betwen Moses and the true I AM.  You see this Metatron popping up around the same time as other mediator figures appearing on the scene of philosophy, the early centuries of the Christian Era.  Philo of Alexandria proposed one, the outer rim of God, still God, but not properly said to be God at the same time; the effects of God that are still God.  This mediator between God and Not God was called by a certain name: The Logos.

Now, in Christianity, we believe that this Logos, this second person in God, has come close, taken on human flesh, mind, will, and spirit.  The Logos has come so close as not just take them on, but to become so united with them, that they cannot be extracted from Him.  The Logos IS human, and at the same time IS God.  We have a word for this in Christianity, a name given to this God-Man in our tradition.  It comes from three Hebrew words, El, which means “God,” Anu which means “us” and Im, which is the Hebrew word for “with.”  Immanuel, God with us.

If the God of the philosophers is too distant, I suggest that this Jesus of Nazareth who is Immanuel, is very near.  Far too near at times for our own comfort.  This Jesus who is said to be the same today, tomorrow, and forever, and yet human.  The second person of God grows in knowledge about things, and yet knows all eternally.

The question of God’s distance is not a new one, not one that we have just recently discovered through reflection on the excellent work of those great theological minds who have come before us and wrestled with the ways that are higher than ours.  It is an ancient problem, one rooted in the first “Yehi Or!” Yet the answer is not merely to scrap what we have, not to pull God down from God’s heights, for if God falls down, who will pick the Divine up?  Instead, we must allow God to come down as God will, kicking and crying in His blood at the breast of a young Jewish girl, circumcised on His eighth day, sharing His Passach with his companions, and nailed to a tree, swimming the deepest darkness of human despair.  This is what we are offered, nothing more, for there can be no more, and nothing less, for God loves us too much to give us less than Himself.
(There are other problems, of course with a changing God.  Such a God demands explanation from the most simple Aristotelian/Thomistic proofs of first mover and first cause.  There is also the issue of time, as any indication of a growing or learning God indicates a poor understanding of Augustinian/Boethean/Thomistic Eternity, one which seems to be supported, not just by logic, but by modern physics as well.  These issues are not dealt with directly here for reasons of space and, dare I say it, time).