Muddling metaphysics

  (20 February 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

Mathematician and theologian Neil Omerod criticises what he calls the “metaphysical muddle” apparent in Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss’s recent book A Universe from Nothing. Perhaps he has a point:

Much of Krauss' energy is expended telling us that "nothing" - in his sense of empty space - "is not nothing" at all, but a seething undercurrent of virtual particles which can "pop" into real existence through their interaction with powerful fields. Scientifically this may well be correct, but it clearly does not address the question of whether something can come from nothing, but tells us how some things can come from something else (that is, from empty space, which is not really empty at all).

We can witness here a basic confusion operating in Krauss' conception of "nothing." Nothing is not defined as the absence of existence or being, but as the emptiness of space and time. But at the same time, space "exists." The ontological status of space is thus confused for Krauss. One the one hand existence (being "something") occurs within space; on the other hand, space exists. Because space is actually never empty, even "nothing is something" as he states as the title of a chapter of his book. Krauss is in a metaphysical muddle, but seems completely unaware of the fact.

Ormerod’s article is well worth a read. I see two problems with it, however.

First, as usual when we come to speak of God as Cosmic First Cause the question of how that ‘God’ relates to the various Christian conceptions of the Divine goes begging. If God is the Necessity at the base of everything, it’s by no means plain that It (He?) gives a damn about earth creatures in general, let alone the millions of humans living in misery from congenital diseases and natural disasters, let alone the hairs on your head.

Second, I’m not persuaded that Ormerod’s apologetic aim of reclaiming the reality and necessity of God is well-served by his conclusion. Under the heading “Welcome to a fuller reality”, he says: 

It goes without saying that you cannot prove the existence of God to a materialist without first converting the materialist away from materialism. In the present context, if we think of the real as an "already-out-there-now" real of extroverted consciousness, then God is not real. God becomes just a figment of the imagination, a fairy at the bottom of the garden, an invisible friend. However, if the real is constituted by intelligent grasp and reasonable affirmation, then reality suddenly becomes much richer, and the God-question takes on a different hue.

But it is not just the God-question that we can now begin to address more coherently. There are a whole range of other realities whose reality we can now affirm: interest rates, mortgages, contracts, vows, national constitutions, penal codes and so on. Where do interest rates "exist"? Not in banks, or financial institutions. Are they real when we cannot touch them or see them? We all spend so much time worrying about them - are we worrying about nothing? In fact, I'm sure we all worry much more about interest rates than about the existence or non-existence of the Higgs boson! Similarly, a contract is not just the piece of paper, but the meaning the paper embodies; likewise a national constitution or a penal code.

I have no hesitation in agreeing that God is real in the same way that interest rates, contracts or, say, the Tropic of Capricorn are real. As Don Cupitt has pointed out since the early 1980s, these are all human creations. You don’t sail across the Tropic of Capricorn and look over the side of the boat to see if you can spot the line: like ‘God’, it’s an idea, an entirely human construct which is useful but tells us nothing about some reality beyond human meaning and human language.

If there is an Ultimate Reality out there/in here/wherever we have absolutely no way of knowing about it other than by using categories (using Ormerod’s “intelligent grasp and reasonable affirmation”) that lead us straight back to ourselves. Our world of meaning and inquiry is outsideless. As Cupitt says, if you wish to affirm a reality beyond language (in its broadest sense, as the interplay of meaning through signs), please convey it to us in something other than language. The moment you use language you’re back inside the bubble.

This is not to say there is no reality beyond the human thought-world, just that it is unknowable as it is in itself. In whatever sense we use the word ‘God’ we are talking about a human creation rather than, as Ormerod seems to want to do, an objectively-existing entity. I’m happy to stand corrected, but I very much doubt that Ormerod really wants to own theological non-realism.




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I was amongst a captive audience at a funeral today of lovely christian man. The insensitive preacher tried to make a less refined but similar argument than that above for our NEED of God in order that we could find meaning. The holes seemed large and obvious to me because of my unbelief. He also mentioned Hitler for some absurd reason which nearly made me laugh out loud.

Posted by Owen Ronalds

Ormerod is making a category mistake. Although the aesthetic realm in general is an aspect of our human reality, he is treating a fictional character (his God) as the creator of that reality. Secondly, Cupitt, et al, have made the error of attempting to limit "Culture" to mere language. Music, dance and sexual activity are three examples of affirming meaning beyond language.

Posted by David Miller

Lawrence Krauss is not in a metaphysical muddle. He has come up against the limits of our knowledge, and our limits of describing in words the nature of what seems to be empty space. Problems of this sort often have similar ambiguity. Heisenberg and the dual nature of light are examples. We rely on simple models to guide our understanding, and reality is more complex than that.

Posted by Ron Horgan

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