An Attitude of Awe
Despite all the philosophy and reasoning and science, can we credibly view the stuff that underlies dirt and rocks as God? Shouldn't we regard that view as absurd? Perhaps. But perhaps no more absurd than the thought that right now, on the other side of the earth, people and oceans hang upside down but do not fall off.
Yet we must grant that countless thinkers, modern and ancient, have regarded the stuff of the universe as "dumb" and inconsequential. For instance, the late Isaac Asimov, a celebrated scientist and science writer, seemed to hold such a view. While discussing the universe's age in The Universe
, Asimov writes:
In a way, of course, we might argue that the energy of the universe (including matter, as one form of energy) has always existed and always will exist since, as far as we know, it is impossible to create energy out of nothing or destroy it in nothing. This implies, we can conclude, that the substance of the universe—and therefore the universe itself—is eternal.
That, however, is not what we really mean. We are concerned with more than the mere substance of the Universe.
The substance of the universe:
- has existed for about 13.7 billion years, if not forever
- constitutes the billions of known galaxies, with each of their billions of stars, with any planets around those stars, with any living beings on those planets, including us
- will constitute anything that may exist in the future
- constitutes that in which we now live and move and have our being
So we might ask: Can a person credibly view the substance of the universe as "mere"?
We answer "Yes" because the question concerns attitude rather than fact. Just as a person may regard a novel as great or poor, a food as delicious or bland, a painting as attractive or uninteresting, someone may adopt any attitude they choose towards the ultimate ground of existence.
Yet we may ask, why would anyone regard the basis of the universe as "dumb" and inconsequential? We'll examine two possible reasons: the child's natural hierarchy of entities and Aristotelian philosophy.
The Child's Hierarchy
Imagine the world seen through the eyes of a young child. At the bottom of the hierarchy, we find inanimate, "dumb" things like walls and floors. Slightly higher in the hierarchy, we find toys (for instance, a doll), which seem to take on a personality when played with. Higher still, we find animals, which exhibit personality and feelings, and can move of their own will. Next, we find other children, who, like us, can express their thoughts and feelings verbally. Next, we find our parents, who care for us, who seem to know everything. And, if we are raised in a religious family, at the highest level we find God, who also cares for us, who really does know and really can do everything.
Thus, in the child's naive hierarchy of entities, mere dumb matter lies at one end of a spectrum and God at the other.
Matter and Form
The Aristotelian tradition, which underlies much Western thought, places God as far as possible from the "dumb matter" which comprises the universe. We offer a brief explanation of why it sees God and the universe's ultimate ground as contraries.
In Aristotelian thought, we find that form acts on matter to create an object. For example, the form of a table—a top and legs in the proper relation—"informing" wood (the matter) creates the table. Or the form of water—that is, the particular relationship between oxygen and hydrogen atoms—creates water.
Simply put, form corresponds to an object's structure and matter corresponds to its stuff.
Just as we proceeded from ground to lower-level ground, we may proceed from matter to lower-level matter. For instance, a hydrogen atom constitutes part of the matter of a water molecule yet has its own matter: an electron and proton in a certain relation. And a proton has its own matter: quarks in the particular relationship that forms protons.
And just as we proceeded from ground to ground to reach the ultimate ground of existence, Aristotelian philosophers (though, perhaps, not Aristotle himself) proceeded from matter to matter to "ultimate matter", that is, prima materia
, first matter, the matter from which all other matter ultimately derives.
As ultimate matter, prima materia
must lack all form, because "ultimate" implies we cannot decompose it into form and some lower-level matter. Thus, philosophers pictured prima materia
as formless, lacking all structure, undetermined, a characterless non-thing waiting for form to determine it and make it one thing or another.
Because it lacks all form, prima materia
possesses infinite potential, e.g., the potential to become anything whatsoever when properly informed. On the other hand, it possesses zero actualization until some form makes it one thing or another; for instance, informed by the form of marble prima materia
becomes a piece of marble. So form actualizes potential, makes it real.
Material objects possess a mixture of potential and actualization. For instance, a block of marble possesses actualization by the very fact of being a block of marble. But it also possesses potential, a potential realized when we carve it into one thing or another. Carve the form of a woman and you create the statue of a woman. Apply a different form, a man, and you create the statue of a man. In itself, the marble block has the potential to become one of any number of things.
But the very act of actualizing limits, i.e., it lessens potential. For example, once the form of water actualizes it, the prima materia
becomes water and as water no longer possesses the potential to become marble. And when we carve a block of marble into a statue of a man or woman, we lose the potential of carving it into something else.
Now imagine an unchangeable entity. That entity necessarily lacks the potential to become something else. (An unchanging
entity might possess the potential to become something else or something more, but an unchangeable
entity cannot change because it lacks the potential to become something else.) Therefore, an unchangeable entity must be "pure act", i.e., all actualization and zero potential. By different, more complicated arguments (which we omit) Thomas Aquinas and other Aristotelian philosophers deduced that God could contain no unrealized potential and thus must be "pure act."
Form actualizes but also limits. So, does calling God "pure act" imply limitation?
In Aristotelian thought, we have a spectrum: at one pole we have "dumb" prima materia
, with infinite potential but zero actualization; at the other pole, God, with all actualization and zero potential. Thus, Aristotelian (and, by extension, many Western) philosophers place God as far as possible from the "dumb matter" that comprises the universe.
But the sustained investigation of the universe called science has failed to substantiate the child's hierarchy of entities and Aristotelian philosophy. Rather than finding a God in the heavens, science has found something it believes cannot be created or destroyed in the "earth", in matter. Therefore, a naturalistic theology—which takes science rather than any supposed revelation as a source of knowledge—has little choice but to view what we think of today as eternal as God (if it views anything as God).
But what if the science we base our theology on changes? As it learns and grows, science improves its knowledge and, sometimes, changes its views. What if some future increase in knowledge invalidates our theology? Then so be it. We do not pretend to present an unchangeable revelation; merely, some views that may lie closer to the truth (hopefully, much closer!) than existing views based on century-old, or even millennia-old, alleged revelations.
Let's approach the same point from another direction.
The reader may sometimes notice what appear as weak or awkward sentences. For instance,
We may regard the continual act of components maintaining a relation as a dynamic event. For instance, we may regard a table as continuously in the act of sustaining the proper relation between its components.
Why the tentative "may regard"? Why not simpler and more direct sentences, such as
Components are in the continual act of components maintaining a relation; it is a dynamic event. For instance, a table is continuously in the act of sustaining the proper relation between its components.
Why? Because each person experiences a world of time and space from his or her own fallible, human viewpoint. Let's imagine a spectrum, going from human to god-like statements. Statements at the human end of the spectrum acknowledge our viewpoint in space/time. For instance, we intuitively know "This ice cream tastes good" means "This ice cream which I eat here now
tastes good to me
" or "This ice cream usually
tastes good to me
" Statements at the other end of the spectrum express an almost god-like certainty, irrespective of speaker, time, or space. For example, a statement like "Two plus two are
four" seems to claim universally validity. Indeed, the sentences express even more than god-like certainty, as if even God could not make two plus two anything other than four, because two plus two are
four. Let's name these two viewpoints "the human viewpoint" and the "God-like viewpoint".
Statements that use forms of the verb "to be" tend to speak from the God-like viewpoint. For instance, "a table is
continuously in the act of sustaining the proper relation between its components" implies the writer has looked down below the phenomenal table to the noumenal "thing-in-itself", has seen the absolute, ontological truth, and put it into words. It says the table is
that way, and implies if you don't agree then you're wrong. In contrast, "We may regard a table as continuously in the act of sustaining the proper relation between its components" speaks from the human viewpoint; it says we may think of the table in that way and that the reader might choose to think otherwise. So, writing "We may regard" says we think of an entity in a certain way, without claiming God-like knowledge of what the entity really is
A style of writing, called E-Prime, avoids all form of the verb "to be", such as be, am, is, are, was, were, etc. We usually follow the E-Prime style in this book. We hope what we lose in simplicity and directness we gain in accuracy and humility.
Thus, rather than pretending to offer indisputable, God-like pronouncements from on high, our writing reflects that we offer merely this author's views about science as natural theology.