Tuesday, December 18, 2007

which came first the chicken or the idea of a chicken?

An interesting article in the New York Times Science section, ("Laws of Nature, Source Unknown" by Dennis Overbye) tackles a question from a scientific perspective that has long engaged religious thinkers from a theological perspective. From the science side the question is, "did the laws of nature precede the universe or did the universe precede the laws of nature?" If the laws came first then this is the only universe possible. but if the laws are only a description of the way this particular universe happens to operate once it came into being then there could be other universes (either potential or actual) that operate by their own internal laws.

In theology the question is, "is God ultimate and this universe is the result of God's free choice, or are there any metaphysical principles of greater ultimacy than God that constrained God's act of creation?" In orthodox Christian theology God creates "ex nihilo" (out of nothing) which means that God's creation was completely unconstrained. This leads directly to the problem of evil. If everything about creation is the result of God's free choice then why did God freely choose to create a universe in which evil happens?"

On the other hand, it may be that certain principles preceded God's act of creation. Genesis, for example, tells us that God creates by making order from an already existing chaos. In that case the stuff that God had to work with may already have it's own built-in qualities, such as a quality of individual self-direction and power that God is not free to overcome. In this case the problem of evil is solved by placing the cause of evil in the free choices of individuals acting contrary to God's will.

My own theology is that creation exists within a mix of God-imposed rules, and inherent qualities in the stuff of creation itself. God presents us with ideal options (like the idea of a chicken - or the idea of a world community of peace, liberty and justice for all) which act as lures, influencing the direction of creation. But whether we actually suceed in creating a chicken, or a world community, is up to the combined free choices of all the individuals involved.


The Eclectic Cleric said...

But wait. Do you mean God's idea of a chicken, or OUR idea of a chicken? We know the egg came first. The question is, when did it become a chicken egg -- just before it hatched a chicken, or just after?

I guess at heart I'm just a functional atheist, since I use the word God mostly as a linguistic placeholder in order to be able to talk gramatically about something I know will never make sense and that I will never really comprehend, much less fully understand.

I certainly believe that the universe is real. But I've also come to see that most of "reality" is a social construction based on a consensus of perception, and that the "laws" of nature are basically just figments of our imaginations -- which is to say, patterns of order which we have discerned in nature and then imposed on nature. OK, so we've done away with (most) of the epicycles in favor of eliptical orbits...but there's still plenty of fudge required if we want the equations to all add up.

As to the question of whether this is the only possible universe, or merely a Panglossian "best of all possible" universes...well, God only knows....

Rev. Ricky said...

I don't see how an inability to fully understand God should lead to atheism. That God is beyond our ability to comprehend is one of the the most common beliefs about God.

I am close to Plato in believing that part of God's job description is to hold out to creation ideal forms which then attract our free choices in certain directions. Some of God's suggestions we will ignore, others we will make actual. God's idea of a chicken precedes the actual chicken - although the actual chicken is probably only an imperfect approximation of the chicken God had been suggesting

I don't imagine God much cares whether any particular interim step comes into existence. If we turn away from the most efficient path to God's long term goals, God simply plots a new path (like the GPS in your car) and holds out the new set of suggestions that will get us where God hopes we will go.

And I say "God hopes" because I do see that in my theology God has no power to save us if we persist in turning away.