Leibniz: “Why is there something rather than nothing? For nothing is both simpler and easier than something. Moreover, assuming that things must exist, there must be a reason why they exist thus and not otherwise?”
Nagarjuna: “Since all is empty, all is possible.”
The idea of origins has been floating around in my mind recently. Part of this is expressed in an exploration of cause and conditions, specifically those which created the momentary and illusive “me” of my current existence. I feel as though I have been seeking my identity, but in an unorthodox sense. I have been unraveling the strands of my past, my life in an effort to find what is at the center of the ball of string. Anyone who has ever unraveled a ball of string will tell you there is nothing in the middle, and my intellect insists this is true, but the stubborn ego insists it is not. Thus I find myself in this strange exercise to understand emptiness in more than a merely intellectual sense.
Beyond that little ball of string greater questions loom, fundamental questions, shaping questions. I thought I had asked and answered them a long time ago, but they have been popping up in my mind of late, weeds that need pulling. What a teacher once called “questions not suited to one’s edification” catch me at odd times. I wonder if these are mere distractions, entertainments like my cheesy science fiction shows. Yet, I often find myself in awe that humanity even possesses the ability to ask such questions.
I have been reading The Quantum and The Lotus by Matthieu Richard and Trinh Xuan Thuan, a monk and a physicist. It boggles my mind. Physics postulates the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe as we know it, some fifteen billion years ago. Yet Buddhism insists that nothing comes from nothing, a logical standpoint if there ever was one. Buddhism defines the world as cyclical and every thing in it subject to cause and condition, including the Big Bang.
The problem is not so much with the Big Bang itself, but merely that no amount of mathematics can describe what occurred before something called Planck’s wall, a point in time ten to the negative forty-three after the so-called “beginning” of the universe. Whatever existed prior to this is simply indescribable, if it existed at all, as Buddhism insists that it must have.
Mathieu writes “All religions and philosophies have come unstuck on the problem of creation. Science has gotten rid of it by removing God the Creator, who had become unnecessary. Buddhism has done so by eliminating the very idea of a beginning.”
This provides me with no answers. If the insistence on cyclic existence is merely attempt to solve the plaguing puzzle of creation, how is that better than insistence in divine creation? What makes it any more correct?
One thing the argument for causality seems to have going for it is that it trumps the argument for divinity. If everything comes from cause and condition, then so must God. If the world cannot pop into existence of its own accord, Big Bang or not, than neither can God manifest from nothing. “The reason why ‘nothing’ can’t become ‘something’ is that in order to do so, the ‘nothing’ would be done away with. But how is it possible to get rid of something that does not exist?” Mathieu asks.
Ironically, it is Trinh who seems to provide the strongest argument for a divine hand in the presence of existence. “Modern cosmology has discovered that the conditions that allow for human life seem to be coded into the properties of each atom, star, and galaxy in our universe and in all the physical laws that govern it. The way our university evolved depended on what are called ‘initial conditions’ and on about fifteen numbers called ‘physical constants.’ [Gravity, the speed of light, electro-magnetism, etc.]
“If these constants and initial conditions were just slightly different, then we wouldn’t be here talking about them. The universe, right from the start, seems to have carried the seeds that allowed for the emergence of consciousness, of an observer. In the words of physicist Freeman Dyson, ‘The universe in some sense must have known that we were coming…So far we haven’t come up with a theory that explains why these constants were fixed at a particular value and not a different one…By constructing a large number of ‘model universes’ on their computers, astrophysicists have discovered that if the physical constants and the initial conditions were just slightly different, then there’d be no life in the universe.”
Why are these constants as they are? What was the cause and condition or these seemly arbitrary phenomena? These are phenomena which ultimately set in motion, from Planck time forward, the seeds of existence of every star, planet, and ultimately, life. Is this the fingerprint of God?
This theory presupposes intention rather than causation. In other words, we evolved simply because we could evolve. If the constants had been other than what they are, the laws of physics bent just a little, who is to say someone other than us wouldn’t have evolved? No life, or no life as we would recognize it? I find great wonder in this. I am reminded of a conversation years earlier in which a friend remarked that the wonder of existence was enough to convince her of the presence of divinity and that without this divinity, the universe was rendered small and cold.
Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
But what if it is pointless? What if it is random? What if we are here merely by chance? How cool is that?
If there was only a one in a billion trillion chance for sentient life to exist, just think of how many times the dice rolled up snake eyes before it got us? And we’re here anyway. We’re here, still here! How truly immeasurable must the universe then be? How long must the monkey have sat at that typewriter before it hammered out Shakespeare? So if we are still here, if we are possible, then anything is possible. And I like the sound of that.
Physics leaves much unanswered, but it has begun to demonstrate just how the universe could come about, from the way stars and planets form to how amino acids hook together to form DNA in tidal “broths” of young planets. Trinh relates a story from two centuries ago about French mathmetician Pierre-Simon de Laplace. “When he gave Napoleon a copy of his great book on celestial mechanics, the emperor scolded him for not once mentioning the ‘Great Architect.’ Laplace replied: ‘But, Your Highness, I have no need of that hypothesis.’”
At the same time, Buddhism leaves much unanswered. How can I believe the answer to a question to which I know humanity will postulate almost anything simply in order to have an answer? How do I reconcile the belief in a cyclical existence of causation with Leibniz’s nagging question as to why anything exists at all?
God is not an answer, merely a gateway to more questions. Where did God come from? Why did God create the universe as it is and not some other way? Why would an omnipotent and loving God allow for suffering? Does God suffer?
One thing I do know is that God is not enough.