Oh, those Wacky Stoics and Platonists!

I was reading Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, when I came across a passage that reminded me to put my disputes with others into perspective.

In this scene, Velleius the Epicurean is criticizing the speculations of Balbus the Platonist and Lucilius, who represents the Stoics. He asks them if the Demiurge of Plato made the world, or the Providence of the Stoics, why these deities delayed so long? What occupied them for the infinity of time before the world was framed?

“Moreover I would put to both of you the question, why did these deities suddenly awake into activity as world-builders after countless ages of slumber? …. it is inconceivable that there was ever a time when time did not exist. Well then, Balbus, what I ask is, why did your Providence remain idle all through that extent of time of which you speak? Was it in order to avoid fatigue?

“But god cannot know fatigue; and also there was no fatigue in question, since all the elements, sky, fire, earth and sea, were obedient to the divine will. Also, why should god take a fancy to decorate the firmament with figures and illuminations, like an aedile? If it was to embellish his own abode, then it seems that he had previously been dwelling for an infinite time in a dark and gloomy hovel!

“And are we to suppose that thenceforward the varied beauties which we see adorning earth and sky have afforded him pleasure? How can a god take pleasure in things this sort? And if he did, he could not have dispensed with it so long.”

Christians also speculate what their God was doing during the infinity of time before creation. Was He dwelling in the dark before He said the words ‘Fiat Lux’? Boethius, I think , would give a more coherent if less imaginable answer: God dwells in eternity, and from the point of view of eternity, the creation and the Last Judgment are simultaneous events. To ask what He did ‘before’ He created time is like asking where the author of Lord of the Rings dwelt before he created Hobbiton in the Third Age. Did Tolkien live in the Second Age? Where was Tolkien before the Valar sang the two trees into being?

(Of course, some wags answer this way: ‘What was God during during the infinite time before creation? Preparing Hell to receive those who dare ask such questions!’ Wit makes for neither good philosophy nor good theology, I fear. I am reminded of Keynes famous quip that there is no point in considering the long run detriments of Keynesian economics, because in the long run we are all dead. Wit is makes for not good economics either.)

I think it amusing, if not instructive, to see a relationship between this antique dispute and the speculations of modern astronomers over the implications of Big Bang theory.

If timespace came into being with the moment of the Singularity (to give the Big Bang a more dignified name), then what was the condition of the universe (if there was a universe) before this point? Was it the collapse of a previous universe that, in some almost Hinduistic endless cycle, was somehow the same as our current universe? Was it a nothingness? If there was no time, how could there have been an event, such as the event, whatever it was, which gave rise to the first instant of the universe? If the Singularity was the first cause of all events in the universe, what caused the first cause?

Stephen Hawkings asks us to imagine the universe as a four-dimensional plane through which a four-dimensional sphere is passing. The first moment of contact between this hypersphere and hyperplane is the Singularity: as the sphere intersects the plane, the dot becomes a small circle becomes a larger circle, which represents our timespace continuum suffering Hubble expansion.

For Hawkings, there is no such thing as before the Big Bang because timespace is represented by the expanding circle. One cannot speak of one second before the Big Bang any more than one can speak of one inch to further north of the North Pole.

The paradoxes of a cause of the first cause still exist in Hawking’s image, merely at one remove. If the hypersphere is drifting through the unimaginable medium of inter-cosmic nonbeing, what set it in motion? If there is such a thing as the state of being closer and farther from the hyperplane it eventually intersects, then there is something like time, or some sort of sequence of events. Where did this hyper-objects come from and how were they set in motion?

It answers nothing to say that these events proceed from no cause, because to assert that something comes from nothing undermines not merely science, but reason itself.

(However, let me suggest that a distinction can be made between Boethius’ answer and Hawkings, because Boethius has a metaphysical underpinning to his answer that Hawkings lacks. Hawkings cannot explain how a natural event arose from a condition of pre-universe non-being-ness where nature had no laws because it did not exist. For a natural universe to arise from a non-natural pre-universe by a natural and mechanical process of physics is a paradox. The law that ‘Nothing Comes from Nothing’ cannot arise from nothing. For Boethius, however, a Necessary Being can perform an intelligent and deliberate act of will to create a universe where cause and effect can rule, without itself being bound by mechanical causation. The Creator of a universe can write into the foundations of that universe that ‘Nothing Comes from Nothing’ without Himself being bound by that law. There is no paradox to postulate a Supreme Being with the ability to create ex nihilo a large arena of timespace in which nothing can be created ex nihilo. To use an analogy, Susan Calvin of US Robots and Mechanical Men does not herself need to be bound by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.)

My only point here is that the inquiries as to what Providence did before creation, or what the Big Bang did before it Banged were contemplated by serious men in times long past, and no doubt will be contemplated by men equally serious in times to come.

Those who venture into these deepest and murkiest areas of thought are forewarned that the mysteries are not likely to be resolved by simple answers. Simply to assume that one side or the other has not thought rationally about the argument would be a simple answer.

I am also tickled to see that the character and personality of the Epicureans has not changed over the millennium. Velleius is described as speaking ‘In a confident manner’ as if afraid of nothing except the possibility that he might seem to have doubts about anything. An odd position for a skeptic to be in, whose whole approach should assume a willingness to doubt everything, but those of you who have debated zealous skeptics in the past will recognize the personality type.

It is the way I spoke when I was an atheist, it is the way a healthy majority of atheists speak now: I remember reading with shocked disbelief in an afterward to his brilliant but flawed book BLINDSIGHT the skilled Peter Watts dismissing with an airy wave of the hand, the concept of free will, which he describes as ‘silly’ — as if the phenomena of the universe and man’s place in it were so clear and obvious as to admit of no other interpretation save a mechanical one.

Then I smiled in recognition, because I realized Mr. Watts figuratively was the reincarnation of an old friend: he was Velleius. Quantum physics is uncertain whether cause and effect even exists at all on the subatomic level, but Velleius is certain (with a vast and Jovial certainty that scoffs at any opposition) that the opinions and belief-structure of the human brain is a robotic mechanism whose every nuance is controlled by purely Newtonian mechanical causes.

Wow. If I found out that I was an Asimovian robot, and that some cosmic version of US Robotics and Mechanical Men had been programming my positronic brain so that I could not think certain thoughts or cold not act on them, the first think I would doubt was the accuracy of that instrument, my brain, which the Asimovian laws were influencing. H.G. Wells shares this skepticism of the instrument.