The Catholic Thing
On the Empty Universe Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Our cosmos, our universe, is said to be devoid of meaning, that is, of a reason why it is as it is. This “lack of cosmic order” thesis has ulterior motives lurking in its advocate’s mind. We have, it is said, developed elaborate creation “myths” about the origins and apparent order of things. Such theories of an ordered universe are but intellectual “super-structures” with no foundations in things.

Those who claim that a God is needed to explain what order seems to be there are merely projecting their desires onto things. The mind, when it examines the world, finds nothing there except chance and more chance. Since chance could be otherwise at every instant, nothing is really out there to be found. Nothing has ever happened. Nothing “caused” something else to take place. Just how, by this same chance, a “mind” came about that could “see” that no order existed is something of a problem.

At first sight, this empty universe view seems exhilarating. Many think it to be the basis of “humanism.” If nothing is found “out there,” then human beings are “free.” No law or logos exists to hamper us. We are beholden to nothing but ourselves. Our nobility lies in imposing our ideas, whatever they are, on a “meaning-less” reality. Our wills, not our intelligence, define reality.

But since we obviously do not all have the same ideas, we have no criteria but power for judging which idea is better than another. We must, evidently, allow for even contradictory ideas lest we raise the unsettling question of why one idea is “better” than another. Yet, recurring stabilities appear in the universe. Our human nature seems to be one of them.

If what we call our human nature were, at bottom, itself a constantly changing chance, we must conclude that we ourselves really do not exist. This alternative seems for many preferable to one holding that man knows a reality and is responsible for what he finds there.

In Colossians, after stating that Christ is “the image of the invisible God,” Paul added that He “is before all that is.” Thus, all that is does not just sit there as if it were related to nothing but itself. The universe did not sound so empty to Paul. But he recognized that man did claim to be unable to see God’s order in the world.

        The False Mirror by René Magritte, 1928

How did Paul explain this situation? “You yourselves were once alienated from him (Christ); you nourished hostility in your hearts because of your evil deeds.” (1:15, 21) That memorable passage suggests that theories implying an empty universe do not really arise from experience or science. They arise rather in order to make “evil deeds” seem normal and permissible. Thus, we have no desire to confront them or change them. What we do is what we want to do, not what we ought to do.

It is too facile to propose that behind every aberrant intellectual theory, especially those that presuppose an empty universe, lay a moral problem in the soul of its advocate. But I suspect that it is true in the vast majority of the cases.

Something curious goes on here. I have often been struck by the phrase in the Canticle of Zechariah that asks the Lord to “free us from the hands of all those who hate us.” (Luke 1: 71) In some sense, the empty universe is the result of hatred for a universe of meaning and order that finds its origin in a Logos, in a God who is the truth. The burden of much of modern thought is precisely to rid the universe of the vestiges of God. God is hated because He expects us to use our intelligence and good sense to live an ordered, even noble life.

The problem is not that we often try and fail. That is the realm of forgiveness. We recognize our need of God when we acknowledge our need of forgiveness.

Lucifer was one of the most brilliant of the angels. His “fall,” from all we can tell, had to do with his refusal to accept the order that God had set in the world. His fall did not mean that he lost his intelligence. It meant that he used his intelligence to foil the plans of God as it existed in the souls of men.

Those who want to empty the universe of all order do so because they want to eliminate the possibility of anyone finding God in His creation. What they are left with is their own freedom. That is all. It is called hell in other contexts. In the end, the empty universe leaves us only looking at ourselves, to the exclusion of the wonders of a creation whose gift to us is not just ourselves, but everything else that is.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Jon Bishop , September 16, 2013
It is a joy to read your essays and columns, Fr. Schall. They're fantastic.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 17, 2013
Bl John Henry Newman explained it very well: "“What are the phenomena of the external world, but a divine mode of conveying to the mind the realities of existence, individuality, and the influence of being on being, the best possible, though beguiling the imagination of most men with a harmless but unfounded belief in matter as distinct from the impressions on their senses? This at least is the opinion of some philosophers, and whether the particular theory be right or wrong, it serves as an illustration here of the great truth which we are considering. Or what, again, as others hold, is the popular argument from final causes but an "Economia" suited to the practical wants of the multitude, as teaching them in the simplest way the active presence of Him, who after all dwells intelligibly, prior to argument, in their heart and conscience?”
written by Mack Hall, September 17, 2013
C. S. Lewis often referred to the universe as "The Great Dance," for there are lots of things out there, and they move in established patterns.
written by Grump, September 17, 2013
Lucretius saw the universe as merely "atoms and the void." Always appealed to me as there appears to be nothing else.
written by Stanley Anderson, September 17, 2013
I find it fascinating that Science itself tells us, at least in some sense, that distance “doesn’t matter.” Einstein, Podolski, and Rosen proposed a thought experiment (known as the EPR experiment) intended to demonstrate that quantum physics, as described by the Copenhagen interpretation of Niels Bohr and others, simply MUST be wrong because the experiment implied “action at a distance,” seemingly violating Relativity’s strict upper light speed limit of “communication” between two sources.

But it turned out that their thought experiment only provided one more example of the “weirdness” of quantum physics. And later experimental validation of what is known as Bell’s Inequality confirmed that any theory of physics that applies to this world we live in MUST be, as it is called, “non-local.” This means that two correlated particles, say, photons, moving at the speed of light, could travel in opposite directions until they were many light-years apart. Then, measuring the “spin” of one of them “instantly” affects the spin of the other, even though, at that distance, any exchange of information ought to take, at a minimum if travelling at light speed, those many years to propagate between the two. It seems to flagrantly violate the confirmed limits of Relativity.

Einstein referred to this phenomenon as “spooky action at a distance”, but it seems to be true. There are interminable debates about what all this “means” and how to interpret it and on and on, but the point here is that, at least in some sense, distance is not completely a “separating factor” that materialists stake their claims of human insignificance on. One can imagine Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” saying, about “distance,” something like “You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Fr. Schall writes, “Lucifer was one of the most brilliant of the angels. His ‘fall,’ from all we can tell, had to do with his refusal to accept the order that God had set in the world.”

I have often wondered if one of the aspects of the Fall is inherent in the very word itself – i.e., that “physical distance and size” (including “interminable time”) themselves were manifested in the Fall, creating a “separation” of man from God, and men from each other, and as a kind of physical side-effect, in a manner that allowed objects to actually “fall” from one “place” to another, and also producing Einstein’s famous limitation of light speed on interactions and communication between those objects (along with the seemingly random confusion that accompanies that delay in communication).

Well, lots of wild speculation there of course (fascinating to contemplate though, I think), but I suspect there may be at least some theological aspect of truth to the idea that the Fall has forced us to “see” vast distances and eons of time as something that somehow minimizes our own significance and meaning while simultaneously concealing the true insignificance of that very “distance and time” itself. In any case, ideas like “After all, they are so very far away,” or “…It was so long ago,” or “it was such a tiny thing” are all statements meant to imply that “it doesn’t really matter.” And curiously, we don’t seem to notice how powerfully important those methods of determination about something’s worth are to us. We apply those methods virtually without realizing we are applying them in the first place. If that is not the work Screwtape’s diligent efforts, I don’t know what is (and just as reference, I believe there is mention in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters about man’s undue obsession with the importance of distance and size on our determination of value, and there is a similar mention in his Space Trilogy, but I can’t locate them at the moment).
written by Athanasius, September 17, 2013
Those who see freedom in the absence of the Logos betray an immaturity that sees God as a high school principal. They totally miss that God is beauty itself, and to behold this beauty forever is truly the greatest good, what we call "heaven". No earthly pleasure can compare. To have the Beatific Vision is to be truly free. Anything else is simply a delusion.
written by Richard A, September 17, 2013
Athanasius: not a delusion. Either a distraction or an invitation.
written by Leonard, September 17, 2013
When I was young and still an atheist I recall the sudden discovery of a natural order in just thinking about the term "law of nature." The universe may yet be meaningless but it takes a kind of blindness to deny its rational structure. I guess the blindness complements ours desires.
written by Bill Hocter, September 17, 2013
Father Schall-I enjoyed your article as always.
You write, speaking for the atheist, “The mind, when it examines the world, finds nothing there except chance and more chance. Since chance could be otherwise at every instant, nothing is really out there to be found. Nothing has ever happened. Nothing “caused” something else to take place. "

But (as you infer in your next sentence) isn't the person who would make this argument really begging the question? "Chance" after all is not nothing. It has to come from somewhere. Or if not, has it inadvertently become the Noncontingent Being of the atheist? Hasn't the atheist, while not acknowledging it, backed himself into Natural Theology by invoking chance?

Not that Chance is a god I would personally choose. As a Catholic, I suspect that God invented probability for His own purposes and that He draws forth order and good from this like everything else. After all, If scientists can use chance (random assignment) in the design of experiments, clearly God can use it for His purposes as well. Nonetheless, the honest atheist really can’t use chance to dodge metaphysics if we point this out to him.
written by keithp, September 17, 2013
What strikes me continually about nihilism is not how freeing it is but how demoralizing and depressing.
It's also seductive.

“When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He'll say: where did everybody go? And that's how it will be. What's wrong with that?” Cormac McCarthy, "The Road"

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