Existence: the Soul’s Default Condition

“Default and “by default” have entered into our common parlance. My son’s team wins by default, if the other team does not show up; or the bank takes back my car, if I default on my loan. Probably the most common usage now is in electronics. We hear about the “default” settings of computers, digital cameras, iPads, smartphones, graphic cards, etc. And when things go bad, sometimes we have the option of returning the gadget to the “default” state – often with a sigh of relief.

Philosophically, we tend to think of non-being or nothingness as the default state, including the universe itself. Freud’s “death instinct” (thanatos) and Heidegger’s “being towards death” (Sein-zum-Tode) jibe very well with the law of entropy in modern science – the tendency of physical beings towards less and less usable energy and eventual dissipation.

And our common experience testifies to something similar: everything we are familiar with has a start, begins from point zero. So we tend to think nothingness is the default state. As applied to the universe as a whole, philosophers and theologians down through the centuries have debated whether and how the world was created ex nihilo.

Seeking to avoid this question, some philosophers and scientists have maintained that the universe is eternal. This was Aristotle’s position. Aquinas excused Aristotle, since he didn’t have the benefit of Biblical revelation. Some contemporary scientists also maintain, in various ways, that the world is eternal. Fred Hoyle’s “Steady State” theory held sway for decades in the twentieth century, until clear vindication for the Big Bang theory came during the 1960s – and providing an incentive to search for new versions of eternal matter, since the Big Bang theory, at first blush, did seem to offer some possible confirmation of the Judaeo-Christian belief in Creation.

But faith tells us that the world had a beginning. St. Thomas Aquinas, for all his medieval “scientific” input, only had Aristotle’s theory to go on. But, pace Aristotle, he assures us that there is no way that even a mastermind like Aristotle could come to a decision on this question solely on the basis of reason. In fact, he argued that, if philosophers or theologians tried to present rational “proofs” to back up the beginning of time and space from Genesis, they would be silly, and lead non-believers to ridicule believers – as if such ineffective reasoning were part of their faith.

When the Big Bang theory finally became almost universally accepted after the 1960s, some believers thought, “now, finally, we have scientific evidence for Genesis.” The Big Bang seemed to jibe with the idea of creation. But not so fast! Scientists, realizing the tendency of “creationists” to cite Genesis, came up with new theories excluding any absolute beginning, formulating alternative scenarios which would preserve the possibility of an eternal world – speculations about an infinite number of universes, one of which just happened to be the lucky one we have; or a super “mother universe,” of which our universe is just an infinitesimal part; or a low-energy quantum field that rules out any point of origin; and so forth. Atheists like Richard Dawkins, unable to grasp the concept of an uncaused cause, challenged believers to show who or what caused God.

Nothingness does seem to be the default state for everything we know. And we tend to picture the absolute beginning, wherever (or whenever, or whatever) it was, as coming out of nothingness. This is not only an idea difficult to hold onto conceptually, but an insuperable challenge to the imagination, which, if it tries to visualize that initial nothingness, has to formulate it as something existing – maybe pure darkness (although even darkness has to have space to inhabit).

The author of the first book of the Bible makes this attempt at visualizing the unvisualizable: “the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters.” But of course there never was a time, and certainly not a place, for complete nothingness. Nothingness is not even a deep empty void or “empty space.” It is nothing at all. There is no such thing as nothingness. And as the scholastic dictum goes, ex nihilo nihil fit, “from nothing, nothing at all emerges.”

St. Anselm, in his treatise Monologion, brings out the fact that common references by scholastics to “creation ex nihilo” are ambiguous at best:

Everything that is, is either through something or through nothing. But nothing comes from nothing. For it is altogether inconceivable that anything should be unless through something. Whatever is, then, is not except through something. . . .The essence of all things that are, except the highest essence, is made by that highest essence, and does not derive from material. . . .Whatever is created is created from something.

Anselm offers an example to show that when we speak of being made or created out of nothing, we never mean it literally: “Beholding a man of very lowly fortunes exalted with many riches and honors by someone, we say, ‘Lo, he has made that man out of nothing’: that is, the man who was reputed as nothing is now, by virtue of that other’s making, truly reckoned as something.” So also, all created things “were nothing before their creation, to this extent that they were not what they now are, nor was there anything from which they should be created, yet they were not nothing.”

 Anselm of Canterbury

In other words, mere existence may give rise to higher forms of existence, but it is always illogical to talk about anything emerging from “nothingness” – or even to think about this, as the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides put it, “It is necessary to speak and to think what is; for being is, but nothing is not.”

Thus, for those of us who believe that God has created the universe, it might be most appropriate to see all beings, as well as the universe, emerging from being itself, as Michelangelo portrays it on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – the finger of God transmitting existence successively to light, sun, moon, earth, and Adam and Eve.

Significantly, when Moses in Exodus 3:14 asks God to reveal his name, to identify him for his Israelite followers, God obliges with the following answer: in Hebrew, ehyeh asher ehyeh, in the Greek Septuagint ego eimi ho on, and in the Latin Vulgate as ego sum qui sum. English Biblical translations vary:  “I am that I am” (King James Version); “I am who am” (Douay-Rheims and New American) ; “I am who I am” (Jerusalem Bible and World English Bible).

In the interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, God in this passage is identifying himself as existence itself. Our existence is due to the fact that God wanted us to share in His infinite existence.

I often found myself in disagreement with the late Fr. Andrew Greeley, but in one text he hit upon an important insight: he portrays God as a desire-crazed suitor who wants to share as much of himself as possible with everyone. The picture we get is God pouring out graces to each soul, provided obstacles are removed. And Jesus confirms that desire-crazed generosity: “Give, and it shall be given to you: good measure and pressed down and shaken together and running over shall they give into your bosom.” (Lk 6:38) “I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.” (Jn. 10:10)

Some receive these gifts more abundantly than others. Possibly those whom God foreknew would cooperate with graces, may be predestined to receive maximum favors. But the process of removing obstacles to receiving these favors is. . .complicated.

According to Psalm 127:2, God gives to his beloved in sleep. But this is not an invitation to just be quiet and wait for inevitable infusions of existence. The activity of preparing for tranquility of soul, and for receiving the greater abundance of life that Christ speaks about, involves the systematic and lifelong removal of obstacles. Aristotle in one place speaks about the necessity of bringing about a state of calm in the soul for knowledge to take place:

The possession of understanding and knowledge is produced by the soul’s settling down out of the restlessness natural to it. Hence, too, in learning and in forming judgments on matters relating to their sense-perceptions children are inferior to adults owing to the great amount of restlessness and motion in their souls.

In reading the lives of saints like John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila, we wonder at the tremendous gifts that seemed at times to be poured into their souls like a torrent. The explanation has to be that, in various ways, they removed obstacles, and God began sharing his gifts, “pressed down, and overflowing.” We all are slated to receive different gifts, probably not great mystical states like St. Theresa, but according to our aptitudes. And we can best visualize God as literally aching to promote in our souls the existence and life that are our default state. Our anti-entropic tendency is not towards an impossible nothingness, but towards being.

One of the greatest religious contrasts with the Christian vision of overflowing life is found in the Buddhist state/non-state of Nirvana, in which, through loss of self, one is finally liberated from all desires, experiences, attachments, and suffering. This is a paradoxical state – not precisely an annihilation, because there is no longer a self to be annihilated – but apparently a “default” state as close to nothingness as one can imagine. The Christian, on the other hand, has received assurance of the possibility of rising above those desires, sufferings, etc. to a maximal state of existence beyond reach of his or her imagination.

But the greatest contrast with the Christian vision may be the millions who surround us, unaware of the soul, and expecting only to rot in the grave after death; they only hope to get as much out of life as possible before extinction, or, if things don’t work out, to commit suicide and supposedly “end it all.”

One can only imagine the surprise that awaits them as they discover they are hardwired to exist, in whatever condition their life choices have generated. On a computer, BIOS and CMOS can be tweaked and regulated at boot-up by users, or updated with flash programs provided by the manufacturer – but they cannot be ordered to self-destruct.

Likewise, the human soul – our human soul – set up by the Creator, is oriented only to maximizing existence in numerous ways, but never to non-existence – the anti-faith of our day.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.