Implications of Not Answering the Big Question?

September 14, 2005 | 31 comments
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Mormonism rather spectacularly refuses to answer one of the big questions that has kept philosophers and theologians busy for the last couple of millennia. The question, of course, is why is it that there is something rather than nothing. It seems an odd question at first, but if one thinks about it for a moment existence itself is a bit of a mystery. All of our various endeavors to understand the universe consist of attempts to give explanations for this or that feature of it, or even the reasons for the shape of the whole. Under girding all of these, however, is the basic assumption that there exists something to be explained. But why should there be anything at all?

The God of traditional Christian theology purports to be an answer to this question. He is the fount of existence itself, and the reason that there is something rather than nothing is that God willed it to be so. Of course, this answer doesn’t really dispel the mystery but simply relocates it, since in the manner of a three year old we may always ask “Well why did God will it so?” or “Where did God’s will come from?” In order to avoid this kind of infinite regress, among other philosophical difficulties, philosophers and theologians have been forced to conceptualize God as a very peculiar sort of guy who accounts for existence itself but does not strictly speaking exist, or at any rate not in the same way as other entities. It all gets very complicated and the upshot of it all — in my humble opinion — is that God becomes the mystery rather than ontology.

Mormon theology takes all of these issues and skews them. We believe that matter (although it is not clear that we are talking about matter in the ordinary sense) neither can be created nor destroyed, and that God is an organizer of matter unorganized rather than a primal cause of existence. In a sense, existence is something that happens before God appears on the scene as it were. Strictly speaking our theology (our theory of God) does not provide an answer to the great ontological question. Existence remains a mystery. Of course, because God becomes an “ordinary” ontological entity on this view, he partakes of the mystery of existence along with the rest of everything that is.

Needless to say, working out the full implications of this shift is a big task, which, like most big tasks in Mormon thought, hasn’t really been done yet. One rather surprising implication, however, is that to the extent that mystery has been one of the traditional attributes of God, Mormons become panetheists. It is not that we deny that mystery is part of godliness, but rather that we say that everything partakes of this quality with God.

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31 Responses to Implications of Not Answering the Big Question?

  1. Soyde River on September 14, 2005 at 3:50 am

    But of course. If you postulate two states for matter, the universe, etc., existence and non-existence, then non-existence is the most logical. But it is also obviously wrong.

    Then, if things exist, did they have a beginning? Most philosphers have assumed that they have, and they postulate a First Cause. But it does not necessarily follow that there has to be a beginning to existence. Mormons, in that sense, part with most of the Christian world, believing that things have always existed. That the God of our world, and of worlds without number, is the organizer, albeit Creator. Funny, but people no problem believing that time will have no end, and that eternity is the future. But people have more trouble believing that eternity is the past.

    Physicists and cosmologists postulate that the universe began with the Big Bang, and weave mathematical theories to explain what they can but dimly comprehend. But when they are finished, they are left with the same metaphysical questions. Why? And what came before?

  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 14, 2005 at 8:39 am

    I used to do regressions on this, and Aleph number analysis and, in the end, came up with the foundation: things do exist. Why, because they do. The alternative answer “because there are consequences” is interesting in application, has a nice foundation in scripture, but doesn’t seem vague and philosophical enough.

  3. GreenEggz on September 14, 2005 at 11:13 am

    This is something that won’t, and probably can’t, be comprehended until our mind’s eye is opened to the eternities. I’m surprised that you haven’t related it to the white stones, given to those in the celestial kingdom, through which worlds of a higher order can be viewed, and possibly the history of those worlds be viewed also.

    This question harkens to “Who is/was Heavenly Father’s Heavenly Father?” And my recent thought is “Is Heavenly Father’s dominion this universe or this galaxy?” Is what we perceive as this universe literally everything in existence (whereby our “the heavens” is limited to this galaxy and each god has a galaxy in the universe), or are there many universes such that each god has a universe?

    The totality or “universality” of scriptural language leads me to believe that Heavenly Father’s dominion is what we perceive as this universe, and hence there must be other universes; which cosmologists such as Steven Hawking have supported.

    I think only those who attain exaltation will be able to comprehend how Heavenly Father attained his exaltation and what came before. We are taught that the chain is unending in both the past and the future, as in there never was a point where there were no gods.

    I think we are incapable of understanding as long as we are locked in “time.” Only one who is from everlasting to everlasting can comprehend.

    Oh well, enough navel-gazing.

  4. Jim F on September 14, 2005 at 11:17 am

    Nate, why does the fact that the mystery of existence is true of everything rather than only God make us pantheists? It seems to me that the argument, as I reconstruct it, is invalid: All things have the quality of mystery as to the reason for their existence. God is one of the things there are. So, all things are divine.

    Many theologians will deny that God is a being (since “being,” for them necessarily means “created being”) and, so deny the second premise. But we accept that premise. What follows, of course, is that God’s existence is also mysterious.

    Where does my reconstruction of your argument go wrong?

  5. Nate Oman on September 14, 2005 at 12:24 pm

    1. Those who believe that the world is infused with divine qualities are panetheists.
    2. One of God’s divine qualities is mystery.
    3. The world is infused with mystery.
    4. Therefore the world is infused with divine quality.
    5. Ergo, we are panetheists.

    The real problem, I suspect, is that my use of the term panetheist in 1 is a slightly idiosyncratic.

  6. Greg on September 14, 2005 at 12:53 pm

    Jim F.: I think Nate is talking about panENtheism, rather than pantheism.

  7. Nate Oman on September 14, 2005 at 1:03 pm

    Greg: Yes. In this case my spelling error was dropping an n rather than adding an e. Sorry.

  8. Geoff J on September 14, 2005 at 1:04 pm

    Oh no, it’s clearly “panetheism” Greg. That is the unholy union of pantheism and panentheism that Nate is secretly trying to promote… ;-)

  9. GeorgeD on September 14, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    The answer to this question is behind the last veil into the seventh heaven. Maybe.

  10. Mike on September 14, 2005 at 1:18 pm

    When I was a missionary in Japan many years ago we had a big white stray dog and we would practice teaching our discussions to it. The dog seemed to understand, to a degree. When I think about some of these difficult questions, I feel like what that dog must have felt like.

  11. MeliLI on September 14, 2005 at 1:37 pm

    In the beginning there was nothing … and then it exploded.

    Not sure how this works, then corner your local particle physicist at a good bar/social hour/cocktail party. (It’s so fun to watch the drunks :)

  12. Maximilian Wilson on September 14, 2005 at 2:41 pm

    “Mormonism rather spectacularly refuses to answer one of the big questions that has kept philosophers and theologians busy for the last couple of millennia…. But why should there be anything at all?”

    It sounds to me like a question which assumes, not its answer, but itself. Why should there be any question? If things didn’t exist, they wouldn’t. If they did, they would (and apparently do). It’s not really any deeper or more interesting a question than asking, “Are you all figments of my imagination? If not, why not?”

    ~Max Wilson

  13. Charles on September 14, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    The Taoist concept of Yin/Yang dictate that everything exists within pairs of opposits. The very notion that in the beginning there was nothing, would spontaneously create something. The resulting chaos would in turn create order, as particles of chaotic something shifted and began to form patterns. Sliding this into Christianity’s general view, these patterns eventually formed a consciousness that became aware. As this was the first occurence of a self aware consciousnes, God decided to try His hand at impacting the rest of the something. Hence in the beginning he created the patterns of the world, and presumably through trial and error was able to establish the world and bring the rest of us into it.

    The philosophy of Taoism allows us to accept the nothingness to somethingness argument. But the reason why philosophy is so contradictory to christianity so often is that western philosophy has been whittled down to debating non factual positions. If there were facts and evidence the debate could be decided but without them the debate falls in the sphere of philosophy.

    Because our andecdotal evidence supports that we exist and something must have created us, philosophy often tends to take the opposite view to establish the debate.

  14. Maximilian Wilson on September 14, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    One more thought: perhaps the question is interesting to mainstream Christians precisely because they *do* believe in creation ex nihilo. That is, their philosophical paradigm accepts open-ended infinities, with a beginning but no end. Perhaps that inculcates you toward looking for causes for everything, which is why there’s so much hand-waving when they get to a concept that supposedly has no beginning (which they call God). Perhaps the implication of Mormon doctrine is this very lack of interest in the question. It would be interesting to see if e.g. Hindus feel a need similar to mainstream Christians to explain why everything doesn’t not exist.

    Max

  15. Dave on September 14, 2005 at 4:29 pm

    Nate, I think it’s that “appearing on the scene” part that makes it difficult for LDS theology to answer the Big Question (which concerns events that happened before God’s arrival). On the other hand, in common as opposed to theological terms Moses 1:37-39 does a fair job of responding to the questions in a way that is meaningful to most people.

  16. ed on September 14, 2005 at 5:31 pm

    I can relate strongly to Nate’s post (seemingly unlike most commenters).

    That anything exists is indeed the greatest mystery. Acknowledging this sense of mystery can bring feelings like awe, worshipfulness, or spirituality. I think this sense of mystery is a one reason that people feel attracted to religion at all. Part of worshipping God is acknowledging this mystery.

    Mormon teachings (as I understand them), seem to describe God as someone who’s kind of like your father except smarter, shinier, more righteous, and with superpowers. We explicity denigrate more mysterious concepts of a God “without body, parts, or passions.” But the mystery remains, and I sometimes find myself asking, where’s the real God? In other words, how do I acknowledge or approach the mystery? Or should I just not think about it? Do we worship God because we comprehend him, or because we can’t comprehend him?

  17. Adam Greenwood on September 14, 2005 at 5:51 pm

    C.S. Lewis says that for years he was haunted by the thought that existence might not be inherent or inevitable. I have a hard time even understanding what he meant, logically, but I’ve felt that same fear too. Odd.

  18. Nathan Oman on September 14, 2005 at 9:27 pm

    Two points:

    1. The important issue is logical and ontological sequence not temporal sequence. It is not a question of how god became god or where god came from. It is a question of WHY there is something rather than nothing. Two quite distinct issues.

    2. I think that ed captures what I am getting at. It seems to me that worship requires awe and mystery, and Mormon spirituality and theology can sometimes be relentlessly opposed to awe and spirituality. I always take solace in Joseph Smith’s first description of the first vision (not the one in the JS-H). In it he talks about seeing the light descend and being terrified because he thought that as soon as the light hit the trees they would be utterly consumed and he would be a goner. In other words, it was a much more intense and awe inspiring experience than is suggested by the fleorecent depictions in church videos. Mind you, I am also very sympathetic to Whitehead’s remark that the god of the philosophers is not available for religious purposes. It is a matter of finding a proper balance. I love the intimacy, personality, of our Mormon god. I love what I think of as the sanctified Promethian Mormon vision of man. But we need a bit of awe and mystery, and I think that there is value in searching it out where ere we may find it.

  19. Melissa on September 14, 2005 at 9:51 pm

    Nate,

    If I had time I’d try to engage you in a discussion of Rudolf Otto on this question, but I just can’t tonight.

    Terryl Givens gave a fascinating paper at Harvard a couple of years ago on Mormonism and mystery that explored the social and theological implications of LDS doctrines that seem to leave little room for mystery. I’ll see if I can dig out my notes on Givens’ paper if you’re interested.

  20. Charles M. Sakai on September 15, 2005 at 12:49 am

    The Mormon concept (as I understand it) of a steady-state universe with an indefinite beginning and infinite future, probably cyclical in nature, is something I can live with, since I don’t believe in ex nihilo creation, but rather a process that arose out of “matter unorganized” or “intelligences.” God, in His wisdom, knew in advance that we would be overwhelmed by the very thought of eternity, so one major reason He put us on this earth was to learn what time is about first. With that kind of mindset, I have not concerned myself with the Big Question at all.

  21. Adam Greenwood on September 15, 2005 at 9:56 am

    As I’ve maintained many times, our narrowing the distance between God and man is pointless if we do it by bringing God closer to us rather than the othe way around. That’s why I like Nate’s first approach–talking about how everything is suffused with mystery and awe–rather than his last one–talking about how God is stripped of mystery.

    Though mortals being what we are, its almost impossible to do the first without doing the second a little.

  22. Clark on September 15, 2005 at 3:38 pm

    Adam, I’d disagree. I think it has to go both ways. Clearly Mormon theology must make God closer to man than traditional theology if only because we reject creation ex nihilo.

  23. Measure on September 15, 2005 at 4:01 pm

    This is a question I have been trying to get my mind around ever since I learned about the uninverse, when I was like 6.

    To me, I simply cannot understand why anything exists. I run the logic in my mind over and over, and I can’t grasp the concept of why there should be anything at all.

    Matter is here. Where did it come from? If it came from nowhere, something must have at least created the system that let it exist. Where did that come from?

    Or… God is God. Who made God God? Where did it all start? How could it have all started? If Gods are eternal, who created the system of Gods?’

    Something following the laws of causuality must have created this universe, or at least the system that allows this universe to exist.

    But In my mind, my logic always tells me I shouldn’t exist. Nothing should exist. But here we are.

  24. Weston C on September 15, 2005 at 8:42 pm

    “Mormonism rather spectacularly refuses to answer one of the big questions that has kept philosophers and theologians busy for the last couple of millennia.”

    Who does attempt to answer it? Who succeeds?

    “But In my mind, my logic always tells me I shouldn’t exist. Nothing should exist. But here we are.”

    I tend to wonder a bit why the state of non-existence should be favored over existence. Nature does seem to minimize and economize through the principles of least action… but those leasts still lead to *something* happening instead of nothing. So there’s precedent (or succeedent, depending on how you look at it) for minimization without absence.

    This, of course, does not dodge the question as to why there are some physical laws/phenomena/forces instead of none.

    But I’ve often been tickled by the question: the simplest fact we can ostensibly observe brings up this mystery. It’s almost like suddenly realizing there’s magic everywhere, all around us, just by the fact that there is something instead of nothing and it’s Christmas everyday, even if some of us are getting a lump of coal.

  25. Kelly Knight on September 15, 2005 at 10:42 pm

    First on the matter of time brought up by Charles S. Adam and Eve, in the garden, had no concept of time. Time did not exist for them as we know it today. Time was introduced as a function of mortality, time beginning for each of us at birth, and ending at death. Outside of this, time as a function does not exist.

    As for matter- My son got in trouble with his high school science teacher for arguing that fire is matter. She insisted it is not, until she asked a college professor. Then she learned that fire is matter, in a state post fuel, pre-gas. But even then, fuel and gas are both comprised of atoms of some kind, and are therefore matter.

    Perhaps the reason that the Church seems silent on the matter of matter is this: It simply doesn’t matter! Matter exists, period. We believe that something cannot come from nothing, so if there is some thing, it must have come from some thing- inpurpituity (sp?), no beginning, no end.

  26. Maximilian Wilson on September 16, 2005 at 12:17 am

    “So we see that fire’s matter–spirit’s matter–all is matter–
    And it really doesn’t matter matter matter matter matter matter matter
    Matter matter matter matter matter matter matter matter matter matter…”

    Max Wilson
    (With apologies to Robin Oakapple)

  27. Charles M. Sakai on September 16, 2005 at 2:11 am

    Kelly [No. 25] brings up a very interesting point. Before Adam and Eve, there were the eras of creation. Unlike many creationists, I think the use of the word “day” is unfortunate, as it implies a 24-hour period on this planet. IMHO, it must have been shorthand for “however long it took to finish the job.”

  28. Charles on September 16, 2005 at 10:58 am

    A couple of observances. Fist fire is more plasma. Not gas, not solid, just like the college professor said. This might be a type of matter, but its more exact to say everything is energy. As Dr. Spock (star trek not children’s) said, “pure energy”.

    Someone I knew in a philosophy class once answered the question, “how do you know you exist?” with the following: If you can feel your own underwear, you exist.

    Its hard to understand why non existence is such a prominent argument is because of philosophy’s need to establish a debate. Because we are here and interacting we must exist in some manner. Either a collective consciousness of pure energy involved in a thought experiment and self debate, or we exist as individual consciousness interactiong or on some physical plane or some combination of the three.

    Deciding which is correct, or even most correct creates a debate that many philosophers simply take the side of non existence, but if that were the case in any situation how would we have the arguement. The argument is more correctly centered on what is the substance of existence.

  29. mrs on September 16, 2005 at 12:51 pm

    Well, simply, if nothing existed, we wouldn’t be around to notice it.

    Whether this is a deep statement or a tautology is actually a pretty significant philosophical debate: see
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle

  30. Seth Rogers on September 18, 2005 at 11:45 am

    One of the big problems with the “unmoved mover,” the “original first cause” that comprises the general christian view of God, is the idea that He is self-sufficient.

    “Those who ask how a perfect God create a universe with evil have missed a larger conundrum: Why would a perfect God create a universe at all?”

    The problem with the christian view of perfection is that it postulates a God that wants for nothing. He is perfect. Any change from that artificial state of perfection would constitute a departure from it. Therefore, God would no longer be perfect.

    If God was originally perfect in this Platonic sense, why would he change the arrangement and create anything? Any alteration in this fragile Greek concept of perfection would logically dictate that God is no longer perfect now.

    Mormonism flat-out rejects this idea of Godlike perfection. It specifically countenances a God that can be at once “perfection” yet still “changing.”

    The Evangelicals are right. We really aren’t “christians.” At least not in any sense they’d be comfortable with. We take their entire universe and turn it on its head.

  31. Jettboy on September 18, 2005 at 5:25 pm

    I think it answers the “Big Question” very dramatically. The answer is: There is something because there always has been something.