DiaBlogue: The Universe, And Three Examples


Having doubled back to double-check our ground rules, I am ready to answer the three questions Alan poses during Wait, Er, Check Please?:

a. Ultimate reality

I am a bit uncomfortable with “view[ing] this as a contest between different theories about the nature of ultimate reality”. Would it be assuming too much to say “observable reality” instead?

b. Naturalism vs. Theism

I can appreciate Ernie’s preference for two competing theories, but I am not sure if N [naturalism] vs. N+T [theism] qualifies in Ernie’s view, nor do I have anything beyond N to offer. What do you think, Ernie?

c. Imaginary Beliefs

given this definition of imaginary beliefs, the truth of imaginary beliefs is just about as contingent as is possible. But as we saw earlier, Ernie suggested the definition of divinity to be “that which is ultimately, non-contingently real”. Ernie, can you clarify?

[Read more] for my attempt to answer all of these, along with the extra credit question from hell: “Define the Universe; Give Three Examples.”

In a pleasant turn of events, all of Alan’s questions come down to the same basic issue: what is real? The answer to that question is what we might call ontology — “the study of being” — which is an excellent starting point for our discussion of divinity as “ultimate being.” I also want to point out that I am starting from philosophy, not theology. That is, I trust the Bible because it explains the divinity I observe, not vice versa. To me, the Bible is a reflection of belief in God, not the cause; a subtle but crucial distinction we may need to revisit.

But for now, let me start by ‘Defining the Universe’ as:

“the objective reality behind our subjective experience.”

In other words, I am asserting that:

  • There is such a thing as objective reality (i.e., I deny solipsism)
  • Reality is, in general, different than subjective experience but correlated with it
  • We can only know reality to the extent it impacts our experience

I trust Alan is comfortable with this definition — since most moderns would consider it insane to assume anything else! However, the important point is that (as discussed earlier) our beliefs and knowledge are part of our subjective experience, even if they refer to an actual objective reality.

In particular, to Alan’s question (c), I can easily have contingent “imaginary” beliefs about “real” objects that (even if they are not ‘divine’) are not contingent, at least on me. For example, the statement “The stars will not frighten me” is only true if I believe it, and thus qualifies as an imaginary statement by my definition; but, that hardly means the stars are imaginary!

In other worlds, real entities can be the object of both real and imaginary beliefs, whereas fictional entities are always the object of imaginary beliefs (unless we assign nominal reality to a fictional universe, purely as an artistic convention).

Having established the Universe in this way, let me provide Three Examples, or candidate universes, corresponding to different modes of experience:

1. The Material Universe (“Cosmoverse”)

This is the universe we experience through our five senses. As such, it is the most concrete universe, as it is the one studied by the physical sciences. It consists of matter, energy, space, time, atoms, stars, and flightless waterfowl (among other things).

2. The Rational Universe (“Logoverse”)

This is the universe we experience through pure reason. It’s citizens include “1”, Pi, triangles, sets, and other formal systems drawn from arithmetic, geometry, logic, etc. Note that though we can imagine inhabiting a very different physical universes, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine alternate rational universes. From this perspective, as economist C. E. Ferguson reportedly said, “The real world is only a special case, and not a very interesting one at that.”

3. The Spiritual Universe (“Pneumaverse”)

Our last candidate is the most controversial. I define the pneumaverse as that reality experienced through our feelings, and thus inhabited by concepts such as a Choice, Character, Good, Justice, Beauty, and Love. Unlike the first two, it has not been the subject of much constructive study for the last couple centuries, so many question whether it even exists.

Given this list of contestants, I suspect Alan is asking all the usual questions:

  • Are all three of these real? Only these three? Anything beyond them?
  • If so, could we know it?
  • How do they relate to each other?
  • Is one of them more real than, or able to explain, the others?
  • What difference does it make if any of them is not real?

These are all valid questions, which brings us back to the subject of divinity — what is ultimately real? To be precise, to Alan’s question (a), we are considering the question of:

economic divinity: what divinity does in relation to our universe

rather than:

ontological divinity: what divinity is in relation to itself

(by analogy with the term “economic trinity“). I agree with him that if a nominally “proximate” divinity is sufficient to explain all observed phenomena, it qualifies as “ultimate” for our purposes, since we cannot know what lies behind it.

Using the above, I will now define trinitarian theism as making the following ontological assertions:

  • All three of the above universes are real, independent of each other
  • Each of them is ordered by a unitary governing principle
  • Those principles, while distinct, are nonetheless facets of a single over-arching principle (“Godhead”)

What does that mean? This is best seen in contrast to polytheism, which posits a multitude of conflicting principles which each individually consist of varying amounts of matter, reason, and spirit (e.g., Gaia, Athena, Aphrodite). Nowadays, of course, the existence, unity and distinctness of physical law (a la “Theories of Everything“) and mathematics (thanks to Alan’s Bertram Russell 🙂 are each so commonplace as to be unquestioned — though their precise relationship is still controversial. Trinitarian theism asserts further that spiritual reality also exists and is unitary (e.g., Love and Justice never truly conflict), and also interwoven with the other realities (“immanent”, in that we actually ‘discover’ beauty in the mathematical and physical world, not just ‘project’ it onto them).

So, what about naturalism? In this view, methodological naturalism is simply using the sub-divinity of the logoverse (i.e, math) to help us understand the sub-divinity of the cosmoverse (e.g., physics), and isn’t a problem for theism as far as it goes. Things get tricky when we go from methodological to ontological naturalism, which is most easily defined as completely denying the pneumaverse — i.e., asserting that matter and logic are all there is. In its extreme form, this becomes nihilism, in that it asserts that ‘choice’ and ‘good’ are merely subjective feelings we project onto the universe, without any objective reality.

I’m pretty sure Alan does not subscribe to that interpretation, since he has previously accepted ontological reality for such concepts. Therefore, I presume he believes they either:

    1. i. Are non-spiritual, but deducible from logic and/or matter
    2. ii. Exist spiritually as independent entities, not part of any unitary ‘divinity’
    3. iii. Exist spiritually as part of a singular but impersonal ‘divinity’

While I realize Alan may not have thought things through to this point before, I hope he accepts the obligation to ultimately define and defend a meaningful position on this topic — or else give up his ontological belief in Good and Choice.

One final caveat: what I am doing in this context is defining my interpretation of Christianity — as that is the only one for which I can speak authoritatively! I believe it is compatible with historic orthodoxy, but to be sure I may sometimes defend positions that one sect or another would consider heretical. However, the problem Alan poses, as I understand it, is whether “anything that could properly be called Christianity” is compatible with what we can meaningfully know of reality. Thus, for now I will focus on defending my position (implicitly assuming it is Christian), and later if necessary we can revisit the question of whether what I have defined is authentically Christian.

Over to you, Alan [I suggest ‘As the Universe Turns’ for your response :-].