I’ve been thinking a lot lately about eternal things. It is trivially obvious that something must always have existed, for if there had ever been a point at which absolutely nothing existed, then the fact of our own existence is entirely inexplicable. As it has been said, “out of nothing, nothing comes”.
It also strikes me that whatever has always existed is likely to continue to exist eternally. Philosophically, this is known as necessity; It is impossible for a necessary object not to exist. It must exist in any possible world. The opposite of necessity is contingency, which describes something that might or might not exist. Similarly, the opposite of eternality is temporality… things bound to time.
Necessary objects must also possess necessary essential attributes. These attributes are those that make the object what it is, and cause it to be necessary. These attributes are immutable, that is, they cannot change.(1)
Knowing what things are necessary and eternal and what things are contingent temporary could provide great insight into what we should value most; for it is only the necessary and the eternal which will endure. Everything else will eventually fade away.
Philosophers have long debated what is Necessary in our universe, but essentially, the discussion can be reduced to the consideration of two candidates: mind and matter. Either matter is eternal and necessary and mind is contingent and temporary, or mind is eternal and necessary and matter is contingent and temporary. Is it possible to know which is the true Necessary substance and which is the pretender to the throne? Let’s look at the evidence.
The Case for Matter
Modern scientific naturalism holds that matter, in some form or another, is this eternal substance. It’s become fashionable in some circles to try to describe the earliest form of this eternal matter as “nothing”. Lawrence Krauss, for instance, wrote an entire book entitled A Universe From Nothing–Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. However, close examination shows that this is nothing more than a bait-and-switch. The “nothing” that Krauss speaks of is not the “no thing” nothingness into which most mainstream scientists believe the big bang expanded. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson writes while praising the book, “Nothing is not nothing. Nothing is something. That’s how a cosmos can be spawned from the void…”
If the big bang originated from some sort of quantum vacuum or other material substance by purely material processes, then what the big bang describes is not our origin. The quantum vacuum requires Matter, Energy, Time and Space (METS, for short) to exist; therefore, the explanation we’re looking for must precede the big bang. Krauss seems content to say that the matter and energy in our universe has always existed, and will continue to exist eternally. However, other evidence seems to suggest that this theory isn’t as well-supported as it seems.
The standard interpretation of the evidence indicates that the big bang was not born from matter, but was instead the origin of time, space, matter and energy. If the big bang is the event that marks the origin of METS in our universe, then our universe cannot be born of anything requiring METS as we know them. It is illogical to assume that METS existed before their origin!
The idea that METS is eternal creates difficult philosophical puzzles as well, not the least of which is the idea of an eternal past. If time has always existed, then our universe had already existed for an infinite number of days before today. However, one can never traverse an actual infinity. If you start counting now, intending to count to infinity+1, you will never reach your goal. But if an infinite number of days passed before today, then today is infinity+1! Now if we cannot get to infinity+1 going forward, then how is it possible that the universe made it to today’s infinity+1?
This interpretation of the data also means that mind comes from matter. Our minds… our thoughts, emotions, will, even our very sense of self is only an electrochemical reaction taking place in our brain. While scientists haven’t yet worked out how this could happen, they’re convinced that they will eventually figure out exactly how our brain causes us to believe that there is more to ourselves than just a body.
But we must give up more than just our own personhood… any type of event that can take place only in a mind must be temporal as well. All of these mental phenomena are completely ungrounded… cut off from anything stable, and therefore may change over time, if they even truly can be said to exist!
Consider the laws of logic. These laws are mental laws that describe the correct way to think. For instance, the law of Non-Contradiction says that a proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same way. If someone asks me if I’m married and I reply “no” while the lady standing beside me says, “yes he is… I’m his wife”, the questioner may think that one of us is lying, but under no circumstances would she think that we were both telling the truth!
This law is so fundamental to our universe that you cannot even attempt to disprove it, for in order to prove it false, you must use it as evidence against itself–which shows that you actually believe it to be true! Like all of the laws of logic, this law does not exist in any physical object. You won’t find it held in a block of stone, or a lump of lead.
As these laws define a correct way to think, it seems that they are transcendent to mankind, for all men are subject to them. Anyone who denies them, we would call insane or imbecilic. But where did these standard mental laws come from? If matter is eternal and mind is temporary, then there must have been a time when these laws of logic did not exist. If no minds exist to think, then how can (and why should) the laws of correct thinking exist? So it seems that if mind is not eternal, then logic itself is temporal and mutable. But if logic is mutable, then how can we say that it always holds true?
Also at risk of disappearing is love. For all the poet’s declarations of eternal love, unless love is grounded in the eternal, it too is temporal and will pass away. And isn’t love, like logic, found only in a mind? If matter is eternal, then love is reduced to an electrochemical process in our brain, and it is simply impossible for us to declare to our significant other that our chemical processes will never change!
And what of morality? Just as the laws of logic describe right thinking, the laws of morality describe right behavior. But it seems that they too can only exist in a mind. Therefore if mind is not eternal, then neither are the moral principles to which we hold ourselves and others accountable. They came into being at some point in the past. And as the leap from non-existence to existence is greater than a simple change of a moral precept, how can we be assured that it’s never wrong to rape, or to torture children for pleasure? Perhaps slavery was actually morally good back in the early 1800’s, but sometime in the middle of the 19th century, the moral law shifted, and it became wrong to hold slaves. Could morality possibly shift again so that even murder could become morally good?
I find it difficult to believe that all of these things are temporal. While I can somewhat understand the claim that love is temporal, the argument against logic and morality seem to fail with no hope of recovery. At a time when no humans exist, the idea that “no humans exist” would still be logically consistent. And if morality is mutable, then I must question daily, it seems, every single moral principle in which I believe. Something seems terribly wrong here…
The Case for Mind
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
— The Gospel according to John 1:1-3 (KJV)
The idea that mind is eternal has been around for a long time–most Christians would agree that this was man’s original understanding of the universe. The gospel affirms in John 1 that in the beginning was the Word. This word in Greek is “λογος” or transliterated, “logos”, and it means “reason”, or “logic”. Right off the bat, John not only claims that logic is eternal, but further affirms that God is pure logic, and that all other things were created by Him. Can the idea that mind existed before matter address all of the problems we found when considering the opposite hypothesis?
The big bang, according to scientists, was the beginning of METS. The first problem with naturalistic materialism is, “what banged?” By denying the existence of the immaterial, they have nothing left by which to bootstrap the creation of the universe. They are left either claiming that the universe is eternal, that it somehow created itself, or that it popped into existence out of nothing! And very few are actually comfortable with any of these conclusions!
But what if an immaterial mind existed first? A mind belonging to a being of such power that it could call our universe into existence with a thought… or a word? This being could not be made of any of the mundane stuff of our universe (METS); all that we see around us was created by this being. A painter can exist without the painting; the painting cannot exist without the painter!
In this scenario, time is no longer past eternal, but has a beginning. We no longer have to account for a paradoxical infinite number of past days. According to scientists, our universe is between 14 and 15 billion years old. Some theologians would claim a much shorter lifespan for the universe, but either number is far more logically coherent than an infinite past.
We’ve already addressed logic a bit from John’s point of view, but we have a bit more to learn here. Because this mind is eternal, the mental processes of that mind are co-eternal with it. And as this being is immutable (changeless), those logical processes will never change. The rules by which this mind reasons define the eternally-existing laws of logic.
Extending this same idea to morality, we also find a reasonable ground for morality in the character of this being. Anything action that is compatible with the nature of this being is “good”; any action incompatible with the nature of this being is “evil”. And again, as this being is changeless, our moral laws are safe from change. We can rest assured, knowing that if murder is evil today, it will not become good tomorrow!
But what of love? Can this mind also ground love and make it eternal as well? The answer is “yes”… if this being is the Christian God.
In Islam, God is One in Person. It is difficult to ground eternal love in such a God, because according to scripture (both the Quran and the Bible) at one point, nothing but God existed. At this point, whom did Allah love? Himself? I hardly think that eternal self-love and temporal outward love is much better than all love being temporal!
In Christianity however, God is perceived as a trinity… one God in three Persons, namely, the Father, the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. While all three are God, they are not the same person. And as they are different persons, they have loved each other eternally.
And so it seems that many of the problems men face by assuming matter to be eternal simply vanish when we instead assume mind to be eternal. This explanation seems to best fit the evidence we see in the universe, and it is compatible with scripture. It avoids the unintuitive but necessary conclusion that logic can change, that “we” do not really exist as persons, and that morality is illusory, and better explains the scientific data we have.
Disagree? Feel free to tell me why in the comments below!
(1) It is possible for some necessary objects to change by accretion… the taking on of new contingent attributes. In such a case, all of the original necessary attributes remain immutable. For instance, Jesus, as God, is a necessary being. The incarnation of Jesus as a man is an accretion… a mutable attribute added to all of the immutable attributes that Jesus possessed as deity. He would still have been God even had he never became a human, and his becoming a human did not lessen his deity.