Devon, PA. Just over a decade ago, I was drowsing on my couch of a Saturday, the thoughts of the books I had been reading lapping through my mind. By happenstance rather than deliberate program, I had been plowing through St. Augustine’s Confessions, of which I had just completed the eleventh book, the autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
With a white-flecked crash, I awoke to find an inward voice speaking of what seemed an unfamiliar compound or distillation of those volumes. It proclaimed: time has a beginning; it is not a mere linear measurement extensible infinitely in either direction, but emerges from a reality that stands beyond or outside it. St. Augustine provided the elegant philosophical account that made this first moment before which there were no moments, this beginning before which there was no “before,” intelligible. From the eternal present of God, intellectual forms are created and proceed, thence also the absolutely formless non-being of prime matter comes. At their first contact—the union of form and matter—created being begins, and this condition (the existence of composite things, of things that are subject to division, distentio)—this condition is itself the beginning of time.
An eternity that is, by definition, outside of time; ideas (form) and matter, created from nothing and, in union, bringing into actuality the massive place that is creation—a place so vast and ancient that its boundaries cannot so much be measured by units of seconds or inches but rather by being the condition in which seconds and inches exist; a place relatively infinite, and yet marked by its flux and evanescence so that at no point does it all come together in simplicity, and from no position within it can the whole be seen as one might examine from the margin the pattern on an oriental carpet. St. Augustine, in sketching out this account of how there is something rather than nothing, harmonized in a sudden blow with the account that I had found in desultory fashion in the pages of Hawking.
In the years since, I have taken great pleasure in contemplating this first-of-all-moments and its prodigies alongside St. Augustine, and, of course, St. Thomas Aquinas, and also in the homilies of Joseph Ratzinger. But never did I expect the accidental overlap in my half-slumber to repeat itself. Nor did I expect it to repeat itself in the ironic and amplified fashion of this last Friday’s Wall Street Journal. There, I came upon this little passage from Stephen Hawking’s newest book:
As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
What Hawking intends to explain is how we exist, that is, by what efficient cause; he actually says that “spontaneous creation” accounts for why we exist and indeed he is correct though not for the reasons he intends. His argument proposes the following: the created universe comes into being “from nothing,” but in fact there is something prior to this nothing, which he identifies as “the laws of gravity and quantum theory.” Regarding this last clause, it is not clear if he intends that the laws of gravity and quantum theory are distinct principles, or if they are to be taken together as a single inclusive first cause. Regarding the former clause, one must exercise a certain liberality and presume that he is not serious when he says, “from nothing,” but rather intends by “nothing” only a material nothing, as in, the absence of matter. For, Hawking has simply stated that creation once did not exist—its relative infinity does not simply extend endlessly, as Isaac Newton believed, but rather there is a certain finitude to time, there is an outside of it. The created universe, he identifies with the existence, the becoming, of matter. And, crucially, prior to this condition of becoming stands a principle, a set of laws that are described in quantum theory. In other words, law precedes matter and is the cause of it; theory traces back natural history to a position prior to its existence. Law must be the formal cause—the form-specifying principle—of what would otherwise be absolutely formless and so in a certain sense non-existent matter.
Such an account of creation is in several ways apposite to, and in one crucial way distinct from, that Charles Darwin records in his Autobiography, where he observes,
There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.
Darwin first posits the condition of nature as absolutely without design, and one feels the point of his claim. The movements of natural selection viewed immanently—from selection to selection, modification to modification—can scarcely reveal a purpose, a telos, to those movements. Or rather, any given modification viewed in absolute isolation, can tell us nothing of its purpose other than that its purpose was itself. In an instance on which Darwin draws, the origination of the bivalve’s shell, in isolation, tells us nothing more than that the bivalve’s shell developed, from some prior organism, to become the bivalve’s shell. We can affirm nothing other than the variation. But, of course, as soon as the human intelligence withdraws from such immanence, it begins to detect operating patterns in the myriad cases of such variability—so much so that one discerns the purpose these variations serve on a massive scale (the adaptation of organisms across generations to the contingencies of their environment) and, seeing instances and purpose together, one proposes a set of laws that accounts for them. This, Darwin called, natural selection.
Both Darwin and Hawking tell us that the material universe conforms to laws. Darwin seems to put a more firm point upon this claim by referring to “fixed laws.” These laws explain to us how the universe actually operates; they do not tell us why it operates, that is, for what purpose it exists, but they do provide a compelling account of the formal and material principles that, together, are contributing causes to the existence and movement of things.
And yet, an implied difference between the physicist and the biologist may be noted. Darwin’s short statement can make no sense unless we presume that “design” designates an idea absolutely distinct from “law.” We might, in perhaps hackneyed fashion, propose that Darwin simply takes the existence of things as a given and, from the accumulated data of his experiences, he draws conclusions about the operation of things which he articulates in law-like statements. Those statements, however, he does not presume to exist in nature or actually to inform that nature, but rather, he proposes them as posterior descriptions of contingent events.
That it is unlikely that one could articulate a law-like statement that is adequate to the events for which that statement claims to account unless the law itself were present in the objects being described (in this case, nature itself), Darwin seems to appreciate. For he does not restrict himself to law-like posterior generalizations. He tells us, rather, that “Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws” (emphasis added). Immutable law precedes nature and indeed nature is the law’s result; conversely, law is the cause of nature. What sort of cause? The formal cause—it gives shape to the operation of things.
The post-Darwinian scientist wishes to object that I was right the first time—Darwin is accounting for what he actually finds in nature with law-like statements that are posterior and that do not, therefore, claim to be designs providing the prior pattern to which all things subsequently conform. This is not, however, what Darwin has written; and either he is obfuscating or his language must suggest a priority of law to material being, and of an implacability and permanence to law that the vicissitudes of individual material beings evidently lack (i.e., there is no law that there be bivalves, but rather the bivalve is a contingent expression of a formal cause).
But let us grant this apologist his point. Despite the improbability, it is clearly arguable that laws can be postulated based upon the actual operations of biological evolution without our actually proposing that those laws are prior and permanent to that evolution. Darwin almost certainly had another interest in his language here to which we shall return, but for the moment I wish to concede only that point: it is possible that Darwin really intends his supposedly fixed laws to be a posterior creation, solely present in the human reason, that describes accurately the actual activities of nature, even though that nature does not have within it any actual law or logical principle.
If we can provisionally grant this to Darwin, we cannot grant it to Hawking. His hypothesis distinguishes itself from Darwin’s on precisely this point. Having said that the universe was created from “nothing,” Hawking clearly intends (again) by “nothing” the absence of matter (or is it matter and energy?), and, conversely, by “something,” material (or quantifiable) being. Prior to the actual existence of material being must actually exist that set of laws described in posterior fashion by quantum theory. That is, a non-material cause—a formal principle or law—must necessarily pre -exist matter.
Hawking’s poor phrasing tries to conceal this conclusion, which nonetheless seems a necessary predicate of his claims. He does not give us leave to parallel Darwin’s distinction between prior “design” and posterior “law” with his own use of “law” and “theory.” For, according to Hawking, law and theory are actual causes of material beings. Once again, though his language crumbles in the effort to establish this point, he is arguing that law and theory must therefore precede the existence of the “something” he calls, with us, the sensible created material universe.
Hawking’s intention, of course, is to show us that these pre-existent, non-material entities called laws create the universe from “nothing,” and that, precisely because they do so “spontaneously,” there is not only reason to set aside the “hypothesis” of God as creator, but there is positive cause to deny that hypothesis in favor of the laws-as-cause.
Such a claim elicits two immediate responses. If the laws of physics spontaneously create the something of material nature, then what is the cause of the existence of the laws themselves? Can we regress behind this formal cause to discover its cause? If the laws pre-exist material nature, then material being is not created from nothing—it is created from the already existent laws. I recognize that the laws create matter “spontaneously,” which tells us only that the laws do not have to create things according to any externally imposed necessity. But does Hawking intend this adverb also to account for the laws, so that, without any prior necessity they create themselves? If so, then how are they laws?
Self-created law operating spontaneously and so absolutely un-beholden to any prior necessity: this sounds familiar indeed, having found divinely-inspired expression some years ago:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light that shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
This claim does impose itself. Law precedes matter, form gives being and life to creation. There cannot be multiple primordial laws, coexisting but independent of one another, for their very independence and distinction would suggest a principle prior to them and, as their cause, singular. God is the Word, but the Word is with Him. The Word, the logos, is the logic of things—the ordered principles of all things, preceding all things, and so discernible in all things, just waiting for discovery. But the logos, the Word, is with God: while we would affirm the absolute simplicity and self-identity of God and His thought, this sense of co-existence reminds us of the impossibility of reducing God to the handful of intelligible propositions that happen to fall under our attention at a given moment. It would be naive to reduce a person to any one idea—even if it were a monomaniacal idea—in his head. So would it be more than naive to reduce God just to, say, that set of laws that account for the becoming of things from nothing. For if God is the uncreated first law, the source of the logic and order of things, any one of the individual laws and theories we can abstract cannot separately account for itself.
This leads us back to Darwin’s distinction between design and “fixed laws.” His biographers tell us that it was not the rigorous logic of natural selection that ate away at the once ingenuous and pious Darwin until he could see nothing but its operations in the world outside his skull. Rather, it was the encounter with suffering, with his own suffering at the death of his daughter, and with the suffering to be found in the wide world of struggle and competition, of parasitoid wasps, of, one presumes, industrialized urban jungles, and of the savage inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, whose biological kinship to himself the eminent Victorian Darwin struggled to acknowledge. The cruel fate of being natural brother to men one scarcely can recognize as human seemed evidence enough that the orderly laws of things could not have been the “design” of any loving God.
Indeed, the grinding mechanics of the biological and material world does sometimes beggar the imagination. And yet, except for the great advocates of eugenics in our midst—those secret or soapbox preachers of forced sterilization, contraception, and abortion—most of us have no difficulty accepting with joy and relief the fellow humanity of men and women who appear and act markedly differently from ourselves. Few men indeed find the existence of savages and half-savages occasion to doubt the existence of God.
Darwin found himself unable to answer that fundamental question of human life—the question of suffering, the question of death. He had an immanent and efficient cause that accounted for the how, the mechanics, of suffering and death, and so he equivocated his language in such a fashion that it seemed almost to make this mechanical theory a theory also of why things are as they are. He could scarcely have understood what he was doing, for, in his Autobiography, he muses that the Christian doctrine of justification and Hell is “damnable,” and such a judgment must find a criterion outside of the order of biological evolution he so famously described. Why is suffering not simply unpleasant but evil? Why is it evil if it is useful for evolution? Why could Darwin believe that telling someone he may go to Hell if he does not accept God’s gift of faith—a claim that plays no evident role in the order of biological evolution—is a “damnable,” that is to say, an awful and evil act? These questions require a far vaster scale of inquiry than that on which Darwin was apt to think.
Hawking dilates to a vaster scale by far, but not nearly so vast enough. Even so, his emphasis on the spontaneous creation of laws bringing “something” from “nothing” advances us into the inviting darkness to which all our souls are driven if we can free them of the mind-forged manacles of philosophical materialism or naturalism from which Darwin seems to have suffered. In that darkness, in that mystery, we discover a strange truth. Necessity and contingency are reconciled. Law and freedom are one. Grace and nature, charity and justice, find their identity in the same Being. The created universe operates according to intelligible laws; those laws precede it and inform it; those laws operate according to a necessity of their own, but they are not necessary in themselves, but as the thought of the One Necessary Being who, in a free thought, in a gift of love, “created the heavens and the earth . . . [and] saw how good it was.”
Certainly “spontaneity” can describe a condition in which things are less than they appear, i.e., where, in response to inquiry about the cause of things, we are forced to answer, “We can find no reason; it simply happened.” But this sort of spontaneity seems to be logically impossible regarding creation itself and as a whole. To say that law is the cause, and the universe the effect invites inquiry into the cause of law.
When we ask how existence happened and happens, Darwin, Hawking, and St. Augustine provide us compelling, concentrically arranged answers, with St. Augustine providing the most comprehensive account on the level of form and matter. We should not be surprised that the ancient thinker was able to reason back to first principles with greater facility than the clock-work grease-monkeys of modernity. But when we ask why creation happened and happens, Darwin poses the obstacle of evil with great poignancy, and Hawking inadvertently gives us the same answer as St. Augustine: God made the universe, because He is Good; he made it not through any necessity imposed upon His Will, but through the spontaneous self-giving of that Will, through His very identity as Love Itself, and so through gratuity, through personal generosity, through the one clear instance conceivable of a gift made in absolute freedom and love.
The existence of the laws Hawking is sedulous to suppose explain the existence of matter would themselves be inexplicable had we not been told by the Word Himself: Why? In and for freedom and love. In and for a goodness for whose taste even the suicide cannot lose his deluded appetite. How? The procession of the divine intellect to create something out of nothingness by means of the union of intellectual form and pure matter. And this procession, precisely because spontanous and from nothing cannot keep itself in being by the internal necessity of its own laws. For logic and necessity are ultimately one with the love and freedom of God. We discern, therefore, that there is more “spontaneity” in the universe than is found in the primeval cause of all things; each moment, each inch of creation is at all times kept in being by the action of a God Who did not have to love us, but did anyway.
These answers, to quote another recent statement of Hawking’s, “work.” For they alone describe the operation of, not only composite (material) beings, but of all creation. They alone reconcile “chance” and necessity, matter and form, causality and causelessness. And they are the joy of the waking and the dreaming intellect.