Nothing is a very busy place
Atheists, whose intellectual honesty generally speaking is only equalled by the limitations of their theological enquiries, are usually in reaction to the idea of a God somewhere beyond the sky who manufactured the world much as you might make a watch. Such an idea, they rightly point out, is incompatible with science. But they usually do not realise that this idea is a kind of Protestant aberration. Most of the world’s religions have not thought of God in this way at all, and nor does Catholic theology. The Catholic idea is essentially sacramental. God is not outside matter but deep within it. There is no God who made the world in a manufacturing sense. Such a God does not exist. God does not exist, God is existence, wrote Aquinas. The Protestant ides is not compatible with science, the Catholic idea is, indeed science is leading us to think in ways that are increasingly hospitable to it. A creating God is not necessary to create the world, Stephen Hawking tells us, it came out of nothing simply in accordance with the laws of physics. Matter came out of a nothing that was surely as immaterial as anything (not that it was anything) can be.
Indeed matter is appearing out of the void the whole time. According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle the more measurable time is the more unmeasurable is energy and vice versa. In the subatomic world time scales are very short indeed. A photon moves so fast it can cross from one side of a nucleus and back again more times in a second than there have been seconds since time began. These time scales are so short indeed, that photons can borrow energy literally from nothing during the brief period of their transit before the uncertainty principle kicks in. It is as if they had outwitted Heisenberg. Since according to Einstein’s e=mc2 energy and matter are convertible, the energy they borrow from the void converts into matter. Hawking’s nothing is Aquinas’s existence itself (and indeed Genesis’s the earth was a void waste). Both think that there was a non-existing nothing, a kind of pregnant void, out of which all existing things come. So much comes out of it, it certainly looks as if the void is full of whatever it is that voids are full of.
You could run this thought through in another way. We define things through assigning them to wider categories to which they themselves belong. Human beings are mammals, mammals are animals, animals are organisms, organisms, as non-organic things are, are made of atoms – in the end what everything shares, the widest category of all is that they exist. Philosophers like to flag up the existence that everything shares by calling it being. Yet being cannot be boxed in like everything else in a category wider than itself, for what could we find outside it? Only more being. You could not even say nothing, as if being were parcelled up in something. Or as if it had edges for there would have to be something outside itself to define the edges, which would have to exist more extensively than existence. Being by definition just goes on and on (though not in a physical sense of course). Being has no boundaries. In the end the materially contained leads us back to the immaterially uncontained. And indeed, many scientists think they can only make sense of their equations by invoking an infinity of universes.
Do we have any evidence of this non-existent void still present in the universe, as the cosmic background radiation, the 2.72545 degrees Kelvin of warmth left over from the Big Bang, is everywhere present? Well we certainly can’t see it, nor can we even try to measure it as we can measure the CBR. But you can feel it. Humanity’s testimony, in every time and place and throughout the ages, that there is something more in nature than atomic reactions and molecular structures and chromosomal processes, a presence that is beautiful and enchanting and wonderful, is overwhelming. People have entered deep into caves to seek it, erected stone circles and dolmens, cromlechs and chambered tombs, and heaved up henges and temples and cathedrals to honour it. They have drowned precious objects in lakes and rivers, and offered untold numbers of sacrifices. Why so fixated? Well one reason is that this whatever it is in nature that is more than chromosomes is a source of the most intense pleasure that human beings can experience.
Here is the young Darwin writing home to Shrewsbury during his Beagle voyage:
‘ I believe from what I have seen Humboldts glorious descriptions are & ever will be for ever unparalleled: but even he with his dark blue skies & the rare union of poetry with science which he so strongly displays when writing on tropical scenery, with all this falls far short of the truth. The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind, – if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit: if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over, – if in turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future and more quiet pleasure will arise, – I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold. – ‘
In 1911 a native American wrote:
‘Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth and the Great Silence alone…Whenever in the course of the daily hunt the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime – a black thundercloud with the rainbow’s glowing arch above the mountain, a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the red blood of sunset – he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship. He sees no need for setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since for him all days are God’s ‘.
Hopkins wrote of ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’
And Wordsworth ‘..a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns And the round ocean and the living air…A motion and a spirit that impels all living things, all objects of all thoughts and rolls through all things..’
Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier almost seems to evoke some primal pattern of order underlying the universe, or is that fanciful? John Stewart Collis wrote: ‘…neither the imagination , nor the microscope can help us to do justice to the reality. The notable thing is that though the electrons move round their orbit about seven thousand million times in the millionth of a second, and we should expect endless collisions and hopeless chaos, there is instead the beauty and the rest of perfect symmetry.’
Here is Conrad: ‘The mysterious moaning in the midst of a hurricane as if the universe itself were groaning, sheets of white lightning flashing out of its black heart, and in between the wildly writhing hills of water and bursts of anger from the infuriated ocean, clear intervals bejewelled with stars…’
I want my music to be about everything said Mahler to Sibelius, I want mine to be about the interconnections between things Sibelius replied. How could you fail to hear this presence that rolls through all things in the beating wings of the wild swans of his Fifth Symphony? The early Neolithic figurines that Marija Gimbutas unearthed in central Europe are full of it, squat, ugly, tightly wrapped up in themselves, dense with a kind of elemental potency. Celtic sculptured heads have it, so many masks made by primitive tribes are full of it. Henry Moore’s sprawled earth mothers pour out this numinous and primitive whatever it is, that, so many artists have told us, moves in the depths of the world.
Countless numbers of mystics down the ages from the Buddha to Thomas Merton assure us too that after many years of disciplined inner searching you can come to enlightenment, a personal discovery of this further and deeper dimension in which all things are rooted. And who is to say that they were all deluded? The electrons moving round their orbit seven thousand million times in a millionth of a second and yet in perfect symmetry and order! What marvels beyond marvels. What harmony beyond harmony. As you contemplate with stunned mind the extraordinary mysteries of the universe that science is now discovering, how could you not only study the universe in laboratories with your intellect but also admit it into your emotions, and adore this great wonder as if it were a most beautiful woman and take her to your bed to love and worship her?