"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Is there a cosmos?

Over at One Cosmos, clinical psychologist Richard Godwin asks: "Where does the idea of a universe, or cosmos come from, anyway?" He closes with a quote from Frithjof Schuon, a mystical philosopher of "esoterism" whom I read a lot of in college; and he approvingly cites a 1999 book by "philosopher of science" Fr. Stanley Jaki, without apparently having noticed an earlier, even more apposite book by the same author: Is There a Universe? (New York: Wethersfield Institute, 1993). While I'm in spiritual sympathy with Godwin's rather idiosyncratic answer, I prefer a different philosophical route.

My 1988 doctoral dissertation at Penn was a metaphysical treatise entitled The Concept of Mystery: A Philosophical Investigation. My chief claim was that there is an ontological category of the positively mysterious, which consists of that which is fully explicable but not uniquely determined by what explains it. One example, which I did not have space to explore, is that of a "reason" for action: reasons fully explain free actions but need not (and on some accounts cannot) causually necessitate them. The example I did focus on in my thesis was that of the existence of "the world," i.e., of what Godwin means by "the cosmos." But Godwin locates the inquiry in the wrong place.

For him, the key question is whether the universe is "the sum" or "the whole" of things. I disagree. The world is the sphere of what happens; that's what's being asked about when one asks "Why does the world exists?" The world thus asked about needn't be limited to our physical universe; there might be other things involved in events that we cannot in principle observe because they are not causally accessible to our universe. Hence, whether or not the physical universe as we know it is a mere sum of constituent parts or a whole greater than that sum and rendering it intelligible, the question remains as it is. At considerable length, I argued that it is more reasonable to believe that the world so defined is positively mysterious than not, and thus that its existence is explicable by the free, rational action of some agent not of it: in other words, a Creator. To deny that is to limit unduly what counts as explanation.

Some might say that Godwin and I reach the same conclusions from a different route. I don't know his mind quite well enough to speak to that. But I do find his writing creative and entertaining, and we clearly do agree on the intellectual and spiritual merit of something called natural theology. In that respect, we stand with many Catholic thinkers against many Protestant and Orthodox ones.
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