Theology, cosmology and prime movers

15 June 2018

I’ve talked at length about why I am thoroughly dissatisfied with Christianity’s explanations for the origins of the universe, but I’ve been comparatively quiet on views that I might actually find plausible.

The brilliant Reveniens posits that if there is a universal cosmic intelligence that drives the processes of the universe, then it must be an agent of chaos. I think his thesis is intriguing, though I think there are other ways that one can plausibly describe a prime mover without resorting to invoking anthropomorphic gods like Yahweh/Allah, Zeus, Odin, Bastet or Ganesha, or assuming that said prime mover is even intelligent or fully self-aware. If this dissatisfied prime mover is intelligent, then I agree with Reveniens that it has to be a randomness-producing entity that gradually creates the appearance of order, or worse, a sadistic intelligence who inflicts HIV, starvation, right-wing populism and Kanye West on the hapless inhabitants of the universe.

I am disinclined to believe that any prime mover behind the workings of this universe is intelligent. I think a plausible prime mover would not be fully aware of itself, but would be aware enough to feel a disconnection between what currently exists and what things should be—the precursor to frustration, sadness and other emotions that indicate a distinction between the ideal and the real, or even more primal sensations like hunger, thirst and exhaustion. Let’s call it the Dissatisfied Prime Mover. Such an entity does not have to cognise the dissonance between the experienced and the desired; it can merely sense that such a difference exists and set actions into motion that increase its level of satisfaction slowly to the point that the universe can continue to unfurl autonomously after this prime mover has instantiated it. I imagine a process like Darwinian evolution itself: a gradual, incremental set of processes behind the existence of the universe and its laws that emerged through a series of smaller, seemingly imperceptible events. The Dissatisfied Prime Mover would be morally neutral, since it would not be intelligent enough to even understand what morality meant in the first place. It would simply need to be able to push enough events into motion to allow the universe to function as it does. The apparatus that comes with Christianity, Hinduism and other more explicitly theistic religions is unnecessary under this model; religions like these propose that humanity and the universe generally were deliberately created by an intelligent entity or entities. Unfortunately, the sheer number of kludges and hacks in our universe, especially in complex organisms like plants and animals, does not suggest that a fully aware, intelligent creator was behind them. The evidence suggests that if the universe does have a prime mover, then they wouldn’t act with the precision expected from the likes of Yahweh. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, speculates that the universe may have been more organised in its early stages than it currently is. This would make sense if there were a Dissatisfied Prime Mover; the DPM - a sufficiently complex entity - could set things into motion well enough for them to run on their own. While the level of entropy would increase from the DPM’s non-involvement, there would be enough order to allow the universe to continue existing.

If there are intelligent entities driving both the creation and functioning of the universe, it feels more likely to me that there should be more than one, each with its own goals and priorities; there are too many contradictions in how individual human cultures view divinity to suggest that they are perceiving the actions of the same internally consistent cosmic intelligence. About fourteen years ago, I said,

Even when 'God' speaks to people, he seems to say different things to people of different religions. How can that be if God only operates through Christianity? You do not hear of Hindus converting to Christianity unless there are missionaries present. Religion is something that is conditioned into children by others. We do not believe in God unless we are told there is a God. I know that I did not know about God from Day One and that I was told about him later. The gods of religious people tell them things that are consistent with their religion. Do fundamentalist Christians suddenly get messages from God telling them to follow Shiva or Ganesh instead? Of course not. It is inconsistent with their belief system. 

Again, these cosmic intelligences don’t have to be anthropomorphic gods who intercede directly in the lives of living beings, like Zeus or Shiva; they can be more conscious versions of the Dissatisfied Prime Mover or other kinds of beings whose essence is beyond the ken of humankind. Like entirely random intelligences or the single Dissatisfied Prime Mover, competing Dissatisfied Prime Movers (possibly descended from the original DPM) or more intelligent entities can potentially explain the universe and its contradictions more elegantly than elaborate, entirely unfalsifiable mythologies. In any case, I’m not committed to any one particular explanation for the existence of the universe, though I am more convinced by parsimonious explanations that explain the emergence of ostensible order from chaos than I am inelegant mythologies that add unnecessary complications. I also don’t feel that it’s an absolute requirement to impute the existence of a conscious or intelligent entity to explain the origins of the universe, but if I do, I don’t want to create or adopt beliefs that are massive mythological, theological and cosmological edifices that don’t get to the heart of the problem.

© Finn M Gardiner 2018. All rights reserved unless otherwise specified.