If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
— Carl Sagan
I am old enough to to remember the first incarnation of Cosmos, written and hosted by astrophysicist Carl Sagan: a visual tour of the physical universe conducted by a rather theatrical and charismatic popularizer of science. The PBS series, and the book from which it came, opened — as I recall — with this:
The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
It is clear from this bit of beautiful writing, that Sagan had passed beyond science as a discipline for exploring the physical universe to scientism as neo-religion. That the “Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be,” is a statement not amenable to scientific verification. It is an unproven axiom, a tenet of scientistic faith. Whether it is right or wrong, science cannot even in principle tell us.
Just now, however, I find myself wanting an apple pie made from scratch. And here, Sagan is right, or nearly so. To make an apple pie you need the universe. But why? Why do I need anything more than a grocery store that stocks flour, sugar, apples and the other items in the recipe? Sagan’s point — and a very good one — is that each of these ingredients is contingent, that its existence depends on something else, on a whole host of other factors. Take the apples for example; Granny Smith would probably be my choice for the pie. The apples are contingent upon proper growing conditions: good soil, adequate rainfall, proper temperature, sunlight. So, to make an apple pie, I need the earth, its climate, and the sun.
But we cannot stop there, because each of these factors is also contingent. Take the earth, for example. It consists, in part, of heavy elements like iron, copper, and, well, every naturally occurring element “heavier” than helium on the periodic table. But these elements were forged in the fires of ancient stellar explosions. So, to make an apple pie we need a vast host of stars massive enough to produce supernovae.
But, we cannot stop there, because these stars are also contingent. And back we go to the necessity of the universe itself. So, it seems Sagan was right: If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. That is true not just for apples, of course, but for flour and water and you, the baker, and for any physical being in the universe. If you want to explain the existence of any of these beings, you must first invent the universe, because every physical being is contingent. Nothing in this universe is self-explanatory or self-caused.
Sagan pushed us back to all the way from apple pies to the universe itself, contingency upon contingency. The entire universe is but a matrix of contingencies held in tension through the laws of nature, the physical properties which govern the interactions of physical beings: chemistry, physics, biology. But, Sagan stopped too soon, when things were just beginning to get interesting. He cut the exploration short with his dogma:
The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.
But wait. The Cosmos is simply the name for the sum total of all physical beings and the relationships that exist among them. If all parts of the universe are contingent, then certainly the whole of them must be contingent. That is, the Cosmos itself must be contingent. It is neither self-explanatory nor self-caused; it is contingent. We are left with the fundamental question: Why is there something instead of nothing? And, we are left with the realization that nothing that is itself contingent — not even the Cosmos — can be the answer to that question. Science may bring us near the finish line of understanding, but it cannot help us cross it. The answer — the fully rational answer — is supra-scientific; it transcends the epistemology of science.
If the contingent universe exists, and if nothing contingent can explain its existence, then the only rational explanation is that the universe exists because of a transcendent, non-contingent cause, a cause whose very essence is “to be.” This cause is not a contingent being within the universe, but is itself the ground and source of all being. It is this cause that we call “god.”
St. Thomas Aquinas gave us this rational argument for the existence of god, the argument from contingency. It is not yet a Christian argument; it doesn’t end with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But it is a serious, rational challenge to scientism, to the notion that only that which can be known and proven through the scientific method is valid and true. It is philosophy, and, in that it ends with god, it is theology. Can we get from this starting point to the Christian god? Could this abstract, non-contingent source and ground of all being perhaps be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God revealed in and through Jesus Christ? That is still a long journey, but there are some signposts along the way, some hints that Jews and Christians understand god in precisely this way.
John 1:1–3 (ESV): 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
Clearly, John, echoing Genesis, considered God as the source of all contingent beings, existing before creation, and thus existing outside of — transcending — the cosmos. When Moses asked God’s name, God replied enigmatically: “I Am.” This is less a name than a philosophical axiom: God is not another being in the universe that can be named and exhaustively known, but rather is the essence of being itself: I Am — self-explanatory, non-contingent. And then, there is Paul’s unparalleled address to the philosophers in the Areopagus, which is well worth reading in full:
Acts 17:22–31 (ESV): 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for
“ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
At the heart of this address is Paul’s assertion that “in him [the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ] we live and move and have our being.” God is not a being as we are, but rather is the source and ground of being, the actualization of all contingencies.
This is not yet proof of the Christian concept of God, but rather a demonstration that it agrees with the rational answer to the question: Why is there something instead of nothing? And, it postulates a god far different than the ancient or neo-pagan gods that are beings within the world or personified expressions of powers within the world (lightening, wind, rain, etc.). It is far different than Sagan’s deification of the Cosmos. And that is an important first step in our understanding of God, and an important first step in our apology for our faith.