While doing graduate studies in Belgium, I was privileged to have as one of my professors, Jan Walgrave, a Dominican scholar, now deceased, who was a rare, precious combination of childlike simplicity, warmhearted holiness, and daunting scholarship. One day he asked me: “Do you ever sit on a park-bench and ask yourself: Why is there something instead of nothing?” I was young at the time, not much given to metaphysics, and answered honestly: “No! I don’t spontaneously ask myself that question. I’ve asked it sometimes studying or praying, but it’s not something that comes to me all by itself on park-benches.” He looked at me and said: “Then you aren’t a real philosopher.” Then, smiling, he added: “I ask myself that question every day!”
Indeed, why is there something instead of nothing? I didn’t ask myself that question much when I was younger but now, in mid-life, I have begun more and more to spontaneously ask it (though not because I want to be seen as a philosopher). No. I ask it now because whenever I try to imagine the existence of God, something that’s natural for a believer to want to do, I eventually run into this question: Why is there something instead of nothing?
It emerges this way: If we try to imagine that God exists, immediately a bevy of questions will leap to the fore: How can someone always have been? Where did God come from? How can an all-good, all-loving, all-powerful, personal Being of this kind have come into existence? How can such a Being exist? But the imagination is pretty powerless in the face of these questions. For it to grasp something, it has to make a certain picture of it and it cannot do so in this case. Faced with these questions, it runs dry, draws a blank, has nothing within its bag of tricks with which to make a satisfying picture.
And so the danger is this: Because the imagination cannot give us a satisfying picture as to how God can exist, we easily confuse this with doubt. Our failure to picture the existence of God, to imagine it, can give the impression that God in fact does not exist. How can God exist, we feel, if we are unable “picture” this existence? That’s a valid logic, to a point, but we must be careful not to identify a weak imagination with a weak faith; or, worse still, decide (as many have done) that since we cannot satisfactorily know God in our imaginations, by that token God does not exist. God’s existence does not depend upon the power of the human imagination, or on anything else.
The human imagination, for all its marvels, is quite limited and is not, in the end, the primary tool through which we know the deeper things. We know many of the truths that are most dear to us – truths about love, trust, and faith – in darker, more inchoate, ways. And this isn’t just true in terms of our sense of whether or not God exists. The limits of human imagination are manifest even when contemplating finite things. For example, it is not easy to imagine the magnitude of our universe. Scientists today offer the educated guess that there exist about five billion universes for every person who is now alive on this planet. That makes for about twenty-five billion universes! Trying to picture this tests the limits of the mind and imagination, though, being finite, this is still imaginable.
What isn’t imaginable is what ultimately lies at our origins and posits the question: Why is there something instead of nothing? Because even if we bracket the question of God and simply try to imagine the origins of ourselves and our universe, we find that, just as in the case of trying to picture God’s existence, the imagination runs out of room: What lies at the origins of everything? Where did things start from? From where did the primordial atom which was the source of the big bang itself originate? How did reality first come into existence? How can it always have been? In the face of these questions too the imagination cannot make any satisfying constructs. When contemplating ultimate origins, it draws a blank.
So, in essence, the existence of our universe (and us within it) is as mysterious, inexplicable, and beyond the imagination as is the existence of God. In neither case can we imaginatively picture its origins. In both cases, we posit a knowledge and a trust on the basis of something beyond the imagination, namely, a faith of some kind. At a certain point, whether we are talking about God, the universe, or ourselves, the question is the exactly the same: “Why is there something instead of nothing?”
Somewhere Jan Walgrave is smiling. So too, I suspect, is any philosopher worth that name.