Explaining Existence - Willem Drees | Closer to Truth

Explaining Existence - Willem Drees

Willem Drees - Science and Religion

Willem Drees

Willem Bernard Drees holds the chair in philosophy of religion and ethics, in the Leiden Institute of Religious Studies, Leiden University, since 2001. Drees is also editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.

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Willem
Drees

Philosophy of Religion, Leiden University

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Wim, in dealing with the ultimate existence question, I, I am put into a state of dizziness thinking about, could it be possible that there would be nothing? Not just no objects, but no space, no time, no laws, no abstract objects; anything. Just anything. And it's, it's so... it's such a distressing question that it's an important (prove?) From your perspective, as an expert in science and religion and being very knowledgeable of both sides of that, how do, how do you look at that ultimate question?

Willem Drees:

Why- whether there could be nothing, just philosophically speaking I think that's conceptually a possibility. There would be no one to, to raise the question there, but, uh, so yes that's... I, I do find it one of the... the persistent philosophical questions at the boundary of science. It's not a question that science will answer. Any scientific explanation, say the weather today explains- is explained by the weather of yesterday and laws of nature in between. Uh and you might continue the sequence, and sometimes the questions may change in the sequence but you always, in a scientific explanation, you always bring something already in the picture, and then from there explain the later stage or the more fundamental, uh. So, there are sequences of, of passing on answers but also passing on questions, to the other stage.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah, many scientists today claim that they answer the question, why there is something, because something can pop out of nothing through the laws of quantum physics, indeterminacy, and so particles, virtual particles can come and occasionally they will survive and blow up into a universe. I mean, they claim they can answer that question.

Willem Drees:

Yes, this is a good example of the problem itself. That the quantum kind of bubbling up of possibilities, I do think that's a genuine possibility, where say something with a negative electric charge and a positive one might both pop up in existence and it's, together it's zero so it's not violating anything. But you need a kind of structure there, a kind of reality, more and more incomprehensible, more and more far removed from how we (explains?), but you need some reality where there's probability that things happen, is, is part of the story. So, you can't get away from any structure at all if you don't introduce a kind of narrative uh kind of structure already, but then you don't get to this bubbling up of possibilities and some of them may be expanding to become, uh, well large scale observable reality. Parts of reality. There's a physicist, Charles Misner, years ago, decades ago, who said well to say that God explained the universe doesn't really explain the universe, and it doesn't explain God either. But it keeps us at least alive to mysteries of awesome majesty that we might otherwise ignore. I, I don't think there is a kind of, uh... to this chain of questions that to say God did it really answers it. It's more saying well, uh, it's not something we can answer in scientific terms, and we, we have some way of saying that in, in human language. But it's not really, uh proving God but it's not either, uh, but it's, it is a, a kind of boundary issue that all our understanding raises.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Do you- do you see then God as sort of a, a name put on uh, a mystery?

Willem Drees:

Yes. I... we are humans who are... fairly small beings in this universe and we are turning from the inside. We can't look at it from the outside. Try to reconstruct where we are and what our surrounding is. And we, we have... well, invented, at least in Western languages one word to, to address that, that source of existence. Uh, yeah. And it doesn't escape that it's partly our construction, our, our best guess at, at the thing.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

To what approximation, if you take the two extreme explanations, if there is an explanation; one is that the laws of quantum physics that bubble up these universes uh, um, uh, out of nothing. And the other is God who creates it out of nothing. Uh, they both seem kind of equivalent in terms... I mean they're radically different in character but equivalent in, in style because they both are sort of there in a self-existing sense, and the claim is that they- that's what you started with. And so, you can have a god do it or you can have quantum uh bubbling do it. In one sense, if you stand back from it, that doesn't seem very much different.

Willem Drees:

I think we must live with uncertainty and, and a kind of un-final, uh, never-finished understanding. I'm not too much troubled by that. There is a difference I think in, if it's a kind of scientific story, than say like those quantum bubbles. Uh, well there may be some more specific nature to it. You might do some calculations and so on so it has a certain strength to it, a precision to it. But if you look more closely, philosophically I think it, it is incomplete and raises always further questions. That's my understanding of any scientific theory. Uh if you put in God there, you bring in all the baggage of a particular tradition, or of, of various traditions, uh and some of that you, you want to avoid, because it's, it's too much anthropomorphic. It's too human an image. Uh, but, but you also say well, at least in the better theologies you say it's, it's beyond human comprehension. It's, it's more, uh acknowledging that we don't know. There's a history of, of negative theology as well, which is a positive project. It's not negative in a, in a human sense of what are you negative about someone else. But it's acknowledging our limitations.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, you can say all the things you don't know about God or ultimate reality, uh but not the things you do know, and those negatives express a certain sense of uh, of awe and uh, and recognizing human limitations.

Willem Drees:

Precisely. That there's an open end to our inquiry where we may be grateful and wonder all, without saying we have the answer.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Hmm. Now, your comfort with not having and answer, which is not me by the way. I'm not comfortable. I'm, I'm very uncomfortable, very uneasy, very aggravated. So maybe I need to uh, to have you counsel me so how I can adjust to, to this lack of answer but, um, so this um, the- from your point of view, is the, is it that you're comfortable because you don't know an answer, or are you saying it's possible there is no answer? There's a difference. There is no answer, or, there is an answer but I'll never know it and human beings will never know it and I'm comfortable with that.

Willem Drees:

I'm more leaning to the second position, there is no answer. There are no, uh, we will not know the answer.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

There is an answer though.

Willem Drees:

Uh... but uh, I also am aware that sometimes you may... that there may not be a answer as a single answer. That sometimes the same situation may have multiple descriptions, and so you have multiple answers in a sense that are different, but coexisting. Especially in cosmology where you have the speculative dimension to it, uh, or... well maybe also more in human experience. You might describe say a, a movie, uh in terms of the, the storyline from the beginning to the end. But you can also have the total script as a package. And same we do have in physics, that you may have a description that goes through time or a description that takes the whole of spacetime as a package. And I do think those descriptions can coexist, and they may give rise to different ways of thinking about the larger picture. Uh, and... well it may be impossible to say which is the right one or they may both be correct descriptions. That there is not a single description that does it all.