The Apple and the Multiverse, Revisited: The Emanations of God


We left off last time with hints of fascinating implications of the idea of God making the universe by His emanations.  To refresh, we noted that “creation” implies making something ex nihilo–out of nothingness.  The thing so created is existentially separate from God, although, according to Thomist thought, at least, it requires His ongoing action to continue in existence.  By contrast, “emanation” implies a “flowing into”, whereby a “part” of God “flows into” what He makes, bringing it into existence.  In a sense, the things emanated are not existentially or ontologically separate from God.  Let’s look at this latter mode of making a universe in more detail.

First, it’s necessary to point out that no amount of emanation–no amount of “flowing out”–ever exhausts God’s essence.  A reservoir has a limited amount of water to flow out into irrigation channels, to households, and so on.  Let out too much and it will be left dry.  Likewise, if I keep pinching smaller lumps of clay off of a larger lump, sooner or later there will be no large lump left.  It doesn’t work that way with God, though–there’s no limit to the number of beings or entities (the technical theological term is “creature”–we use it to mean animals, but literally, “creature” means anything, animal, vegetable, or mineral, that has been created.  It is in this sense that I’ll use the term here) which He can emanate.  This is simply because God is infinite.

I won’t belabor the point too much, since it involves mathematics (and I’ve taught math too long to have high expectations as to people’s receptivity to it!).  Simply put, albeit counterintuitively, some infinities are bigger than other infinities.  Rather than explaining how that is, I’ll refer interested readers to George Gamow’s excellent One, Two, Three…Infinity.  Such concepts are important in Georg Cantor’s development of transfinite numbers.  Another excellent discussion for the general reader is Infinity and the Mind, by Rudy Rucker.  In any case, the interesting thing about infinite sets is that they can be equal in size to their proper subsets–or in plain English, a part can be equal to a whole.  For example, if you took all the odd numbers out of the set of integers (1, 2, 3…) the number of evens left would be the same as the number of odds, and the same as the number of all integers put together.  If you went through the remaining evens and sorted out, say, the multiples of seven (14, 28, 42, 56…), the same would be true.  One could continue taking out set after set after set (finite or infinite) and still be left with an infinite set remaining.  An excellent thought experiment demonstrating this is Hilbert’s Hotel.

The point of all this is that God can create any number of beings by emanation without being “used up”, since He is infinite.  God, in fact, is not only infinite, but the “most infinite” of all infinities, or what Cantor referred to as the Absolutely Infinite (referred to sometimes as Ω).  Not only can He create as much as He likes, He can create infinitely many things, and in fact, infinitely many collections of things–that is, He can create infinitely many universes, if He likes.  All this without ever being diminished in the slightest.  Thus, it is perfectly consistent to say that God emanates an infinity while remaining ultimately unchanged and infinite Himself.

Some time ago I discussed the possible worlds God might have made, in the context of the Fall.  Whether one subscribes to an emanationist view of creation or not, it would seem not only logical but necessary, given that God is the Absolutely Infinite (or, Kabbalistically speaking, Ein Soph), that He contains, at least in His mind and knowledge, all conceivably possible universes, whether or not He actualizes them.  Please note “conceivably” in the phrase “all conceivably possible universes”.  God could not, for example, hold in His mind a universe in which there was no God.  He might conceptualize one in which no God was manifest; but by the very fact that such a world is in the mind of God to begin with, and hence that God is a “background” presence in such a world, said world is not godless at all.  By similar reasoning, which I’ve alluded to before and may develop in the future, I’d argue that God could not contain in His mind a totally evil world.

It is thus evident that God can create any world and as many worlds–infinitely many–as He wants by emanation, while in no way becoming diminished.  This leaves a few other questions, though.  First:  If God emanates–“flows into”–us, then how are we to conceptualize this?  God is pure spirit–we are matter.  Aren’t these very different things?  As I’ve pointed out before, I think the best way to look at this is in terms of dreams.  When we dream, the beings in the dream are of different substance from us, and do not exist in the same way we do.  Despite this, we hold the dream world in existence as long as we sleep.  Our dreams are both other than we are and existentially inseparable.  We “flow into” the dream objects and people without being ourselves diminished.  In light of what we’ve discussed, then, we could say that in a sense we are God’s dream.

That leads us to second question:  God can make any and all worlds He wishes; but which ones does He make?  Another way to put it is to ask what the difference is between a potential world in God’s mind and a real one that is actualized?  Alternately, which of God’s dreams are “just” dreams, and which are real worlds?  Unfortunately, I have to say that I don’t actually have an answer to this.

Consider our world; then consider a hypothetical one in which, say, Abraham Lincoln was never assassinated; then consider a fictional one, such as the Land of Oz from the books of L. Frank Baum.  Our world–let’s follow DC Comics and call it Earth Prime–was known by God down to every last detail for all eternity before He ever created (or emanated) it.  In His mind, even before He made it, it was present to Him in detail as perfect as if it did exist.  Well and good.  However, given that God is infinite and omniscient, it must also be the case that He has the world in which Lincoln lived (call it Earth A) before His mind in equally perfect detail.  Of course, the same must be true of Earth O (the Land of Oz).  All of these–and all possible worlds–are before God’s mind in equally perfect detail.  Whether He actualizes one or not, He sees it as if it existed in reality.  Now some worlds cannot exist, even in principle, even in God’s mind.  For example, no world will contain married bachelors or finite wholes that are smaller than their parts, and in no world will 2 + 2 = 728.  Such logically impossible worlds can’t exist in any manner, potential or actual.  But what of worlds that, while logically possible, seem otherwise fantastic, such as Oz?

Well, short of Divine revelation, I can’t see any possible way to differentiate  Oz from Earth Prime in any meaningful sense.  This, a bit to my chagrin, puts me in the modal realism camp–that is to say, the philosophical system, most notably expounded by David Kellogg Lewis, according to which all potential worlds (at least the logically possible ones) are equally real.  I have some reservations about this as a philosophical system, especially in terms of how Lewis tries to use it to explain counterfactual (“what if”) statements.  Nevertheless, in terms of what we’re discussing here, I can’t see any means we  have of telling which possible worlds God has, or has not, or may in the “future” (that’s a problem in this context, too, but enough for now) actualize.

One might take a Scholastic/Thomist view and argue that the real cosmoi (plural of “cosmos”) are those which God actually exnihilates (brings into existence out of nothingness), while the merely potential ones are those that remain in His mind.  Fine as far as it goes, but more problematic than it seems.  Even if God creates a world out of nothing, it does not continue in existence without Him.  As I said in the previous installment (emphasis added):

[In] the traditional Thomist view of God and creation…He holds everything in existence instant to instant.  To put it another way, creation is not a one-time event at the beginning of time, but an ongoing process.  Were God to cease it for an instant, everything would cease to exist.  To put it another way, something created by God lacks its own “inertia” of being.  If I make a chair, it continues to exist without me.  If God makes a universe containing the tree from which the chair was made, the universe, the tree, the carpenter, and the chair made from the tree, cannot persist without God’s ongoing action.

Thus, despite the seemingly radical divide between creation and emanation, it seems that the distinction becomes rather blurred when we look at the continual abiding of God in His creation.  The distinction between a cosmos emanated from God and a cosmos exnihilated by Him but in which His continual presence at the very root of its being is necessary to its continued being seems fine, if not merely semantic.  If creation is not fundamentally much different from emanation, after all, then any distinction between “potential” and “actual” cosmoi seems moot.  In such a case, it’s not to hard to argue that Oz actually is as real as our world.

In terms of issues I’ve been examining on this blog, this conflation of creation and emanation  has two implications.  One is that it allows a broader array of acceptable approaches to examining some of the theological questions we’ve looked at.  So long as we view creation and emanation as polar opposites, incompatible with each other, we have to choose a philosophical operating system, so to speak.  That is, we have to commit either to God-as-Creator or God-as-Emanator, and then use the various conceptual tools of the perspective we choose in studying the theological issues we want to study.  If, however, we consider creation and emanation as more or less the same thing, then we can use concepts and resources proper either to creationist or emanationist systems interchangeably, with no problems or contradictions.  The more tools we have at our disposal, the likelier we are to accomplish something.

Second, it refocuses our look at universalism.  One question I’ve been looking at is whether God could have made a universe in which truly free creatures never fell, and whether it’s possible for free creatures to make freely irrevocable decisions.  From the perspective of modal realism which we’ve been led to accept in this look at emanation, this would be equivalent to asking whether or not universes with free creatures who never fall, or with free creatures who make freely irrevocable decisions are logically possible or not.  I want to turn my efforts back to those questions; hopefully this gives a better framework in which to situate them.

UpdateWhen I started the discussion of creation vs. emanation, I considered them pretty much total opposites completely incompatible with one another.  As can perhaps be seen in the above essay, my thinking on the matter has changed.  If one considers “creation” to mean that God makes the world ex nihilo and ontologically and existentially separate from Himself, then creation is still a polar opposite of emanation.  However, the traditional view of the relationship between God and the world is not really one of total ontological and existential separation.  If that were so, the Scholastic notion of God as constantly creating, constantly holding the cosmos in being, would make no sense.  There is definitely an ontological connection of some sort.

The thing is that once you go there, it gets really hard to maintain a metaphysical distinction between creation and emanation.  The distinction between a universe created out of nothingness but infused and permeated by the energies of God at all levels and held in being by Him instant to instant, on the one hand; and a universe emanated from God, making manifest what was latent within Him, on the other hand; such a distinction seems to be mere semantics.  Thus, I no longer view the distinction between the two as really significant; it’s just two different ways of looking at the same thing.

Now it is true that systems of thought that have taught emanation (the Gnostic schools) have tended to come to different conclusions about the world than those that saw the world as being created (orthodox Judaism and Christianity); but I think those differences are based in other differences, rather than that between emanation and creation.  In fact, I think that both sides got the implications of their views backwards in this regard; but I’ll save that for another post.

Posted on 26/12/2013, in Christianity, mathematics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. As a somewhat NeoPlatonist myself this is pretty interesting food for thought. I’ll have to chew it over a bit more.

  2. Well presented.

    Even with no particular root metaphor or metaphysic, from a vague phenomenological
    perspective, without preconceiving which concepts might be predicated univocally, equivocally or analogically of both our temporal reality and any putative primal and/or ultimate realities, it has always seemed to me that there might be:
    1) an intraobjective identity of our unitary being, an immanent continuity overcoming any causal disjunctions, iow, a same stuff characteristic of reality (e.g. hesychastic distinction of divine energies), emanational, consistent w/univocity of being of Scotus
    2) an intrasubjective integrity of each unified self, iow, an autonomy of our personhoods, consistent w/haecceity of Scotus, radical individuality
    3) an intersubjective intimacy of our unitive strivings, a radical interpersonal reciprocity, pervasively donative relationality
    4) interobjective indeterminacy of an ultimate unicity, radical discontinuities derived from mereological properties, non-overlapping hierarchical realities or such, consistent w/analogy of being, a minimalist transcendence, multiverse conceptions
    5) transjective necessity of the ens necessarium, beyond our probabilistic realities, a modal category that’s wholly transcendent, consistent w/ineffable divine essence, a robust transcendence

    Hard to convey this in a combox w/dense prose, jargon & idiosyncratic notions but … just to say that I resonate with your ideas.

  3. Nice comment Johnboy. I think I’m tracking with a lot of that.

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