Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This question, related to the existence of the universe, is one that, as an atheist, I've been asked on more than one occasion. I have two responses. The first is: why not? And the second is: why God?

Why not?
There is a subtle, and almost hidden, premise here. The premise is that 'nothing', whatever that may be, is actually the default position, and that 'something' is the exception rather than the rule.

I don't think that premise has much weight. Consider the following points:
  • Nobody knows for sure what happened before the Big Bang. We don't know, with any certainty, if there was indeed 'nothing' before the current universe came into being, or if the universe came from some previous 'something'.
  • What is the definition of 'nothing' in this case? If one speaks of 'nothing', are they referring to an absence of everything, including matter, time and space? It is claimed that God created these things, so I would assume that a theist is talking of a kind of 'pure' nothingness, an absence of everything that we understand to be the physical universe.
  • Related to the point above: in all of human experience and history, nobody has experienced or demonstrated 'pure' nothingness. Even in a vacuum space and time exist. In other words, if we consider all our knowledge and all our experience, we can be pretty sure, with a high degree of certainty, that something exists. But the same cannot be said for 'nothing'.
In other words, the idea of nothingness is simply an abstraction. There is no reason to presume that a state of 'nothingness' is actually the default position, if it has even been the case, or even if it is possible. Why should we consider it at all, then?

Why God?

It seems that apologists unwittingly trap themselves when they ask why is there something rather than nothing. Their basic premise is that it is impossible to get something from nothing, more from less. Thus, God has to be the missing link that explains how something came from nothing. But what about God? If the universe (which is something) requires an explanation, then doesn’t God (who is also something) require an explanation too? The question can thus be rephrased:

"Why is there a God (i.e., something) rather than nothing?"

I wonder if the apologist can provide a possible answer to this question.


CyberKitten said...

Theists need to read more about Quantum Mechanics..... [grin]

CRL said...

But if it is more likely there be nothing rather than something, surely, it is more likely that there is no god?

Phil said...


Excellent questions on a widely-discussed topic. I agree with you that pure "nothingness" need not be the default position. However, I would contend that a necessary/independent entity must be the default (and was the original) position, and that an entity which embodies the characteristics of what we might call "God," is the only thing that could fit the bill here. I've discussed this position at length on some of your previous posts (most recently "The difference between reason and faith?" posted on Nov. 7, 2009).

Shirley said...

I tend to be a person of simple thinking; if it gets to the point where I have to work to hard to understand, I let it go. So when it comes to God or no God, for me it is simple. If God offers eternal life in Heaven, and no God offers nothing after we die, I'll take Heaven. Why not? If it is a matter of me living a life where He calls me to live an ordered life of obedience in such things as "doing unto others as I would have them do unto me," and also, that I would do my level best to live (as He said) "so that no child would sin" because of my example ~or else it is doomsday for me~, for sure, I choose God.

CRL said...

Shirley: If you believe in a god, not because you see any evidence for His existence, but because you believe your faith will get you to heaven, which god do you believe in? How does Pascal's wager help you choose between the countless religions humans have embraced throughout history? If you have spent your life serving Jesus, how will that help you if, upon death, you find yourself face to face with Allah?

Many people argue that, while there is no harm in believing in God if He does not in fact exist, there is great harm in failing to believe in a god which exists, I would argue that the first part of this statement is false. While false beliefs themselves are unlikely to hurt us, the self deception required to believe something other than that which appears to be true, coupled with the mental death we undergo when we stop thinking and accept an easy answer are certainly harmful.

BC500 said...

The question is, Why is there something rather than nothing? Your answer is why not.

You seem to be saying that “something” existed prior to the big bang, pure nothingness could have existed, but no one knows because we have no evidence.
Human science, which is limited to this universe, appears to show that pure nothingness does not exist. Indicating that the universe could have always existed in some shape or form. But before the big bang, we don’t know what, if anything, existed. Again, we have no evidence.

Science tells us that the universe had a beginning and that nothing happens without a cause. So the big bang had a cause. We have no evidence, outside of God, for being that causal agent. I have heard a lot of assertions for alternative causes but no evidence.

Since God created the Universe, the laws of the universe, that limit it and us do not necessarily apply to God. God has existed in eternity. You could say that he is eternally smarter than we are and as humans we cannot fully explain or appreciate what that means, how could we?

So to summarize is your position, everything, the material stuff, always existed, and since there is no evidence for that position, it must be based on faith?

Your last question really is: Why does God exist? If God does exist that question is irrelevant.
The whole point of this blog has to do with the decision we make concerning our belief about the existence of God.

The really important question for you is, if God does exist, why is He not more real to you?

Kevin Parry said...

Hi BC500

I find it quite perplexing that you say this and that theory doesn't have any evidence, but then you simply assert "God did it" without providing any evidence yourself.

When it comes to the beginning of the universe, my answer is: "I don't know" until more evidence (for God for some other explanation) is forthcoming.

Anonymous said...

I do not argue for the existence of God (Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: a god that revealed his existence would be an idol. (We need to ask ourselves what kind of a god exists because the god of theology or the god of science is different to the god of Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Jesus. So idolatry is a more pervasive problem then atheism is. God's existence being ambiguous does hint at a type of free will in that had there been evidence for God, atheists would have to begrudgingly and have no excuse but to believe in God so therefore they would not exist) when it comes to science because that is beyond science's scope. I agree with Stephen Hawking, God was not necessary to create the universe and the anthropic principle implies design, and I think it just as plausible that God may have created the universe through an idea such as the multiverse.

As many of you have already pointed out physics still has remnants of Newtonian/Cartesian influences in other words 'first causes'. Quantum mechanics and its 'unpredictibility' has turned that on its head. Some people philosophically speaking that is when speaking of how God interacts in the world actually can picture quantum mechanics' indeterminancy as possibly the causal joint how God works in the world.

Some theologians are moving from a supernatural all powerful God to a noninterventionist, vulnerable God obviously this is not without its philosophical loopholes.

Speaking of your question: The question can thus be rephrased:

"Why is there a God (i.e., something) rather than nothing?"

Reminds me of two things, firstly, the atheist Bertrand Russell's question when he was 10 years old, "Who made God?" In reply to that I would like to ask, "Who made mathematics?" The comprehensibility of the universe mathematically is still a mystery to us as Einstein pointed out.

Also absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of Absence in relation to God's existence in this case.

And secondly though slightly more than second :), is that atheists such as Richard Dawkins claims that are in competition so what he is in effect saying that science can answer the questions of faith which in effect means that he is setting science as a religion. Carl Sagan also seems to have a scientistic worldview that is parallel to Christianity for instance in Cosmos he declares that there is and ever was only the universe so he has an account of ultimate reality, sin: is caused by the reptilian part of the brain that causes aggression, lust, and territoriality. As for salvation he believes that that comes through knowledge which we may also receive from ExtraTerrestrialIntelligence, but we cannot build our hopes on something for which there is no evidence as yet, so science is trespassing into the realm of myth. You just need to look at quotes by some SETI contemporaries such as Frank Drake:The ETI myth begins to reveal its shape as Frank Drake gives voice to speculations reflecting contact optimism. “Everything we know says there are other civilizations out there to be found. The discovery of such civilizations would enrich our civilization with valuable information about science, technology, and sociology. This information could directly improve our abilities to conserve and to deal with sociological problems - poverty for example. Cheap energy is another potential benefit of discovery, as are advancements in medicine” (Cited by Richards, Diane (2003). “Interview with Dr. Frank Drake,” SETI Institute News, 12:1; First Quarter, 5). Note how this optimism extends well beyond mere contact with ETIL. It includes optimism regarding the solution to “sociological” problems such as poverty and energy while giving us a leap forward in medicine. What Drake believes is that science is salvific, and extraterrestrial science would be even more salvific than earth’s science.

Evolution occurred by chance and I am giving God a chance is how Pascal's wager applies to me.

Luis said...

It’s not at all obvious that the category of ‘pure nothingness’ is even meaningful, but what is obvious (once you get the hang of the idea) is that ‘disembodied, immaterial minds’ are meaningless.

What is a mind? A mind is a functional aspect of a physical system. It is only because of this that minds are at all able to interact with the physical world. The stuff of minds, as it were, is thoughts: representations of entities in the world. The representations are not the things themselves. When I think of a car, it doesn’t mean that I have a car in my head. It means that there are certain patterns in my head that are accessed by another part of my head, patterns that have a certain correspondence to the thing being represented. I cannot, through an act of will, cause the car being represented to materialize. The theistic narrative of ‘pure will’ is a linguistic trick; will by itself is not a standalone ‘thing’ that could ever effect something to come into existence. It is only because will, along with other mental phenomena, are part of a physical system that they can have any efficacy. Take away that context, and this efficacy disappears. In other words, theists are taking something from the physical domain, and trying to transplant it into another domain, imaging that it will remain meaningful. But to do this, they have to ignore the requisite structure that needs to exist before there can be a representational system capable of willing in the first place.

Theists often say that God has some attribute of ‘power’, but this isn’t an account of how the bridging is done, it’s merely a claim that such a bridging can be actuated via this supposed route. Why is ‘pure will’ imagined to endow something with infinite power of action in the physical domain? Entities – us humans, for example – that are at least endowed with the attribute of physicality cannot bring something into existence through mere volition. How does an entity that lacks even the attribute of physicality somehow acquire a massive competence in this domain?

Immaterial minds are clearly nonsensical categories. As mentioned, a mind can only be understood as part of a system, in which information is acquired through some apparatus, organized as a pattern, stored, and then retrieved. These are the prerequisites of mind. Minds, then, are aspects of heterogeneous systems necessarily composed of components. They exist in the temporal domain, because to perform their computational role (the process of thinking), brains have to process information and then access it, something that requires that there be a temporal sequence of events. But God is imagined to be atemporal. How, then, is he imagined to think? A homogeneous slab of spirit-stuff that exists outside of time isn’t the type of entity with any competence to think, because it has no computational capability. Someone might say that God doesn’t need to think because he’s omnipotent and he just knows everything. But what sort of a ‘mind’ is this? This won’t work anyway because again we see here an imputation of a nonsensical category: ‘Godly power’ deriving from ‘pure will’ (or is it the other way around?). Godly power, again, is an endpoint description, not a description of the pathway. In fact, it’s a refusal to even posit the pathway, because the willing is itself somehow imagined to be sufficient by itself as the locomotive force that ‘brings the universe into existence'. But there is absolutely NO REASON to suppose that this is possible, or that it could be possible.

Luis said...

Let it be true that God has infinite will; this would not make one iota of difference, because willing is not an actuating mechanism, and nor is more willing, and still more willing. What’s the linkage that connects the thing being represented to the thing being actualized? It is a wish; it is to partake in a representational exercise involving mental phenomena. But that doesn’t make it a bridge-crosser. Wishing by itself does not translate into wish fulfillment, and nor does a massive wallop of it (or even an infinite wallop of it, whatever it might mean for something to have ‘infinite will’). It is actually will that is the endpoint: of a physical process. To reverse the narrative and have will as the precedent is to forfeit knowledge of what minds are and to instead favour archaic notions of them – that they are ‘separate’ from but somehow interact with bodies. But that's all they are: archaic notions.

Finally, God is imagined to haunt the ‘pure nothingness’ that supposedly came before the Big Bang. In this nothingness, there were no people, cars, trees or raccoons. These things now exist, but as we’ve seen, thinking is a process in which representations are formed and accessed. In the void, there was nothing to represent, no apparatus upon which representations could be formulated, and no bridging mechanism to get from one to the other. God, even if he exists, is utterly superfluous, necessarily having nothing to do with the universe or its origins.

Anonymous said...

Read the guru granth sahib will get all the answers..

BC500 said...

Luis your entire premise fails because you set up false ideas about God. In any list of the attributes of God or His characteristics I can not find any thing about “pure will” or “infinite will”. How did you come up with the idea that God is disembodied or immaterial? These are false suppositions that you easily defeat.

You say that a thinking process is needed to bring about the existence of people, cars, trees or raccoons, so since that stuff exists what was it that brought it about?

We will exclude “cars” since we know humans invented those.

By your logic we need a bridge to bring about existence of the things you mentioned so why could God not have done it?

If God did not bring about the origin of the Universe what did

Kevin Parry said...

BC500 wrote
If God did not bring about the origin of the Universe what did

I speak for myself here. I don't claim that god didn't create the universe. I just don't know what did. And until further evidence is in (for whatever explanation, scientific or supernatural or something else)"I don't know" will remain as my answer.

So I don't make any claims about how the universe came to be. You, on the other hand, claim that a god was responsible, so the burden of proof is on you to provide evidence.

Luis said...

Hi BC500. Sorry for the delay in responding. I was busy with work so I apologise.

You say:

'Luis your entire premise fails because you set up false ideas about God. In any list of the attributes of God or His characteristics I can not find any thing about “pure will” or “infinite will”. How did you come up with the idea that God is disembodied or immaterial?''

I didn't come up with this idea. I garnered it whole-cloth from many discussions with theists, and from the claims made by theologians like William Lane Craig and others. I hear again and again the claim that God is not composed of matter (since matter is the very thing that is thought to require an 'origin'. God is imagined to be something 'beyond' matter), that God is 'beyond' space and time (which means that he must be extricated from the goings-on of the physical realm, which he is imagined to also do, since he can wreak violations of physical regularities), and so on. I think that your incredulity here is misplaced.

'These are false suppositions that you easily defeat.'

They are indeed easy to defeat, but insofar as what they say about the actual beliefs of many theists, they are right on the money. If theists mean to talk about God as though he is 'one with the universe', or some such, or perhaps that the universe 'is' God, then it's hard to know where the delineation for God and physicality (and all its attendant processes, systems, dynamics, structures and hierarchies) actually lies. This would seem to be a relabeling of the category of God to how it was traditional conceived, so that it can escape its more absurd implications, while keeping enough of it in an (ultimately vain) attempt to refute the atheists.

'You say that a thinking process is needed to bring about the existence of people, cars, trees or raccoons, so since that stuff exists what was it that brought it about?'

I said nothing remotely like that. I said that there is a world of difference between the conception of an entity and the entity itself. A thinking process, itself grounded in material interactions in the brain, and certain interactions with the environment (involving the manipulation and reconfiguration of chunks of matter) is of course needed to bring about artefacts like cars, which are not themselves capable of inter-generational modification without human intervention. Things like racoons and trees, on the other hand, are subject to material processes independent of minds, namely evolutionary processes.

'By your logic we need a bridge to bring about existence of the things you mentioned so why could God not have done it?'

As I mentioned: because he, being immaterial, has nothing to latch onto and have material efficacy. It's precisely the logic that I'm railing against and trying to expose as incoherent. Please reread what I wrote.

'If God did not bring about the origin of the Universe what did'

Nothing did. The universe didn't have an origin.

Informeaboutatheist said...

Firstly, I want to apologize for my lack of understanding on atheist ideology, and if I say something wrong or insulting towards this targeted population. Forgive me if I offend you but it's my opinion and ideas I held from past.
if you are an atheist person, all I understand here is you trying to find some sort of support system or perhaps an approval from your non-believer peers to what it is right, wrong, and in between. All the atheist people I have met, gives me the idea that they are only here to question, or look for answers that won't be really found in gazillion years or perhaps never. As if their function were to question anything that has to do with religion or the existence of a something, at times referred as God. They don't believe in anything, but they are still going on and on about where we came from or what we really are. Is it that hard to follow some rules, take it as if your boss is commanding you to do something. You don't know the origen of human beings but you atheist are still believing in them one way or another. I don't get that. If you can believe and trust in human being at times without really knowing their existence. Why is it so hard to hold onto something "a God" that can provide for many things even eternal life even if it was not real according to atheist ideologists. I want to understand a bit more as in what do you atheist people gain? What sort of satisfaction do you acquire by questioning the existence of the universe, life or even God?