Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 2: Something from Nothing

You can find part 1 here.

As I said in the last post, my friend UnkleE gave me a series of questions recently that he believes present difficult problems for an atheist’s worldview. I had forgotten, but we’ve actually had similar discussions before, and you can find them here, here, and here (thanks for the reminder, Howie).

Anyway, this time around, one of the questions UnkleE asked was this:

How did something arise out of nothing? (Or how can a series of events have no start?)

As my regular readers know, I was a devout, fundamentalist Christian for many years. When my doubts began reaching their peak, I still didn’t seriously question the existence of God. While I was approaching certainty that the Judeo-Christian god couldn’t be real, questions like the one above led me to join the camp of numerous others who were certain that there must be some kind of creator.

But as time went on, I began to realize that there’s a gigantic assumption built into that question. We’re looking at the observable state of things that assuming that “NOTHING” must have preceded it. But how do we know that?

Those who believe in some kind of creator are asking if we accept Big Bang cosmology, then what preceded the singularity that caused the Big Bang? And of course, no one knows. But we should not assume that the default state of things is “nothingness.” If there were no stars in our universe, we might say that it’s empty and that “nothing” is there. But that would make as much sense as being in a room with absolutely no light and saying that “nothing” is there, too. Empty space is actually full of all kinds of particles and forces that scientists puzzle over, so it’s not really true to call it “nothing” or even “empty.” In fact, true “nothingness” has never been demonstrated. We can’t be certain that it’s even a possibility.

And this, to me, is the center of the problem with this question. It’s very possible that the question itself is nonsensical, and if that’s the case, it can’t be used as the basis for an argument.

When it comes down to what caused the Big Bang, we just don’t know. And since time and space appear to be intertwined, perhaps it doesn’t even make sense to talk about something that predates spacetime. Again, we don’t know.

Atheism, as I use it, is just lack of belief in a god. I’m always open to the possibility that one exists, or that reality as we know it is dependent upon something way beyond our current understanding. We’re learning new things all the time. But as has been pointed out by plenty of people before me, the time to believe in a thing is when sufficient evidence has been provided for it. The question “How did something arise out of nothing?” may not be a good question. And even if it is, perhaps there’s a natural answer to it — we simply don’t know. But it certainly does not count as evidence for the supernatural, much less a supernatural, powerful being with its own personality.

Simply put, I don’t find this to be a difficult question for atheism. But even if it were, I don’t think theism would be in a much better position to answer it. If this universe is so complex that people can’t imagine how it could exist without a creator, what does that say about a creator complex enough to create such a universe? And of course, the typical response to that is to define God as eternal, thus not needing a cause. But why couldn’t such an explanation apply to the elements and forces that preceded the Big Bang?

To put it another way, ignorance is not the basis for an argument. Thousands of years ago, no one knew what caused lightning. Many people were happy to suggest that it was caused by the gods. Anyone skeptical of that suggestion at the time couldn’t offer a better hypothesis, but that certainly didn’t mean that those who had a guess were right. Nor were they justified in believing those claims, because ignorance is not evidence.

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19 thoughts on “Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 2: Something from Nothing”

  1. Hey Nate. Thanks for the mention – glad to help in reminding that we’ve discussed these before. It’s kind of funny how thesse things get re-hashed so many times without us seeming to get anywhere. πŸ˜‰

    I actually read every comment (including some of AR’s doozys) in the last post and I personally think the free-will question is a wash between theism/non-theism, but that discussion is frankly too abstract, complex and confusing for me to really judge well either way.

    I’ve given the question of this post quite a lot of thought before and I simply don’t see how this question is answered better by theism. To me I honestly think this question is answered quite a bit better in a non-theistic worldview.

    The ultimate God of theism is a mind that is said to know absolutely every fact there is to know and is also completely powerful to do anything logically possible. I just cannot see how that is “nothing” – it is a whole lot more than nothing. But that is what the theistic answer says – they say that something cannot come from nothing, but then their solution is to posit quite a bit of something (what they call God) that has always existed. If something cannot come from nothing, and God is very clearly a whole lot of “something” then the solution just does not work. And so we’re still left with the question then – how could that “something” have arisen from nothing?

    So what is a better solution then? Well, the problem it seems stems from the fact that we have a hard time seeing how something as complex as our universe could have arisen. We already know that very complex human beings have arisen through a natural process from very simple organisms. And we already have a good understanding about how complex planets came about from simpler elements. To me the better answer follows along with this evidence that we have. Instead of a necessary “mind” that knows everything, the much simpler solution is that the “necessary” thing that has always existed is something natural and all that we see today has developed naturally from that. Some have suggested “quantum foam” is that “something” but nobody knows what it is. That’s irrelevant though when comparing this non-theistic answer against the theistic answer. The main point is that none of us knows what the prime “something” was, but comparatively, the simpler natural answer of a natural “something” would make a lot more sense than a mind that knows absolutely every fact and is powerful enough to do anything.

    As with any philosophical argument, there’s no way to be certain – could an all knowing “mind” be a less complex “necessary something” than a natural something – sure it could. But I just can’t see how that would really make more sense. I honestly think you should rename this post to “Difficult Questions for Theists? – Part 1: Something from Nothing?”

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Thanks, Nate.

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

    To me, it doesn’t matter. There is something. We find ourselves is a world, and we have to deal with it. I don’t have to answer how we got here; answering that is of no particular use to me.

    The theist has exactly the same problem. The theist wants to start with a God. And that’s something rather than nothing. I’m not sure why the theist sees this as a problem for the non-theist, but fails to recognize that he has the same problem.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. You read my mind. I was fixin’ to post something about Ex Nihilo…anyway, imagine the situation in which a very weird panpsychism prevails.
    Time begins with an ingrained self-consciousness. Won’t this critter say that it has always existed?
    If we point at the singularity and say, “What about that?”, won’t the primal consciousness reply that our understanding of its origin is just too limited by our perspective?
    Nobody can make sense of creation from nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As in Part 1 this is a very interesting question, but it is not a “difficult question for atheists,” it’s a difficult question, period. Offering a “god” as an answer is clearly not an answer, as it leaves the question just as unanswered as it was before. In fact, adding a god may leave us worse off, since we’re adding more baggage that needs to be explained.

    If a god is “something” then we would be back to square one, for how did that particular something (the god) come from nothing? Stipulating that a god must be “eternal,” “necessary,” “uncaused,” “a brute fact,” etc. leaves us worse off, for why couldn’t physical existence itself be “eternal,” “necessary,” “uncaused,” “a brute fact,” etc. In fact, Occam’s Razor would point us to the second option (physical reality) as the simpler and preferable alternative over the first option (physical reality plus a god).

    As Nate mentioned, the question itself may be ill-posed, as there’s no particular reason to assume that a state of “nothing” should be the default position over “something.” As philosopher Keith Parsons has said, the answer to “Why is there something rather than nothing?” could well be: “Why not?”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The answer to the question is easy “I do not know … and neither do you.” Plus, the basis for the question is a developing theory, one in which all of the details have not been worked out, so all the question points out is that it is developing theory.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Nate!

    How did something arise out of nothing? (Or how can a series of events have no start?)

    Is our friend Unkle E making the claim that “something arose out of nothing” is an atheistic argument? I must confess that I’ve never held that position. I’m a weak agnostic, weak asomethingoutofnothingist. I don’t claim that something didn’t arise out of nothing, but I haven’t been convinced enough by the evidence to claim that it did. πŸ™‚ Okay, that’s not exactly true, but let’s get into nothing, semantic nothing. At least I’m quite confident that you’ll leave this comment having experience nothing.

    Dishes, cleaning and laundry are still calling and it’s late so I’ll try to keep this to a reasonable length. I apologize not for not having read any comments yet other than Howie’s first one. Off the top of my head, there are two general ways I see this type of argument that weaken it’s pull on me, though I am still somewhat comforted by it. More on that at the end.

    First, to get a bit nerdy. Apologies once again. Ehem. Arise, cause and effect, and things like prior events, are temporal terms. I’m boring you already. It gets worse. Once the non-intuitive behaviors of our universe reflected upon, arguments based on time begin to lack the weight I’d like to give them. You should definitely stop now. Deep breath. For example, the lack of a time component in the symmetric laws of nature, general relativity showing interchangeable spacetime dimensions and cause-effect paradoxes (time stops at the speed of light and has mathematical potential for reversal given enough energy), quantum entanglement’s non-locality showing off FTL (if not communication, at least effects) behaviors and challenging traditional notions of spacetime (I probably shouldn’t mention the implications of Feynman’s sum-over-histories), the delayed choice experiment showing an observation event of a superposition (the effect) erasing all prior evidence of the previously “non-collapsed” state, etc. On top of the inductive nature (expectation based on prior observation) of the tradition view of cause and effect relationships, not to mention the subsequent conversion of such every-day experiences into a what often amounts to a prescriptive law of nature (e.g. “all events must have a cause,”), there actually is compelling evidence that evidence that not every event can be tracked to a cause. That’s probably the longest sentence I’ve ever written and I’m quite sure few if any will have followed my rambling, but unfortunately I’m too tired and time constrained to fix it. I’m not a quantum particle after all. πŸ™‚ To wrap up this side of things, it’s worth noting that the “events require a cause therefore the universe requires a cause” arguments all seem to suffer from the fallacy of composition.

    Next, there’s information. Information is complexity. Instability. Degrees of freedom. A set of non-zero length. Etc. Think of a long series of numbers. Any set of sufficient size contains repeating elements, or patterns. Information isn’t just this signal (signals are usually defined by which subject minds experience and deem to be important in some way), but the noise too. Information exists at a far deeper level and is more fundamental than even the quantum foam. It’s the smallest lego block, not just of our universe, but of any conceivable entity – a chair, a physical universe, a transcendent number, the charge of a particle, subjective experience, the laws of logic themselves, etc. If there’s a spirit world, I know only one thing about it. It could conceivable exist without a quantum foam – but it could not exist without some form of information. I’ll echo the points made by Howie and others using this concept. If a God exists, such a being necessarily contains information.

    When I hear the term “nothing”, I hear “no information.” No pattern, no noise, no signal, no set. Nothing. I don’t hold a belief that the universe was ever in the type of state (nothingness) from which it was impossible for a thing (some fluctuation, symmetry, instability, degree of freedom, pattern, etc.) to arise. I don’t find it possible for this type of nothing to quiver, or for nothing to contain some irregularity that would spark a chain of events to that would ultimately manifest a quantum foam or multiverse engine that would lead to our existence. It almost seems as though that kind of nothing is precluded by definition. Now that we’re on the same page about nothing…

    If the theistic claims is that to be an atheist means one must believe that there was a time in which no information existed, I’m not sure how such an argument could be sound, or pose a problem for atheism. Any prior states that were not either nothing, or God of the Bible, are technically possible and not incompatible with atheism. We could imagine another universe that might exist exactly as this one does while having been formed from a previous state that did not involve an uncaused free agent deity intentionally creating it. Further, we could not distinguish such a universe from our own.

    Why am I somewhat comforted by an argument that I find unsound? It has a lot to do with the movie, Life of Pi? Have you seen it? It represents the idea that, in some ways, here and there when and where we can, we each have an opportunity to pick the story that maps best to the world we want to live in. I don’t hold a belief that something came from nothing, and I don’t think it’s a challenge for non-theists. I do have hope that the information that kicked it off had a plan for us. Whether or not it’s likely, I do see areas in the structure of the laws of nature where something like a deity could remain hidden and still exert influence over this physical universe. That story – the un-caused, beneficent prime mover – probably isn’t the best match to our world hypothetico-deductively. However, with as much influence as my desire can have over the reality in my own subjective mind, I do hope for that story. Why? Okay, I grew to expect it and it’s hard to let go. Maybe that’s all. But in the end, at least these days, that story usually makes me a bit happier.

    Yikes! Dishes don’t care about nothing. Gotta run! πŸ™‚

    Gentleness and respect,
    –Russell

    Liked by 2 people

  7. How did something arise out of nothing? (Or how can a series of events have no start?)

    It isn’t a difficult question for me, as I never dwell on it.
    The response; ”I don’t know”, is the only (current) honest answer available to one and all.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I tend to lean toward the idea that it didn’t, that something didn’t come from nothing, but that it’s more likely that the conservation of energy hold out, that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form.

    I think that whatever “start” we find, like the big bang, that there’ll be another one behind it, and then one behind it, and on and on.

    Like other’s have already said, “God” doesn’t answer this question, just backs it up one step.

    I may be getting ahead, but this current question makes me think of others like it, except that are better (as in harder) in my mind:
    1) How did life originate from non-life?
    2) why are people so vastly different than any other life we’ve seen or heard of?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. When I was a Christian I used to consider the atheist question, ‘who created God?’ to be plain silly. But nowadays I consider it a very good question.

    As to a universe coming form nothing, after listening to a few talks from Lawrence Krauss I realise that it is not straightforward and indeed the science might be pointing to a form of multiverse – another concept I considered ridiculous as a Christian.

    I suppose my key thought is that just because we lack information and understanding on a topic is not enough to say ‘therefore God!’. Neil Degrasse Tyson noted that human nature is to invoke ‘God’ once we reach the limit of our understanding but this has explanation has continually failed as knowledge has expanded. Or to put it another way, ‘God is always just out of reach’, used to be up high mountains, then in the clouds, then outside the atmosphere, then outside the universe.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. And on Peter’s comment, I again feel compelled to add that human’s nature to invoke god may not be pre-programmed desire or knowledge of a god, as some theists suggest, but instead human nature seeks “answers” and “god” becomes a catchall, an easy fall back response to questions that have an out of reach answer.

    We should question and keep questioning, and not be deceived into thinking we can reach a point where we’re rebellious or sinful because we question a claim made without support, whether in an old book, or from some other source.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. @William I agree with your interpretation.

    I would also add my comment was not well worded, Lawrence Krauss’ suggests that there might be both many universes and also a sort of cycle of universes. In essence it is not that Universes come from ‘nothing’ but rather that we currently can’t determine waht was there before.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Peter, I liked your comment and didn’t see any problem with it – I think I followed it perfectly. That one comment, which I had no issue with, just made me think of comments I’ve heard many theists make, that having an idea of a god is somehow proof or evidence of god – I was just trying to address that before it came up, is all.

    Like

  13. Hi Zoe!

    You caught my first comment in over a year and a half! Rereading it made it obvious that I really should have slept more before making it. Haha.

    CC sitting right beside me. I showed her your comment. She says hi! She’s been way too busy with residency to have an online presence but she misses conversing with everyone. πŸ™‚

    Gentleness and respect,
    β€”Russell

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Well I read every word of your comment Russell and just re-read the longest sentence you’ve probably ever written. πŸ˜€ I noted your name and style and new it was you. A year and a half? Already?!

    I cannot begin to imagine how busy CC is and all the challenges of residency and life in general. Keep on keeping on. The best to all of you.

    I’m still here reading and learning. Sort of a silent witness. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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