The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Friday, September 5, 2014
Religion ... Spirituality ...

One of the most frequent argument I read or hear from the “New Atheism Movement” is that the universe does not need a supernatural cause of origin, because science now understands how something can come from nothing; and thus how something so unlikely as our universe, with its fine tuning and hotspots where complex life evolves and manifests itself in even more complex conscious and self-conscious forms, could happen. They are referring to modern theories regarding the inflaton field, chaotic inflation, multiverses, the near endless variants of superstring theory, etc. 

But as impressive as all of that is, it does not truly amount to “something from nothing”.  The anti-theological boffins ultimately assume the existence of some level of energy and information, even if that form of energy is very different from the things and events that we encounter in our human lives.  The BIG question – i.e. why is there something and not nothing – does not go away quite as easily as the atheist cosmologists would like when they refer to “vacuum effects”.  By “nothing”, the theologians mean no superstrings, no fields, no quantum mechanics — just plain and total nothing. 
The only way to honestly dodge that question (aside from trying to dismiss it as irrelevant, in that no one has ever observed “true nothing”; we can’t say for sure that “true nothing” in any way “exists”, other than as a mental concept) — the only way to evade it without copping out via logical positivism is to embrace Infinity. That is, the philosophically braver science-atheists are forced to say that there never was “nothing”, there always was something, and always will be something.  I.e., infinity (at least in time — such as in Guth and Lindes’ Eternal Inflation paradigms).  Ironically, believers in God also embrace infinity – they say that it is the ultimate essence of their God.  Is “religious infinity” a different kind of infinity that what the (most forthright) New Atheists would play with? 

If there are different kinds of infinities, could infinity then really be infinity?  Can you get away with saying that infinity has limits?  I.e., that it’s OK as an interim gap-filler needed in certain math formulations, as to help explain certain scientific phenomenon, but it goes absolutely no further?  I mean, if the bolder science and math experts are going to hypothesize that there is an infinity – something that you can’t measure and prove or disprove thru scientific-empirical method – then how can they NOT say that infinity, if truly infinite, has the power to create an infinite array of possibilities – including something as mysterious as the experience of human consciousness, and thus perhaps things even more mysterious (and hopefully wonderful)?
I know that mathematicians have “categories of infinities” that play limited but useful roles in their equations, equations that successfully mimic what reality appears to do. But are mathematical paradigms really the same as the reality they attempt to describe?  It’s kind of like the question regarding “Mary the colorblind neuroscientist”, taken from the philosophic discussion on consciousness. I.e., would knowing every last thing down to the sub-atomic quanta about how any particular human sees and experiences a red apple — would that be entirely equivalent to that human actually seeing and personally experiencing a mental image of that red apple?
There appears to be an alternate rationale used by some atheist cosmologists, one that side-steps the paradox of nothingness and infinity; I’ve heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson use this argument.  I.e., the argument from absurdity.  That is, if there was really a God, why did that God use such a messy process involving a lot of energy and unnecessarily low-entropy situations to crank out such a huge universe, where only in a tiny corner, for a tiny period of time (relative to the Universes’ age), is there life and consciousness . . . i.e., consciousness capable of acknowledging and relating to that God? [Putatively, from the atheist perspective.]  If a hypothetical God were looking for company, why didn’t that God just get to the point and create “Boltzmann Brain” type high-entropy conscious beings floating in a little bubble?  The whole thing seems absurd, it doesn’t add up if the God we postulate could think intelligently (as most God believers would assert).
Why don’t I buy that argument? Well, lots of reasons.  But what gets me about atheist cosmologists is that on one hand, they talk about the beauty and awe they feel for the universe and all of its components. But as soon as any discussion arises implying an intentional aspect behind that beauty and awe, they trash the universe. Oh no, it’s not beautiful at all, it’s absurd.  Certainly too ugly for any rational God to create. Hmmm.
I recently stumbled across an interesting article on the history of the New Atheism, and the intellectual problems that have infected it.  Not to say that these problems in themselves support the existence of God; but it does say that the current breed of atheists need to up their philosophical game.

To wit, a typical “rationalist” argument against religious belief in God goes as follows: 

Once upon a time, people lived in ignorant superstition, offering sacrifices to monsters in the sky. Then some clever folks used special weapons called “science” and “reason” to show that the monsters had never really existed in the first place. Some of these clever folks were killed for daring to say this, but they persevered, and now only really stupid people believe in the monsters.

Atheists have some garden-variety substitutes for “monsters in the sky”, such as “Santa Claus” or “the Easter Bunny”, or maybe “the Tooth Fairy”.  My friend Steve recently submitted a comment to an earlier article that I wrote about atheism, using an interesting twist on this argument  — one invoking “Beetlejuice”.

Really now, Steve, do you take Michael Keaton seriously?  Or is that just your point, i.e. that believing and having faith that Micheal Keaton is an accomplished actor does not actually make him an accomplished actor? [BTW, Hollywood is now working on a Beetlejuice 2.]

All kidding aside (much respect here Steve, just having some fun — thanks for taking my thoughts seriously!), I actually agree with Steve’s argument . . . up to a point.  Yes, it is intellectually untenable in the modern age to say that one “knows” that God exists, and that one can treat such knowledge as any other everyday fact.  In the times we live in, science sets a high bar as to what anyone can represent as a “knowable fact”.  And I believe that this is a good thing.  So yes, let me admit it . . . under this standard of “knowable fact”, I cannot reasonably assert that God exists. 

And by the same token – no one cannot reasonably DISPROVE that God exists.  Sure, I know that Bertrand Russell says that it’s a waste of time to ponder teapots in space. (And ditto for nothingness and infinity.)  But in my opinion, there are a lot more reasons for humans to ponder the idea of God than the idea of an orbiting teapot.  In my opinion, this is NOT a waste of time.  If you can accept that “the God idea” is fundamental to human history and important to all cultural varieties of our species (and possibly to how our brains evolved — check out the new field of “neurotheology”), then let’s move on to the bedrock empirical question. If God, like superstring theory, is an important concept, but you seek to dismiss it, then where is your empirical evidence logically PRECLUDING the existence of God? Or of the “true infinity” that is inherent to such a God? 

Some atheists might complain that the rules aren’t fair here, because the idea of God is defined specifically so as to be beyond the methods of scientific proof or disproof. But here’s an ironic twist – science itself uses certain concepts to describe everyday reality, which themselves embrace unknowability and unanswerability.  You know where I’m going, don’t you . . . yes, quantum mechanics!!

God is thus like Schrödinger’s Cat in the unopened box – half alive, half dead.  Half there, half not there.  And that is roughly how I understand God, and my own relationship to God.  (Strangely enough, the best on-line discussion I could find on the question of Schrodinger’s Cat and God was on the web site!) As such, I am not quite your usual faithful believer; I certainly AM admitting that perhaps you atheists are correct.  I guess that you would call me an agnostic. 

But please, can we try for some other term?  I mean, agnosticism has come to imply an intellectual and emotional sloth, an air of resignation on the question of God, an ultimate apathy.  It’s kind of a sad state, really.  If I am to be an agnostic, then I am a HOPEFUL agnostic, an ENGAGED agnostic.  Yes, I WANT there to be a  God.  But I respect science and rationality enough to know that I cannot assert a God in the sense that we deal with most things in our lives.
You good atheists might still try to find a vulnerable spot where you might inject a potion of doubt into my “quantum hopefulness”.  You might argue that if there really were to be a God who loves us, how could that God put us in such an absurd situation, where real people suffer so greatly?  Well, actually, I can think of some reasons.  In a nutshell: if we knew God the way we know our fingernails or our kitchen sink, we probably would take that God for granted.  Just as we do with our friends and lovers. It takes an enemy to keep our attention! 

Or a mystery.  So, it would not surprise me if my “Hypothetical Quantum God” created us in a bubble of mystery, sometimes a painful mystery – as to get our attention! Recall the line in the Zen koan which says that “not knowing is most intimate” .  In this earthly realm, we see through a glass darkly, as St. Paul said.  After this life is over . . . who knows. We “hopeful agnostics” realize that an afterlife of some sort would be needed to somehow balance out all the absurd pain and suffering that humans experience (and hopefully that afterlife is a bit more sophisticated than “the land of 72 virgins“). For now, though, the afterlife is just another quantum box, a ‘la Schrodinger!

And as to nothingness and infinity . . . well, maybe God just is the infinity that saves creation from the quandary of nothingness. Maybe.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:32 am      

  1. Jim, I know it’s showing how “out of it” I am, but I had no clue there was a “New Atheism Movement”. “New!” Hmmmm. Hasn’t atheism been around for a long time? It seems to me that the only thing “new” about today’s atheism is the arguments that compose it rather than it being a totally “new” concept.

    I must say that I like your approach to what you call the “BIG question”. Your point about “nothing” took me back to the days of my first philosophy class when the teacher gave us as an assignment to go home and think exactly what “nothing” might be.

    I thoroughly like your approach to the concept of “nothing”. I completely remember taking the time to do the “assignment” of thinking about “nothing” but can’t remember what I tho’t then. (This had to be back in the 1950s some time.) But I do remember being astounded that it was almost impossible to think of “nothing”; the very act of thinking about it was something.

    I like your idea (if I’ve got it right) that it’s impossible that “nothing” exists — and right there with those 2 words, is a contradiction in terms. Seems to me that “nothing” can NOT “exist” – as I say, a contradiction in terms.

    Somehow you get into “infinity”. Once again, I like your questions: Are there different kinds? Can it have limits? I guess I never took the time to sit down and think about “infinity”. BUT I find myself wondering if there is nothing else as mysterious “as the experience of human consciousness”.

    Why couldn’t the experience of consciousness by an animal be equally as mysterious? For example, I find myself, the longer I have dogs, being amazed at the consciousness of dogs. Since we cannot experience the consciousness of dogs, who are we to say that our consciousness is “better” than an animal’s? Different, yes; but “better”? maybe, but then again, maybe not. Over the approximate 50 years or so I’ve lived with dogs, I’ve been amazed at the differences in their personalities, their intelligence, the way they think, the way they express their thinking to humans, etc. Sure, they don’t have the same kind of consciousness humans have, but theirs surely is surprisingly effective and vast; and I’ve been amazed at how they are so effective in getting what they want from humans.

    But back to the “atheist” concept and science: To put it in a nutshell, it seems to me that, for those scientists who simply *must* link science with atheism, what is really going on is that there is simply a substitution of “science” for “god”. Science seems to be their god. Nothing new, I know; but it seems to break down to that simplicity.

    Actually, I’ve been reading about faith recently; and I find that the bottom line of both science and faith seems to be the same: One has to accept the initial concept at the beginning: “I believe in science” (or to put it less “believe-y”) I think science has better answers to (all the “god” questions) than religion does; or simply reverse religion/science. Once one accepts the basic concept all else follows. So it seems to me that the bottom line of both of these is the same (and who knows how many other areas of tho’t people make into an answer for the questions of life).

    I agree with you that it is NOT a waste of time to contemplate “the idea of God”. However, I find it somehow a big waste of time when either the scientists or the religious people say they have the answers to who/what God may be (and so much that goes along with the “god concept”). On this point I find so much of theology simply “made up” by humans. They think and think about God, come up with what sounds reasonable to them, argue, debate, and pronounce on their conclusions; and then consider they have THE answer. Seems what the scientists are doing, if one asks me. People then choose which area “fits” them the best and “believe” that.

    Maybe “we” should let different people choose what to “believe”. Those who want “facts” (as they are sure they exist) feel much more comfortable considering that there is no god (I’m tempted to add here, “but science”; but I won’t). Those who appreciate and relate more to the mystical may feel comfortable with faith. I say, why not let them choose that?

    It’s seemed that throughout history, when it came to religion, someone always had to be the RIGHT one – and went to extremes to get people to accept their view of religion. Even today we have the same thing going on among some of the Middle-Eastern groups. And insistence that THEIR religion is the RIGHT one and all must accept it or go to hell – and in some cases these individuals will help others get there, as they see it by actually killing those who do not believe as they do. Scientists seem to be less vicious about others accepting their beliefs; but they have no hesitation in making sure (or so it seems to me) that everyone knows that THEY have the answers to the “God question” and all the rest are dummies. If you don’t want to be a dummy, then you HAVE to accept their point of view.

    Well, as is obvious that me and math are worlds apart; I simply do not speak the language of math. I’ve tried to learn (had a father who despaired of me and my inability at even the numerical); nevertheless, I simply cannot learn the language of math. Thus, perhaps I should not have anything to say on this concept.

    But I cannot help but notice the similarities between the two. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 5, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

  2. Jim, My main point from my earlier email really had nothing to do with Beatlejuice or Michael Keaton. I was largely responding to the “no atheists in foxholes” comment. My point was that if you are in a foxhole with people shooting at you and many people around you believe that saying a prayer will “help” in some way, then what is the downside of saying a prayer – even if you don’t believe in God? Likewise, If someone told me that rubbing Buddah’s belly would help me in some way, I might do so – even if I don’t really believe in it.

    I suppose I consider myself an atheist, but that doesn’t man I am convinced there is no God. In truth, I almost never think about it – mostly because I am convinced that there is nothing anyone can say that will prove or disprove God., and even less likelihood that someone can prove what God likes or doesn’t like. I probably thought about whether there is a God more in this response than I have in the past ten years. I certainly don’t believe in the Christian version of God, as I find the Christian argument about a well-defined god exceedingly unpersuasive. I do think your “something from nothing” argument is an interesting point – perhaps the most persuasive point that I ever heard that there is a God – and I don’t have a good answer for it. But at the same time it doesn’t prove that there is a God either.

    Comment by Zreebs — September 6, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

  3. Having an afterlife to correct unfairness on earth seems fair at some level, until you think about it more than 30 seconds. If so, I am doomed, because there are a lot of mice, Mosquitos, girls living under ISIL and tomato plants out there who haven’t led a particularly fulfilling life. Relative to others, I probably wouldn’t be the recipient of some favorable correction, and probably neither would you. But if you think that you just might figure all of this out, then go for it. You obviously think that further discussion and thought on this matter is beneficial.

    Comment by Zreebs — September 7, 2014 @ 6:12 am

  4. Re: Zreeb’s last point: Why wouldn’t further discussion and tho’t be beneficial when it comes to this topic? If nothing else, it might help someone (in this case Jim, in some other cases others who read and think about this topic) gain some insight into the topic. In the end it seems to me that likely the reality of what is actually in our world may be much less universal that we think it is. Perhaps reality on this planet is more in our individual “heads”, that is, in our tho’ts and what we *think* individually reality is. I’ve noticed that almost everybody has his/her own concept of what reality is. Why wouldn’t that same apply to the concept of God–or not god? MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 8, 2014 @ 9:28 am

  5. Mary, fair comment. I wasn’t intending to sound sarcastic. We all have our own interests and needs. I understand why James has a particular interest in the topic.

    Comment by Zreebs — September 8, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

  6. Steve,

    Thanks for your interesting and insightful comments, as always. As to the notion of an after-life, i.e. some sort of conscious awareness that continues our individual personalities past the time when our earthly life ends . . . OK, Steve, you have an interesting philosophical point here. If the primary rationale for an after-life is that it is necessary to balance the unfairness and suffering experienced by sentient beings in this world, then those of us who didn’t suffer and were not unfairly treated should be denied entry. Yes, a very nice judo move with logic. An interesting gambit on the dialectic chessboard, admittedly. Well played.

    But here is how I see it; the “justice” argument for an afterlife would NOT be the primary reason behind it, even if this rationale were a necessary component or side-effect of a “non-hellish” afterlife. The primary reason would be grounded in relationship. IF there is a God, and IF that God has the characteristics of caring about us, of being in relationship with us, then that God would continue our conscious life past the realms of earthly existence because of love, not solely because of a sense of justice. (Once again, justice for the suffering would be a necessary side-effect of love; but because of love, a 1-for-1 justice AGAINST those who did not suffer would not occur). Basically, God would just want us to still be around, somehow. No matter how stupid and ugly we all get sometimes. I.e., God as our friend (and yes, I recall Freud’s warnings against seeing God as “the big friend in the sky”; but I also recall CS Lewis’ defenses of it; this is all present in that excellent PBS show about Freud and Lewis called “The Question of God“).

    Interestingly, Steve, you and I are not all that far apart on how we think about God, or the lack thereof . . . it seems that we both realize that we are talking about a great uncertainty, from either perspective. Perhaps the question is more the following: IF there WERE to be a GOD, does it make any sense that such God would be a caring God, a God of loving friendship, given all the non-love and bad stuff and random stuff and seemingly senseless stuff we encounter in the world that we know.

    Thanks for the stimulating, thought-provoking input here. Jim G

    Comment by Jim G — September 8, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

  7. I think it would be desirable that God be caring, but I have no reason to believe that God is caring. Using your logic (if I understand correctly), if there were a God, would it make sense that God be a caring God and little children never be tortured or raped?

    Comment by Zreebs — November 20, 2014 @ 1:21 am

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