The Universe and Everything

Question from Bryson:
So based on scientific evidence the universe at one time began to exist right? Explained by What we call the big bang theory. Another law is whatever begins to exist has a cause right? As in there’s something that begins to exist, there’s a cause for it, it existing being the effect. So if a universe existed, logically there’s a cause. Since the universe hasn’t existed yet, there’s no time/space/energy. Which leads to the conclusion that the cause of this “big bang” has to be something outside the laws of time/space/matter.

Well since only two things fall under this category, one would be a divine entity, the other an abstract object like the number 1 or something. My question is how would something abstract be a cause? I know Stephen Hawking said something along the lines of because of the laws of the gravity, there is no need for a creator because that proves the universe will create itself from nothing. But, of course, after thinking about it, if the universe hasn’t existed yet, that would mean the laws don’t exist yet. Plus, while the laws of gravity are describe gravity, it has no creative power. If put 1 dollar in the bank, and then next week 2 dollars, I can logically and mathematically explain why I now have $3. But, if I put 1 dollar in the bank and depend on mathematics to increase it, I would never have more than $1.

I know some people have even talked about something to do with a multiverse, but of course that doesn’t disprove god either because logically with a being capable of creating one universe, why would he not be able to create more if it wished.

Answer by SmartLX:
The good old cosmological argument. This argument falls at the first hurdle, but drags on and knocks over all the others regardless.

– No, scientific evidence has not established that the universe began to exist. It has established that it was once concentrated at or near a single point, then expanded outwards. The evidence says nothing about whether the matter and energy in that point was created at that instant or it got there from somewhere else.

– There are two modern perspectives on matter and energy. According to the classical laws of conservation, they may be converted into each other but they are never created or destroyed. Since they exist now, this would imply that they have always existed and didn’t need a creator. On the other hand, according to quantum mechanics matter can emerge spontaneously in certain circumstances as long as the same amount of antimatter does too, because the total amount of positive energy stays the same. Again no creator is needed, so neither way supports the supposed necessity of a creator.

– If the Big Bang was caused by something outside of our universe’s space and time, it doesn’t make the cause timeless or spaceless. It might be a natural entity with its own spacetime and energy, say, another universe.

– We have never unambiguously observed a divine entity, so it is pure assertion to say it can exist outside of space and time. We have only observed the “abstract” (mathematics, logic, etc.) within the confines of a physical universe as it affects the objects in that universe, so we don’t know whether the abstract can exist without the material either. Regardless, you pose a false dilemma because there is at least a third choice: an object in a different system of spacetime. And the whole thing is moot until the necessity of a cause is established.

– No, the possibility of a multiverse doesn’t disprove the existence of a god, but nothing does. A god is a possibility in a multiverse as well as in a single universe. There’s just no good reason to think it’s real, let alone necessary.

Deism by way of Michio Kaku

Question from “Alex the Deist”:
This last month, there has been some news about the existence of God proved by Michio Kaku, who asserts that the universe is perfectly ordered, “it could have been chaotic”, but it is not. He says that with this we could understand the mind of God. The ultimate argument for design.

Now, I know that Kaku is agnostic or pantheistic like Einstein, and that this is poetry, but nonetheless, it has theological implications. The first is that this would practically rule out the existence of personal gods, but this I think, makes deism stronger than atheism.

Consider the following case:

The universe is ordered / design.
The universe is ordered / blind chance.

We should expect that if there is a design behind the universe, this would be ordered. But we could not expect the same of blind chance. So, order gives a higher plausibility to design than to chance.

On the other hand for example, Dennett says that we as rational beings find useful to think of things as involving a purpose, this makes easier to understand natural phenomena. Which is true, I accept that. But I think, that if we accept that; we should accept it is possible that a mind responsible for the universe exists, and that our understanding expresses cognition about it.

If we accept that this order is objective and not an invention of our minds (as I think every rational person would accept) we should be able to tell that such order expresses also some kind of objective rationality, that it is true that: we as rational beings can comprehend such order because/and it expresses rationality.

This two things being said, I think deism has an extremely greater plausibility than atheism. How do you respond to this from an atheistic frame?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s not really news that the universe appears to be entirely ordered in some sense. The laws of physics and the fundamental constants have so far seemed universal and unchanging, with nothing behaving contrary to them. It can be said, and I agree that no one would seriously argue, that there is at least some order in the universe, which leads into the rest of your argument. Thing is, people have been arguing that the existence of order demonstrates design and therefore a god for centuries, so it hasn’t been the most successful of arguments and Kaku is unlikely to change that.

You avoid affirming the consequent (a common fallacy) by restricting yourself to a probabilistic claim that design is more likely than chance, but nevertheless there is no way to establish the absolute or relative probability of either your hypothesis or the opposite. Minds are constantly observed to create local order, yes, but so are chance and undirected determinism. Rocks are worn smooth, sunflowers and pineapples follow Fibonacci patterns, a roughly shaken container will sort its contents according to size and density. A mind is not automatically more likely to have created universal order just because the majority of order we notice is the product of minds.

With the two sides now on murky but level ground, a major difference between your hypothesis and non-deistic alternatives is that you are required to posit the prior (or timeless) existence of another extremely ordered entity for which there is no available, substantial evidence, whereas natural explanations leave open the nature of the progenitor, if any. I wouldn’t dispute that a creator god is possible as we have no means to rule it out (an agnostic atheist leaves room for any possibility), but that’s as far as it’ll go. It’s perilous to argue that one possible explanation is more likely or “stronger” because of what we “should expect” when it comes to the whole universe, because our intuition is woefully inadequate for this purpose.

The World of Leftover Energy

Question from Andrew:
Why do atheists like Stenger say that the universe can be eternal, when this does not hold?

Stenger argues that the universe can be eternal, non-created, extrapolating the law of conservation of energy-mass before the planck time, he says that because we do not see a violation to this law, the universe can perfectly be eternal.

But this is a fallacy as William Lane Craig exposed once. If the energy were eternal there would be no useful energy right now, it would have become useless, complete entropy an infinite time ago, and because we do not see this, the only conclusion is that the universe and the energy began a finite time ago. Where we Christians think, the best explanation is the creation by God.

Answer by SmartLX:
Even according to you, Stenger only said the universe can be eternal, not that it definitely is. If it isn’t, then God is only one possibility among who knows how many: spontaneous emergence (more on that in a sec), a previous universe, a deistic rather than theistic (let alone Christian) god and so on.

Anyway, there are at least three straightforward ways in which there can still be useful energy now after an eternity of existence. There might be others, but even one possible way is enough to keep someone like Craig from ruling out the possibility entirely.

1. There is infinite or potentially infinite energy as well as infinite time.
Our universe as we see it has existed for a finite amount of time since the Big Bang with a certain amount of matter and energy, but what if that only contained one portion of the available material of an endless universe or multiverse? Or can matter emerge regularly and spontaneously from the quantum foam as much as it likes, as long as the same amount of antimatter accompanies it and the total amount of “positive” energy stays constant? As Lawrence Krauss says, something can come from nothing if “nothing” is unstable.

2. The energy is periodically reclaimed.
Entropy doesn’t destroy energy (hence Stenger’s point), it only ends up radiating it towards the edges of the universe where it’s no use to anyone. If Big Bangs are regular rather than one-off occurrences, then there’s a long-standing hypothesis that the universe is first drawn together in a Big Crunch. The new singularity contains not only all the matter and energy of the crushed universe, but all the space as well. Whatever was lost to entropy is dragged back to a mathematical point, just like at the point of our own Big Bang, and the cycle can begin again.

3. The amount of available energy decreases exponentially.
The less energy there is, the slower it dissipates, the way a gush becomes a trickle when you tip out a bucket of water. Say that every billion years, the amount of available energy decreases by half. If so then a billion years ago there was twice as much, and two billion years from now there’ll be a quarter as much, but there will never, ever be none. It will approach zero (or, importantly, a non-zero constant) asymptotically, which is to say it will get closer and closer without ever reaching it. Perhaps the amount of energy we’re used to seeing in the world is practically nothing compared to the intense heat, light and motion that was everywhere in times gone by, with the universe in a state of near-saturation (perhaps asymptotically again). Without past reference points from before the Big Bang, which are probably impossible to attain, you can’t make a judgement that there can’t be this much energy now.

One final point: be very careful about expressions like “the best explanation” when discussing cosmology. If quantum mechanics have taught us anything, it’s that reality can be counter-intuitive, and the truth might well strike one as ridiculous. If there’s evidence for a claim then it’s a supportable claim, but if all it does is sound right then it’s worthless.

D to the N to the A

Question from Al Jih:
How in the world is DNA created from your theories guys?
Tell me how it’s created and got its beginning.

Answer by SmartLX:
Today’s DNA is created when older DNA makes copies of itself – but the copying process isn’t perfect, so the genome changes over time. By examining the similarities between the DNA of various lifeforms (I won’t go into details just now) it is reasonable to conclude that all known DNA is related, which is to say that it originates from a common strand that existed millions of years ago.

Where the original DNA came from is unknown, but we do have some clues. Experiments in the 1950s showed that an atmosphere rich in chemicals like hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide, like that which existed on Earth billions of years ago, can produce amino acids when electricity like that in lightning is applied. RNA, an accompanying chemical, is simpler but can do much the same job, which suggests the possibility that a DNA-based genome developed from an RNA-based one.

With all this uncertainty, why shouldn’t we just accept the ready-made explanation that a god designed DNA in order to create us? There are a fair few reasons, so here are some.

– Investigating DNA and its development leads to a greater understanding of DNA and life in general, so even if we never find the answers we seek we get all kinds of advances in biological and medical science.
– The alternative progenitors, like swamp gases, lightning and RNA, are at least known to exist.
– Even if there is some kind of god, there’s no guarantee that it’s responsible for DNA, or has had anything to do with Earth and its inhabitants.
– If you use a god to explain the unexplained, you end up with an even bigger unexplained phenomenon, namely the god itself. Hardly advisable, especially if you’re not sure it’s real.

Sex, Evolution and Everything

Questions from Tabassum:
1. Things are existing around us. Why do they exist? Someone once answered that things exist because they just have to. But why do they HAVE to? How do I answer this without metaphysical ideas?

2. Evolution.
How did genders arise? People usually answer by giving some of the benefits of sexual reproduction but I am asking the how not the why. I mean how can we believe that genetic mutations led to perfectly complementary organisms when the two organisms (male and female) are separated in space and time? Or do I have the concept wrong here?

3. Evolution.
Evolution does not violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, as I was taught. This is because there is energy continually being supplied to the organism so it can have the opportunity to become more sophisticated. Overall, the universe becomes more complex because the energy released from the sun increases the randomness of the overall system of the universe.

My query is:
If energy is being made available to the organism constantly, how would the organism use that energy. Shouldn’t there be a system to consume and use that energy in a useful way in the first place? So there needs to have evolved a system to use the energy, but it could only have evolved if it was able to use energy. Or maybe it can evolve without consuming energy? Answers?

Answer by SmartLX:
1. The short answer is that we don’t know, but that’s not a good reason to assert any particular explanation.

Matter exists right now either because it has always existed or because it came into existence at some point. If it always existed in some form, then like most people’s concept of a god it has no need of an origin. If it came into existence, not only do we not know how but we don’t know if it needed a cause at all. We’ve never seen anything come into existence from nothingness, so for all we know it could be entirely spontaneous, though very rare. The exception is in quantum mechanics where current theory suggests that (and of course this is a gross oversimplification) small particles are regularly winking in and out of existence, without any known cause or even much of an effect. This hardly supports the idea of deliberate creation of matter.

2. The most popular hypothesis is that gender and sexual reproduction began as a simple transfer of DNA material between two almost identical entities. We know it evolved extremely early in eukaryotic single-celled organisms, and for such creatures an exchange like this could be as simple as pushing material through their cell walls while in contact. Even if this happened regularly but by accident, it would have altered the population’s overall genome much more quickly than cell division alone. That would have meant disaster for many individual cells that got the short end of the helix, but overall it meant more unique material for natural selection, faster evolution and better survival prospects. The organisms that won out and continued to reproduce would have been the ones that made this exchange a hard-wired part of their life cycle. After that, all that was required to achieve genders as we understand them today was the emergence of a DNA structure with a switch, or a split probability of going one way or the other – in other words, a chromosome.

3. Living organisms have evolved very efficient means of harnessing energy from outside themselves, like photosynthesis and digestive systems, but while such complex mechanisms are useful they are not essential. There are chemical reactions caused by light, water, oxygen and especially heat which have nothing to do with life at all. Molecules break down and recombine, elements move between states of matter and so on. For a crude thought experiment, imagine a variety of inorganic objects and what happens to them in a pot of boiling water, or on a stove, or when left in the sun all day.

The very first living organisms simply needed to include substances within their membranes that could absorb heat, light and maybe bits of other organisms, and use the material to do something chemically interesting enough to keep the whole thing running for another few seconds until it happened again.

The Case of the Missing Unrelated Life

Question from John:
I am comfortable with evolution and natural selection as a theory for the diversity of life today. One thing lingers as an anomaly, pointing at a non accidental creation. This anomaly is the lack of other “trees of life”. There is not a vestige or hint of any other tree of life but our own (witnessed by the same methods of protein synthesis in a bacterium as in a human).

Where are the other, accidental, spontaneous beginnings of life that began in dirty puddles of water, 2 billion years ago or last Thursday?

Any takers?

Answer by SmartLX:
The earliest evidence of life on Earth amounts to trace elements in rocks from 3.85 billion years ago (see this article) and could have come from anyone’s tree of life, not just our own. Only at the point where we can discern the shape or actions of the life that existed, in evidence that dates hundreds of millions of years later, can we begin to gather morphological, geographical or behavioural evidence that might determine the lifeforms are related to us.

That said, the conditions for life to arise are unknown mostly because they don’t seem to appear in the modern world. It’s reasonable to suppose that they don’t, as the world was a very different place 3-4 billion years ago. Even back then, the right conditions could have been so incredibly rare that abiogenesis only happened in a very localised area (and not necessarily a puddle; see how many other models there are) and never again.

Regardless, once our earliest microscopic ancestors got going, they spread like wildfire. They got everywhere, and their microscopic descendants are still everywhere, even in places we think of as lifeless. They’re in the air we breathe, they’re in the earth we walk on, they’re at the bottom of the sea and coating its surface, they’re rolling along in the desert sands. Any unrelated organisms that arose after that point, or weren’t as well-established at the time, had to compete with this ubiquitous organic juggernaut of carbon-based life. If they ever existed, they’ve been eaten, dismembered, crushed, drowned, strangled, suffocated or starved by our own guys, and any evidence they left has been mistaken for evidence of the roots of our own “tree”. History is written by the winners, as they say, and prehistory is probably no different.

Universe(tm) – No God Required

Question from Jhon Roy:
How did the universe existed if there was/is no God to create it, do you want us Christians to believe that out of nothing, the universe began to exist??? It is indeed illogical. Steven Hawking said that because of gravity the universe can create itself, but as I told you before the universe began to exist, there was just nothing, no gravity, nor force. Now answer my question.

Answer by SmartLX:
Non-believers aren’t asking Christians to believe anything about this topic. There are many different ways our present universe might exist, and atheists don’t arbitrarily declare without evidence that a particular one of them is fact. We wait for scientists to uncover evidence favouring one hypothesis over all others, because they’re the only ones finding any relevant evidence at all. All I would ask is that because many of the possibilities do not involve a god, you accept for now that as far as we know the universe isn’t necessarily impossible without a god, and therefore its mere existence isn’t currently proof of a god all by itself.

Regarding the specifics of your argument:

  • How do you know there was nothing before the universe began to exist? You think God existed before the universe did, so why couldn’t something else? Another universe, for example?
  • How do you know the universe even began to exist, and didn’t always exist in some form? You think God always existed; it’s even simpler if the universe always did instead, because then we don’t have to try to explain the existence of a god as well as the universe.
  • Anything creating itself is by definition impossible because it implies an action by an entity which does not exist during the action, but Stephen Hawking’s ideas about the beginning of the universe involve the simultaneous emergence of time, making the concept of “before” irrelevant. Why can’t it have happened the way he describes, other than that it sounds wrong to you? Why can’t the universe behave in an un-intuitive manner, given how limited our intuition is? If it’s so obviously unworkable, why hasn’t a super-brain like Hawking or any of his colleagues realised it and hastily re-worked large sections of A Brief History of Time?
  • Incidentally, the simple fact that you’ve asked a question is reason enough for us to answer it. You don’t then have to order us to answer it.

    Answer Me These Questions Three

    Question from Stephen:
    Dear who ever is reading this,

    I am a Christian, now before you get all mad and make judgements please hear me out I just want to ask you a few questions so I get what you believe. Okay so…
    1. If you don’t believe in “God” do you believe in a “higher power?” And if you do who is that “higher power?” Would you consider yourself to be “God” over your own life?
    2. If you don’t believe in heaven then where do you go when you die?
    3. How do you believe the world came to be? Though the Big Bang theory? Or did the earth always exist?

    Please respond back with your answers I just want to know more about atheists.

    Answer by SmartLX:
    No problem Stephen. If I got mad when someone simply identified as Christian, I wouldn’t be able to think straight when answering their questions. I’ve numbered your questions for easy reference.

    1. Plenty of entities are more powerful than me. The sun makes me look completely insignificant, when considered in all its enormity. The nation of the Commonwealth of Australia has power over me, since I’m a small part of it. Gravity, while not necessarily an entity, has achieved more than I ever will. The thing is that none of these entities are concerned with the intimate details of how I live my life, so they’re not the kind of “higher power” I can appeal to for practical help in all things. (My country does concern itself with some broad aspects of my life, of course, but fortunately not all.)

    Therefore I don’t think there is the kind of “higher power” you’re thinking of. In the absence of this, I certainly don’t feel like the God of my own life because I don’t have anything like that kind of absolute control over it. I do have some control, obviously, but that just makes me a functioning person with my own will, not a god. It suffices.

    2. I described my position on death in an earlier piece. Read it here, and comment (here or there) if you have any questions.

    3. All the evidence points to a Big Bang, or a similar expansion of all existing matter and energy from a single point in space about 15 billion years ago. The Earth formed about 10 billion years later, coming together from materials orbiting the Sun (which had formed a few hundred million years earlier). You don’t have to be an atheist to think this, and in fact many Christians believe that God caused exactly this to happen. Where atheists differ is that they don’t believe a god was required for it to happen.

    Something From Nothing And Your Chicks For Free

    Question from Jay:
    How is nothingness able to create a finely tuned universe?

    A theist might make it more complicated by saying
    “If something can come into being from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything doesn’t come into being from nothing. Why can’t books pop into being from nothing? Why is it only the universe that can come into being from nothing?”

    If mind and conscience is invisible and if matter does not contain conscience or the potential of consciences, Where does conscience come from?
    If the universe began with brute matter, there will be no explanation of the origin of consciences.

    How do I answer these questions cause they are really hard?
    – This is for my philosophy class.

    Answer by SmartLX:
    This stuff isn’t just philosophy, this is “philosophy of religion”. It’s religious apologetics by way of arguments from ignorance, where if someone can’t answer the questions the questioner is free to insert God as the answer. Even if there aren’t any other answers it’s a terrible way to make a point, logically speaking, but that doesn’t stop people.

    We don’t know whether there was ever nothing, so how something can come from it is a hypothetical question rather than an essential one. There might have been nothing once; if something emerged from it then we know that the process is extremely rare, or happens out of our view, or both. If whole universes emerge all at once in each event, as the Big Bang would seem to suggest when viewed as a something-from-nothing moment, we’d have to travel to the next universe to see the effects of another such event, so it’s no wonder we don’t see ex nihilo creation every day. For a more scientific perspective, take an hour to watch Lawrence Krauss’s lecture on the subject, or read his book A Universe From Nothing.

    The universe is not necessarily finely tuned, for that assumes a tuning process and a tuner. The universe supports life, yes, on the crust of one known planet in countless light years of nothingness and extreme conditions (most of which would instantly kill us if we went there unprotected). That suggests two things: if the universe is tuned at all then it’s not very finely tuned, and life has emerged in the one place which happens to be hospitable. I’ve addressed the fine tuning argument several times on the site already, if you want some more material.

    Mind, consciousness and the specific aspect of conscious thought we think of as “conscience” are functions of the brain. They’re not entirely invisible, because many experiments have used MRI to measure electrical activity in specific parts of the brain during specific mental activities (dreaming, problem-solving, emotional reactions). Furthermore, if the brain is damaged then consciousness may be impaired or lost forever, leaving a human “vegetable”. We see the beginnings of all these thought processes in animals such as apes, which suggests to us that consciousness has evolved slowly in our ancestors, and persisted because of the tangible benefits of being self-aware and able to think well.

    What A Wonderful…World

    Question from Camary:
    How do you think you’re here today?

    Question from Devon:
    With no belief in God or Creation, how do you explain the beauty of this world?

    Question from Ethan:
    How can you think something so complex, something so wonderful as the world can be made out of a big bang?

    Answer by SmartLX:
    These questions all fit into a category I typically mark with the tag “origins”.

    My big article on the apparent design of the world is #4 in my Great Big Arguments series. (Search the site for “great big arguments” and you might save yourself some research, or else want to do more.) It’s got bits about the origin of life, the perception of beauty, the evolution of intelligence and so on. If you’d like to discuss something in more detail, put a comment either here or on that page. (I see all new comments, even on old pages.)

    Notice that all the questions above say “how can/do you think/explain…” You folks are challenging me to explain something, so what if I couldn’t? Why would I accept your explanation even then, if I don’t believe in the thing you’re using to explain it? Why would I assume the presence of something even more wonderful, even more exotic and even less explicable than the entire universe and everything in it, which nevertheless has no available, substantial evidence for it? That would just make things worse.