The Pretend Prime Mover

Question from Sue:
Since God is pretend, how did the world come to be?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t know, but there are lots of ideas floating around. We’ve covered it quite a lot here, so try a search or just use this one. Just because the idea of a God explains something doesn’t make it any more likely that there is one.

Spontaneous Creation in Physics

Question from Steve R:
If the big bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, please tell me: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation? I have not found any laws or principles of the physical universe which support the idea of bridging the infinite gap between non-existence (quantity zero) and existence (quantity one) using no previous resources. In fact, I think it’s the opposite – there is a law (and a quite significant law) which clearly state that both matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed (1st law of thermodynamics). If there was no one to make this law, then it is just part of the universe. But if it is just part of the universe, then the universe would have to violate its own laws to create itself. So please tell me, again: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation?

Answer by SmartLX:
No law so far, but multiple scientific theories. Lawrence Krauss regularly talks about quantum mechanics spontaneously generating matter and anti-matter, which have a combined energy of zero when there’s the same amount of each, from a previous state which can be called nothingness. (Something can come from nothing, he says, because “nothing” is unstable.) In Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design Hawking makes a claim based on both quantum mechanics and relativity that gravity creates universes and this is only one of them. I recommend reading the work of both to get some idea of the mechanisms science has actually proposed for what you call “spontaneous creation”.

All this may be moot, however, because there is a much simpler solution. As you say, the law of conservation of energy based on the first law of thermodynamics isn’t concerned with the above and states unambiguously that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. The universe would therefore have to violate the law to create itself, but if it exists now then the law implies that it has always existed in some form, and it wasn’t created at all.

The idea of anything creating itself from nothing is absurd, because it would mean that the effect existed before the cause. For the idea to make any kind of sense it needs to be an emergence or formation from nothing. Once you get away from the word “create”, it stops being a contest between creation by an intelligent being such as a god and creation by unintelligent phenomena, and seems much more plausible in the absence of a god. This is of course why religious apologists use variants of the word “create” even when they refer to natural hypotheses.

Causes and Rationality

Question from Jon:
At most, we all choose what is rational in believing or being convinced about something. While searching for answers, I have stumbled upon studying atheism as a choice for my belief but a find it highly irrational. Firstly, atheism appeals that believe in a god/cause/deity is highly irrational because there is no objective evidence to back-it up. But when I analyze it in terms of pure rationality (because the counter option can’t also be validated), I stumble upon choosing between

A) the universe is just a brute fact, nothing caused it to exist, its here because it is here
Or
B) the universe is caused into existence by an agent/cause/god (in my case I don’t define the cause)

And option A which is (correct me if I’m wrong) the heart of Atheism is highly irrational, because so far, inferred from the existence of humanity, humans discovered things or events to be caused by “something” and yet option A completely contradicts it. I believe science breaks apart when something is just assumed as a brute fact. If I have inconsistencies in my analysis, please enlighten me. How does atheism become rational with these arguments taken into hand?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheism takes no position on the universe’s origin or lack thereof, except to say that it’s unlikely at best that a god was responsible because belief in a god’s mere existence (let alone agency) isn’t justified. Option B is fine for a lot of atheists because if there was a cause, it doesn’t have to have been anything like a god. It could be the quantum foam, or another universe in an infinite series, or any number of phenomena we haven’t even thought of.

That said, option A is counter-intuitive but it’s not as absurd as it sounds. If the universe is as eternal as many gods are supposed to be, then it doesn’t need a beginning, and it’s simpler to just suppose that the universe has this quality than to inject a hypothetical separate entity. More significantly, though, everything we’ve ever seen come into existence is made of existing material. Human beings are made of elements found all around us on this planet, and fueled by energy largely traceable back to the Sun. Thoughts and ideas come together in networks of neurons in our heads, powered by electrical energy. Most every building is made from things harvested from, or grown in, the earth. If, by contrast, the universe came to existence out of what could be defined as nothing, it wasn’t like anything we’ve ever seen occur and therefore we have no authority to declare that there must have been a cause. Following on from that, there’s no reason to suppose the existence of a god just for the lack of alternative explanations, and if as you say there’s no objective evidence for gods then there’s no reason to believe in them at all. Thus atheism has a rational basis at least to some extent.

Some Things Never Change

Question from Caleb:
In an atheistic worldview why are there laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and absolute morality?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you search the site for the above terms you’ll find quite a few relevant pieces already written, and some very long discussions in the comments. These subjects crop up often because many theists think they have the authority on each. This time I’ll try to answer as straightforwardly as possible; if you look through the rest of the material and think I haven’t covered something, do let me know.

There do appear to be many types of total consistency in the universe, primarily physical and logical. The laws of each don’t seem to change, so we have the kind of stable universe where beings like us can develop over billions of years and create civilisations without everything spontaneously collapsing in on itself every few minutes, or turning into chocolate pudding and back.

None of us know why this is. Some think they know, because if they believe the universe was created by an intelligent god then it sounds sensible that this god would make the universe stable enough to support life and eventually cognition, as most worshipped gods have apparently created humanity for some unknown purpose. To one who has not already accepted the existence of such a being (which hypothetically is more exotic and incredible than anything the universe has to offer, and is thus a dismal working assumption for the purpose of explanation) it seems more likely that, somewhat in the manner of Newton’s first law, there is simply no influence upon the universe causing it to change its fundamental qualities and therefore it doesn’t. The absence of a god does not make the reality impossible, merely unexplained. To go any further is to commit the all-too-common fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or else to claim omniscience.

Absolute morality is different from the other two because we don’t know whether it exists in the first place. Morality is disputed all the time, so any absolute morality makes up a very small part of it. Anything we might think of as a moral absolute might just be something the entire human race agrees upon, but is wrong. Any such supposed absolute might also be regarded with the total opposite of its implication for humans when considered from the perspective of other animals, for example ants. Texts like the Bible declare moral absolutes on the authority of a being whose existence is itself in question. This last point is important, because when you’re using the existence of absolute morality to argue for the existence of a god, you can’t use the latter to argue for the former first.

Theist Cosmology: As Long As God’s Necessary Somewhere

Question from Physitheist:
I’m going to start this by saying that I’m a Christian, but also someone who believes in science…Here’s my question. According to the laws of thermodynamics energy moves to heat. Also there is no process that is truly reversible because we can not reach absolute zero, and the process would take infinite time. Since entropy continues to increase, and there is a limit of mass and energy how are we here? If there is not a limit of energy and mass, then why do you think so? And if you believe that energy and mass can appear out of thin air balanced out by anti matter why haven’t we ever seen this? After all the amount of unusable heat created is enormous. So basically my question is this, given the laws of thermodynamics, if you extrapolate to the size of the universe how are we here? After all the Big Crunch theory doesn’t really solve the energy problem since no process is 100 percent efficient. We’d still only have heat since there’s no such thing as negligible when the scale is eternity.

Thank you, and have a wonderful day!

Jesus loves you!

Answer by SmartLX:
I answered a similar question in my piece The World of Leftover Energy, so you can comment on that one if you like. Here I’ll just try to address some of your specific points and questions.

If you extrapolate the laws of thermodynamics regarding entropy to account for the entire universe they need to be applied as to a closed system, because we’re not aware of any energy leaving the universe. A hypothetical Big Crunch takes all the matter and energy there has ever been and jams it back together in a singularity – even the “lost” energy that’s been radiated outwards throughout the history of the compressed universe. That could actually achieve 100% efficiency through recycling, as literally no energy would be lost and the singularity could behave exactly the same as the previous singularity.

There is most likely a finite amount of matter and energy in THIS universe. If it’s the only universe, an eternal existence would have to depend on some form of reclamation, like the Big Crunch, or an exponential decrease that never hits zero, like I describe in the other piece. If there are other universes, as many have theorised and some evidence actively suggests, then it’s very possible that the total matter and energy in the multiverse is infinite, and entropy doesn’t mean much on the grand scale. I don’t feel the need to declare one or the other scenario more likely. An eternal universe isn’t certain in the first place, but a non-eternal universe doesn’t guarantee an eternal creator god.

Think about what would happen if a small group of matching matter and antimatter particles suddenly emerged naturally somewhere on Earth, and therefore in an environment saturated with existing particles of matter (e.g. air, water or earth). The antimatter would be annihilated by the existing matter in an instant, and the matter it touched would also be annihilated, so you’d be left with no antimatter and exactly the amount of matter you started with. It could be happening all around us and we’d never detect it without precise instruments. This isn’t proof that it happens, but it makes it impossible to say that it isn’t happening.

Order. Why?

Question from Gene:
How did reality come to be structured such that there are fundamental laws of nature and a hierarchy of intelligence in the natural world?

Answer by SmartLX:
The “hierarchy of intelligence” is the easy part. Sentient life forms on this planet have diversified and subsequently evolved in different directions, and some animals’ brains grew more than others, so different animals have wildly different levels of intelligence. Individuals are also subject to different genes and environmental factors, so even within one species there are relative geniuses and relative idiots. It’s exactly what we would expect in the circumstances. If all animals with intelligence had exactly the same amount of it, now that would be a remarkable thing.

As for the apparently universal consistency of the laws of nature, I don’t know why they’re there, though of course if they weren’t so consistent then I wouldn’t have a functioning brain to wonder about it.

Maths

It might simply be that way as a result of the physical properties of all matter and energy. The constants might have varied significantly in some ancient epoch, and stabilised around the time of the Big Bang (if that phrase even makes sense given the nature of time) so that we’re now enjoying the benefits of a stable universe. There could be many universes, some with fixed constants and some without. Perhaps one day we’ll discover the reason.

Let’s say, though I won’t assume at this point, that you believe a god structured the laws of nature the way they are. If I don’t know how it happened and admit as much, is that a good reason for me to adopt your position? No, because it’s merely an assertion. There’s no substantive evidence for the existence of a god, let alone its influence on the form of the universe. I have no desire to grasp at any answer presented to me if there’s nothing to support the idea that the answer is right.

We can take this a little further. Let’s say that we did both believe that there’s an almighty god, but didn’t adhere to the specific doctrine of any one religion. Could we then say confidently that He structured the universe? The answer is still no, because there’s still no evidence that it happened. Unless we can establish that uniformity can ONLY be deliberately structured, which we can’t, our god might only have happened across our universe and adopted it like one adopts a puppy.

Finally, if we both adhered to the doctrine of a religion that stated that God structured the universe, we would both accept that idea. We would not, however, have arrived at this particular position through logic, other than through the logical fallacy of accepting an argument from authority.

So, if even taking the existence of a god as a given doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that a god structured the universe, we certainly can’t arrive at that conclusion when the existence of a god is in question. As for using the idea to argue for the existence of the god, forget it.

There’s Nothing, And Then There’s NOTHING

Question from Cherry:
I’ve heard the theory from Krauss about how you get something from nothing, but if you don’t have multiverses, laws, quantum mechanics, vacuums, particles, empty space, energy, matter, infinite singularity, or potential how can something come into existence? I’ve heard the whole thing about when antimatter and matter cancels itself out or positive and negative cancel out and then you have nothing, but if that pops back into existence it couldn’t have been long gone, it had to have just changed form and I’m not referring to nothing as a zero vacuum or being unstable. I’m referring to nothing as NO THING existing. If you START at the beginning with nothing I listed above existing, I don’t see how it could pop into existence. Say your hand is absolutely no thing existing and you want a chicken egg to pop into it, or like and unborn child that is not conceived, it doesn’t come into existence unless someone makes it happen. It just can’t appear because if you have nothing, nothing can make it. and don’t say it was in a zero vacuum. Again, I’m NOT referring to Krauss’ definition of nothing. I’m saying if you START with the absence of anything, nothing, like the examples I gave, then tell me how something can come into existence?

Answer by SmartLX:
I honestly don’t know. This does not matter, for three reasons.

1. To take the lack of an answer as an argument that it’s impossible without a god is an argument from ignorance; just because the explanation is not known does not mean there is no possible explanation. This particular fallacy has been coming up a LOT.

2. We don’t know that we did start with nothing, either in the way Krauss means or in the way you mean. Even if it’s completely impossible for something to come from nothing, this doesn’t necessitate an extra entity like a god until we establish that there ever was actually nothing. The simpler explanation, working solely from the ordinary law of conservation of matter and energy, is that there was always something.

3. God isn’t nothing. To posit that God started the universe and then immediately say God didn’t have to come from anywhere or anything is to make two assertions where one will do: that the universe didn’t have to either. Divine creation is not a simpler explanation, it’s just the one that meets the religious criterion that a god be necessary to the process at some point. I often say that any restriction you place on the universe to necessitate a god must immediately be broken to allow for a god.

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.