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.

Darn those other people and their gods…

Question from Tyler:
Do you get upset over other people arguing about God or their gods? Do you get mad and tell them to shut up about God, or do you just walk away?

Answer by SmartLX:
If it happens to me in person, I try to do exactly what I do on this site: consider what they say to try and determine their actual position, evaluate it, then carefully respond. It helps avoid anger, even if it reaches the level of a confrontation.

To be honest it hardly ever happens to me in everyday life. I live in Australia, where religion isn’t nearly as prevalent or prominent as it is in America for instance. While many people are still religious they’re more likely to keep it to themselves, and nobody listens to the few street preachers we do have. I’d happily engage with evangelists if there were more of them out chasing converts, because I like to talk about this stuff with people who are already interested. That’s what’s nice about this site: anyone who writes in with a question genuinely wants to discuss, learn or proclaim something. I’m not bothering anyone who’d rather ignore it at the time.

Incidentally, I find that a lot of the aggression in arguments over religion isn’t directly linked to religion itself, but to socio-political issues on which certain religions have taken a conservative stance: abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, birth control, stem cell research, sex education, evolution and so forth. It’s a lot easier to get emotional when an issue is somehow “brought home” and can directly affect you, your friends or especially your children.

Your Ups And Downs, Your Highs And Your Lows

Question from Marianna:
If you do not believe in a higher power, how do you explain joy & suffering and the source of each?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’ve ever owned or even looked after a dog, you know joy and suffering aren’t unique to human beings. Animals feel much of the emotion we do, but with far less subtlety and of course they can’t articulate it as well. If emotion is a gift, it was given to an entire extended family of creatures – of which we are very obviously a part.

If on the other hand emotion was not bestowed on us from on high, then positive and negative emotional states have persisted and developed over time and generations because they have some benefit to us, or are related to some other beneficial trait. It’s easy to see how emotion can help people survive and procreate: for instance, being in love gives great joy to both partners and helps them stay together, suffering teaches us not to do the things that make us suffer and our innate empathy drives us to create joy and alleviate suffering in others. Aside from all that, emotion may simply be a natural consequence of a certain level of basic intelligence, the benefits of which are myriad. It certainly requires a certain minimum intellect; while a mouse or a chimpanzee can be clearly emotional, it’s beyond the capability of an ant or a brine shrimp.

You could put just about anything into the form, “Without God, how do you explain _____?” and even if there weren’t over a century of scientific research providing just such an explanation, it would be easier to answer than explaining God Himself, having assumed His existence for the sake of argument. Using a completely unknown (hypothetical) entity to explain something else does not ultimately help one’s understanding, because it doesn’t tell you how one causes the other.


Question from Sammi:
Who would an atheist go to with problems and how would one have the assurance that everything will be okay?

Answer by SmartLX:
Why does everything have to be okay? Maybe it won’t. Being assured that everything is okay when it may not be true is not productive, and could be dangerous if you’re plunging into something risky. It’s when you’re not sure things will be okay that you try your darnedest to improve the situation.

Some false comfort can of course be beneficial, for example to young frightened children. Fortunately, that’s what parents, families and friends are for. Reassurance doesn’t have to come all the way from God before anyone will believe it; any trusted person or authority figure will do in a pinch. I often reassure my wife and vice versa, and it makes us both feel better.

Problems need to be taken to those who can solve them. Fortunately again, there are a lot of people in this world who can solve problems. Not all problems of course, but between the government, the police, doctors, the fire service, engineers, teachers, parents, switched-on children and everyone else, many of the problems in this world are well within our own power to address.

By contrast, asking God to solve a problem has been likened (by Terry Pratchett) to “pleading with thunderstorms”. It’s unfair or it’s pointless; either it’s something which can be solved by people, in which case you’re just externalising their abilities and robbing them of the credit, or it’s something which is beyond human control, in which case it’s probably part of God’s plan anyway, so why bother Him with your petty little desires? (You can thank George Carlin for that particular thought – he starts talking about the plan after 6 minutes, but be careful because that link is not safe for work or school.)

Christmas for Atheists

Question from Floyd:
As a devout Christian, I celebrate Christmas on a religious basis. Ever since was a child this day has filled me with joy. Do you celebrate Christmas with your children? If you do, how do you explain this holiday concept to them?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m pretty sure nobody here is a parent, Floyd, but a lot of atheists in predominantly Christian countries celebrate Christmas just like everyone else. They put up trees and lights, they exchange presents, they have big lunches, dinners and parties, they sing carols, they travel to be with their friends and families. A lot of them go to church with their families out of tradition, and it’s about the only time they do. All of that can be great fun for kids, and something to look forward to.

The nice thing about Christmas is that it has an alternative, secular mythology already set up: the Santa Claus mythos. If moderate and liberal Christian parents can prepare for Santa with their children, intending to dispel the myth when they get older, atheists can too, and many do.

There’s also no harm in telling children the truth about the holiday: it’s traditionally been to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ (hence the name Christmas, and most of the songs), but not everyone believes that’s so important anymore, and everyone gets the holiday anyway so we all like to celebrate. Before that, it was a pagan holiday when people celebrated all kinds of gods and spirits.

Few if any atheists object to exposing children to religion, though preferably not just one and not in an atmosphere of indoctrination. Christmas is a great opportunity for non-religious families to see Christian rituals and traditions, and potentially compare them to others.

Punishment: As Above, So Below?

Question from Emily:
What gives you the right to punish your children when you don’t have a higher power punishing you?

Answer by SmartLX:
Other people do, by forming a society with laws that allow parents to discipline their children using reasonable methods.

Rights, human or otherwise, are an abstract concept. They have no physical form; you can only take them away by stopping or seriously discouraging someone from doing something. Since God cannot be shown to prevent or allow any actions at all, acting as He does exactly as if he did not exist, He does not apparently confer or restrict any of our rights.

It is indeed good practice for any authority to itself answer to a greater authority, to prevent the abuse of power. This is true all the way up the chain. The nice thing about a democracy/republic is that those at the top answer to each other; presidents can be impeached, judges can be dismissed and so on. If all authority ultimately rests with one individual, the word for the one in that position is dictator. Benevolent dictator, perhaps (as all dictators like to be portrayed), but a dictator nonetheless.

If on the other hand you just mean that punishment should cause more punishment further down the line, that’s called a cycle of violence. How I Met Your Mother calls this kind of thing the Chain of Screaming. Neither of these are positive behavioural models to follow.

Religious Conspiracies and Tours of Hell

Question from Jack:
Hey I’m Jack from Australia and for the past couple of years I’ve been hearing about the illuminati, people say that they are a devil worshiping secret society who plan to make a one world government, the type of one world govenrment that the book of revelation talks about, now my position on this is quite open, I’m not sure to believe it or not, it’s the same with my faith I’m not sure anymore what to believe
Anyway artists like beyonce, jay z and most recently cheryl cole have put backwards satanic messages in their songs, and as you can imagine the folk on YouTube have immediantly pointed the finger to the illuminati,
Now even more scarier in 2009 a girl in Colombia (I’ve forgotten her name) had a near death experience in which jesus took her on a tour of heaven and hell, in hell she saw michael Jackson and apparently he was in there because he sold his soul to the devil for fame and fortune, and that anyone who listen to his music will be trapped by Satan, she is said she saw 4 year old kids in there who were there for watching Pokemon! It sounds shady to me but none the less it has worried me and affected my life, I no longer listen to most artists and I live a life of caution, so what I want to know is what is the atheist view on this? Could it possibly be a plan to bring people back into church’s? I don’t know but I’m not fully sure about this one
Cheers jack

Answer by SmartLX:
The Illuminati were a real organisation formed in Bavaria (now part of Germany) in 1776 and forcibly disbanded and outlawed in 1785. That’s nine years in the whole of history where we can point to a single thing they actually did. Despite what’s in Angels & Demons, there hasn’t been a single confirmed act by anyone working on behalf of the Illuminati in hundreds of years. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but if they do they’re now so secret that they might as well not exist. As far as anyone knows, we have nothing to fear from them.

Just because something sounds like words when played backwards doesn’t mean it was meant to do that. Do you have any idea how difficult that is to do on purpose, and also how hard it is to keep from happening accidentally? A music buff who plays everything backwards is eventually going to hear some Satanic crap in three songs by dumb luck, even if no one’s trying to put it in.

Your afterlife day tripper girl is actually Ecuadorian. She’s among the first stories listed on this rather loud website. Every part of the website is geared towards convincing people that the afterlife is real and bringing them to the church, so regardless of whether her story is true, that’s definitely the plan. Of course nothing about the story can be tested, but they expect it’ll persuade people anyway, or at least scare believers into being even more devout. You really have no good reason to believe this girl’s “testimony”.

Biblical Evidence Disqualified?

Question from Zach:
Does Christians not having evidence that isn’t rooted in the Bible mean there is no proof that has yet been discovered?

Answer by SmartLX:
What’s in the Bible isn’t proof either, so regardless of the Bible there’s no available proof at all.

There are quite a few different ways in which people attempt to prove the truth of Christianity using the Bible, some of which we’ve looked at here (see following links where available) but none of which have achieved much more than to reassure those who already believe.
– They argue that the text couldn’t have stayed as intact as it is from copy to copy from the original manuscript if the important bits weren’t true. To address this as briefly as I can, this is not convincing, because yes it could have.
– They argue that the Bible makes prophecies that are fulfilled in later books of the Bible, came true later or reveal scientific truths unknown to the people of the ancient world. This was Great Big Argument #5 in my series.
– They argue from their own personal “religious experiences” while reading the Bible, claiming that God has done what He’s supposed to do and acted upon them through His Word. This is extremely subjective, and unless it results in a verifiable miracle it’s not verifiable at all. It’s their word against anyone else’s.
– They argue that if people acted as written in the four Gospels and afterwards, then Jesus must really have risen from the dead. This one has caused a lot of long arguments here with little progress, and it remains unconvincing to non-believers no matter how incontrovertible it sounds to believers when it’s coming out of Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell or William Lane Craig. One problem is that Christians tend to be very, very reluctant to concede the slightest point about Jesus, so central is he to the truth claims of the religion. If you want to wade in, there are recent-ish articles about Jesus here and here. This answer has links to tons of material both within and outside Ask the Atheist if you want to go all out.

Gratitude to Nobody

Question from Alexis:
Who do you thank for all of your good fortunes?

Answer by SmartLX:
If someone is actually responsible for something good that happens to me, I try to thank that person or those people, preferably where they can hear me. If not, I don’t thank anyone, because at the risk of stating the obvious I don’t think there’s anyone to thank.

That’s not to say that I don’t feel some sense of gratitude when I’m lucky, and some sense of being hard done by when I’m unlucky. I think we all do. This is most likely because we’re human, and we have such a keen sense of justice and fairness that we subconsciously review our dealings with the natural world the same way we evaluate whether we got a good deal trading sports cards. It’s a lot like how we see faces in clouds and other random patterns because we look so hard for real faces in everyday life; our instincts work overtime in a harmless but very interesting way.

To me, the more interesting question is to believers: who do you blame for your bad fortune? Yourself and other humans for being flawed and sinful, the Devil (or equivalent) for working against God’s plan or God himself for making you flawed and sinful and/or allowing the Devil to work unchecked as part of His arbitrary plan? The answer says a lot about someone’s personal theology.

Morality Recap

Question from Sam:
Where do humans get their moral standards and conscience from?

Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is, from each other, from their own instincts and from a long line of social ancestors.

My earlier piece on right and wrong answers your question in much greater detail. There’s also a short piece on the foundations of morality.

The question, and where you’re asking it, implies that God’s instructions via some sacred text would be the usual answer. Well, every sacred text has a lot of instructions even most religious people don’t use anymore, like killing people for eating shellfish or working on the wrong day. Those who use these texts as a moral guide are choosing which parts to use – but that means they’re judging the text based on some independent moral standard. Therefore, even believers are getting at least some of their ethics from the simple experience of being a human among humans.