A “Survey”

Question from Leonard:
Don’t you find it to be most odd that there is something instead of nothing?
Wouldn’t it be more logical and simpler for there to be nothing?

Answer by SmartLX:
These are not survey questions, Leonard. This is an argument, nominally rephrased as a pair of questions. Any questionnaire containing the above is essentially a push poll, and certain ethical implications follow.

It might be logical to think that there should currently be nothing, but only if we knew of any point in the history of the universe when there was nothing, and we don’t. As far as we know there has always been something, and our current laws of conservation of matter and energy tend to back that up. We have no idea what preceded the Big Bang, if anything, and it is far beyond our current understanding to simply assume there was nothing at all.

Putting this aside, the usual follow-up to this idea by apologists is that the only way there can currently be something is if someone created it. Firstly, if there was someone there then there wasn’t nothing, and secondly, where did the someone come from? Yes, many theists object to that question because their chosen someone is supposedly eternal and uncaused, but then what actually stops the universe itself from being that way? Adding an uncaused, intelligent, inexplicable being such as a god never, ever simplifies the circumstances, and is quite unnecessary unless you impose arbitrary constraints on the universe – which the god immediately breaks to justify itself.

Eternity, and not by Calvin Klein

Question from Brenton:
Is the universe eternal?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t know, but whether it is or not, neither option makes a god very likely.

Cosmologists now almost universally accept the Big Bang as a factual event which occurred about fourteen billion years ago. A far greater point of contention is whether the matter and energy in the universe have always existed, and were simply in some other state before they coalesced into the singularity which “exploded”, or if the Big Bang was truly the beginning of time and causality.

If the universe is eternal, there is no need for a creator god. Most theistic gods are regarded by their believers as eternal and thus in no need of their own creators; this is a real possibility for the universe itself.

If the universe is not eternal, and nothing material preceded it, then either it was created or produced by something or it emerged directly from nothing. Neither of these can be judged as more or less likely than the other based on our experience so far because, while we have no direct evidence of anything emerging from nothing (though quantum mechanics may suggest this possibility), we have no evidence at all of anything being created from nothing as creator gods are meant to have done.

That leaves the idea that something material (or with direct material influence) and outside the universe pre-dated it, and somehow resulted in its emergence. Again a god is possible here, but it could also be another previous universe, or the “quantum foam”, or any number of hypothetical entities. A god as an explanation is the least useful entity in this scenario because a full-blown intelligent god is itself an inexplicable cause, and it’s no more likely than any of the others. It’s also the only one which requires that we posit anything supernatural.

I realise that I’ve read quite a lot into your very simple question, but delving into these issues is the usual purpose of asking questions like this on an atheist website.

Thermodynamics (it’s not what you think)

Question from Anon:
Hi,

I’m engaged in a discussion with a Christian friend of mine who has presented this syllogism to me:

“1. Simply put, if there is no external cause of the universe, then the universe is either eternal or self-created.

2. But, it is cosmologically ridiculous and anti-scientific (i.e. against laws of thermodynamics) to propose that the universe is either eternal or self-created.

3. Therefore, the premise that there is no external cause of the universe must be false (i.e. there must be an external cause for the universe’s existence, e.g. God)”

I believe he is applying the law where it can’t be applied, but I’ve never extensively studied science in college so I’m not really sure.

My rebuttal was that the universe was not necessarily a closed system and he responded with this:

“I have to remind you that my academic background has required me to not only understand, but apply, thermodynamics. [He has an engineering degree.] I know what the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics means and it clearly eliminates the concept of an eternal universe. If there is any misunderstanding on my part, it is in what you mean by ‘the law of the universe.’ Further, whether the universe is a closed system or not is irrelevant, since the concept of a closed system is theoretical, i.e. we have never actually observed a closed system.”

Thanks and I hope you can sort this out for me.

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, it’s not the usual creationist argument that evolution breaks the 2nd Law simply by producing order, so at least it’s a change.

He’s got one thing right, the universe is unlikely to be self-created. We don’t know of anything that is, or even what that would mean if it were true. For an entity to be the reason for its own existence would require an exception to the idea that an effect follows its cause. Rather than call this ridiculous, however, I’d just say that time would have had to behave non-linearly near the beginning. It’s strange to consider, but it hasn’t been ruled out as far as I know.

To set up the next option a bit, an eternal universe would need to be one where multiple Big Bangs happen in sequence. We have to work from the scientific fact of the Big Bang to achieve a plausible eternal model, especially after Borde, Guth and Vilenkin successfully ruled out the leading eternal models that didn’t involve singularities.

Your friend’s thermodynamic objection to an eternal universe is that any process that’s already been running forever should have run down by now, because no process is perfectly efficient. There are at least two scenarios in which this is averted (possibilities only, mind you):
– The singularity that immediately precedes each Big Bang reclaims all of the matter and energy in the universe by bringing space itself back to a central point. This includes all of the “lost” energy that radiates from decaying systems and is normally declared unusable, so in the end nothing is truly lost and the universe really is perfectly efficient.
– Extending upon your friend’s response, not even the universe itself is a closed system. It receives energy from an outside source, such as other universes. If there is an infinite number of these as some have hypothesised, they can keep a universe such as ours going indefinitely. (If one takes “universe” to mean everything that exists, in other words the whole multiverse, then the idea is available that it may contain infinite matter and energy, and never have to run down for this reason instead. It’s all a matter of perspective, and to some extent semantics.)

As an afterword on eternal universes, it’s worth asking your friend exactly how he exempts his eternal God from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. I hold it to be true that whatever constraints you place on the universe to necessitate a god, you immediately have to break them to allow for the god, usually by way of special pleading.

Moving on to the third option, it’s telling that your friend’s syllogism uses “e.g.” and not “i.e.” to invoke God. God is an example of an external cause, not the only possible one. The alternative suggested by the above is a concurrent or previous universe, which is part of a great many theories out there. I would love to hear your friend’s reasoning that starts from the external cause at the end of the syllogism and arrives at the Christian God, because at a glance it’s far from a logical step. (The following isn’t a scientific argument, but additional universes seem a more plausible thing to posit than a god because at least we know there’s such a thing as a universe. If your 5-acre cabbage patch has been devoured and you find one fat little rabbit in the corner, you don’t suppose that Bigfoot ate the rest; you wonder where all the other rabbits are hiding.)

Finally, there is a fourth option not covered by the syllogism: that the universe simply came into being without being created, that the common straw-man concept of “something from nothing” actually happened. Something like this is put forward in Lawrence Krauss’ new book A Universe from Nothing; specifically, that the precursor to the universe in certain models could be thought of as “nothing”. Even if you don’t accept this as quite the same thing, it at least advances another alternative external cause to compete with God.

Most of the options are essentially still on the table, despite your friend’s attempt at an argument by elimination. Even the option he wants to be left with doesn’t help the case for God very much, if at all.