Nothing, Something, Everything

Question from Niki:
Hi, it’s me again, with my ORIGIN OF MATTER IN EMPTY SPACE question. Or not so empty, even before the big-bang.

I tried again googling the question with some other words, like what caused the big-bang, why then and not sooner or later, and how did the matter in whatever is called singularity, or is it the event of big-bang that is called so, or both, how did the material got there and where it came from.

So, having read this time what Stephen Hawking says on the issue, as well as many other relevant articles, I got to realize that science has no idea where that matter, that later big-banged, came from and how it got there. So much for the answer about the origin of matter, cos big-bang only explains what happened to the matter in singularity, after it had been there for no one knows how long, but not the origin of that matter there.

But, here I have another question. It has to do with the notion that if THAT matter came out of nowhere and that in the moment of singularity time was created, it’s totally unfathomable for my earthen brain, dumb or smart, relevantly educated or not, then what is the difference from that with the divine creation. So, the matter we now see and know is out there, and we ourselves are part of it, came from nothing, say the scientists and it satisfies the scientists who say so, however it does not satisfy the lay people who believe in divine creation of matter. And now I wonder, what is the difference between the origin of matter being from nothing, scientifically, and from a divine entity, again from nothing.

My answer, and I believe all scientists who claim it came out of nothing, but not from divine entity, is that the difference is really MAJOR, that in case of origin of matter from the universe, or its state before the big-bang occurred, there was no intelligent and intentional agency that created matter out of nothing, whilst in case of so called ‘god’, this entity is intelligent and intentionally created matter, no one of them can tell us the reason, motif for ‘god’ doing so, again out of thin air, as is the case of what scientists claim. No intelligent or any other intention. Just an accident, for scientists, and intelligence and intention for the believers. Or, the universe, let’s call it so, before the big bang, was such a place, that it had in it the ‘pre-matter’, and it once happened to get into this little spot (or was forever in the past, before, in it), and then blew up. Why, what is the cause of it in both solutions, according to the law of causality, or we are asked to believe Einstein who told us time began then, so there is no sense in asking what happened before, thou there is very much the question of the origin of the matter in the little ball, what caused the scientific explanation, and divine one too, it is interesting to know, but even more interesting, in my humble opinion, cos my knowledge of physics is from the secondary grammar school…well, I was listening to the teacher and reading my physics text book. But, still, very modest knowledge. However, I now have ample time and internet, together with great curiosity and kinda master English, so I think, think, think. And, what I finally realized is that even Stephen Hawking does not know, so I am OK with not knowing the first question of the thinking brain: the origin of matter. So, what is YOUR take of it?

I, of course, don’t ask about the purpose of humanity or whatever happens and is felt and thought of, decided by our brains, our consciousness, cos I firmly believe in the causality law, that says everything is a consequence of previous causes, a chain of them, and going backwards in time I came to the beginning of the universe, where the first question was awaiting me and every thinking human, well not everybody, cos MOZART thought of better things than I do, how to move my feelings. And believed in ‘god’ firmly, my darling Wolfgang… So, no purpose in anything, and thus not even in humanity. But, since life is kinda nice, then we want to live it, thou we will die one day, just as we go to a holiday knowing it will be over soon. Well, holidays will repeat themselves, but there are nice things we do, thou knowing they will be over once and forever, just as is human life. But while we are here, why not enjoy the journey?! And, as for unhappy, sad lives, people normally don’t end them themselves, evolution took care of that, for good or for bad in their cases…

Answer by SmartLX:
You’ve certainly given this a lot of thought Niki. My thoughts on these matters are similar in many ways.

The scientific hypothesis that the universe came from nothing uses a nuanced definition of “nothing”, because it can refer to the “quantum foam” or some other ground state. The simplest explanation I’ve read is that it counted as nothing because its total energy was zero. It was unstable, so from the zeroed-out state emerged a positive quantity and a negative quantity at the same time: matter and antimatter, which then acted out the Big Bang and everything that followed. When you added it all up it was still zero, so rather than something from nothing it was technically a case of nothing from nothing. The entire universe may be a zero sum game, and one of many at that, since there’s no indication that the quantum foam went anywhere.

The theistic alternative to this is that a god existed before the universe, made the universe, and still influences it to this day. It’s impossible to prove that this didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean there’s any good evidence that it did, or particularly that there’s good reason to believe that it did. There are reasons mind you, and Christians will happily tell you theirs, but it must be asked whether those reasons are good ones.

One point I haven’t seen many people raise is that we’ve never seen anything come out of absolutely nothing. New objects, new lifeforms and even new thoughts consist of the matter and energy that came before. When the Kalam Cosmological Argument claims as a premise that everything that began to exist has a cause, it has no basis to extend it to something that may have come from nothing, except for an assertion about the universe that pre-empts the conclusion of the argument. We don’t know what it takes for something to emerge from nothing in a void without time or space, if anything is required at all.

Adam and Eve, not Ug and Eev!

Question from Dontay:
Evidence of dinosaurs has been found…museums show that cavemen existed…. But… How can cavemen be real if Adam and Eve are supposedly the first people on earth?

Answer by SmartLX:
If by “cavemen” you simply mean people who lived in caves and hunted and gathered for a living, then perhaps Adam and Eve’s immediate descendants did that once the garden of Eden was closed to them. The timing doesn’t work out at all when you count the supposed 34 generations from the Biblical Adam to the Biblical and historical King David and compare them to the scientifically estimated dates of the cavemen’s remains, but people who are motivated to prop up the story of Genesis will accept it anyway.

If on the other hand you mean Neanderthals and other departed species within the genus Homo, there you have a conflict which is less easily dismissed. The story goes that God not only made Man more or less in his present form (or a super-version that was huge and could live for centuries) but He made Man in his own image, which is poorly defined but usually taken to mean an image of perfection. “Lesser” or more primitive versions of Man don’t jibe with this idea at all. That’s why creationist explanations of the evidence simply assert that they were all just modern-type humans with primitive lifestyles.

As for dinosaurs, all evidence points to the fact that the last ones were dead millions of years before the first humans were born. Not so for most creationists; rather than deny they existed, many of them say dinosaurs were present on the Ark, and they’re depicted as such at the new Ark Encounter park in Kentucky. Any evidence or argument that so much as requires the expression “millions of years” is explicitly demonised.

The Irreducibly Complex Everything

Question from Robert:
Hi! I’ve recently had a Christian professor of mine talk about the creation of the universe, and say the spontaneous creation of life was impossible due to irreducible complexity. As an atheist, how would you refute that?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve covered irreducible complexity before, so I’ll let you read that piece for a primer. It’s often claimed to be the case with biological features like the eye, the immune system and the blood-clotting cascade. In every one of these cases, there’s a great deal of scholarship that’s produced feasible evolutionary paths that work up to these mechanisms that supposedly can’t get any simpler without being useless, because in most cases they simply did something else first. As I pointed out in the other piece, most of the research happened well before the claims of irreducible complexity were made, if they’d cared to look. If you want to respond to any such claim, just Google “evolution of” the subject.

To apply the same principle to the origin of life itself is a naked argument from ignorance, though at least it’s one where there isn’t already an answer. If you don’t know how the first life could have come together from non-living components, to presume that there’s no possible way is to assert that your knowledge on the subject of biology is not just vast but absolute and all-encompassing, beyond the reach of any human biologist. If it wasn’t life if it got any simpler, then okay, it wasn’t life before. That’s the point, it was something else. It could still have been a set of components in a membrane with some autonomous functions, from movement (optional, since tides or winds could have moved it instead) up to and including reproduction using the material around it. There are compounds like that around right now, as this TED Talk explains.

If your professor is also trying to apply the idea of irreducible complexity to the whole universe, he’s stretched it way too far. Irreducible complexity is only a barrier to natural development in something which has to develop or emerge gradually, and supposedly couldn’t get over some hurdle without divine help. All evidence points to a very sudden origin of the universe as we know it, inasmuch as our concept of time applies to the event. It probably wasn’t a half-universe first.

Why Fight the Young Earth?

Question from Jerry:
I very often hear about if the Earth is ~6000 – ~10.000 years old or if it is billions years old.

But I don’t understand how this is an argument, just because in the Bible it says God created the heavens and the earth and all live on the Earth in 6 days.
So.. if Adam would do scientific research on the universe and the planet, would the planet look like its only a couple of days old?
I can’t imagine how that would look like, because scientifically, a 6 day year old planet would look nothing like a planet, more a ball of lava.

So If God created the Earth to be habitable, it would HAVE to be a billion year old planet, there is no other choice. So of course the planet looks old, even if it’s created just a second ago.

So many atheists use the evidence for an old Earth as an argument against Creation. I don’t see how it has any argumentative value though.
I’m wondering what an atheist’s response to this is.

Thank you ever so much 🙂

Answer by SmartLX:
Young Earth creationists (YECs) do say that God created the Earth more or less the way it is, without working through the lava-world phase over millions of years. As you say, there’s strong evidence for an old Earth (geological, astronomical, radiometric, etc.), so a young Earth would have been created with all that evidence essentially falsified. This is the problem though, because why would God go to so much trouble to deceive us into thinking it was so old? Especially if we’re supposed to take the roughly six thousand year history of the world in the Bible seriously?

Of course the problem with any anti-religious argument that goes, “Why/how would God do this?” is that it’s possible to assert as gospel (sometimes literally) any answer which explains it away. The Earth looks old because God’s testing our faith, for example. Thus faith is insulated from any attempts to make their beliefs sound silly, and plot holes in scripture can be ironed out.

The main point of this particular battleground is that young Earth creationism follows on from Biblical literalism. The Bible says the world was created in six days, and that there have only been a small number of generations of humans since then, so that’s the way it was. There’s no good reason to believe it except if you want or need the Book of Genesis to be literal. Outspoken YECs try to convince nonbelievers that the world is young so that they will accept that God created it, because supposedly nothing else could explain a young Earth. Even if they fail, they often succeed in reassuring other Biblical literalists.

To give their position a respectable veneer, in order to appeal to nonbelievers and impress believers, YECs need to make it look like it has secular scientific support, which means presenting scientific arguments that the Earth is young. The proper use of the real evidence that the Earth is old, rather than to jump straight to advocating atheism, is to simply counter these arguments by YECs, and the evidence does so very easily. Thus there is no intact evidence for a young Earth, YECs are reduced to claiming God made the world look old, the young Earth becomes a mere assertion and it cannot serve as a solid premise for arguments for the existence of the God of Abraham. Thus you can believe in a young Earth if you want but it won’t get you anywhere with those who don’t already agree with you.

Information Sources

Question from Louis:
Where does new information come from? Material does not generate information.

Answer by SmartLX:
New order and information is generated where there is a local decrease in entropy. (If the concept of entropy is new to you, pause here and read my article on the subject.) Entropy can decrease in an area when energy is transferred to it from a connected area, because the transfer increases entropy in the source area and the overall entropy stays positive.

The application of this to our general situation is that the sun generates a huge amount of entropy by burning itself up, and the resulting energy radiates to us where it can fuel the emergence of all kinds of new stuff. Considering evolution in particular, which is usually the reason for asking an atheist this question, new information enters the genome via the events of natural selection between organisms. When a gene makes it significantly more likely for a subset of a population to survive and procreate, useful information in the genome is favoured and junk is slowly weeded out (though there’s plenty of junk still in there, no matter what organism you’re looking at).

For a simple way of understanding how simple selection acting upon random mutations can create order and recognisable information, imagine a row of ten random digits, e.g. 1907632438. If you repeatedly randomise all ten digits with no further guidance, you might get some coincidences but it will remain random. Instead of that, you fix a digit in place for one round if it is larger than the digit to its left and smaller than the digit to its right (for the two on the ends, only one of these rules is applied) and randomise the rest. Over time the numbers will tend towards an ascending order from left to right, and it might be inevitable that if the digits are all unique then the final sequence is 01234567890, without any number ever being deliberately chosen. Making this actually happen would be an excellent programming exercise for any students out there.

Our Place In Space

Question from Niki:
Hello there and thanks for being here for us, I mean for us atheists.

I suspect my question has been already asked and answered, but I am not sure which link is the best for the best answer, so, here it is about the origin of matter in space.
I myself have some answers to offer, like it’s been there forever in the past, then I read that some scientists have come to the idea and rejected it, I don’t know exactly why. the other answer would be what Steven Hawking told us, that something can come out of nothing, like empty space containing nothing, and then something pops out of this nothing. in that case i would say that this Steven’s nothing is not my nothing, cos my nothing is really nothing, while his is kinda pregnant with something that the matter popped out of.

So, which link would be the freshest and best to tell me the present state of thought on the origin of matter? Or it isn’t known probably.
The other question has to do with gravity and other forces that are present in the universe, and in the matter itself. What about them, which are they and where did they come from? Probably unknown too.

Tied to this is the question of the moving of matter. I know that matter has never been stagnant in space, once it came out of the big bang. So, the first, original push of the bang, was the one that drove the matter into space. But, for space bodies to be formed, there had to be, and is still there, cos there is no traction of the environment in space, the circular movement of the matter so that it gathered together here and there and formed star or planets and suns.

BTW, does our sun rotate too, together with its planets, and us too with the earth?

Thanks, and sorry if I am too much of a dilettante in the field, but I know much more about Mozart. This minute I am listening to the fourth movement of his fortieth symphony. Delicious. lol

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re very welcome Niki, I have gradually gathered some feedback that our presence has been of use.

Anyway, my main article on the origin of the universe is my response to the cosmological argument, and it raises multiple possibilities. A universe that extends forever into the past is one option, and I know what you’re referring to when you say some scientists rejected the idea, but they didn’t really. I learned that while writing an article on the findings of Borde, Guth and Vilenkin. Something from “nothing” is another valid option, and in my article on that I refer to a book and online lecture by Lawrence Krauss who can explain it better than I can. As you imply, the meaning of “nothing” is slightly unconventional in this context.

The origin of the fundamental forces of the universe are as much a mystery as the origin of the matter in it. Again, they could have existed forever or emerged from nothingness, and that’s just two hypotheses of several. The origin of the universe’s movement isn’t so much of a mystery though, because if everything was moving outwards from a single point in a balanced way then the combined momentum of the universe was zero anyway. In one mathematical sense, nothing changed from when (or if) it started as a dot going nowhere. Spinning motions were largely caused by gravity; if two objects are drawn to each other in space but barely avoid a collision, for example, they will begin to orbit each other.

The movement of the Sun is rather interesting. It does rotate, but billions of years of being dragged upon by its own magnetic field have slowed its rotation until it’s probably turning slower than anything else in the solar system. It also moves around the Milky Way in its own 200 million year orbit. Relative to Earth, the Sun travels roughly in the direction of north, so that our orbit around the Sun actually traces a 3D spiral or spring shape through space. Here’s a simple model.

Enjoy your Mozart. Appropriately for this topic I’ve always loved The Planets suite by Gustav Holst, especially the plaintive, possibly jazz-influenced Venus and the sublime, haunting Neptune. (Look up what “sublime” actually means, folks, and then listen to Neptune while thinking of space.)

How The Snake Got Its Venom

Question from Robert:
What would be your reasoning as to how the evolution of venomous snakes could have happened? Obviously, the first snakes did not start off with venom glands in their heads. That means that they were getting along just fine without any venom to kill their prey for hundreds of thousands or millions of years. So why in the world would venom glands evolve inside their heads? That is not ‘natural selection’. Indeed, that is completely unnatural. A creature wants to keep poison out of its body! So why would any creature start to make poison inside its body? That makes no sense at all. And it would potentially be extremely dangerous to that creature.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that such a totally bizarre thing occurred. So now what? You have snakes with venom glands in their heads. How in the heck are the snakes supposed to get the venom into their prey? That would be 100% impossible for snakes to do that without hollowed out, syringe-like, very sharp fangs.

That’s a HUGE problem. That means that snakes which somehow evolved venom glands, would then have to evolve syringe like teeth. And there is absolutely no way that could happen because that would require forethought and planning. And it would totally go against the theory of natural selection. Also, by the time that snakes could have strangely evolved syringe like teeth, their venom glands would have already been naturally phased out because those glands would have been totally useless for an extremely long time. But again, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that this second totally bizarre thing occurred. Now snakes would have had to evolve a structure that would connect the venom gland to the syringe like teeth. How could all of these bizarre things happen accidentally? …. or naturally?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t have to rely on my reasoning, not when Scientific American has a full article on this exact subject and Wikipedia has a good summary sitting right there. What the heck, here’s the National Geographic article too. These are literally the first three results when you Google “evolution of snake venom” so I guess you didn’t start there.

The first snakes actually did start off with venom glands because the glands first evolved in the ancestors of snakes, four-legged burrowing lizards more similar to the Komodo dragon. The proteins in venom share DNA with compounds that do other jobs. One is saliva, which breaks down organic material for digestion. Immune system proteins, which attack foreign elements in the body, are another. One compound that isn’t mentioned is stomach acid, but this is another dangerous substance that is essential to normal bodily function. We need poisons in our bodies to survive, only they’re poisons we’re able to tolerate because of how they’re produced and contained. Venom evolved many times over throughout the animal and plant kingdoms, because it has lots to build off.

As for delivery systems, of which there are many, you don’t need much of a starting point. Toads secrete poison on their skin and let it sit there, because the only animals they want to poison are those who try to eat them, so any number of bodily glands could have switched their purpose. Spitting cobras squirt venom forward, so what if they started by just plain spitting, or to be more specific, gleeking? With this technique, even humans can shoot liquid a long way from the body straight from a gland. A gland with a naturally effective nozzle like this can slowly evolve into either a weapon that can be aimed or a hard retractable tube that can inject, because every little bit closer it mutates to either one of these makes for more effective hunting and defense, and ultimately a better chance of survival.

With the specifics covered, let’s look at the overall nature of your challenge because it is VERY similar to those that have come before. You point to something remarkable and ask how it could have happened, and implicitly assert your own explanation by elimination after assuming no good answer is forthcoming. A textbook argument from ignorance (a harsh name, sorry, but the official one) and thus an informal fallacy, which is a failure of the premise of an argument to support its conclusion. It fails for several reasons: obviously it’s rebutted if an alternative answer is presented, but even if not it relies on the assumption that if you and I can’t think of a way then it’s impossible. We’d have to be gods ourselves for this to be true. I point out this fallacy whenever it comes in because it is the basis of many of the arguments for God, and every creationist argument. As a result, these arguments are only good for reassuring yourself and those who agree with you, because by themselves they have little power to persuade.

After The End

Question from Salim:
I was wondering if you had ever considered the possibility of humanity wiping out humanity or our planet (or the universe) getting destroyed. So what if this one day happens? Will we await another big bang to restart life?

Answer by SmartLX:
It could happen. It could also have already happened.

If humanity does something stupid or clueless enough it could well wipe out all life on Earth, which is to say all known life in the universe – emphasis on known, because we can’t discount possible alien life out there somewhere. (Immediately this conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, who commonly believe that only God can destroy the world and He promised not to, so we needn’t worry about the environment at all.)

If everything does die, there’s a possibility that the chemicals still present on the planet could be driven by natural movement (wind, waves, tectonic plates, etc.) towards a second abiogenesis event wherein a new form of life emerges. The circumstances would be very different from 3.5 billion years ago, but since we don’t know exactly what happened it’s not unthinkable that it could happen another way, or the same way in a different place.

The outlook for that new, unrelated life would be somewhat grim. Earth was already about a billion years old when life started the first time, and about a billion years from now the aging sun will grow too hot for Earth to be inhabitable. Our successors would have to evolve the necessary intelligence to achieve space travel much, much faster than we did to have a chance of escaping.

Forget starting from scratch on Earth so late in the piece. Subsequent life will have a much better chance if it starts further out in the solar system, say on a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, say Europa. That will give it up to another 4 billion years to achieve interstellar flight before the Sun dies altogether. But then if we’re hypothesising about the best place for life to start elsewhere, the best candidates are almost certainly planets we haven’t discovered around stars we can’t even see (or if we have seen them, we’ve given them names like HR 8799). There are stars whose lifespans or “sequences” are far longer than the Sun’s.

But what if this whole universe is finally a bust, all life dies out and there’s not enough energy left to restart it? If the universe suffers a heat death then nothing further will come of it, and indeed another spontaneous Big Bang or equivalent might be needed for a new universe, and the possibility of new life, to rise. If on the other hand the universe ends in a Big Crunch (looking less likely in the last decade or so) then it might explode outwards again and produce new life by itself.

So yeah, I’ve given it some thought, as do most people who reflect upon modern cosmology. The sheer scale of the things you have to consider can be unsettling to say the least, and that’s before you start on the existential threats we face as a species. People face the subject through humour, through academics, through faith, or not at all. Sometimes it keeps us up at night, but the world can be a scary place at all levels and yet life goes on…for now.

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.

The History Of The Theories Of The Origin Of Everything

Question from Niki:
Hello Smarty.
The origin of matter? (history of understanding and the latest version)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I found a complete rundown of cosmological models and theories throughout history at the site Physics of the Universe, including religious outlooks and otherwise, so take a look over there.

The overall current scientific view, in a nutshell, is a combination of the last three on the page. There was a Big Bang or comparable event which resulted in all the matter and energy in the universe expanding outward from a tiny point. The matter could have spontaneously emerged from the quantum foam, or come from elsewhere in a larger multiverse, or been recycled from an earlier form of this universe in an endless cycle. Or it could have been created by a god or something. While currently impossible to eliminate, this last possibility is not justifiable as the default position, but that’s how many see it.