Big Ol’ Bang

Question from Call Me Static:
So, I found this looking for an answer for the Law of Biogenesis (I’m on the younger side) for school and came across this. This interested me and I thought I’d ask a question to you about what you believe with an atheistic point of view.

Do you believe in the Big Bang Theory and if not, what do you believe created the universe? I’m curious to see what you believe on this.

I’m doing this for pleasure, not anything for school. Just thought I’d ask out of simple curiosity.

Answer by SmartLX:
Lucky you, I just revisited the “law” of biogenesis the other day. But hopefully you found the earlier piece referenced therein.

Anyway, I do think the evidence supports the Big Bang, so I accept the theory and I just plain think that it happened. This leaves some pretty big questions, like what existed beforehand and what caused it (if time was, “at the time”, in a state where either question even makes sense) and what it implies for the future of the universe (heat death? Big Crunch?) but that particular moment in cosmic history is looking pretty solid right now.

Back to the Origin of Life

Question from Kenneth:
The answer by Truk regarding the Law of Biogenesis is extremely simplistic. Pasteur is not the only one to come to this conclusion. Many eminent scientists since have tried but failed to disprove it, but have had to admit that spontaneous generation as virtually impossible. The complexity of a cell, the smallest self-replicating unit of life, is so overwhelming that regardless of the amount of time it is impossible. Truk’s answer that we know it happened because life exists, does not speak of science. It speaks of faith! The very thing Creationists are always ridiculed for. The whole of Evolutionary Biology rises or falls on abiogenesis. If you can’t show that to be true, it all collapses like a ‘house of cards’.

Answer by SmartLX:
The question by Truk is here and it may have more comments than any article on this site. Religious and particularly Christian apologists make much of the fact that there isn’t an established scientific theory of abiogenesis like there is for evolution. It’s the answer atheists just don’t have. What they never seem to realise is how little this matters to the god debate.

I’ve addressed Pasteur in the other article, so we’ll speak generally here. Spontaneous generation, which came to be called abiogenesis, need only have happened once to produce all known life. It is evidently unlikely in the present day, because it is not happening all around us. (The existence of established life may have a lot to do with this; see this other article.) In the ancient world 3-4 billion years ago, perhaps it was slightly less unlikely or perhaps it wasn’t, but that you felt you had to include the word “virtually” belies that there’s no way to unambiguously say it was impossible. And if it was possible, it could happen once as a fluke, which would explain why it’s only happened on Earth as far as we can see.

That said, there are detailed and quite old rebuttals to the claim that the formation of the first proteins, enzymes, etc. were impossibly unlikely, which focus on the assertions and assumptions inherent in such claims. See whether that particular link addresses a point or two that you’ve read. Regardless, to argue that it’s impossible because we don’t know how it happened is the standard and ubiquitous argument from ignorance.

We know that before an undefined point in time there was no life, and some time later there was life. If one does not believe in a god to begin with, one does not seriously consider a god as a reason for the emergence of that life, though one cannot rule it out entirely. All possible natural mechanisms of abiogenesis would need to be ruled out before a designer could be established by elimination, and that includes mechanisms not yet thought of so you won’t get far there. Science may give one confidence that a theory of abiogenesis will emerge, but even if it doesn’t in our lifetime it remains nothing more than an unanswered question, with a hard but present road to possibly finding the answer.

Finally, even if abiogenesis didn’t happen and life was deliberately created, that may have been the last point the creator intervened. Evolutionary biology needs nothing more than an imperfect self-replicator, which perhaps a creator provided, to explain the entire diversity of life. Therefore it does not fall like cards or anything else without abiogenesis, but you think it does because you think all of evolutionary biology has been erected solely as a barrier to the certitude of divine creation, and a gap in it represents total failure in that regard. Science does not require that we be as certain of a particular hypothesis as you are of your god in order to compete with that god.

A Universe With A Mission?

Question from The Devil’s Advocate:
This question is going to be different. That is to say, I’m inclined to think that it should be interpreted and processed in a somewhat different manner than most of the emails you receive. It’s about what might be, rather than what is. In my experience, a significant minority, if not the majority, of atheists tend to take the position that there’s no point in exploring a possibility unless there’s evidence in support of that possibility. Most of the time, that makes a lot of sense. Are reptilian fairies from the seventh dimension kidnapping homeless people and prodding them with rectal probes? Well, if there’s no scientifically credible empirical evidence in support of the possibilities, why even pursue that possibility?

However, there are conceptual frameworks in which what might be can be almost as illuminating as what is. Science fiction literature is all about what MIGHT be, as opposed to what is or what will be. Exploring what MIGHT be (with the rigor and scientific literacy of someone like Issac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke) can be extremely illuminating.

I’m going to make this as brief as possible on the assumption that you’re smart enough to appreciate the full implications of the possibilities that I’m alluding to here.

Consider the power of technology. Consider the exponential rate at which that power has grown over the course of only a few generations. If we don’t kill ourselves off as a result of our animalistic instincts, consider the power that human technology will wield a thousand years from now. Imagine a civilization that has been fully technological, as we presently are, for a hundred thousand years. Or a million years. Can you grasp that intuitively? The scale at least? The mind-numbing scale?

Okay. Here’s the deal. It appears to me that there are no forces in the known universe even remotely as potentially powerful as technology (applied science). What are the most powerful natural forces we know of? A supernova? The mega black holes at the center of most galaxies? I don’t know if you’re a futurist or a science fiction fan, but if you are, you KNOW that a supernova or a mega black hole doesn’t even BEGIN to compare to the technological power that a civilization ten thousand years more technologically advanced than us could conceivably wield. So, here’s the paradigm that I hope to communicate…

Given the mind-numbing, breathtaking power of advanced technology… and by that I don’t mean Star Wars or Star Trek because mainstream science fiction only depicts technologies a hair’s breath more advanced than our own, for utterly pragmatic reasons. (If a mainstream science fiction film were to depict a technology ten thousand years more advanced than our own it, watching it would be like having an acid trip– nothing in it would be at all comprehensible– therefore there’s no financial motivation to produce such a film. The technologies in Star Wars and Star Trek are JUST BARELY more advanced than our own, by necessity.)

Given the mind-numbing, breathtaking power of advanced technology… and the fact that nothing that we currently know about anywhere in the multiverse can even begin to compare with that potential power— is it so outrageous to think that LIFE (which is the source of such technology) could possibly be an even bigger influence in the configuration of the cosmos as gravity? What if– and mind you, this isn’t random speculation– this is in the broader context of the mind-numbing potential power to which I am referring– what if LIFE (both biological and silicon-based) is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, forces defining the form that the multiverse takes?

That could very well include universes designed and created for a particular purpose (or something not completely unlike “purpose”) by intelligent entities. The particular (unexpected and rather surprising) delicately balanced configuration of natural laws in our own universe, which seems unexpectedly predisposed towards allowing for the evolution of life– could, in principle, be explained by such forces.

There is, to be sure, some speculation embedded in the above. But the mind-numbing potential power of technology, which seems to vastly exceed all other known forces in potential, isn’t speculation. That’s concrete, and unavoidable. Is there anything that we know of in the universe/multiverse at the moment that could conceivably compete with a technology 500, 000 years more advanced than our own? If not, wouldn’t that imply a possibility that entire universes might be purposefully and intentionally designed and created for a purpose?

Note, what I’m eluding to here is the empirical potential POWER of applied science, relative to the potential power of other, puny, natural forces like supernova explosions. That’s the empirical reality to which I’m referring. Not blind speculation– but that potential power, and how much greater it is than any other natural power we know of.

My Question: What do you think about the possibility, implied above, that we might live in a universe– or rather a multiverse– in which universes are created intentionally for a particular purpose or in a search for existential meaning? And, do you appreciate the EMPIRICAL reality of this paradigm? The EMPIRICAL foundational reality that inspires the speculation?

Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, there is a possibility that we are in a universe that was created for a purpose. Not really with you on the rest of this.

I’m a huge sci-fi fan, but the power of technology in science fiction is speculation by definition and very little about it is empirical. There are any number of potential roadblocks to the mind-boggling progress you describe. The seemingly most likely two are:
1. Some of the critical technologies common to futuristic stories, like faster-than-light travel, may simply be impossible to make practical according to the laws of physics.
2. Due to social and psychological factors, a civilisation may be incapable of maintaining a discipline of scientific advancement long enough (or even surviving long enough) to reach speculated levels. We may be fated to destroy ourselves with present-day technology, or to repeat a cycle of dark ages and renaissances.

Even if life and technology are as unthinkably powerful as sci-fi makes them look, just the possibility of creating a universe does not mean every universe is created. Life may have to evolve and develop technology at least once in a natural universe, and this may be it. Or there may only be one universe, or all universes exist concurrently, so that there was no “before” for a creator to exist in. Or the universe may not have begun to exist at all, if the Big Bang was merely a transitional event.

The more you imagine, just as sci-fi authors do, the more possible explanations you come up with, and the less likely any given scenario seems with the sole supporting argument that it seems plausible.

Comprehending Nothing Without God

Question from Topher:
First time asking here, so I have a lot of questions, and I apologize in advance…

[snip – SmartLX]


Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve moved your questions into my section for easy reading, without editing them. The answers will be the quick-and-dirty ones because we’ve covered them many times before. Search the site for keywords like “origins” for a lot more material.

How often do atheists doubt that God doesn’t exist?
Depends entirely on the atheist. Some never do, some occasionally do, some actively wish a particular God existed but can’t bring themselves to believe. I am fairly confident that there are no gods based on the conspicuous lack of good evidence, but I recognise it’s not intellectually defensible to be certain.

Do atheists believe nothing is self-existing?
Depends on the atheist but none of us have experienced true nothing, we’ve always been surrounded by something. It’s very hard to speculate on the nature of nothing when it’s never been observed.

If nothing is self-existing, why is there something?
If there was once nothing and now there’s something, it’s because “nothing” was unstable. Matter and antimatter can emerge from a space where neither previously existed, balancing each other out by keeping the net matter/energy at zero. That’s the best hypothesis so far, if a something-from-nothing scenario is considered.

Doesn’t anything require something?
Not based on the above phenomenon. Apart from that though, we are in no position to say what is required to create matter and energy because everything we see consists of matter and energy that has existed since the Big Bang, merely converting from one form to another over time. Perhaps it has been like that forever, even before the Big Bang.

At the very least the natural laws are self-existent, right?
We have no idea what they are contingent upon, if anything. If there are multiple universes the natural laws for each might be completely different. Every universal value we think of as constant might suddenly vary by 50% next week, for reasons we wouldn’t have time to discern before we were destroyed by the resulting cosmic upheaval.

If there was no time or space pre- Big Bang, how or why were there natural laws if there were?
Continuing the thought just above, perhaps there weren’t, and what you think of as natural laws are dependent entirely on (or emergent from) the presence of time, space, energy and matter.

Scripture gives you simple answers to questions like these, or at least gives you the confidence to assert certain answers. You have no assurance that your answers are correct except the insistences of the text itself and your fellow believers, so while you do not need to consider them further you are merely rolling their uncertainty into the all-encompassing assertion that God took care of everything. Atheists simply admit they don’t know, and are content from day to day with not knowing because as long as we don’t believe in creator gods the only alternative for us is self-deception.

0 = 1 + -1

Question from Herman:
For so long I have tried to understand the atheistic theory of the creation of “everything”.
I get the answer that before the big bang there was this waves/energy/*something about density I am too much of a aesthete to understand * or that there is negative matter so that it is really zero matter, but there still is something here right? I guess my question is the ultimate “what happened before that”.

My thinking goes thus:
Energy can’t be created, just altered. Therefore either we believe in eternity and something that has existed without ever being created. Or something outside of the laws of physics must have started it, that in turn must be able to create itself.

Help me understand!
Best regards and holiday greetings!
The Deist from Sweden

Answer by SmartLX:
Holiday greetings to you too Herman.

The idea of the “negative matter” is antimatter, which has been observed and even generated and “captured” in labs. It really is the negative of matter; when it comes into contact with matter the two annihilate one another. If there is as much antimatter as there is matter in the universe then it all comes to zero in a very real sense; it just hasn’t recombined to level out, so there are local positives and local negatives.

Regarding the origin of this system, the answer to the question, “Why did something come from nothing?” in this context is, “because ‘nothing’ is unstable.” Quantum fluctuations can apparently cause matter and antimatter to spontaneously emerge or erupt from an area of zero matter, which violates no laws because the total matter is still zero. This is what has been caused in labs on a very small scale to produce detectable antimatter. This on a large scale can produce a universe’s worth of matter, and if it happens quickly then there’s your Big Bang.

This is of course one theory of many. Another is that, as you say, matter has always existed in some form without ever needing to be created. As for something outside the laws of physics, that’s another possibility but it may only be outside our laws of physics, e.g. another “progenitor” universe in a larger multiverse with its own separate physics (and possibly in an infinite series).

I’ve written a lot about this over the years; search the site for the keyword “origins” to find most of it.

There Will Always Be an Argument About Information

Question from Sam:
Hi, so I was casually surfing the web when I came across a video in “Answers in Genesis” which was basically said it could disprove evolution in 3 minutes with two simple facts. The second fact, which they championed, made the claim that it was impossible (there are no possible means by which this can occur) to add to genetic code in any way, meaning there was no possible way for an aquatic creature to create genetic code to grow legs, etc. (Disproving evolution) Of course, I questioned this bold claim, especially since they were extremely vague about their sources and provided no sources or further material for study. As such, I haven’t a clue how they came upon this claim, or the legitimacy of it, could you lend some further insight into this?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m assuming the first of the two facts didn’t do anything for you, which does not surprise me.

The source of the claim amounts to “it stands to reason” which is what people say when they don’t want to bother reasoning through something. It’s one variant of the argument from ignorance I’m always pointing out, specifically, “I personally don’t know how additions can be made to a genome, therefore there is no way.” People don’t know this because they literally have not checked at all, because the relevant material can be found online in seconds.

This TalkOrigins article from 2001 fits the bill nicely. The mechanisms by which information is added to the genome are quite simple, for instance gene duplication, or essentially random noise from mutations. What’s harder to comprehend is how this information proves useful, and particularly allows new features to emerge.

The answer to this is straightforward though the detail is immense if you drill into it: natural selection helps to eliminate the information which is not useful, leaving that which is. There are countless analogies for this, so to pick one arbitrarily, genetic material is thrown into an arena and under constant attack, so whatever survives does so because it makes a difference to the fight.

The true difficulty is in convincing creationists that this kind of argument doesn’t convince anybody, which does seem to be true in my experience; its purpose nowadays is instead to reassure creationists. Or perhaps they know this already, but it doesn’t stop them from using it to reassure each other.

Atheism Before Darwin

Question from Amanda:
Where did atheists believe humans came from before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution existed?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some information on this here. There were theories of what would come to be called evolution long before Darwin, though none that fit the evidence nearly so well. Among some biologists there were inklings of the basic concept of common descent, for instance the idea that humans and apes were related, but without the strength of Darwinian theory this opinion was highly controversial and one risked one’s reputation by airing it.

So for the lay atheist minority worldwide, our best answer to your question was that they just didn’t know. Since they didn’t think a god existed, let alone created humanity, they reasoned that there must have been a natural mechanism to allow modern life forms to develop some time after the birth of the planet. With what they knew then, they were unable to take it any further.

This basically meant that evolution in that period was in the same position abiogenesis (the initial emergence of simple life from non-life) is in now. No mechanism was clear despite various conjectures, but if a god didn’t seem likely to you then this inspired confidence that a mechanism existed and might eventually be found. Darwin came through for his field, but we’re still waiting for “the Darwin of abiogenesis”. While we wait (and while some of us work at it), we have to content ourselves with not knowing, because to demand an answer when information is lacking is to open ourselves to a wrong answer.

The Concept of The Blind Watchmaker

Question from James:
Why does Richard Dawkins use the analogy of a “blind watchmaker” to describe natural selection?

Answer by SmartLX:
Straight from Wikipedia:
“In his choice of the title for this book, Dawkins refers to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology.[1] Paley, writing long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence of the existence of a divine creator by drawing a parallel with the way in which the existence of a watch compels belief in an intelligent watchmaker. Dawkins, in contrasting the differences between human design and its potential for planning with the workings of natural selection, therefore dubbed evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker.”

Essentially, natural selection clearly does not plan. Paley’s argument is that if a watch suggests the existence of a watchmaker, the supposed appearance of design in living things should suggest the existence of a designer, but on closer inspection life is not as it would have been if designed by an entity with all its faculties intact. The reasons given by Dawkins include vestigial organs and features, inefficient physical arrangements of a body’s components (like the recurrent laryngeal nerve), inefficient solutions to simple problems, easily avoidable susceptibilities to malfunction, disease and death (see here for examples in humans), and needlessly expensive competition between individual organisms. Life functions, sometimes barely, but it could be so much better if someone had actually designed it rather than natural selection procedurally applying the simplest short-term solution to everything.

We’re Looking for a Few Good Mutations

Question from Nick:
How do you refute the argument that it is mathematically impossible for “good” mutations to occur and that evolution is mathematically impossible, and thus not a real theory, but a pseudoscience?

Short answer by SmartLX:
With evidence.

Okay, longer answer by SmartLX:
The idea that beneficial mutations are “mathematically” impossible is based on easily addressed misunderstandings of the process. The fact that the idea is so widely held by creationists despite being so easily addressed speaks to a common reluctance among their number to accept simple facts, if those facts are inconvenient.

A very simple counter to the claim is the fact that most individual mutations can potentially be reversed in subsequent generations. This is an observed and well-known phenomenon straightforwardly called reverse mutation. The list of reversible mutations includes many that would be regarded as “bad” or detrimental to survival and procreation. The reverse of these mutations would by definition be “good”, so there’s no barrier to this whatsoever.

The other effective counter is the set of beneficial mutations that have been observed. You can look them up on Google, or follow up on the short list given here. Most famously, the Lenski E.coli experiment tightly controlled an isolated population of E.coli and documented its acquisition, via repeatable mutation, of the ability to metabolise (eat) the citrate in its environment. The bacteria couldn’t do it, then they could. Creationists did everything they could to discredit this and failed pretty badly. We had our own little argument over it in the comments here (search the page for keyword “Lenski”).

The Universe Itself Keeps On Expanding, And Expanding…

Question from Andreas:
I know, this may have already been answered, but this piece of information so far successfully hid from my search for knowledge. This is why I’d like to ask a physicist
— Lawrence Krauss — these two questions regarding space and time.

Question 1:
First, as I get it, since Einstein there is no universal time, but a space-time. (Newton was so much easier to grasp for a simple human mind.) Means, space and time are tied together, influence each other and got into existence at the same time which was the big bang. Am I right so far?
Thus space started to exist and to expand since then, as did time — start to exist, that is.

So here comes my first question, because I don’t understand a “what was before” question I sometimes read or am asked (mostly by religious people). I don’t claim to understand Einstein, and I assume only a dozen people on Earth fully do — so maybe I got it all wrong, which is why I have to get this answered.
Is it true that there was no time before the big bang? If so, why are people asking themselves, how and when and why the big bang took place? It cannot be answered (well, the how can be answered to an extent) when there was no time in existence before, so there was no “before the big bang”… or what did I get wrong here?
And the implications? Am I right about shaking my head if people ask the “but what was before” question?!?

Question 2:
Another issue I have with time is distance, the speed of light and our view into the universe. Due to the limitation of the speed of light, we look backwards in time when we look into the universe and see distant galaxies. So we see the past. The farther away a star/galaxy is, the older the image we see. So how do we know if it’s still there? How do we know if a galaxy very far out, in a distant past, isn’t long gone and its stars exploded in nova and supernova explosions? And how far can we look back? I once read that the farthest out we can see is the actual time of the plasma that was “shortly” after the big bang… and we cannot see past that. And that we can see residual “background noise.” If that is true, how can we have a current picture of the universe? Isn’t everything we think about it an extrapolation of a past situation—the only thing that we can see, but we have to calculate how it might have developed since then to now in order to have a full understanding of the universe in its present state?

Isn’t it therefore impossible to have a clear picture of the universe, its number of galaxies, its size etc.? It could be no more than a wild guess, like “yes, we see the images, but we cannot put it together in one map of the current (state of the) universe…”

Those were my two questions.
I am really looking forward to seeing them answered by someone who actually understands what he’s saying, and can even do the calculations (e.g. the time+distance thing), as this gives me headaches for a year or two now, and I just couldn’t find it anywhere else… yet.

The biggest thanks in advance!

Answer by SmartLX:
With the disclaimer that I am absolutely not Lawrence Krauss, I’m happy to help.

Question 1:
There are multiple cosmological models with some kind of Big Bang, and there is a form of time “before” it in some of them. When considering the multiverse hypothesis in particular, you have to consider the possibility that before our system of space-time began others might already have been running. (“Before” in this context relates to causality; if something in another system of space-time caused ours to emerge, you can think of the cause coming before the effect.) If indeed there was no time before the Big Bang, though, then the “before” question is indeed inapplicable, and our ideas of cause and effect have a hard time applying as well.

To summarise in the context of the religiously-charged “what was before” question, we don’t know whether there was a before, if there was a before there didn’t have to be a god in it, and if there wasn’t a before then the Cosmological Argument is nonsensical. The Argument from Contingency is a version that attempts to get around the time-based limitations, but it still has most of the same flaws.

Question 2:
Statistically speaking, we know many stars we can see are long “dead”. Our sun has a total lifespan of about ten billion years, and the larger a star is the sooner it burns out. The best telescopes can pick up images from several billion light years away, and some of the far-out stars are hundreds or thousands of times bigger than the Sun. Even one billion light years out, time will be up for a significant percentage of them since they’ve had to last another billion years since they radiated the light we’re seeing.

So of course our picture of the universe is incomplete. We live in a fortunate time, cosmologically speaking, because the expansion of the universe hasn’t progressed to the point where all galaxies are out of sight of each other, or else we might not know there are other galaxies at all. As it is, we are constantly revising our estimates (and estimates they certainly are) about the contents of the universe based on the information we can gather. Right now the estimate for the proportion of stars with planets around them is rocketing upward as we find evidence of more and more extra-solar planets. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything.

I think you misunderstand one significant thing. Our model of the present universe is not an extrapolation from an assumption of the Big Bang; rather our concept of the Big Bang itself is largely an extrapolation from the current state and movement of the universe. Put simply, everything is rushing away from everything else (unless held together by local gravity) so in the past everything was closer, further in the past everything was even closer than that…and at some point beforehand everything was together, and the physicists worked from there. We try to model the current universe based as much as possible on real observations of its present state, rather than extrapolating from an extrapolation – though sometimes we do resort to that.

Feel free to pick up on any of these points in a comment if you think it could be clearer.