Monday, May 31, 2010

Starting at the Beginning - How Did the Universe Begin?

Christians believe that God has always existed, and that he spoke everything else into existence.  This would suggest that intelligence, law, love, and some form of spiritual world existed prior to the creation of stuff, and probably outside of any space/time continuum. 

What do atheists believe exactly?  Not big bang, but how big bang?  Would you consider any such theory to be anything but raw conjecture?  Does anything about such an explanation provide us with an understanding of how immutable laws, evil, intellect, music came into existence?

11 comments:

Derrida said...

"what do atheists believe exactly?"

With regards to the origin of the universe, I don't think that there is a consensus amongst atheists. At most, atheists necessarily believe that God didn't create the universe, meaning that either the universe wasn't created at all, or something else created it.

I am agnostic with regards to which possibility is correct. Maybe the universe has always existed, maybe the universe has no explanation for its existence, or maybe it was created. I see no reason to accept one view over the others.

With regards to evil, intellect and music, I think we can possibly do a little better. We have intelligence because such a capacity benefited us evolutionarily. We have the capacity to do evil and make music because of our intellects, because we are able to step back and consider our behaviours, shape them in order to affect the world, make it better for us, or make it more beautiful.

The laws of nature are trickier. Some laws, such as Kepler's laws of planetary motion, can be explained in terms of more general laws, like Newton's laws of motion. But the most basic laws of physics can't be explained in terms of other laws. Either there is some non-naturalistic explanation for why these laws are the way they are, or there is no explanation why the universe has the laws that it does. Maybe there is a fundamental law that explains all others, but if nature is all there is, then that law has no explanation, which is why I would be inclined to say that the most basic laws of nature have no explanation, rather they're brute facts.

Bernardo said...

"The most basic laws of nature have no explanation, rather they're brute facts."

I agree. But one of the jobs of science is to smash those brute facts against each other with ever-higher energy until they break open to reveal explanatory pieces.

"Either there is some non-naturalistic explanation for why these laws are the way they are, or there is no explanation why the universe has the laws that it does."

Ah, one of those "either-or"s that I was talking about earlier. But this one has some truth to it. If by "Why" you mean to suppose intentionality, as in "Furthering whose goals and plans and desires", then yes, a creatorless universe is one without "Why"s, one where things happen without a reason.

But if by "Why" you mean what CAUSES these laws to be as they are, then, well, some naturalistic mechanics in a multiverse could still cause our universe to have its laws, and cause another universe to have different laws. The multiverse view (for which, I admit, there is no solid evidence, I just kinda like it) supposes that, like snowflakes in a storm, universes form each with its own properties, each unique, by some process. Very little about that process can be reliably inferred by its final product (a universe, a snowflake) but it's worth thinking about this in case we do come up with good ways to infer things about the process from the one snowflake we have to look at. This is only slightly more grounded in reality than inferring the creator's plan from looking at the world, but at least we do know that the universe exists, and we don't know that about a creator or a plan.

But to answer the question of the post more directly: Atheists feel comfortable not knowing where the universe came from. Atheists feel comfortable NOT HAVING a belief about something they are not in a position to know. That, I think, is a big difference between non-believers and believers.

Randy Kirk said...

You state there is no solid evidence for other universes. How about no evidence at all. But there is plenty of evidence for God. See previous posts. You can argue the quality of the evidence, but you can't deny that there is evidence. The greatest minds in human history have concluded there is a God.

Derrida said...

Hey Randy,

"You state there is no solid evidence for other universes. How about no evidence at all."

None at all? The physicist Lee Smolin has has suggested that daughter universes may branch off of our own when a black hole forms. The black hole sucks in energy and matter and then that becomes another universe. The evidence for this hypothesis is based on the observation that the Big Bang looks a lot like a black hole. When we crush atoms, we get the same ratio of particles that came out of the Big Bang, which is some evidence that our universe branched off another universe, which is what we would expect if Smolin's theory were correct. Physicists don't just sit at a blackboard, coming up with wild theories, such theories are used to explain observations.

"But there is plenty of evidence for God. See previous posts."

As a newcomer to this blog, could you suggest some posts where evidence for and against God is explicitly mentioned?

Evidence is a tricky concept. Is the fact that I see a tree outside evidence that the tree is there, or that I'm hallucinating a tree, or that the neighbour has put up a realistic picture of a tree? All three possibilities would explain the fact that I see a tree, but the first explanation is better than the others, less ad hoc, more informative, etc. The fact that I see a tree is evidence that there is a tree, but not that I'm hallucinating a tree.

So I'd be tempted to say that e is evidence for h if h is the best explanation for e. If that's the criteria we use, then I don't think that there is any evidence for God, since I don't think that there is any fact e, such that the best explanation for e involves or postulates God.

"The greatest minds in human history have concluded there is a God."

Right, but since having one of the greatest mind in history doesn't stop you being wrong, and since the greatest minds have disagreed on many matters including this one, we should follow the argument, as Plato says.

Derrida said...

Bernardo,

"Ah, one of those "either-or"s that I was talking about earlier."

Well, here's my thinking. If the laws of nature have some cause of their existence, the cause is either natural or nonnatural. If, as you suggest, our universe has the laws that it does because of the mechanics of a multiverse, then you're appealing to deeper natural laws. If a multiverse exists, it must run on laws. If those laws have some explanation, it must be in virtue of deeper laws, or something that doesn't act on the basis of laws, something supernatural.

"Atheists feel comfortable not knowing where the universe came from. Atheists feel comfortable NOT HAVING a belief about something they are not in a position to know. That, I think, is a big difference between non-believers and believers."

I wouldn't say that atheists feel comfortable not knowing, rather, we feel comfortable proportioning our beliefs to the evidence, as Hume proposed we should do. The origin of the universe is right now shrouded in mystery: we can merely speculate as to what lies beyond the stars, if anything.

Bernardo said...

Randy; Saying that there is evidence for God is like saying "There is an invisible gnome that sits on my head and that makes it rain. Look, rain! That's evidence for my invisible gnome".

Derrida; That point by Hume is a good one. And if you read my earlier posts, you'll see that I agree with you: The fundamental question here is whether, at the most essential level, the universe is a mechanical causal system or an intentional intelligence. One of those two things is more fundamental than the other, encompasses the other. Theists believe that intelligence is more fundamental, that mechanical systems could not exist or function without intentional intelligent creation or management. Naturalists believe that causal systems are more fundamental, that intelligence and intentionality are a particular kind of self-referential causal systems. I don't think it's possible to say which of those two views is right. One seems much more elegant so some people, the other seems much more elegant to the other people, and in the end they don't make contradicting predictions about how the universe works or what we should do (unless you add some assumptions like "The Bible is true" or "Jesus was God incarnate").

Derrida said...

Bernardo, I'm glad that we largely agree. I think you're right in that naturalism boils down to the idea that lawful, unintentional processes are the explanation for the existence of intentional beings like us. Theism flips this around, the idea being that intentional beings supervise nature.

I would say that I tend towards naturalism, because I think it's the best explanation of the evidence. Natural explanations seem to always supersede supernatural ones: we used to think many things were caused by the gods, but now know that they have a natural explanation. Given how little we know now, this trend might not always hold, so I hesitate to say that I'm certain that naturalism is true, but it seems to me more probable than not.

Randy Kirk said...

Had to bow out for a couple of days due to personal issues. Wish I could tell you about the "coincidences of the last two weeks that would show evidence of SOMETHING supernatural, but alas, that will need to be in private or on another day.

Ok. Short answer on evidence. Your definition is circular. Evidence is anything that would lead you to form an opinion and has no quality to it at all. I can say that I've noted that commonly when x then y. That is evidence even if it turns out to not correlate at all.

When I say that there is truly no evidence for other universes, and you provide me with the sketchy ideas that you did, then turn around and say that there is actually no evidence for God, we get to the point of intellectual dishonesty. The fact that a huge percentage of the population "sense" the presence of God is not only evidence, but significant. If 60 percent of the population senses blue in the same or similar way and 40% don't, would you throw out that evidence?

I don't thing you will get any argument from me on the thing you both agreed upon. We both reach differing conclusions based on our world view. But that is the starting point for the debate, not the ending point. And the conclusions we draw have astonishing consequences for society.

Randy Kirk said...

Had to bow out for a couple of days due to personal issues. Wish I could tell you about the "coincidences of the last two weeks that would show evidence of SOMETHING supernatural, but alas, that will need to be in private or on another day.

Ok. Short answer on evidence. Your definition is circular. Evidence is anything that would lead you to form an opinion and has no quality to it at all. I can say that I've noted that commonly when x then y. That is evidence even if it turns out to not correlate at all.

When I say that there is truly no evidence for other universes, and you provide me with the sketchy ideas that you did, then turn around and say that there is actually no evidence for God, we get to the point of intellectual dishonesty. The fact that a huge percentage of the population "sense" the presence of God is not only evidence, but significant. If 60 percent of the population senses blue in the same or similar way and 40% don't, would you throw out that evidence?

I don't thing you will get any argument from me on the thing you both agreed upon. We both reach differing conclusions based on our world view. But that is the starting point for the debate, not the ending point. And the conclusions we draw have astonishing consequences for society.

Bernardo said...

I don't claim that there is evidence for multiple universes. An interpretation of current observations is that there are multiple universes (and other interpretations do not use this framework, and keep everything in one universe). And multiple universes would be consistent with a lot of physics models, in that they are allowed and would make some things simpler. But evidence for multiple universes (or evidence for this being the only universe)? No.

And yes, most people believe in God. That's because we evolved to assume intentionality, which has led us to crave teleology and to see it when it isn't there. The fact that most people believe in God says more about our brains' imperfect ability to model and understand its environment than it does about God.

Oh, and

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentum_ad_populum

Derrida said...

"Ok. Short answer on evidence. Your definition is circular. Evidence is anything that would lead you to form an opinion and has no quality to it at all. I can say that I've noted that commonly when x then y. That is evidence even if it turns out to not correlate at all. "

In what way is my definition circular? And I'm not sure what you could mean when you say that evidence leads us to form opinions that have "no quality". When x commonly follows y, x may be a kind of evidence that y, since the best explanation for x following y is that there is some law that states "x follows y", but its clear that there are some cases in which x doesn't have to commonly follow y to be evidence of y. For example, if you say that the big bang is evidence of a creator, are you saying that big bangs are commonly the work of creators? How could you, as we only know of one big bang to have occurred.

"When I say that there is truly no evidence for other universes, and you provide me with the sketchy ideas that you did, then turn around and say that there is actually no evidence for God, we get to the point of intellectual dishonesty."

Big words. Can you tell me why you think that the evidence I presented for multiple universes is "sketchy"? Either there is evidence for other universes or there isn't. If you don't consider the evidence I gave to be evidence, then explain why it isn't.

I don't see how my belief that there is at least some evidence for a multiverse, and no evidence for God, is "intellectually dishonest", since intellectual dishonesty commonly denotes the use of rhetoric or sophistry. I was just stating my views.

"The fact that a huge percentage of the population "sense" the presence of God is not only evidence, but significant. If 60 percent of the population senses blue in the same or similar way and 40% don't, would you throw out that evidence?"

Given your definition of evidence, I don't see how the fact that "a huge percentage of the population "sense" the presence of God" can be evidence for the existence of God, as you'd have to show that commonly when many people sense God, then God exists. But since we don't commonly know that, it doesn't count as evidence according to you.

Is the fact that many people sense God best explained by postulating a God? I don't think so. You can only demonstrate this if you can successfully argue that the theistic explanation is better than all competing explanations.