Be sure to read this excellent post by Julian Sanchez addressing the old chestnut, “Why is there something instead of nothing?”
Sanchez was replying in particular to an appallingly bad essay by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate. How bad? Here’s one sample:
Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence–the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)
Ahem. The most unbending religious Inquisitors were fond of torturing and imprisoning people who dissented from their views. I get it that Rosenbaum does not care for the New Atheists, but does he really think, on their worst day, they are anywhere close to that? I think we need some sort of extension of Godwin’s law to cover this sort of thing.
Anyway, Rosenbaum thinks the inability of atheists to give a definitive answer to the question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” somehow puts them at the same level of false certainty as your average religious fundamentalist. Sanchez explains patiently why this is deeply stupid:
I’m inclined to say that the question is meaningless–it has the form of a meaningful, even a scientific question, but it can always be framed in a way that places it outside any system of causal explanation. It’s a kind of grammatical misfire, like “This sentence (or proposition) is false.”
To the extent that it is a meaningful question, I have no reason to expect that science either eventually will, or even in principle could answer it. But I am not sure why I am supposed to care, except insofar as it’s interesting to mull over, if you go for that sort of thing. Suppose I allow that it is a genuine mystery–radically uncertain, even. It’s outside the realm about which we can talk meaningfully or offer evidence. So what? If there were some part of the world about which we couldn’t even in principle gather information, would I have to declare myself a basilisk agnostic because, after all, they might be there?
Go read the whole thing!
There is one paragraph, though, where I think Sanchez is being a bit too snide:
There are a couple claims at issue here, and throughout the piece. One is just the commonplace observation that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris &c. can come across as arrogant jerks, which is fair enough, but then, who else is going to really proselytize for the absence of a belief? It’s like starting a non-chess-players club; plenty of people fit the membership requirements, but only those with an active hostility to the game are going to feel the need to make a point of joining. In any event, this is at most an observation about a particular group of people; it doesn’t have much to do with the soundness of an atheist position as such.
If we lived in a society where most people were chessplayers, and if that majority started demonizing those who do not play, to the point of questioning their basic moral worth and ability to hold public office, then I would say a non-chess-players club would be a fine idea. And if that club then wrote a few books and made a few public presentations pushing back against the sometmes tyrannical impulses of the chessplaying majority, I would not find it appropriate to be quite so snotty about their efforts.
Except for that one small blemish, Sanchez’s essay is excellent. Go have a look!