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!

Comments

  1. #1 Physicalist
    July 14, 2010

    That’s Euclid’s fifth postulate.

    Isn’t he referring to Proposition 5, which is a theorem?

    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. . . . I would not find it appropriate to be quite so snotty about their efforts.

    Now that’s right on the money!

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 14, 2010

    Hmmmm. You’re right. I messed that up. I have corrected the opening post.

  3. #3 Zach Voch
    July 14, 2010

    As for why is there something rather than nothing, I like Krauss’s answer…

    Nothing is unstable.

    The question becomes something more along the lines of “why do we have universe X, with associated laws” as opposed to any other logically possible universe Y.

    Now, this question can be pursued to regress (why are the metalaws the way they are), and the distinction between hypothetical “metalaws,” “laws,” and “universe” break down.

    The question actually refutes itself at this point, as I noted at Ophelia’s blog post on Rosenbaum’s excremental piece:

    a) Every possible universe is possibly different.

    b) Any possible explanation for the preference of a given possible universe over another possible universe is itself possibly different.

    c) By (a), no given universe necessarily exists, and by (b), no given universe is necessarily preferred to exist in place of any other given universe.

    d) By (c), it is not possible to show that any given universe is fundamental, i.e., (c) implies that the question can never have a satisfactory answer. Therefore, there can be no ultimate answer to “why is the universe the way it is?”

    Unless somebody can give an ontological proof for the logical necessity of the exact laws that we have (and I doubt that this is possible), the question is meaningless.

    What answer would be satisfactory anyways? A naturalistic one? That just pushes the question back. A theistic one? That pushes the question back as well.

  4. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    July 14, 2010

    “Why is there something instead of nothing?”

    Not that I know anything whatsoeverever about Bayesian probability, but…

    There are approximately infinity number of ways for there to be a universe of something, but only one way to have a universe of nothing.

    What are the odds?

  5. #6 AL
    July 14, 2010

    The question of why something rather than nothing seems incoherent to me. Are we supposed to imagine that it is possible for there to be a total state of nothingness? What could that possibly mean? Isn’t a “state” of sorts a thing, and therefore by definition, cannot be a nothing? Even zero is still a number. Even an empty set is still a set. OTOH, if we agree that there can’t be such a thing as a total state of nothingness, then why is it a mystery that there is something? Apparently, it could not have been any other way.

    P.S. I knew chess players were evil and oppressive, but I’ve been part of the silent non-chess playing majority for too long.

  6. #7 AnswersInGenitals
    July 14, 2010

    “Why is there something instead of nothing?”

    To properly engage this question we have to realize that at this very moment there are non-existent philosophers in non- existent universes who are asking: “Why is there nothing instead of something?”.

  7. #8 Joerg
    July 14, 2010

    As for why is there something rather than nothing, I like Krauss’s answer…
    Nothing is unstable.

    A great, great answer, but it’s from Frank Wilczek.

  8. #9 Zach Voch
    July 14, 2010

    Thanks for the correction, Joerg. I’ve always heard it from/attributed to Kraus.

  9. #10 Koray
    July 14, 2010

    Why is there something instead of nothing? Assume that there was a reason, called X. Then, ask why X instead of not X? And so forth…

    Every charlatan would bend over backwards to get his followers to defend his position with amateur philosophy. You don’t believe in my magical cancer cure? Ask yourself, why does cancer exist anyway?

  10. #11 feralboy12
    July 14, 2010

    Try sitting in sometime on a discussion of the pros and cons of the Sicilian defense. Talk about your great schisms…
    As for the “something from nothing” argument, I like Kurt Vonnegut’s answer. “In the beginning, there was nothing. Nothing implies something. The universe is that implication…”
    OK, it’s crap, but I still like it. Of course, I like the Sicilian defense, too. It’s a great opening. I am basing that on the inerrant word of the Great Ultimate Authority in the sky…Bobby Fischer.

  11. #12 James Sweet
    July 14, 2010

    the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence

    Yeah, that’s a strawman if I ever heard one.

    I’m hopeful we’ll be able to, but it’s anything but a certainty. And one thing I am quite pessimistic about, I’m pretty sure we’ll never have an intuitively satisfying answer to that question, at least not intuitively satisfying to anyone other than a brilliant theoretical physicist.

    For instance, “Nothingness is maximally ordered, therefore it is infinitely unlikely” is not a bad stab at answering the question, but there will always be a part of me saying, “Yeah, but why is THAT true?” heh…. Fortunately, I don’t take that inner voice too seriously. “Common sense” performs poorly enough when it comes to subjects as familiar to the human experience as biology or even public policy — in the first few picoseconds after the Big Bang, any attempt to employ “common sense” objections is laughable.

  12. #13 James Sweet
    July 14, 2010

    To properly engage this question we have to realize that at this very moment there are non-existent philosophers in non- existent universes who are asking: “Why is there nothing instead of something?”.

    Heh, nice. I’ll have to remember that one. Bravo.

  13. #14 Jud
    July 14, 2010

    Nothingness is maximally ordered, therefore it is infinitely unlikely

    Would someone like to take on the task of explaining to a non-physicist why nothingness wouldn’t be at thermal equilibrium? Or is it, but a disturbance (from what cause – virtual particles, Hawking radiation, something else?) destroys the equilibrium?

  14. #15 Koss02
    July 15, 2010

    @14

    Quantum fluctuations

  15. #16 WIll
    July 15, 2010

    Nothing is ever and only a concept. In the midst of this fullness, we will find no division on which to lever some ultimate knowledge.

  16. #17 artie
    July 15, 2010

    Nothing is impossible.

  17. #18 Owlmirror
    July 15, 2010

    To rephrase the comment I made on Sanchez’s blog, asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is like asking “Why is “This sentence is true” true rather than false?”

  18. #19 nothingUnreal
    July 17, 2010

    Theists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence–the certainty that the exists a reason why the universe came into existence that is knowable, comprehensible, or even meaningful to a human being, and that in the absence of any evidence for such a reason, they are free to simply make one up and have it then actually be true.

  19. #20 nejishiki
    July 18, 2010

    I like Adolph Grunbaum’s answer: there is no reason to assume that ‘nothing’ is the default state.

    There is a crucial underlying assumption that animates the theological creationist and conservationist ratio essendi given by a galaxy of theists. Oddly enough, they take it to be axiomatic that if there is a physical world at all, then its spontaneous, undisturbed or natural state is one of utter nothingness, whatever that is. Those many theists who make this strange assumption, have thereby generated grounds for claiming that the very existence of matter, energy or whatever constitutes a deviation from the alleged spontaneity of nothingness. And that supposed deviation must then have a suitably potent external cause. Aquinas claimed to have established this existential causal dependence of the world on God — or creation ex nihilo — on philosophical grounds, whereas he saw the belief in the initial temporal creation of the world to be a matter of Christian faith.

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/adolf_grunbaum/comments.html

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