Saturday
Jan242009

Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

When all questions are eventually asked, and all answers eventually postulated, the great remaining mystery for mankind is likely to be the existence of existence. Why does existence exist? Why is there something rather than just nothing? Martin Heidegger characterized this as the most fundamental issue of philosophy. Are eternity and existence synonymous, or was there a time without existence? Was there a first cause, or is existence continuous, without beginning or end, constituting all past, present, and future states? When physicists describe the universe as expanding, what is it expanding into? When philosophers speak of the beginning and end of time, what broader time scale are they using for reference?

We have some knowledge about existence and how it evolved. Our current wisdom allows us to peel back the sequence of cause and effect, starting from our present condition and working back toward the beginning of time as we know it. We are able to do this in the context of several scientific disciplines. For example, the theory of evolution describes life’s ascent, in reverse order, to human from primate, to primate from small mammal, to small mammal from fish, to fish from marine invertebrate, to marine invertebrate from multi-celled organism, to multi-cell organism from single cell, and to single cell from the basic building blocks of proteins and replication code. We can also examine reverse chronology through the lens of geology and astronomy. Mountains and valleys emerged from plate tectonics, plates coalesced from an earth formed from solar system debris, the solar system was forged from the remnants of earlier stars, earlier stars gravitated from clouds of hydrogen gas, clouds of gas erupted from plasma during the inflationary expansion of the big bang, and the big bang exploded from the original singularity of the current universe.

Unfortunately, no matter which discipline is used to unravel the evolution of our existence, they all dead end with the most basic question – why is there anything at all? Why are there molecules and atoms and quarks? Why are there stars and galaxies and planets? These questions are not about why did hydrogen atoms become stars, or why did stars fabricate more complex atoms, but why is there any damn thing at all? Why isn’t there just nothing? Why isn’t there just a formless, timeless, empty set of obsidian oblivion, with nary a sound, nary a ray of light, or nary a quantum of matter?

Theists address this question with the postulation that God is the reason why there is anything at all. This is a tidy hypothesis, at least superficially, but despite being commonly accepted, it leads to an infinite regression that in the end is not helpful for the truly inquisitive. The proposition that God created existence merely leads to a similar question about the source of God. I suppose one can conjure a creator for the Creator, but what is the point? Conjuring an infinite regression of creators does not really answer the original question, which still lingers like flatulence in polite company. Why is there anything at all, including creators?

For atheists, the notion of conjuring creators is repugnant, partly because it leaves the essential question unanswered, and partly because it is wholly unjustified, for lack of evidence, logic, and necessity. This leaves one alternative for the existence of existence, which is that existence has always existed. But, even for atheists, this seems uncomfortably close to a leap of faith. There is no direct evidence that existence has always existed. We have various theories that posit universes giving birth to other universes via black holes, or endless cycles of contraction and expansion of our one universe, but these theories are speculative and unproven. The haunting question of existence still taunts even the most devout skeptics.

The leap of faith that existence has always existed leaves an unsatisfying intellectual aftertaste for atheists, and directly conflicts with the fundamental premise of theists. To imagine that there never was nothingness in the grand panorama of eternity seems somehow alien to almost everyone. Perhaps it seems alien because we are accustomed to a world where everything has a beginning, where all effects can be traced to causes, so therefore we expect that the perceived effect of existence must also require a beginning or a cause. Or perhaps it seems alien because there is just no reason for there to be something, rather than nothing. In other words, nothingness is the natural state, and existence is somehow a more complicated and refined addition to it. Or perhaps it is just the conceit of anthropocentric perspective compelling us to feel that existence must be a special case, because we are special, and we are not possible without a specific existence fine-tuned to accommodate us. Or perhaps we have just wallowed so long in creation myths and imaginary supreme causative beings that our intellectual toolboxes are artificially limited to the idea that the creation of existence out of nothingness must have happened somehow and some time, at the behest of God. It’s all we know. It is how we have been conditioned to think.

The question of existence is so mind bending that it is tempting to dismiss it as an idle musing that will yield nothing but a migraine. However, the answer to the question, no matter how challenging, is the only thing that will settle the question of God. If existence has always existed, there is no place for God in it. What role does a supreme being have if the being is not supreme, i.e., not the cause of existence and therefore not superior to existence? The notion of God becomes wholly unnecessary and redundant. It is exactly this corner that the theists will eventually paint themselves into. As science advances, theists retreat, redefining and reducing their god from epoch to epoch to those fewer and fewer mysteries which remain after the advance of time and knowledge. In some future epoch, the only remaining mystery, and thus the only remaining refuge for the notion of God, will be the source of existence. And even this refuge will evaporate if we eventually come to know with certainty that existence has always existed.

But, until that day of discovery arrives, there remains a doubt that troubles even those who customarily wallow in skepticism. We stand in awe at the magnitude of the universe and in ignorance at the grand scope of infinity. Where did it all come from? Even if existence was limited to a solitary atom, a single quark, or one small vibrating string, we would still demand explanation, purpose, and meaning. Where did that tiny speck of existence come from? What was its source? What caused it to pop into being?

Let’s consider more deeply the various alternatives for explaining existence.

One alternative is that existence did not always exist, and came forth from nothingness at the behest of an omnipresent and omnipotent being called God. While this cannot be excluded as a possibility, it suffers from an excruciating lack of reasonableness and supporting evidence. Not only isn’t there any evidence that God created the universe, there isn’t any evidence of God. Aside from this paucity of evidence, the postulation only superficially addresses the question of existence. It explains (without evidence or logic) the creation of our observed universe, but it begs the question of God’s own existence. Where did the creator come from? It is illogical to declare that the universe had to have a beginning, only to grant an exception to that rule for the creator that is imagined to have created the universe. Why not just grant the exception to the universe itself, and argue that it, rather than God, always existed? What is gained by adding the complexity of an invisible, unknowable, and immeasurable phantom as a causative explanation? This additional complexity seems to move us farther from, rather than closer to, solving the riddle. Lacking evidence or logic, the notion of god is thus an intellectual barrier, stopping our investigation at an imaginary gate blocking the path to basic truths.

So, despite this, what compels us to lean on the flimsy premise of God as the source of existence? Perhaps we are too easily intimidated by stupendous, mind-numbing concepts such as eternity and infinity, huge numbers like trillions and quintillions, and scalar extremes that range from the galactic at the large end and the quantum at the small end. These extremes are frighteningly alien to our familiar scales of time, space, and human perspective, so we retreat to the comfort of an invented creator who is magically the source and protector of our existence. In our fragile personal worlds, we fear death, we fear isolation, we fear threats to our self-preservation, and we fear a mystifying cosmos. In the context of these fears, God is not only a tidy answer to a baffling question about existence, god is our security blanket. Many choose this delusion, but nothing is truly answered by the God postulation. It is merely window dressing for the less comforting reality that we humans are small, ignorant, and temporal. The God postulation leaves us no better off than with Hindu paradox that "it’s turtles all the way down".

Another difficulty of the creation out of nothingness hypothesis is that no experiment could ever verify that there was ever nothing, if only because such an experiment implies at least an observer. But even this difficulty pales in comparison to the contradictory issue of the creator, who is also not nothing. To solve this difficulty, the creator could be removed from the hypothesis, but this leaves simply…nothing. Lacking a creator or a causative agent, nothingness would logically remain nothingness. There would be nothing to cause nothingness to become something. This could be considered a law of existential momentum, wherein states of nothingness remain nothingness, unless acted up by an external agent (which, of course, implies that there wasn’t really nothingness to begin with). It is a brutal metaphysical Catch-22. Nothingness is not nothingness if there is a creator, and nothingness can never be anything but nothingness without an external force like a creator.

Perhaps the universe popped out of nothingness into existence of its own accord. While this cannot be excluded as a possibility, it seems terribly unlikely. It is tantalizing to imagine the singularity that exploded as the Big Bang was so close to being nothingness that perhaps it actually was, in the moment before it became a singularity. But such thinking truly is just imagination. Currently, our ability to observe the universe and the after-effects of the Big Bang does not afford us a window into what existence was like at the time of the singularity, and certainly not before. Not only does our ability to observe fail to reach back to the singularity, our main theories, such as quantum mechanics and relativity, also collapse when extrapolated back to the point of singularity. Lacking any way to observe what happened prior to the singularity, and lacking any theory that can postulate what came before it, we have no conceivable explanation as to how nothing could have become something, or how an infinite void could have spontaneously yielded the singularity that became our universe. We don’t even have any evidence that there was nothingness before our universe. We don’t even have any evidence that before has any meaning.

Another difficulty with the spontaneous birth of the universe out of nothing is that the explanation for something emerging out of nothingness cannot begin without invoking some other pre-existent something. In other words, if you assume a beginning state of nothing, what is it that could possibly cause something to emerge from it? For example, you can invoke God to help with this, but God is something, not nothing. Or, you can invoke a quantum fluctuation in a vacuum, but even a quantum fluctuation is still something. Or, you can invoke other universes that gave birth to ours, but those other universes are still something. Or, you can invoke some mysterious energy as a causative agent, but that energy is still something. It is not possible to construct an argument for nothing becoming something without making reference to something as a causative agent. Given this argument, and given that existence currently exists, and given that we have zero evidence of primordial nothingness, the assumption of primordial nothingness is very difficult to support.

Another alternative is that existence has always existed. One powerful argument in its favor is that existence currently exists. It is a hard, unmistakable fact. Perhaps this fact is so obvious that it is easy to overlook it. All of the stars, galaxies, planets, mountains, seas, flora, fauna, molecules, atoms, and quarks are really here. They are not imagined or conjured or the result of wishful thinking. That existence exists today is an unchallengeable truth that surrounds us, comprises us, and defines us. It is as clear and immutable as any evidence could possibly be. From a direct observational perspective, we have a sample size of one (the current universe) regarding possible states of existence. From this sample size of one, the only unarguable conclusions are that existence exists, that a state of nothingness does not exist, and that there are no other samples to observe.

Another hint that existence has always existed can be extrapolated from the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. A strong argument can be made that a certain corollary of this law must also be true. Let’s call it the law of conservation of nothingness. Since energy can neither be created nor destroyed in our state of existence, it must also be true that in a state of nothingness, energy cannot be created or destroyed. If the energy in our current existence can be neither created nor destroyed, and if energy can’t be created or destroyed in a state of nothingness, then there is an insurmountable barrier between the two states. One can never become the other. An energetic state can never become nothing, and a state of nothingness can never become energetic. Given this, and given that we have unmistakable evidence that existence exists today, it is a very reasonable inference that it must have always existed. Stated differently, our empirical laws tell us that energy cannot be destroyed in the present or in the future, so this is a powerful argument for the eternality of existence in all directions of time, including the past.

So, what justification is there for arguing that there ever was anything but existence? How can we observe the breadth and depth of existence in its seemingly infinite manifestations, only to dismiss it as something temporal and fleeting? There is no reason to do this! There is something rather than nothing, simply because there is something. The notion of prerequisite nothingness is an unnatural thing. There is no need for first causes, creators, and prime movers, all of which introduce illogical, unresolved regressions. It’s all unnecessary. The most natural thing in the world is to accept existence as eternal.

Perhaps the struggle with the notion that existence has eternally existed isn’t so much about its consistency of logic or the compilation of evidence supporting the notion. Perhaps the real struggle is simply about the concept of eternity. It isn’t so much that we can find any real reason why existence isn’t eternal, we just can’t get our heads around eternity per se. Abstractions like eternity and infinity are so far outside our range of comprehension, so far outside our conceited self-referential measuring sticks, that we feel compelled to quantize them, to picture-frame them with limits and prerequisites, to book-end them with beginnings and endings. Unfortunately, the common method for doing this, which is to profess that God is the creator of existence and the grand causative and quantizing agent our minds yearn for, simply substitutes one incomprehensible notion of eternity for another. Nothing is gained with this substitution, other than our invented anthropomorphic supreme being is subconsciously easier to relate to. Even though God embodies the same mysterious characteristics of eternity and infinity, He is something of our invention, something of our own image and likeness, so therefore He is closer to our scale and comfort zone. He makes us feel safe, purposeful, and perhaps even loved, whereas the disembodied impartiality of eternal existence does not.

Pascal wrote, "Since man is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginnings are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret". Putting this in modern relativistic terms, the infinite past and the infinite future lie outside of our light cones. We can never interact with them. Likewise, the outer edges of the universe, if there are such things, lie beyond our ability to see. Clearly, we have reason to be overwhelmed by these incomprehensible extremes of the infinity that we are part of and yet swallowed up in. This drives our need for something finite to relate to. This causes some people to clutch onto the concept of God to humanize infinity for them. Others accept infinity as it is, nervously and uncertainly, with some degree of ignorance, and a large degree of humility.

But, none of these psychological weaknesses, no matter how passionately rooted in our immature brains, can change reality. A is A, as Aristotle counseled us. Existence exists. Existence has always existed. Where does this leave God? To paraphrase Laplace, we have no need of that hypothesis to explain existence. Applying Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation is that existence is eternal. Any other hypothesis requires the addition of unnecessary complexity and layers.

Perhaps this closing speculation will offer some solace to those who dread an eternal universe without God and some variant of life after death.  There is great power in the concepts of infinity and eternity.  A corollary of these concepts is that any event with non-zero probability has already happened, perhaps many times, and will happen again, perhaps many times.  The fact that you are reading this means that you exist, which means your existence has non-zero probability.  This, by definition, means that you existed one or more times in the past (perhaps an infinite number of times).  It also means that you will exist again in the future.  Setting aside the inconvenient truth that the past "yous" and the future "yous" are discontinuous from the present you, this intriguing quirk of infinity can be considered a kind of immortality or reincarnation that could comfort a theist and satisfy an atheist.  So, if you can embrace this perspective, hug a loved one and tell them you will surely meet again, some other time and some other place.

 

 

 

Wednesday
Aug062008

Does Islam Deserve Respect?

Islam is a great religion. Islam is a religion of peace. We must respect Islam.

These are common truisms that are spun out of the religious and political tension in the world today. They are usually summoned to the public forum shortly after an atrocity is committed by a radical Muslim. The purpose of this public affirmation is, I suppose, to convince ourselves that wholesale evil is not possible, at least not in the guise of a religion. Religions, after all, are good. Religious folks are assumed harmless until proven deadly, and even when proven deadly, we are assured that the offending parties are a very small splinter sect.

This is all wrong. These truisms are tossed about in a milieu of ignorance. An aura of “Religious Correctness” permeates our public view of Islam, leading always to a hesitant and perhaps Pavlovian communal acceptance of it. We do not understand it, we have not read the Islamic texts, we do not know its history, and yet we give it a free pass in the court of public opinion. This is because Islam is a religion, and we are taught that religions are somehow infallible, always pure, and all equally worthy of respect and protection. In the case of Islam we have been taught utter nonsense.

Not all religions are equal. The assumption that all religions are good and harmless is fallacious. There are examples so obvious that they are dismissed for being…too obvious? Jim Jones and his People’s Temple of Guyana yielded nothing but death and destroyed families. Scientology yields nothing but programmed zombies and the transfer of large sums of money from co-opted individuals to a spurious church. Even Christianity, with its Inquisitions, Crusades, sectarian conflicts, and suppression of the Jews, is not immune from circumspection.  And Islam? Let’s talk about Islam.

How good can a religion be, when by its very doctrine, women are considered second class citizens? Women are stoned to death for infidelity. Women are subjected to a brutal form of female circumcision. They are abused by the imposition of an unhygienic and offensive protection of their virginity via stitched vaginas. They can be divorced by the mere utterance of such a decree by their spouses. They are forced to hide behind burdensome clothing in public. They are banished when they are menstruating. They can be beaten and abused with impunity, because in most Muslim countries, the public officials preside at the behest of the religious authorities.   Worse still, Islam glorifies the abuse of children.  They are taught hatred and intolerace in fundamentalist madrassas, they are trained to become human suicide machines, and their futures are funneled into the poverty of religious totalitarianism and anti-modernism. 

How good can a religion be, when by its very doctrine, it has declared manifest destiny over the rest of the world? All people must convert and submit themselves to Islam, or be killed. Islam does not allow for cohabitation with other religions. Some may say that the verses in the Qur’an that state this manifest destiny are not to be obeyed or taken literally. Why, then, is the entire Islamic world surrounded by an expanding ring of violence and war? Why is there chaos in Ethiopia and Darfur? Why are school children being killed in Russia? Why is there civil war in Chechnya? Why are there resort bombings in Indonesia? Why is there genocide in Eastern Europe? Why are Hindus being killed in Kashmir? Why are Kurds slaughtered in Iraq? Why were Buddhist temples and statues destroyed in Afghanistan? Why were planes flown into the twin towers and the Pentagon? We know why. We have just been cowered into not saying it out loud.

How good can a religion be, when by its very doctrine, it must remain a secret from the infidels (the rest of us)? What is it that they don’t want us to know? Why can we not view images of Mohammed? Why is the Qur’an not permitted to be translated into other languages? Why are infidels not permitted to enter an Islamic mosque? Why are there secret sleeper cells in Europe and North America? Perhaps that is what they don’t want us to know…

How good can a religion be, when by its very doctrine, it refuses to confer respect on other religions? Muslim children are taught in mosques and madrassas to hate the west. They are taught that Jews are the scourge of the earth and that Israel must be wrested back from them. They are taught that Christians are Crusaders who must be destroyed, and that only imbeciles would believe that God begot a Son. They are taught to be suicide bombers, and that heavenly rewards await them if they destroy themselves while destroying heathens (us). We tell ourselves that we have to respect Islamic mores and customs in our societies. In their societies, they tell themselves that there is only Islam, and nothing else will be tolerated.

How good can a religion be, when by its very doctrine, the value of life is marginalized? Muslims must do as Mohammad did, even if there is no rational reason for emulating the behavior of someone who lived 1400 years ago. Why must they fritter their days praying at five intervals, ritually scrubbing their feet, eating only certain foods, circling mosques and climbing hills? Free thought and individualism are discouraged. There is only the Qur’an and the Hadiths. Conformity is prized above creativity, resulting in an impoverished lifestyle for millions. Sadly, the penultimate expression of life in Islam is to commit suicide and become a martyr. There is no mention of a harem of virgins waiting in heaven for winners of the Nobel peace prize.

How good can a religion be if the believers slay each other when there is a disagreement in doctrine about how to interpret the words and acts of Mohammed? Muslims have so little respect for life that they are slaughtering each other, Shi-ites versus Sunnis. There have been wars between Islamic countries over this dispute. There have been civil wars within Islamic countries over this dispute. This has gone on for centuries in the past, from the inception of Islam itself, and will continue for centuries into the future. To be sure, other religions have differences, including between various Christian sects such as Mormonism and Catholicism, but these differences are rarely settled by sword, bullet, and grotesque mutilation.   Not only do Muslims slaughter each other over disagreements about Islam, they are obligated to murder any Muslim that slips away from the faith.  Apostacy and other crimes of thought are cause for execution.

How good can a religion be, when its chief Imam, Osama bin Laden, declares a jihad against the western world? What does it mean for a religious spokesperson to do such a thing? Imagine the specter of the Pope declaring death to Arabs! We would all surely be appalled, and the world outcry would be deafening. Why, then, are we not appalled by the constant call to holy war by the Imams of the Islamic world? Why is only the silence deafening among world critics? It is because Islam is so far outside the mainstream of civilization that we simply overlook the most glaring barbarism.

How good can a religion be when its representatives issue fatwa’s against its own dissidents, essentially sentencing them to death by stamping their imprematers on their murders? Salman Rushdie is but one example. Criticism of Islam is not permitted. They have even intimidated the media outlets of the world into suspending criticism and refusing to air satires that poke fun at it or to display pictures of its founder. Such virulent opposition to open debate and criticism can only mean a few things, and they are all bad. The possibilities are: Islam may be a sham to begin with, it may have very bad intentions today, or the tyrants who have co-opted Islam are using it as a ruse for their power grabs.

How good can a religion be, when by its very doctrine, there is no separation between church and state, between the civil and the religious? One of the great advancements of the west, as defined by the American Declaration of Independence and its constitution, was to recognize the difference in these magisteria. Even Christianity marks the difference in the words of Jesus, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” Islam makes no such distinction. Its religious law, the Sharia, is also the civil law. And the Sharia is a brutal regimen, lacking any civil authority to temper it. And the practicing of the Sharia leaves no room for a civil government within which for Muslims to participate. It is all or nothing for them. How, then, can they assimilate into our society? They cannot, and will not, in the long run. But yet they are among us.

How good can a religion be when its history is one of unremitting warfare? Mohammed himself engaged in an extraordinary number of wars to solidify the hold of Islam, and his immediate followers violently expanded the Islamic empire into Persia, Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and Turkey in a few short years. Our western histories are silent on these battles and the atrocities that came from them, but to read of them now is to set your stomach churning and the hairs on your neck to stand on end.

How good can a religion be when its allegedly moderate leaders remain steadfastly silent when its radical elements commit murder and mayhem around the world? Why is al Jazeera TV broadcasting images of celebrating Arabs when innocents are killed by Muslims? Where are the Imams that condemn Osama bin Laden? Where are the clerics that decry the random slaughter of innocents by Muslim suicide bombers? Where are the Imams that demand the hate-filled jihadists to cease and desist? They are in their mosques, collecting money to be fed to these jihadists. They can call themselves peaceful moderates, but what is apparent by their silence and inaction is that they tacitly approve of the holy war.

We can no longer allow Islam the privilege of hiding behind the general immunity of being classified as a religion. It is an anachronistic, brutal, close-minded cult. The only difference between it and the People’s Temple of Guyana is that is bigger, and more ruthless. It is intent on conquering the world, and it will attempt to do so without following any of the rules that we have grown accustomed to in the West. We must call it to an accounting, in the cold light of reason. We do not owe it respect, because it has not earned respect. We owe it suspicion. To fail to do this is to invite and encourage a growing disaster of a magnitude that civil people will not be able to contemplate sanely. Sleep with one eye open, America.