May 14, 2007

Something From Nothing: Reason or Faith?

Since moving to the new comment policy, I've been getting more e-mails from readers. Even though I am constantly behind in my e-mail correspondence and something is seriously wrong with my Outlook, this is probably a positive sign that the comment policy is having an impact. I received an e-mail recently from a Christian reader, and my initial hasty response was not satisfactory to the reader. I thought I'd elaborate here and invite your input as well.

At the end of a longer and impressively polite e-mail, a Christian reader sent the following question:
When it comes to creation, how is the belief that something came from nothing more logical than the idea that something came from something (or someone)?
For some reason, I misinterpreted this as the common challenge we atheists frequently hear from Christians. I responded as follows:
It appears that you are hinting at one form of the Cosmological Argument (i.e., the idea that there must be a first cause to explain how everything came into existence). There are many atheist responses to this ancient line of argument which can be found in any decent philosophy text. The brief version is that anyone making this argument gets stuck once they posit a god. If there must be a god because all entities require a first cause, then what caused god? I have never met an atheist who believed that something came from nothing. The common view tends to be that there has always been something (e.g., matter, energy, etc.). See also here.
The reader then politely pointed out that I had not really answered his question. He's right. I was so used to the standard question that I reflexively responded as if that had been his query. He clarified, and now I think I understand the question.
I suppose my question stems more from the reliance upon logic which I interpret from your writing. If it is illogical to believe in a god who has always existed, I suppose I’m confused why it’s more logical to believe in energy and matter that has always existed. In my mind, it seems that both are radical statements of faith, not science or logic.
If I am reading this correctly, the question is: How is it more logical/rational/scientific to believe that something (e.g., matter and energy) has always existed than it is to believe in a god that has always existed? I encourage my readers to take a stab at this one in the comments.

For me, the obvious starting point is to highlight the difference between natural and supernatural. Logic/reason/science deal with the natural world only. In fact, the very definition of supernatural is such that it precludes the application of logic/reason/science. Thus, the short answer to your question is that it is more logical/rational/scientific to believe that matter and energy have always existed than it is to believe in a god that has always existed because most conceptions of gods (including the Christian god) necessarily exclude logic/reason/science.

Although we could stop here and consider the matter resolved, I'll also encourage you to look at the world as it presently exists. It is more logical/rational/scientific to believe that matter and energy currently exist as compared with any sort of gods because their existence is empirically verifiable. That is, we have evidence that matter and energy currently exist. We have no evidence of any sort of supernatural entities, and this is precisely why religion is wedded to faith. As we go back in time just a few centuries, the situation does not change at all. We have ample evidence of the natural world and no evidence of the supernatural world. As we continue to go back in time, I see no reason to expect this situation to somehow reverse.

Lest I be accused of talking around what is most likely to central issue for you, let me be more direct. The origins of our universe remain mysterious. While science has made considerable progress in explaining how universes may come into being, it is unlikely that we will ever know with certainty exactly how our universe came into being. We weren't around to watch it happen. But to attempt to insert some sort of god into this equation has absolutely nothing to do with logic, reason, or science. It is the stuff of myth, an anthropomorphization of natural processes designed to fulfill our desires whatever the cost. And unfortunately, the cost has been tremendous.

For more on this topic, see:
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