Thursday, July 15, 2010

Atheists and something from nothing.

I am not just a recovering Christian, I am cured and immune. Mormons had a go at me and fled in anger when I asked a few questions. Jehovah's Witnesses tried to grill me with their practiced questioning and stopped after three replies they weren't sure how to answer. One fundamentalist Baptist, faced with a biblical contradiction simply denied it was a contradiction. Asked how this could be he responded: "Because."

I am what some would call a staunch atheist, a non-believer, a skeptic. I am an atheist in the proper sense of the word. I lack any belief in a god. That is the whole summation of my theology. I have no reason to accept that such an entity exists so I do ot hold a positive belief in this alleged being. I don't say there is no god, as I can't possible know every kind of god that could be invented and haven't been able to check every location where one of these creatures could hide out. I just think the odds are rather minuscule for it's existence and that there is no evidence for making a positive profession of belief. I could imagine a deity who hides out on some remote planet and hides all evidence of his existence, but that would seem rather silly for a deity, very ungodlike actually, almost petty.

I say this to assert my atheist credentials before proceeding.

Slate ran an article which says:
Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing.
My first thought on reading that is: No they don't. It's my second thought as well.

I don't see any reason to assume that "science will tell us eventually" why there is something as opposed to nothing. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. I have no idea. Perhaps the best answer we will every have to that questions is: The reason there is something instead of nothing is because there is something.

I don't happen to think that every question we can conceive of asking will be one that humans will eventually answer. Nor do I think we have to answer them. It's cool when we do, but not inevitable. Existence exists, that seems pretty obvious. If it didn't exist we couldn't be asking the question. Our asking about existence indicates that it exists. Is it possible for existence to cease to exist? I have my doubts, but if it did then no one would be worrying about the answer anyway.

I can't say I've heard anyone ever indicate that they had "faith" that this question could be answered. No doubt someone has, I just haven't heard it.

But I suggest that if it is answered then it will be answered through the use of evidence, using reason and logic. If it is answered I tend to think the answer will come from science, not from theology, but I have no reason to assume that it must be answered. I accept the idea that some questions have no answers.

I also accept the idea that there are some questions which have answers which we, for various reasons, will never discover. Let us assume that the question being considered does have an answer. That it has an answer is no guarantee that we will find it. There may be a cure for cancer but we can't be assured we will discover it.

We have to remember that those seeking answers are fallible humans who make errors. That we may lack the skill to answer specific questions doesn't mean that the answers don't exist, just that we are incapable of finding them. I have confidence in the scientific method, it is pretty damn good. What I lack is confidence that we fallible humans will necessarily find answers to every question we ask.

I actually think we won't do that. Questions expand in direct proportion to the amount of answers discovered. Every answer creates new questions but not every question creates new answers.

New knowledge increases the number of questions that we are able to ask. The act of asking questions itself requires existing knowledge. If your mind were truly blank—lacking any knowledge of any kind gained through your senses—then you would be unable to ask the most basic of questions. Consider the question that was asked by Slate: Why does something exist instead of nothing? That question requires you to know that something exists already. You have to start out with something in order to ask the question.

As I see it answers, or knowledge, must exist prior to questions. And I think that each new bit of knowledge, or each new answer, raises more questions than was answered. As knowledge accumulation accelerates I would think that question asking would accelerate even faster. The paradox in all this is that while not every question may have an answer—which we will discover—every answer has a question, or multiple questions. The more we know the more we are capable of asking.

As the number of unanswered questions accumulate we may feel relatively more ignorant, but in fact it is the accumulation of knowledge that makes question-asking possible. And people tend to specialize more and more as knowledge increases. Specialists know more about their topic than previous generations did, but know increasingly smaller shares of the total amount of knowledge in existence.

There was a time when any physician could master all medical knowledge that had been discovered. With time, existing knowledge raised new questions, new questions expanded the base of knowledge, expanded knowledge expands questions and on and on it went. Each question produced answers which only raised more questions. If I am righ,t the number of unanswered questions will grow faster than the body of knowledge grows. The chances are good that the human race will end its existence with more questions than ever.

Lewis Carroll puts some words in the mouth of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland that expresses the matter well:

"It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."