Tag Archives: Nature

If There’s No God, Then Where Did All This Come From?

When I made my exit from evangelical Christian faith, my friends’ most common objection was, “If there’s no God, then where did all this come from?” I heard this again recently, so I thought I’d write about it.

The first-cause argument for God has a long history, dating at least from Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. It seems persuasive:

  1. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. (Also put as “Something cannot come from nothing.”)
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

How could anyone object to that?

As it turns out, we can and should object to each of those steps.

1. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. I 

Not true. “Something” comes from “nothing” all the time. In A Universe from Nothing, physicist Lawrence Krauss explains why “nothing” is actually an unstable state (chapter 10). In fact, taking the admittedly non-intuitive, but experimentally proven principles of quantum mechanics to their logical conclusion, it is entirely possible that our entire universe arose from nothing.

2. The universe began to exist.

That five-word sentence hides two assumptions that can slip right by us.

First, scientists are increasingly convinced that it is incorrect to speak of “the” universe. Our universe may well be just one in an infinite set of universes — the multiverse. Universes may give birth to one another in a chain that extends to the infinite past — a chain that did not “begin to exist.”

Second, even if our universe is the only one, it does not make sense to speak of its beginning, as if there was a time before it existed. From the Big Bang arose not only space, but time. As Stephen Hawking says, to speak of anything before the Big Bang is like speaking of a point that is more south than the South Pole.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This conclusion of the syllogism is already in doubt because its premises are suspect. However, let’s grant the conclusion anyway: the universe has a cause. Would that lead us to the traditional God of Western culture? Not necessarily, for the following conclusions are equally valid.

  • The god who created the universe died in the process, like a woman who dies in childbirth. God used to exist, but no longer does.
  • A committee of gods created the universe.
  • God created the universe, and then let it run based on Laws of Nature. God does not care about what rules you live by, does not answer prayers, and does not offer salvation to humankind.
  • God created the universe not for us,  but for black holes. After all, there are many more black holes than people. We are just an accidental byproduct.
  • A natural process that we have not yet discovered created the universe.

When trying to prove the existence of God, the Argument from First Cause has a lot of emotional appeal. Upon closer examination, it does not get the job done.

Choosing a Purpose

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. – Richard Dawkins

My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right? – Charles M. Schulz

The purpose of our lives is to be happy. – The 14th Dalai Lama

Thinkers great and small have speculated on our purpose. What does the word even mean? Our reflex is to equate purpose with the task for which something was invented, but I think that short-changes the concept.

When I was in school in the 1960s, we were taught that humans are distinct from all other animals because we make and use tools. This has since been disproven by many counter-examples, but the fact remains that we are incredibly prolific at inventing things for every purpose imaginable.

Think about a typical day in your life. Almost everything you touch, from the moment you pick up a spoon to eat your breakfast cereal, until you lay your head on your pillow at night, was invented by a human being for its particular purpose.

Not content to create inanimate objects for their respective purposes, we assign new purposes to living things. We domesticate some animals for companionship, and breed others for slaughter. Plants, too, are subject to our relentless drive to bend nature to our purposes. We directly modify their genes in order to make them more disease-resistant or more prolific, all for the purpose of satisfying our ever-growing appetites.

Being surrounded all day by things whose purpose was conferred on them by their creators (us), we tend to believe that every object’s and every event’s purpose is created for it. It’s a habit of mind that is very difficult to shake.

As a first step away from that, let’s consider the humble screwdriver. Surely a flat-bladed screwdriver’s purpose is to drive slot screws. That’s what we invented it for, and it does its job well.

Now let’s give our little screwdriver the gift of consciousness. Happily ensconced in the toolbox of a carpenter, he knows his purpose every time he drives a screw. He would say his life is filled with purpose and meaning, and we would agree.

The carpenter works hard and gets hungry. He approaches his friend the chef, and trades the tool for a meal. The chef made the trade because he is a kind-hearted fellow, not because he knows anything about screwdrivers. He attempts to use it as a soup-ladle. “There is no way this is my purpose,” the screwdriver says, and he is right.

Realizing his mistake, the chef gives the screwdriver to a house-painter. It turns out that the screwdriver is just as good at opening paint cans as he was at driving screws! And who would deny our little friend his sense of purpose as he happily opens can after can of every imaginable color? Although it is not what he was invented for, it has become his purpose.

We can see that some purposes are more fitting than others, but purpose does not have to derive from a creator’s intent.

But didn’t the screwdriver rely on how a higher being used him? Wasn’t his purpose still given to him?

This is where we get to be thankful that we are humans. We have free will (or, more exactly, we are able to make rational choices). Suppose we were to give the screwdriver not only consciousness, but the same sort of free will we have.

He decides to get the paint cleaned off his blade, get it polished up, and spend the rest of his life reflecting starlight, contemplating the vastness and wonder of the sky.

Who would deny that he has found a true and worthy purpose, even though it’s one that none of us had considered for him?

In the same way, I think we are free to choose our own purposes, and whatever we choose (good or bad) is a real purpose. It is not fake because we chose it for ourselves.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins had the opening quotation of this meditation and I’d like to let him close as well. In a TV special about the purpose of life, he spent nearly half an hour explaining the wonders of evolution by natural selection, and then closed with this.

We can leave behind the ruthlessness, the waste, the callousness of natural selection. Our brains, our language, our technology make us capable of forward planning. We can set up new purposes of our own, and among these new goals can be the complete understanding of the universe in which we live.

A new kind of purpose is abroad in the universe. It resides in us.

That’s his purpose. What is yours?

31 Days – Sky

When I arrived at work this morning and stepped out of my car, I looked up and saw the sky. It was ordinary enough, but I was reminded of a scene in the movie, Blast from the Past.

In the movie, Brendan Fraser plays a 30-year-old who has spent his entire life in a fallout shelter after a slight misunderstanding about the Russians bombing the United States. The supposed radiation having died down, his father lets him go above-ground for the first time.

SkyOne of the first things he notices is the sky, which of course he has never seen. He stares at it, fascinated, and people ask him what he’s looking at. “Don’t you see?” he asks.

They look up and see nothing.

Find an open space and take a look at the sky sometime. Pick a day when the sky is just a sky — not spectacular. Keep looking until it affects you.

That’s advice I’ve been following more and more lately. If I’m in nature, or even on a parking lot under the sky, I just keep looking until I really see. There is so much beauty and emotional power all around us if we’ll just hold still for a moment.

31 Days – Cattails

You’ve heard of the “butterfly effect” – that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could affect the weather in New York. It’s a poetic window into chaos theory. When a complex system (the weather) depends on a long chain of cause and effect, and the dependencies are non-linear, then a small change in the initial conditions can produce a large change in the result.

Sometimes I wonder about the butterfly effect, but more often I wonder at its opposite.

Redwing Blackbird and CattailsFrom my office, I can see cattails bowing rhythmically in the summer breeze. We don’t think much about the breeze, but it is incredibly chaotic – a turbulent boil of molecules bouncing off each other and only sort of going in one direction. What made the breeze?

True to chaos theory, the causes are simple: the steady fusion of innumerable atoms in the Sun; the inexorable rotation of the Earth; land shaped by ancient, Moon-pulled tides; butterflies in China. The simplicity iterates over time and distance, confusion increasing at every step. Eventually, all predictability is lost and total chaos arrives outside my window.

The butterfly effect then goes into reverse.

The cattails, possessed of a certain shape and flexibility, absorb the chaos. They rock as calmly as cradles.

A single redwing blackbird is stirred and takes flight.

I see the bird’s epaulets and rise slightly in my chair, drawing in my breath.

31 Days – Telepathic Dogs

Dogs That Known When Their Owners Are Coming HomeHere’s something to wonder about: dogs that know when their owners are coming home — seemingly by telepathy.

I’ve been rereading a book on the subject by Rupert Sheldrake. Here is one story as told by  a woman named Elizabeth Bryan.

My whole working life has been as a cabin crew member working out of Gatwick Airport. For ten years my dog Rusty would jump around and bark at the same time I landed and then sit quietly watching the front door until I got home. The astonishing thing is there is no routine to my coming and goings. I could be gone one day or fourteen and no regular time of landing, yet he knew without fail.

Here’s another.

Monika Sauer, who lives near Munich, Germany, carried out some tests at my [Sheldrake’s] request with her dog, Pluto, whose reactions were observed by her partner. Pluto reacted not only when Monika set off to come home in her own car but also when she set off in friends’ cars with which he was unfamiliar. I then asked her to come home by taxi. … The dog reacted not when she got into the taxi, but when she ordered it.

There are many more stories in the book, and they refute the explanations I would come up with (the dogs’ superior hearing is responsible; the dogs were pickup up cues from people who knew of their owners’ return; the dogs knew their owners’ routines; etc.).

Could there be an extrasensory connection between some dogs and their owners? It seems impossible. What would be the medium through which transmission would take place? On the other hand, the idea of electromagnetic fields passing through empty space was considered impossible until the 1800’s. Why couldn’t thoughts be transmitted without the medium of neurons?

What do you think? Is it bunk? Or do you know of people (maybe yourself) who have had this experience with their dogs?

31 Days – View from Space

Tonight, many of us will be looking up to see the Perseid meteor shower. So, I thought it would be fitting to see a view from the other direction.

Here is a compilation of night views from the International Space Station. The music is beautiful, too, so be sure you have your speakers on.

Full YouTube page here.

31 Days – The Antikythera Mechanism

This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely well. It does raise the question: What else were [the Greeks] making at the time? In terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.

Fragment of the Antikythera Mechanism

Fragment of the Antikythera Mechanism

Professor Michael Edmunds was speaking of the world’s most spectacular device that you’ve never heard of: the Antikythera Mechanism. It surely qualifies for inclusion in August’s 31 Days of Wonder.

Built in the first century B.C. entombed in a shipwreck until 1901, and not understood for almost another hundred years, this ancient orrery featured a complex set of gears upon gears, the likes of which would not be seen for again for a millennium and a half. It was able to calculate and display:

  • The movements of the five planets known to the Greeks, including their curious retrograde motion relative to the Earth.
  • The movement of the Sun.
  • The movement of the Moon, including its acceleration as it gets closer to Earth.
  • The phase of the Moon.
  • Solar and lunar eclipses.
  • The Metonic cycle – that is, the 19-year cycle which is the least common multiple of solar year and lunar month.
  • The 76-year Callippic cycle.
  • The dates of the Olympic games. (No kidding!)

…All this in a box just over a foot high, 7 inches wide and 3.5 inches deep.

Check it out: