Gnu Atheist Questions

The factually challenged wingnuts over at the  Discovery Institute have asked the scary new atheist movement some questions. I’ll do my best to answer them, but if the courtier’s reply applies, I’m going to use it. I’m an engineer, damnit, not a doctor of philosophy.

1) Why is there anything?

One of the defining principles of quantum physics is the fuzziness of reality, provided you are looking close enough. Call it the uncertainty principle if you want, but nature as we know it has some inherent randomness  ‘built’ into the universe. One of the stranger aspects of this is seen in the phenomenon of virtual particles, which are bits of stuff that pop into and out of existence in time spans shorter than we generally notice. This weirdness also manifests itself in the decidedly spooky Casimir Effect, but the take home lesson is that points of what we think of as empty space actually are teeming with vacuum energy.

The laws of reality allow matter and energy to pop into existence, given small enough time frames and small enough distances. Our cosmological model has that the early universe being of just this fuzzy size, so small and energy dense that time itself got squished into another spatial dimension (see: A Brief History of Time). This was just before the inflationary epoch. which expanded the size of the universe by a factor of 10 followed by 43 zeroes. If Stephen Hawking and the string theorists are correct, than a self-consistent understanding of physics demands that universes can and will be spontaneously created from nothing. We’re just lucky enough to be in a universe that happens to support our kind of life and allows these questions.

Now, it should be noted that we are beyond any experimental evidence regarding the ‘creation’ event, even in theory.  As for the ‘why’ bit, that implies intentionality, which is straight up silly. Try asking gravity ‘why’ it is keeping your butt in the chair. Moving along.

2) What caused the Universe?

Again, ’caused’ implies intentionality, but I think I’ve just explained that the universe is essentially self-caused, randomly, as a necessary outcome of the way physics operates.  This question also seems to require time existing independently of the universe, as causality requires time for a sequence of events. Asking about sequences ‘before’ the universe, or what caused the universe without time existing is as meaningful as asking what is north of the north pole.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

I’m going to invoke the anthropic principle here, it’s doubtful that we’d be here to ask that question if the universe wasn’t ordered enough for complex life to arise. If our universe is a probabilistic fluctuation in some grander design, than there are also an infinite number of other universes that would not have perceived regularity, because their variation on the laws of nature wouldn’t allow for beings capable of observation. Call it a self-selection bias with a sample of 1.

Besides, just because we call an observed pattern regular doesn’t make it so; ask the financial markets. The two theories that best explain different properties of our universe are mutually incompatible, but we consider both laws. All we can do is attempt to characterize our observations in a systematic fashion, incorporating them into self-consistent models that explain and predicting relevant aspects. Science is the endeavor of weeding out the bad explanations based on evidence, but you are still left with models that are limited by what we know, or even can know.

4) Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?

Buh? Anyway, I don’t know what injecting a thinker who didn’t even get inertia has to do with a modern scientific understanding of the universe, but honestly, I have no idea what to say to this question.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

I think consciousness, an intrinsically subjective experience, is a property of a functioning brain. The specific mechanics of this process are still an active field of research, but I think we have the basics mapped out. We certainly understand the underlying behavior of chemicals, but the 100 trillion or so neurons all interacting with each other in potentially infinite ways is a particularly difficult problem to tackle, but I suspect it is all our neurons firing in a time-dependent fashion that causes our subjective consciousness. That is, mind is what brain does, and consciousness is an epiphenomenon. The fact that it isn’t ‘real’ in some objective sense is no more consequential than the fact that this website is no more than a series of ones and zeroes being interpreted by machinery.

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?

Courtier’s Reply. I don’t really know what is being asked, but if this is some question intended on injecting some mind-body dualism into the mix, I’m not biting. Mental states are, as far as I’m concerned, a product of neuro-biological phenomenon in time, and it is an unnecessary step to include some soul. You are your brain, and your brain is you.

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

I think it is much more likely that ‘moral law’ is something humans made up to help us make sense of the world as it relates to us. That is, right and wrong are words we use to describe events that happen to humans, as opposed to some set of events that are objectively right and wrong. By this definition, we can understand how moral law has changed through human history (see: slavery, genocide, CO2 emissions) because moral law is simply how we define the rightness of any given action.

However, to assert that your particular preferences on right and wrong are some objective feature of the universe is offensively self-centered. All I can say with any certainty is what I think is right and wrong, and if we agree on those definitions, than maybe we can build a society together that implicitly respects our definitions. We might even build institutions (like a church, or a police force) to enforce those definitions, but they are not, nor have they ever been, objective things in a universal sense.

8) Why is there evil?

Evil is a matter of definition, overwhelmingly as actions relate to us (see the last answer). Sometimes, events like earthquakes happen that affect humans, but the events themselves are not intrinsically evil, because they are the result of a non-thinking process that is incapable of intentionally causing harm. The universe on grander scales is completely indifferent to the trials and tribulations of the little apes on the pale blue dot, but what we do have in our control is how we act towards each other. We are what we choose to be, and if our fellow monkeys choose to act in a way we think is evil, we have the choice to accept or challenge that.

Ultimately though, ‘evil’ will die with the last human being that understands what is meant by evil. The universe got on just fine for 13.7 billion years before us without our metaphysical hand-wringing about evil, and I suspect it will do just fine when the only remains of humanity are our electromagnetic transmissions speeding endlessly through the cosmos.


~ by Andrew on October 26, 2010.

One Response to “Gnu Atheist Questions”

  1. First time here. Nicely done folks.

    The underlying problem with the human species, in my opinion, is the visceral denial of the fact that on a cosmic scale, we’re nothing more or less than rather primitive, historically barbaric, self-motivated bags of meat. You were much more eloquent than that.

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