“Why Is There Anything?” – a Book Review

WhyIsThereAnything

About a year ago John Zande recommended “Why Is There Anything?, by Matthew Rave. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not because I’m convinced it’s correct, and not even because I believe it answers the question of the book title.  In fact in the second chapter the author pretty much admits that he can’t completely answer the question (although he thinks we can make it more palatable).  I thought it was great for several reasons:

  1. It was an enjoyable, lightly humorous dialogue between 2 fictional characters (a theist and an atheist).
  2. It is a very easy read and a great introduction to questions about reality.
  3. There were tons of thought-provoking ideas.
  4. It was presented in a way that was respectful of theists, even though the author is an atheist.  A theist who wants to gain an understanding of atheists without being insulted should read this book – there are even some spots where you would be pleasantly surprised.

I would say that this is the best book I’ve read yet in its genre, so many thanks to John for a great recommendation.  If you are the type that doesn’t like to know about the contents of a book before reading it then you need to stop reading this post right now.

So Why Is There Anything (aka the WITA question)?

Matthew’s main answer to the WITA question comes from information theory.  These quotes explain: “the answer to WITA is that there really isn’t anything…not in an informational sense.  Everything exists, which mathematically isn’t that much different from nothing existing at all.”, and “the information content of a collection of things can be much simpler than the information content of a single thing.“, and then “So, if you ever wonder why there’s ‘something’ rather than nothing, you need wonder no more: there is nothing, in the sense that the infinite multiverse contains no information: it is ‘full’.”

I think he’s right though that it doesn’t completely answer the question – there is still the question of why anything at all exists even if it is everything possible.  Of all the “solutions” I’ve read for this question I don’t find any of them (whether it’s theist or non-theist versions) really answer the question.

The rest of the book is a fun dialogue mainly in support of the idea that there are many universes.  The many-worlds view is one of many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and Matthew notes that it is the interpretation which requires the least amount of axioms and thus obeys Occam’s razor (the favorite argument that we all use to support our own views).  You can learn more about the many-worlds theory on the wiki page, or by watching this video:

So I’m Still Skeptical

Even after reading the book (and parts of it 2 or 3 times) I still don’t get the feeling that I can claim that all possible universes exist.  Actually, my reasons are similar to why I reject theism. In fact some of my reasons are the same reasons that some theists have for rejecting the existence of multiverses.  There just doesn’t seem to be hard enough evidence for either idea.  I see this as a valid stance to take.  But somehow rejecting the idea of Gods conjures up all claims of bias among many theists:  “you are rejecting the existence of God because you want to live a life without rules”, or “you are rejecting God because you are not humble.”  Somehow the decision is linked to integrity rather than seen as an epistemic claim just like my claim to doubt the existence of the many-worlds theory.  And the interesting thing is that this lack of hard evidence is actually even more damning to the God option.  If a God really does want a personal relationship with its creation (which multiple universes wouldn’t) then lack of empirical evidence is a much bigger problem for that option.  The fact that “metaphysical” claims have become so entangled with integrity is a troubling aspect of a lot of religions.

Is the Question Even Answerable?

My son asked me several months ago what the biggest number was, and he said he didn’t want me to say infinity because that wasn’t really a number.  Given the axioms of math we know “what is the biggest number?” is not really answerable.  “Why is there anything?” – this question is not as clear given that there isn’t really a consensus regarding the axioms involved.  However, given that both of these questions deal with the problem of infinite regress, I wonder whether both questions are not answerable.

But as I said this book was a delight to read and I recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better grounding on some of the ideas that are shaping current research into reality.

Advertisements

Epistemology Joke

Descartes

 

René Descartes walks into a bar. Bartender asks if he wants anything. … René says, “I think not,” then disappears.

(from http://www.viralnova.com/intelligent-jokes/)

But If You Can’t Disprove It Then Aren’t You Agnostic?

Agnostic

I don’t believe the title of this post is correct, and I’d really like input from all my readers on this topic.

But before I go there I’d like to go over my own views again.  The graphic to the right totally cracked me up and it was one of those “yup, that’s definitely the image I want for this post”.  As I promised I would a couple of times before, I’m turning a bit of a corner now in my series (you know the one which is not very clearly a series and has been going on for 9 months) and I’m going to express the other side of the story, and will share even more on that in my next post.

Now I’ve expressed the kind of labels I think apply to my own viewpoints here and here.  I believe they still fit.  As I mentioned there I don’t see a need to argue semantics and some believe the labels are used as tactical debate moves, but that kind of stuff just irritates me – I’d much rather get at the meat of what’s real rather than win some silly debate.  I was recently invited to a neighborhood evangelistic small group and was asked why I called myself atheist when I wasn’t really that certain about the existence of gods.  My response was something like this: “I know that by strict definitions I am implicitly an atheist, and I also know that I am agnostic as well, and I frankly think possibilian fits me the best, but feel free to call me whatever you like, as long as it’s not a curse (wink) – instead of getting the right label on me what I’d much rather do is get across to you the kind of views I have, and maybe I can learn some from yours as well if I force myself to truly listen.  I am doubtful that the kind of gods that humans have described exist, but my certainty level is not extremely high on that.  I’m not so sure I am a naturalist but it’s probably fair to say I lean in that direction.  I highly value humans and all conscious beings (hide that chicken leg I’m chewing on, gulp).  If someone put a table with all possible worldviews out before me and forced me to bet which was true I’d likely choose one that had naturalistic tones to it (whatever that means), but I do wonder quite a lot about reality and whether there is something deeper to reality that perhaps transcends any experience or description that any human is even capable of describing at this stage in our development.”  Now how’s that for some cool dinner talk?

And then in this post I described some more about my somewhat relaxed view toward all this stuff, and likely confused some of my readers a little.

So a little more on point – agnosticism – I am an agnostic, but I’m not the kind that says “I don’t know and you don’t either.”Agnostic2  My agnosticism is my own and it really just means that I’m not quite so sure of my conclusions.  Perhaps I haven’t read enough or learned enough to realize that I can be sure about this topic.  Perhaps one can be epistemically justified in claiming that gods do not exist.  Which leads to my question.

I’ve seen a lot of theists (and some agnostics) say that that if you cannot disprove something then you should claim agnosticism.  But there are some analogies that kind of fly in the face of this.  The issue is not about 100% certainty – all who are well thought know that.  I’ve given the example of ghosts before.  I don’t believe the arguments for the existence for ghosts is very convincing.  Do I have proof that ghosts do not exist.  Of course I don’t.  Perhaps they exist but for some reason would prefer to only make themselves known to a select few (sound familiar?).  But should I say I’m agnostic about ghosts?  This is not how most people practically communicate their everyday beliefs.  A lot of people simply say they do not believe in ghosts.  And yes I do believe this relates to the burden of proof, but I don’t see it as a burden I need to put on anyone else – for me it is a burden on myself – if I want to say I believe in ghosts then I feel I should have convincing reasons that justify that belief.  If I don’t have them then I feel I am epistemically justified in claiming that I believe ghosts do not exist.

Take the spirit in the closet that my 6 year old son is afraid of.  It’s dark in there at night and he’s seen some movement in there (shadows maybe), and noises as well (shifting toys maybe due to gravity).  But no matter what I tell him he still wants me to make sure the closet door gets closed before he goes to bed.  Can I prove there is no spirit in there?  Actually no – in fact it may very well explain things he has heard and seen.  Ah, but there seem to be some better explanations for those things (at least to me).  But are those really better explanations?  We don’t know do we?  But why would the spirit not come out and simply reveal itself to us, or why can’t we see it when we go look in there.  Well it’s invisible of course, and we should not place any assumptions about the way that spirit thinks – for all we know it has it’s reasons for wanting to remain invisible (sound familiar?).  So then I should be forced to claim agnosticism about that spirit then right?  I’m thinking not.  I’m thinking there is some good epistemic justification there.  Is there the same for more deeper metaphysical questions that may relate to spiritual beings in general?  I’m not so sure.  Perhaps the strange experiences that so many people claim to have really do end up going a bit beyond just anecdotal – more on that in my next post.  And then there’s just the general question of existence itself – deep questions that seem strange to think about sometimes.

Questions: If you are a theist, can you see that there may be cases where things cannot be proven yet we would still say it is fair to claim they do not exist?  What other thoughts do you have on this?  If you are not a theist, do you feel you are epistemically justified in claiming that you know gods do not exist (not 100%, but enough practically speaking), and if so how would you formulate that?

The Unknowable Is Not Worth The Worry

ReligionsToChoose

Has there ever been a time in your life where you’ve thought deeply about ultimate questions?  Whether you call it religion, philosophy, metaphysics, or just important life questions, many (not all) people wonder about these things.  For some it even gets to the point of worry or fear when they begin to realize that they are human and may be wrong about what they believe.  Perhaps it is worry about the afterlife.  Or maybe just general worry about not having the correct answers to ultimate life questions.  For example, Robert Kuhn, host of Closer to Truth, has said in some of his interviews that the question of whether or not God exists has even tormented him.

There were several times in my life that these questions tormented me, but I no longer see any benefit from allowing them to control me.  I still have what I like to call a healthy interest in ultimate questions but I don’t let them get to me in the way that they did years ago.  Two periods in my life stand out very clearly to me – the first was right before I converted to Christianity, and the other was around the time that I left Christianity.  The second period especially was a very dark time for me, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to a noise fearing that God was about to punish me.

Fear is a natural thing and it saves us many times from getting badly hurt or killed, but it can be distorted and used in the wrong ways if it is applied toward “the unknowable” region of ultimate questions.

While I am not a Buddhist, many times what people of eastern religions say seems much more healthy to me than the more traditional mono-theistic religions.  What Ananda Guruge says in this particular video really resonated with a lot of what I have been thinking for several years now (especially the last part about the man shot with an arrow):

The “parable of the poisoned arrow” has a lot of wisdom in it that I believe we can all learn from.  This link explains it even clearer than the video and it’s worth the read.

My point is not that we should entirely give up on thinking about and exploring uncertain questions – obviously trying to understand the truth about reality is an important part of life and has the obvious benefits of improving our lives the closer we get to the truth about that reality.  That is what scientific, philosophical, and all other fields of investigations are all about.  By all means that should continue, but a healthy balance and understanding of uncertainty is also an important part of that process.

There isn’t too much I can say to people who don’t believe ultimate questions are elusive, that’s just something that some people begin to realize at some point in their lives, and some people never get there.  I’ve shared some of these ideas in the first few posts of my blog – much of it has to do with the realization of our humanity and ability to be wrong, especially as knowledge claims become more and more removed from our sphere of experience and more nebulous (or inscrutable) as far as probability claims might go.  But if you have gotten to that point then it should be very clear that worrying about these elusive questions cannot end up being healthy for your life in any way.  All that it does is physically stress your mind and your body with no productive purpose or conclusion to help it reach to.  In fact in some cases stress can negatively impact our rational decision making process – so in effect allowing these questions to torment you can possibly cause you to form the wrong conclusions about the very questions that you want properly answered.  If you want to learn more about the mind, fear, stress, and ways to overcome fear this post by Victoria N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ is a great place to start.  Victoria has a lot of information related to the mind and has studied a great deal on the subject.

During that dark period of my life I described before, I searched several different religious traditions, spent a lot of time with several different religious groups, and met weekly with my former pastor to discuss and read many different books related to religious questions.  There came a point where I realized that the torment was hurting me more than helping me so I decided after a year or so to take a break.  I ended up spending several years very rarely reading or thinking about religion.  What is interesting is that instead of that being a dark time in my life, It ended up being filled with light – filled with life, love, friends, family, falling in love, getting married, having children…  It was after that long period that I was able to return to a more balanced, healthy, and much more enjoyable exploration of ultimate questions.

I Have an Even Harder Time Believing in The POG

I was listening to an interesting interview with Eric Steinhart and heard him use the term POG, which I thought was a great shorthand for the traditional monotheistic concept of God. POG = “Personal Omni-God”.

This traditional concept of God as I have always understood it has mainly the following properties (monotheists are not all in full agreement on this):

  1. It is personal.  In other words it is like a person in that It has emotions, intention, the ability to make decisions, and the ability to relate to humans in some way.
  2. It is omniscient: knows everything.
  3. It is omnipotent: all powerful.
  4. It is omni-benevolent: perfectly good, compassionate, loving, just, and maybe more.
  5. It is typically described as desiring “some kind of” relationship with all humans that it has created. But some (many?) theists would say that It only desires relationship with some humans (perhaps with the humans that It has chosen).  This however seems to run up against property #4.

Now my previous posts have basically described in more general terms why I doubt the existence of invisible, undetectable, bodiless entities that have attribute #1 above.  As I’ve mentioned I’m not totally sure on this, but if I was forced to bet I’d put my money on them not existing.  This includes gods, goblins, devils, etc.

But now when we throw in properties 2-5, then my doubts are even bigger.  The problem is that all of the issues I have described before about gods with attribute #1 become even more problematic when we add the other properties.  For me the main issue is the undetectability (what philosophers call divine hiddenness) of this God.  The evidential problem of evil is obviously an issue for many philosophers and I definitely agree that it is an issue as well (although for me it doesn’t come close to the issue of undetectability).  What many modern day philosophers on both the theist and atheist sides seem to agree on is that we don’t have complete certainty either way with this question, and I agree.  What we can do is see if the description above fits with what we all agree is the evidence of our collective experiences.  For me, I just have a very hard time seeing how there can be a God who: (1) knows exactly what every human being needs in order to have high certainty of Its existence, (2) is fully capable of causing those things to happen, and (3) desires relationship with all of these humans.  This simply does not line up for me with the fact that I and many others I know agree that the existence of God is nowhere near obvious.  For many of us it is quite the opposite.  And even further, there are a lot of theists that I know who concede that the existence of the God that they believe in is not very obvious.  I explain further the issues I have with the POG concept in my first very long comment of my previous post.  I’ve heard some philosophers state that traditional theists have basically boxed themselves in a difficult corner just for the sake of holding on to traditional ideas.  That really resonates quite a bit with me.

So if we start adjusting some of attributes 2-5 then the concept becomes a bit more plausible to me, but 2 paragraphs ago I stated where I lean on only attribute #1.

Now there are alternative concepts of “God” or “gods” that actually throw out attribute #1.  My personal opinion is that we should use a different word for this than “gods” because it seems to fall out of the standard definition then, but that really is just semantics so no need to argue that point.  What I would like to say though as I’ve stated before is that these alternative concepts of some non-personal force or “thing” start to put me more at the 50/50 point where I just have no clue where to lean.  There are some times where I may even start leaning the other way, but not enough to really claim belief.  I will go into this a little more once I am done with this series.  With my current 1 post per month that will probably be mid-year.

How Can We Investigate God’s Existence?

I’ve given a lot of thought to how and what I would or could do to discover whether or not God or gods exist.  The following video clip covers a lot of my own thoughts regarding this:

In my own search, I’ve given thought to all of the possible evidences discussed in that video (my own experience, investigations into the testimonies of others, and “a priori” arguments) and in the search for gods my own conclusion is that they all fall short for me to conclude that they exist.  As I’ve said before I know I’m not perfect and I am fully aware that there are other people who conclude differently, and some of those theists have also investigated using the very same types of evidential investigations.  I believe they are being as honest as they know how, but I simply come to different conclusions.  Too often all of us are too quick to judge people with opposing viewpoints as dishonest because we just cannot fathom how they can honestly  disagree with us.  Granted there are some who are disagreeing because of a hidden agenda, but I personally feel that this is not the norm.  I don’t believe that thinking about things of this nature is anywhere near as simple as some like to make it out to be, and that is just one of several reasons for the name of my blog.  Falling into wrong thinking, confirmation bias, trusting misinformation, or even just understandable lack of desire to delve deep into thinking about these kinds of frustrating subjects can lead all of us down incorrect roads.  In my mind this is all the more reason that when it comes to ultimate questions we should apply rational thinking and objective investigations with all the strict rigors that are applied in all fields of knowledge in universities across the world.

Wishing everyone a very happy New Year!

Moving Forward With Ultimate Questions, Part 2

In this video clip, John Schellenberg describes a bit more of his way of thinking about ultimate questions which is very much in line with my own (you can find the full video here):

A couple of points I’d like to make:

– In other videos, Schellenberg calls himself an atheist in a very similar way that I call myself an atheist (with some minor differences), yet he is not a naturalist.  As you can see in the above video, while he leaves open the possibility that naturalism could in fact be true, he says that “the jury is still out, in a really big way” – and I agree, in a big way. 😉  I’ve run into several people on the internet who seem to equate naturalism with atheism.  While many atheist bloggers are indeed naturalists as well, polls of philosophers on the questions of “atheism” and “naturalism” actually indicate that among philosophers the number of atheists who do not accept naturalism is actually larger than one might think.

– I agree with Schellenberg that the future of human evolution, while unknown, could very likely lead us to a point where we can get more definitive answers to these big questions of life that many of us ponder.  When I think about the kinds of rational and critical thinking skills which humans have compared to other life forms like bacteria and many animals, then I wonder about what kinds of understanding of reality that future beings might possess. Perhaps the future will open the doors of understanding to some of our much deeper questions.  As I have expressed before, these thoughts for the future are a great source of meaning for me.

– Even aside from evolution, simply the mere fact that human knowledge seems to be growing at an almost exponential rate is very encouraging for me.  If 6000 years ago you had asked a Sumerian if they thought that we could find the answers to questions like “where do diseases come from” or “where does lightning come from” then very likely they would have said that these kinds of questions would always be out of the reach of humans.  While there are still a great many questions that seem elusive to us today, great progress has certainly been made in many fields, such as medicine, vehicles of transportation, computers, weather prediction, space exploration, etc.  I think it is fair to ask what methods helped us to progress in this very large increase of knowledge that we have today – was it faith that the writings of ancient people were totally true or was it more objective methods like the scientific method?  Obviously you know what I think.