“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.

Bravery to end the year

My 9-year-old daughter had been waiting for several months for this moment.  We planned it for the winter school break, and when it came she first decided against it.  But early this morning my sweet baby girl changed her mind and walked into the mall scared out of her mind.  Her mother, aunt, brother and I were all there by her side but she was still thinking about turning right around.  I was so proud that she went through with it and now she has 2 beautiful earrings in those freshly pierced ears of hers.  She was so brave!  She’s been running around the house all day giddier than a girl on the first night of Chanukah.

I believe it’s moments like these that happen all the time in our lives that rise so high above any topic that I’ve ever written and ever will write about on this blog.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!

Why Ask Why, Drink Bud Dry

This is just a little bit of a teaser for the review I’m trying to write of “Why Is There Anything”, by Matthew Rave.  Jim Holt’s solution in the TEDx video above is a bit different from Matthew Rave’s, but they are both critical of Lawrence Krauss’ solution.  I recommend giving it a watch.  While I don’t really see the question really being answered in the video, I thought Jim Holt had a lot of interesting things to say and he was actually quite entertaining to listen to.

Ever since I was a young boy I loved thinking about deep questions like this, and I know I’m not alone in that, although I may be in the minority.  I remember connecting with a friend of mine in junior high school regarding the “end point” of space.  Our other friends thought we were a bit strange.  We both found the concept fascinating as well as disconcerting.  If space had an end then what was beyond that end point?  And the idea that space continues infinitely was equally troubling to our finite minds.

It was this probing philosophical mind along with my guilt prone Jewish background that made me ripe for the Christian worldview to grab hold of me a few years after that.  Christianity was like a carrot which had all the answers to these probing questions.  But as my years as a Christian progressed, trouble brewed in paradise.  It became clearer that the “answers” given were more about tradition passed down from people a long time ago who lived in a superstitious time, rather than answers backed by empirical analysis. They were simply revealed just like the other religions had their revelations.  So the Christian answers to the probing questions that all of us have not only were derived without careful and critical analysis, but those answers then brought up many more questions.  The carrot began to look more and more like just a painting of a carrot.  Why is there anything at all? – because there is an all-perfect all-knowing God, and the existence of that God doesn’t require explanation – and if you think it does you just aren’t thinking correctly, even though it seems like the existence of that God would require even more of an explanation.  I’m sorry, but the mystery is still there.

I’m growing convinced that Buddha had some of the best perspectives when it comes to these metaphysical type questions.  It’s related to this video I posted before:

Just like I mentioned in the previous post with that video, I encourage continued exploration and thinking about these questions.  Obviously I continue to explore myself.  But I also see it as important to deal with the possibility that some of these questions may very well be unanswerable. None of the solutions to the question of why is there anything seem satisfactory to me, especially the all-knowing God answer.  This question may just be out of the realm of human thought.

Oh, and totally unrelated – have any of you found a good antidote for writer’s block besides just forcing myself to begin?  Is there any kind of music that might get the juices flowing and help me clear my mind to be able to get the stuff in my mind into words?

Can There be a Purpose to This Post?

EvangelistsA few weeks ago Josh brought up some good points about meaning and purpose in life at this link on Nate’s post.  We hashed through some of that over there but I thought I’d try to add a few more of my thoughts on the subject.  I actually agree with a lot of what Josh wrote (although I’m not sure he realized that), but there were some things he wrote that I thought could be looked at from a different angle.

First I’d like to explore what in the world is meant by “life’s meaning”.  For this I’d like to start with a quote from Loyal Rue:

When individuals articulate the meaning of life they are attempting to specify why they value life. 1

I believe this hits the nail on the head, and I believe it explains why atheists are actually correct when they say that their life is still meaningful to them even without a transcendent purpose.  They have their own reasons why they value living: perhaps relationships with friends and family, or the sheer joy of helping others, the enjoyment of learning, looking on a breathtaking vista, breathing in the fresh cool air of a new fall season, or all of those and more.  Whatever it may be, living is important to them (i.e. they value it) and they have many reasons to continue living.  That is what atheists are trying to express when they say “my life is meaningful” or “we can create meaning”.  This is why I believe that part of Josh’s last comment is not entirely true:

I do think it covers up the deeper reality that there really isn’t any reason to continue living the life we live without ultimate purpose.

There are reasons to continue living.  We have those reasons ourselves.  And my reasons for living aren’t even only within myself.  I know there are others who love me and want me to continue living as well.  So there are actually reasons to live even external of myself.  However, where I agree with Josh (and perhaps he just didn’t word the above carefully) is that outside of the desires of human beings there are no transcendent reasons to live if the more popular forms of naturalism are true (I say it that way because not all naturalists are alike in their beliefs).  What I think theists don’t realize though is that many atheists realize this and their response is “so what?”.  This actually is similar to the Buddhist response and relates to the parable of the poisoned arrow I explained in this post.

I’d like to dig even a bit deeper.  I think there may be a distinction between “meaning in life” and “meaning of life”.  What I mean is that usually when someone asks “what is the meaning of life”, I believe they are asking what meaning there is above and beyond humans (a.k.a. transcendent, ultimate, or cosmic). I’d like to share with Josh and others that I can relate to their need to have some “higher purpose”.  Feeling like I could be a part of something bigger than myself was a big draw for me before I became a Christian, and was a significant loss for me when I left.

Now when theists say “there is no meaning of life without God”, I believe there is actually a hidden premise in there.  The premise is: “meaning must come from a thinking, intentional mind” (because that’s how the monotheists who push this argument define God).  This seems to be a foundational belief, but I don’t see any logical reason that this must be true.  Perhaps there is somehow meaning built-in as a basic property of reality.  I believe this is a bit more of an eastern way of looking at things (perhaps Taoist), but Spinoza, Einstein and others seemed to also express such ideas.  But my western mind has the same bias that theists have, so while I’m open to possibilities I lean toward agreeing that “meaning can only come from thinking, intentional minds.” But think about that – where does that premise come from?  I believe it comes from our own experience that purpose and meaning are generated from human minds.  So there you have it – it comes full circle.  The very argument itself shows that humans can create purpose and meaning (which some theists, including Josh, agree to). They may not be eternal, but that’s not the point.

Further, I’d like to ask my readers to think and comment on 3 thought experiments. Theists will probably learn the most about themselves from them, but I believe some atheists can benefit as well.  Keep in mind that the experiments may not be possible scenarios, but that’s how thought experiments go:

  1. Consider a world where there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God who has created human beings for a purpose.  However, God tells all of us that absolutely nothing (including himself) is eternal.  All will come to an end at some point in the far future.  But he tells us that he still has a purpose for all of us to be alive.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  2. Consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God (don’t ask me how – it’s a thought experiment!), and there also is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds.  However, we also know for sure that human beings will exist for eternity.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  3. Last consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God and there is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds, but in this last world human beings all die like we do in our real world.  Also, we all know that humanity will come to an end at some point far in the future.  Most traditional monotheists would not find this kind of life meaningful.  But really think about it – what would you do if tomorrow scientists, philosophers, and theologians all got together and came to a 100% consensus that this is the way the world is?

The first 2 scenarios actually have an interesting story to them. In my blogging I’ve actually been surprised to find that some theists have desires which are very different from the ones I had as a Christian.  When I was a Christian it was more about feeling like I was a part of something grander than myself, so I would have answered with a resounding YES to question #1.  Eternity really had nothing to do with it.  In fact living eternally has never been much of a big draw for me.  I obviously wouldn’t want to live eternally in sadness, and I’d be ok with an eternity of bliss, but to be honest never-ending consciousness just seems a bit too much to me.  What I was very surprised to find however in an online discussion I had with Brandon was that the idea of “something(s)” being around in eternity and being affected by his life was an important factor for him in regards to meaning. I believe there is a lesson to be learned from this – all of us should know and recognize that we are all built differently, with different needs and desires.  While there is a great deal of overlap in many of our needs, when it comes to our desires related to questions of meaning it really does span the map.  My wife is the perfect example of this – she is the most content person I’ve ever met and it boggles her mind why anyone would ever care about or need any kind of ultimate purpose in their lives.  So theists should keep in mind that if they are trying to sell their worldview with the “meaning card” their effort may very well be wasted.

And in regards to eternity, this quote from John McTaggart is worth thinking about:

If we do not start with the certainty that love for an hour on earth is unconditionally good, I do not see what ground we should have for believing that it would be good for an eternity in heaven. 2

Lastly, given that I have a bit of agnosticism in me, in my mind there is still the possibility that there really is some meaning to the universe, be it from gods or from some basic properties of the universe.  While I’ve fully faced scenario #3 and already dealt with the fact that there is likely no transcendent meaning, I see no reason to completely dispense with the idea.  I talked more about that as well as other related things in this post.  I think it’s good to face all different kinds of possible scenarios in similar ways.  We can never remove our preferences, but it can help in reducing bias.


Footnotes:

  1. “Nature Is Enough”, by Loyal Rue
  2. Quoted by Erik Wielenberg in “Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism”

Could I Ever Return To Christianity?

I’m sure I’d get a very warm welcome back into the fold if I returned, and I don’t mind answering the question of the subject line.

Well, I’m certainly no fortune-teller and given my past performance at predictions I’d say I’m not so good at predicting my future beliefs, but I can at least give some more detail to my answer, as well as some background.

At 18 years of age I told my friend there was no way I’d ever become a Christian.  A year or so later and that was corrected.

Then at 20 years of age, when my father asked me if I could ever leave the Christian fold, I told him that there was absolutely no way that could happen.  I was so sure of myself (even more sure I had thought than when I was 18.)  I had dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s when doing my research.  I had researched Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9 to the point that I knew for sure that it proved there was a God and that Jesus was that God.  That prediction took almost 5 years to be corrected.

Ah, but I was so young then, right?  The age where we are all so cocksure of our beliefs.  I’m 43 and more mature now, right?  Well age hasn’t given me more confidence in the answers to ultimate questions – quite the opposite has happened.  The last thing I want is to feel like I’ve “arrived” or reached a place of firm conclusions. I value greatly the humility of accepting that I’m human and capable of mistakes – in fact this lack of humility was a big problem I had with the evangelical groups that I hung with.  Being open to change is important to me because I believe that being open to possibilities is an important part of forward progress.  I consider all worldviews as possibilities if at some point they could be shown to be true.  So the answer to the subject line really is a yes, but it is a yes for all worldviews and not all yeses carry the same weight. And while I leave the doors cracked open to all ideas, they are not open in a way that means they all haunt me and can suck me in without reason and evidence.

We’d go insane if we didn’t make our best guess at what worldviews are more worth our effort in pursuing.  My priorities in my own pursuit is in worldviews which are similar to naturalism (although I certainly have not settled on naturalism) because right now I believe those are more worth my time and effort.  This post is not intended to explain why as the rest of my blog has made some attempt at that.  As far as effort goes I’d also rank eastern religions higher in my scale of interest than Christianity.

I no longer see mainline Judaism, Christianity and Islam as worth the concerted effort. But this doesn’t mean I’ve got my hands over my ears.  I’m more than willing to listen to any suggestions that believers in these camps have and I will still listen, read and consider material pointed to by them. I truly believe I can learn from people of all different worldviews. Just because I disagree with them on their overall conclusions doesn’t mean that some of the details wouldn’t be beneficial for me.

So while the answer is a possible yes, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting.

2 Years of Blogging

2 years2 years ago today I wrote my first post on TruthIsElusive.  It was the first blog I ever owned, and I remember telling my wife my prediction that my blog wouldn’t last more than a month.  While I only write about 1 or 2 posts per month, this wasn’t where I thought I would be 2 years ago.  I never imagined having all the awesome conversations that I’ve had both on my blog as well as on the blogs that I read frequently.

I have given up on predicting how long I’ll be blogging.  There were a few times this year I thought I was going to wrap it up, but found that I still had an interest to keep it going.  I made an effort to re-organize my About Blog page in order to clear my head on the reasons I see to continue.  My main goal is to form proper conclusions about reality – and making this process public is a great way to refine that process by learning from others.  While it may seem to some like I’m just pontificating on my blog, I’m actually learning quite a bit through blogging.  I’ve especially appreciated all the great links I’ve gotten from so many to related material.  It should go without saying that corrections and differing viewpoints are always most welcomed on my blog, but if you’re gonna judge if I don’t see things your way then just keep in mind that I’m likely not going to learn much from you.

Thanks so much to all the people I’ve interacted with!  I’m looking forward to another great year!