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Ask an Atheist: How is There Anything at All?

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Why does anything exist at all? How did the universe/all universes ever come to be? How is anything, anything at all, here, and will disappearing be all that bad?

By Jim Downard

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133The perennial “why is there something rather than nothing” question that has vexed philosophers of all stripes for a long time.

Imbedded in that issue is an assumption: that existence is somehow an option. You can assume either way, but nothing that we can observe can settle that.

Another imbedded assumption involves what one means by “anything.” If we mean stuff made of matter, like us, then that seems (based on the latest physics) to be an automatic and inevitable outcome of the stuff the initial physical universe consisted of.

Is there an option as to whether a universe can exist without involving matter of the sort we see in ours? A universe of sqwible, which is always perpendicular to purple in October? Or universes were saints fall slower than sinners? If there are options on these fundamentals, there are no ways of telling, since we can’t step outside our universe to look, nor can we start fiddling with the dial on a fundamental constants stereo set to see whether we can adjust gravitation or the weak nuclear force up to 11.

As for “disappearing,” if you’re wondering “what happens to any sentient beings hanging on a few trillion years from now when the universe’s expansion so attenuates matter that atoms break down,” I imagine they’ll become rather annoyed. I know I’d be.

In the meantime, though, we’ve got a very big (and old) universe around us. From our limited perspective it’s so big and ancient it appears infinite and eternal. Enjoy it, but don’t be a nuisance.

You’ll notice I’m approaching this from the perspective of physics — that is, there was a big bang which created a universe with the physical rules and laws we observe and live in until we can’t anymore — but it is fair to ask, given what we understand now about the physics side of things, whether any of the known religious creation stories do any better at explaining the cosmos other than an even less specific conviction that things got to be the way they are because something-or-other did something-or-other at some point.

The problem in religious explanations is that none of them appear to suggest that the source of the revelation had much of an idea about what the universe actually consists of. No tale is consistent with scientific findings unless you edit to remove mythic bits. Hinduism has a universe billions of years old, but otherwise isn’t especially informative. The Abrahamic version has a “Let there be light” beginning that can be shoehorned into a modern conception, but only if you leave out all the rest, such as the sun, moon and stars being “made” on Day 4, after the earth and plant life.

Most creation myths focus on trying to explain the everyday features of their world, like why there’s water, rocks or twinkly things in the sky. None of the accounts suggest that hard things like rocks are actually made of atoms, whose solidity results from subatomic interactions. A revelation could have said solid things like rocks and woods only appear so because of the same things that makes lightning or that solid things are actually filled with “nothing” (like the space between the tiny twinkles in the sky, which are actually great suns just like our own) and that all the “solid” things like rocks and trees are actually made of the stuff built up inside those stars, blown out into space in great bursts over longer periods of time than most people are comfortable with.

The point is, accurate science could have been worked into revelations, next to the rules on slavery or sexual orientation or the manners of prayer that did get put in the various religions of the world, but they aren’t. That such truths are absent from the texts would have an obvious and simple explanation: Their authors had no inside tracks to anything involved in why there is something rather than nothing.

So why does anything exist? So far as we can tell, because it couldn’t be avoided. Much as 1+1 is going to be 2, never 3 or 5, even in universes made of sqwible.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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