Tuesday, December 25, 2007

If a tree falls in the forest, and you decorate it....

Whatever one's feelings about the religious underpinnings of the occasion—and even if by now most of us are more than a tad burned-out by the conspicuous consumption of the season—the day itself, to me, has always been a time of surrendering to the same childlike wonder I see in the eyes of my grandkids.

Personally, I must say, it's also the one day when I find myself focusing my thoughts and emotions on the single pivotal issue left unaddressed by the impeccable logic (and dismissive smugness) of books like The God Delusion: How did something come from nothing? I understand, I guess, how we got from amoebas to A-Rod, from paramecia to Paris Hilton (though some might say the latter isn't much of an evolution). But how did we get from a perfect void to amoebas? And please, oh please, don't bring up string theory or unified fields. Not on Christmas...

Seems to me that the only thing that could have always "been there"—the only thing that requires no explanation or further regression of cause—is nothingness.* There couldn't, in the beginning, have been something, because it's reasonable to ask where the "something" came from. If mass can neither be created nor destroyed, and the laws of logic and physics (as we understand them) apply to the circumstances of creation, then how did even the tiniest flyspeck of cosmic matter suddenly appear in the midst of nothingness?

Again, seems to me that if you can't explain that transition, you have no Big Bang Theory, because you have no raw material for the Bang. There should still be nothingness today. And there isn't, because I see a fair amount of stuff right under my Christmas tree....

* You don't have to ask where nothing came from. Nothing is nothing.


Steven Sashen said...

There's a reason why one of the "4 Imponderables" of Buddhism is "the origin of the universe."

(of course more than one of the other 4 is not really so imponderable)

Just as unimaginable as nothingness, or something appearing from nothing, or something becoming nothing... is the idea that there was always something.

Cognitively, picking a beginning just doesn't seem to end well ;-)

Perhaps it was best explained by the great philosopher Rosanne Rosanadana: "If it's not one thing, it's another..."

Steve Salerno said...

Well, Steve, I realize that you're being at least somewhat glib, but here's how I've always looked at it, in my perhaps overly simplistic, philosophically untutored way: The only condition that requires no causation or antecedent events is nonexistence. One therefore assumes that at some point, in order for there to be life (or even merely substance, i.e. atoms) now, something had to be brought into existence: Something had to shift from nonexistence to existence. What made that happen? However, of course, this is not an argument for "God" (or any form of Supreme Being), either, because then His/its existence would need to be explained/regressed. And so on. What I take away from this is, primarily, that the original enigma of Life/the Universe is not subject to logical analysis, at least as we presently understand such analysis. There is something going on here that defies our ability to understand it or even assess it, using the logical/thinking tools presently available to us. Of course--if that is true--then that same recognition totally invalidates science, the scientific method, etc. Either that, or Descartes was wrong: We don't exist (or at least, we can't use the "fact" of cognition as proof of existence). Personally, I never understood why "I think" means "I am." Why can't you have thought without substance or even existence? We have characters in our dreams who "think," yet don't exist, right? Maybe (and this is of course the old line from Philosophy 101, but it's apt here) we're all characters in someone else's dream. Of course, that in turn means that there must be a "real" dreamer somewhere...and how did he/she come into existence?

I dunno. Like the nuns used to tell us in "released time": "It's a mystery...."

roger o'keeffe of nyc said...

This isn't really much to add, I just wanted to say that I think your comment today is very cleverly put together. That, and Merry Christmas to all!

Yekaterina said...

Here's my take on the matter. Observe a cat or a dog or a cheetah, any animal. Now imagine that animal pondering the origin of the universe and coming up with a valid answer. What you said Steve, that there's something here that defies our ability to understand it using the thinking tools presently available to us, is one hundred percent true. I don't agree that this invalidates the scientific method, science...etc. Science is useful for many things. Coming up with an answer to the origin of the universe simply isn't one of them. The human mind simply can't comprehend some things.

Steve Salerno said...

Btw, happy holidays to you, Steven, Roger and Yekaterina. Thanks for spending part of your busy day(s) with SHAMblog.

Cosmic Connie said...

I hope your Christmas was great, Steve. And thanks for writing a Christmas post that expressed some of my thoughts, thus saving me the trouble. :-)

Akhetnu said...

George Berkeley felt that all 'matter' is really the ideas that God (who exists transcendent of time and causation) perceives. So in that case, the creation of something from nothing was the first 'idea in the mind (sic) of God'.

In my religion (ancient Egypt) the original state of the universe was 'nun' which is means 'inert' but also thought of as an infinite, abyssal void. My take on this is that being infinite, it would hence also inert since any 'action' or manifestation would limit it in some way. The stirring of Ra-Atum, the creator, was thus the inevitable action of one of the potentialities within Nun. I would then echo those like Watts, who does not draw a distinction between spirit and matter: Ra and the other gods are the noumenon; the universe we measure is the phenomenon.

My personal interest on the existence of God is the first cause; whether or not something came from nothing or always existed, we still need to get the ball rolling somewhere.

Steve Salerno said...

Connie, glad to be of service.

Akhetnu, I hear what you're saying, but the "God was always there and exists apart from the usual rules of causation" argument is kind of a cop-out, if one is attempting to have a rational discussion. Now, if you're agreeing with me that perhaps the answers here are to be found in the realm of irrationality, then fine...but that has other implications that tend to displease people (like, say, the negation of the scientific method; seems to me you can't just pick and choose where logic and common sense apply, and where they don't).

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
Allowing the presence of Dvinity is, indeed, a deviation from "rational" thinking, which is essentially the belief that nothing beyond our ability to quantify can exist. Humanity's greatest achievements have occurred when someone reached beyond the quantifiable and searched for something more.

This is not to demean the importance of rational thought, but rather to posit that we are best served by allowing our irrational dreams to stretch its boundaries. I am one who believes in the existence of the Divine, albeit in a form not commonly perceived in the west. In my belief system, the divinity that caused creation also caused the principles of the physical universe. In that belief system, there is no conflict between spirituality and physical existence and the rules that govern it.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I basically agree with you--but sometimes I can't get past the unavoidable implication of your comment (and much of my post), which is this: If we're going to suspend disbelief (and the rules of rational, science-based thinking) in order to allow for the existence of a supreme being and certain favored areas of mysticism...then how can we, at the same time, invoke "logic" and "science" and the like in critiquing the folks that we find so objectionable?

Seems to me that we either take a stand for rationality--across the board--or we don't. (Look, even I don't operate that way; I pick and choose where I'm going to be ruled by rationality. But shouldn't I be attacked for that?)

RevRon's Rants said...

Why not seek the consistency in logic that exists in both the physical and spiritual realms? If one waits for quantifiable physical evidence of the existence of divinity, yet denies the logical assumption that all this *stuff* had to come from somewhere, the end result will always be frustration.

If, however, one considers - for example - that the ultimate desire of Divine Mind existing in a void of nothingness was to be made manifest, such implementation of Divine thought would probably resemble a "big bang."

Seeking the synchronous application of faith and logic is at the core of that balance to which I always seem to return. In that balance, we need give up neither our discerning mind nor our deeply felt (but unquantifiable) faith. It's not a cop-out for which we need be called to task, but rather a recognition that we don't yet know everything, coupled with the desire to know more.

Akhetnu said...

Well, Steve, if 'something' always existed - be it matter, energy, or God - then we are in the same conundrum regardless if we are materialist or spiritualist on the matter.

So we can look at God:Matter::Noumena:Phenomena, so at least we are all in the same boat. But while it eliminates the baggage of a religion-science conflict, that still doesn't answer the question itself.

I cannot say if this is something we cannot use reason alone on, or if we will someday find the answer with science. But, if we say that the laws of science were also created at the beginning of the universe, anything before then would naturally be beyond our ability to fully grasp with reason.

SO as to where I would draw the line between using the scientific method, I would say we can only draw the line where the very laws of science are no longer in existence.

The Crack Emcee said...

"As long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would neither be created nor destroyed - it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"

- Stephen Hawking

"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."

- George Benard Shaw

Merry Christmas, Steve!

Mr. Objectionable

Cosmic Connie said...

To put it very simplistically, we all pick and choose what we want to believe, and we also pick and choose when and to what extent we are guided by "rationality." So Steve, you're in good company, though that may be cold comfort.

Let's face it, humans just aren't very rational creatures overall. Even scientists (and skeptics, for that matter) may *strive* to be rational and logical, but they often have an emotional and/or financial stake in being "right" about one thing or another. Who knows how often their conclusions are based, at least in part, on those personal agendas? This is not an argument against science or in favor of "woo," just an observation.

At any rate, Steve, I'm certainly not going to attack you for being less than perfectly rational.

Steven Sashen said...

Actually, I was only being glib at the very end. Until then, I was agreeing with your original post and, ultimately, with your comment.

Pardon me while I ramble a bit...

Perhaps the very notions of "something" or "nothing" or "arising" or "origin" aren't appropriate for exploring the domain of existence and non-existence. Perhaps our minds are tools that aren't up to the task of understanding what we imagine must have been a beginning... even less up to the task for imagining a non-beginning... and even LESS up to the task of grasping something off the spectrum of "non- to beginning."

I remember reading Brian Greene's "Elegant Universe" and nearly falling off my exercise bike when he pointed out that the appearance of existence is time-frame dependent. That is, a vacuum isn't empty, but could contain particles that arise and pass away almost simultaneously, or could have events that arise in a way to cancel each other out.

What knocked me off the bike was realizing that this same process is not limited to vacuums, but occurs everywhere, including the hands that were holding Greene's book.

So, maybe a fun ingredient to add to this contemplative recipe is the notion that, from some other time perspective (and we know time is all about perspective), the existence we crave to understand more completely, is one of those arising/passing blips, or is being met by a canceling force. Ultimately, what we experience as an existence is, from another perspective, indistinguishable from non-existence.

In the same way that Newtonian physics fell apart at sub-atomic scales, maybe everything we can conceive, especially the concepts of "arising" or "beginning" or "something" or "nothing", fall apart in time frames approaching what we now think of as the unimaginable origin.

I mean, if we can't grasp cause and effect at the quantum level (quoting Feynman, "Anyone who thinks they understand Quantum physics doesn't understand Quantum physics."), do we really think we can understand something that seems clearly MORE outrageous than Quantum mechanics?

Perhaps the difficulties we feel when we explore this domain less revealing about the technical difficulties in answering, but instead highlight the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance that we experience when we think we conceive a question and, therefore, believe we should be able to find answers and, in this and many other cases, can't.

Even though "how did it begin?" sounds like a reasonable question, maybe it's no more intelligible than "are unicorns hollow?"

To call this an Imponderable is to consider that while this investigation is intriguing and compelling, it may, somehow, be moot.

Just a thought ;-)

mikecane said...

Well, one could easily argue there is no such thing as NON-existence.

I leave you that sound of one hand clapping...

RevRon's Rants said...

Steven - I think you've hit on the core "truth" in your last full paragraph: No matter how we argue the points, what *is* - *is.* We neither advance nor diminish it with our cleverest ruminations.

What we *are* able to do is increase the breadth of our own comprehension by going beyond its bounds. Just as a weightlifter who pushes and pushes to lift more weight, knowing that he (or she) will ultimately find the limit of what can be lifted, and grows consistently stronger in the process. Humans do the same thing intellectually, accepting that they will never know everything, but increasing their knowledge in the effort.

And just as the weightlifter who stops training ultimately loses strength, so does the person who believes themselves to have all the answers begin to atrophy. Such people will always find themselves bested by not only other people who continue to strive, but by life itself, which is very much governed by the current corporate dictum of "grow or die."

Your PR Guy said...

I don't think this post is apropos for this blog. But to answer your question about nothing. It does exist, otherwise how would you have the ability to negate something.

For a more in-depth examination of nothing, I recommend reading Martin Heidegger's "The Quest for Being."

Look to Kaufman's "Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre" for the essay in its whole.

While that's a good foundation to start from, afterwards look to Heidegger's "Being in Time" for a deeper understanding of nothing.

You might come away with a broader understand of, well, something.

Rational Thinking said...

A belated Happy Newton's Day to all :-)

Steve (Salerno) - Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, and possibly most effectively, The Selfish Gene, provide good explanations on how evolution arises. The Selfish Gene, particularly, finally allowed me to get my mind around how "all this" could actually come into being.

Here's a favourite quote of mine from Douglas Adams (to whom Richard Dawkins dedicated The God Delusion, for the trivia enthusiasts!):

. . . "imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

Festive felicitations to all.

Steve Salerno said...

Rational, first of all, I have read Dawkins' work, and also the work of many in the no-God movement, and I respectfully say to you that neither their arguments--nor the nice little quote you use in your comment--apply here. I don't think you're really focusing on the core question I'm asking. I do not deny that over millions/billions of years of evolution, the laws of chance/probability and natural selection could've conspired to produce our "nice little puddle." I am saying that if the laws of physics as we understand them apply here, there shouldn't be any water, or any hole, or any ground, etc.... The intelligent design people use the phrase "irreducible complexity" far too late in the game, in my view: The very first neutron in the first very atom was irreducibly complex. Where did it come from? I go back to the question I posed in my post: If mass can neither be created nor destroyed, then the first atom had to have come from someplace. It couldn't have just "always been there." That makes no sense at all. The only thing that makes sense to have always been there is nothingness--and if the first law of energy/matter is correct, then there should still be nothingness today. So I'm saying one of several things: either somethingness arose from nothingness, or we still have nothingness and just don't realize it, or this whole dilemma is not subject/responsive to logic as we understand it.

RevRon's Rants said...

"either somethingness arose from nothingness, or we still have nothingness and just don't realize it, or this whole dilemma is not subject/responsive to logic as we understand it."

I think that #1 and #3 are both correct, with a slight qualifier on #3; that qualifier being that as we abandon the arrogance of insisting that all things must fit within the framework of logic as we currently define it, the scope of that logic expands exponentially, and our understanding grows deeper.

As to #1, that which we are currently unable to quantify, we define as nothingness (or Divine Mind/Being, depending upon our beliefs). As Divine Mind/Being gives birth to the Divine Idea of manifestation, that somethingness (be-ing) occurs.

The fact that we can't put that Being in a cup and measure it is more a statement of the limitations on our ability to measure than upon the existence of Being or its act of be-ing.

verification word: maths :-)

Your PR Guy said...

Oh, why do we veer off into discussions about nothing? Once we get into nothing, we find, as the time before, that nothing has changed. Nothing is the same nothing we talked about before. Maybe except that since the last time we talked about nothing, we've all gotten a bit older, and more close the nothing than we were before.

But why do we want to examine nothing as a thing that is void. Nothing, is thing(less) and it's is(ness) is anti-is(ness).

I should warn that too much talk about nothing will lead to a better understanding of nothing. So what good is it to know more about nothing? Are we in serach of some secret treasure of initmate understanding of the nothing of nothingness? Because just in the search for something we name as tresure, whether it is knowledge or a ruby, in the quest for it in the relm of nothing, we are sure to find much more of nothing than of the knowledge of nothing.

Just a few thoughts on nothing.

Steve Salerno said...

YPRG, are you implying that my post is...good-for-nothing?

Rational Thinking said...

Hi Steve - I really don't understand what you mean when you say that if the laws of physics as we understand them apply here then there shouldn't be any water, or any hole, or any ground. Where I'm standing there's all three and more. And that tends to indicate to me that it is a question of our understanding of the laws of physics that may be incomplete, since manifestly the world as we know it is present, so to speak.

And exactly how was the first neutron in the first atom irreducible complexity? I don't think there's any such thing yet discovered which stands up as an example of irreducible complexity.

But perhaps I'm misunderstanding your meaning. Bah humbug!

Steve Salerno said...

Ok, let me start another way. There had to be a beginning. Right? But current understanding of physics does not accommodate a beginning (unless you get into all those theories about time and space curving back around on itself, etc.--which, I'm sorry, just don't work for me. They're rationalizations, feeble attempts at accommodating that which cannot be conceived of). We all know the old example about how, if you say the universe began at 12:02 on Tuesday, I could say, but what was going on at 12:01? What existed then? It's the same thing with matter. There couldn't, simply couldn't, have "always" been something. The only condition that could have always existed, way back in the "beginning" (whatever the hell THAT was) is nothingness. And yet how did nothingness become somethingness? Where did the very first atom come from? And as I said earlier, on its surface, god/God wouldn't seem to help here, because a physicist would ask, feeling very smug about himself, Well, where did GOD come from! But the flaw there is that when you enter the realm of God, you have left the realm of physics. Physics has left the building. So God explanations do not have to answer to the laws of physics. And it would seem to me--just as one layman looking at the problem--that the answer to the riddle of the universe is going to be found in a non-scientific answer.

So what I'm saying is, if physics can't answer that--and if it can't answer that precisely and correctly--and if that is, indeed, the one question upon which all of life is predicated--then one could plausibly say, of what use is physics in explaining anything else, really? (This is the one area where I couldn't disagree more with Dawkins, who basically blows off the whole "where did we come from?" question. His position is, more or less, "Ok, so we're missing a link or two right now. So what?") How do we know how many other things about life are being misjudged according to the laws of physics, simply because we haven't encountered the exceptions yet?

Akhetnu said...

I think you are referring to the 'god of the gaps' idea...namely using God as an answer to what we do not currently know. It's a shaky position because it relies on us never knowing, and as the boundaries of knowledge are pressed back, God of the gaps in those areas is soon pushed out.

This is why I tend to look at religion as speaking on the 'noumena' (thing-in-itself), as opposed to the 'phenomena' that science covers (that which is perceptible by our sense and reaons.

Steve Salerno said...

Ak, I hear ya, man, but come on... How did the universe begin? is a "gap"?

RevRon's Rants said...

Perhaps the whole point is moot, after all. Thus the admonition that we needn't concern ourselves with finding the answers so much as with loving the questions... especially if the answers are going to elude us, anyway!

Akhetnu said...

I'm with you on this one, Steve; I think we can posit God as the first cause or prime mover that got things started at the least.

If you want to draw a line between science and reason, versus religion, I would say that the point of the origin of the physical laws of the universe from which science bases itself on is a good boundary as any.

The Crack Emcee said...

"Ok, let me start another way. There had to be a beginning. Right?"

No, that was point of my post.

RevRon's Rants said...

The Big Bang Theory is generally accepted by the astrophysical community as the "origin" of the universe, and is supported by the fact that galaxies are moving outward from some as-yet unspecified "center," at a speed that varies according to the galaxy's position.

The state of existence in the "moment" (in astrophysical scale, anyway) is something that may never be proven with empirical data, thereby relegating it to the realm of individual beliefs and interpretation.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron et al: Yanno, it must be me. And I'm not just saying that as a rhetorical device. I must be doing a woefully incompetent job of communicating my concerns here.

I say that because, in addition to those of you who've been nice enough to take time out of your holidays to comment here, I've also gotten a half-dozen emails off-blog that--not unlike these comments--remind me of the "generally accepted" theory of the origin of the universe.

To which I would reply: the Big Bang could not possibly have been the "origin" of the universe. If the Big Bang explains anything at all, it explains why there are solar systems, planets, etc. But as to the matter of the "origin of the universe"--which is to say, the origin of matter--the Big Bang merely begs the question. Yes? No?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - This goes back to that "moment" before the big bang (Left the "before the big bang" part out, so it wasn't clear in my last comment). That "moment" may never be documented with empirical data, leaving the question exclusively subject to individual beliefs. Those who believe in the existence of Divinity will interpret differently than will those who do not share such a belief. Either way, the question remains a paradox.

Neither "side" can claim to know the "truth," since there is no hard evidence either way. We simply adhere to whatever explanation seems most viable, according to our own individual belief system, while allowing others to adhere to theirs. A cosmic "live & let live" is the only reasonable approach.