Ron Rosenbaum launches a long and varied attack on the New Atheism. His complaints are many and his tone heavy, but I don’t think I do him much injustice by saying his central claim is this:
Atheists have no evidence—and certainly no proof!—that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Just because other difficult-seeming problems have been solved does not mean all difficult problems will always be solved. And so atheists really exist on the same superstitious plane as Thomas Aquinas, who tried to prove by logic the possibility of creation "ex nihilo" (from nothing). . .
In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.
I hate to be overly coy here but this really does depend on what Rosenbaum means by “why” and “something rather than nothing.”
When we seek to explain we typically engage in two things
1) We model. We lay down a set of rules or principles such that given facts A and B, fact C must be true.
2) We narrate. We tell a story about how Event X lead to Event Y and then on to Event Z.
If Rosenbaum means that he wishes us to explain the “universe” then we should talk about the properties of high density energy and the creation of bubble universes.
Or, we can tell a story about 11-dimensional membranes which may have collided and produced everything that we could ever see.
However, I think the Rosenbaum wants more than that. I think he doesn’t want to stop at our universe but wants to ask – from the outside of everything in the moment before the first event – why did it become so?
This, however, is a question that makes no sense in the context of our standard system of explanations. Outside of everything there is no A and B which could necessitate C. Before the first event there is no X and Y that could have lead to Z.
This is not, as Rosenbaum suggests, a mystery. It is a bad question. It asks in effect “what is the structure of a structure-less thing.”
Now I don’t doubt that Rosenbaum feels “mystery” and “wonder” when he contemplates the ultimate why of existence. The lack of a model or story generates a thirst within the curious that begs to be slaked.
It does not, however, suggest that such a thirst is slakable. A child might feel that there is some sense to be made of the statement “This sentence is a lie” A budding mathematician might feel that she ought to be able to determine whether Russell’s self-referencing set is really a member of itself.
However, there simply is no sense to be made of these propositions. Equally, there is no sense to be made of the question “why is there something” that is unless Rosenbaum is using different definitions of “why” and “something.”
Now, if I don’t believe that science, reason or logic can answer “why something as opposed to nothing.” Then what do I mean when I say that I am an atheist?
I mean that I believe all answerable questions can be answered with science, reason and logic. Said slightly more formally, there exists no question which can be meaningfully answered that cannot be answered by science, reason and logic.
Lets return to Rosenbaum’s query to see how that works. He asks “why is there something” The theist might answer that God created the something. But, then the theist must be referring to a limited set of something. Indeed, typically we imagine the theist as referring to the physical universe, space, time, etc.
In this is the case the God hypothesis is matched by a number of scientific hypotheses including membrane collision.
However, if Rosenbaum really means an all-inclusive something, then he is referring also to God himself. The answer, however, that God created God is self-referencing and as nonsensical as “This statement is a lie”
So, science, reason and logic cannot answer the deep “why something” question but then neither can theism and this is because the question is itself nonsensical.
Now, does my belief in science, reason and logic constitute a faith?
First, I have evidence for the belief. Predictions based on science, reason and logic tend to come true.
Indeed, I am not currently aware of a case where they have failed to come true and no subsequent reasoned explanation was found. So the trio of science, reason and logic carry with them an incredible track record.
However, this track record could plausibly come to a halt. A pillar of fire could appear before me and declare that he is the lord. He could then go on to predict the violation of the laws of physics and subsequently show them to be false.
He could show me that despite all of my reasoning to the contrary that 2 + 2 = 5, that the logic I depend on explains nothing and that my confusion of this moment tells me nothing about my confusion in the next. Every prediction I make would have results no better than chance but every prediction the pillar makes would come true.
If the pillar then told me that it was God, that it stood outside of reason and time and that it was the prime mover unmoved, I would be persuaded.
Needless to say, I do not expect any of this to happen. Indeed, I would bet my life against fairly small sums that it will not. And, that is what it means to be an atheist. I can imagine evidence that could convince me that I am wrong but I am confident that this evidence will not be forthcoming.
Hat Markedly Tipped to Julian Sanchez