Question for Atheists: Why something rather than nothing?

I’ve been wanting to post something like this for quite a while, and if it is successful I may do more in the future.  I’d like to post a question for atheists to respond to without starting a debate.  That is, I’d like any atheists out there who come across this entry to feel free to leave their own answer, in their own words, and I’d like to ask those who are not atheists (meaning most who read this blog regularly) to hold back and not interfere or disagree.  I’d rather prefer to allow this post to exist as a place for atheists — or those leaning in that direction — to feel free to leave their own thoughts.

As a presenter on the Tomorrow’s World program, I may be able to use some of the more well crafted or insightful responses on the program in a future episode.

I know that those who are not atheists out there may be chomping at the bit to respond to some of the comments, and in future posts I may, as well.  But I would like this to be a place where atheists can come to respond to a question without expecting a lot of debate.  However, that said, the normal comment policy will apply, and profanity or ad hominem attacks will not be published.  Also, I’d rather no one post a link in their comments — I’m trying to collect the thoughts of individuals, well worded and concisely stated, not redirects to larger websites.

It may take a while for many comments to build up on this post, so I plan to leave it up for some time.  As I have never done anything like this before, if I have started off things poorly and need to clarify something, I will try to jump in and do that.

All of that said, here’s the question I would like you to feel free to post about:

Why is there something rather than nothing?

That is, the world around us, the universe, the laws — why is all of this here?

(E.g., For those current in developments in theoretical physics, rather than simply go back to branes and the “bulk”, go further: why is all of that there, and why are there such intelligible laws governing all of it?  Feel free and throw in Tegmark’s Ultimate Ensemble if you like.  Why is there something rather than nothing?)

I believe that I know some of the answers atheists might provide to that question, but I’d rather give you the opportunity to give your own answers.  (It’s easy to wrongly assume all “atheists” think alike, just as it’s easy to assume all “Christians” think alike, and I don’t want to make that mistake here.)  If any atheists passing by out there would oblige me, I would greatly appreciate it.

[UPDATE, 20090306: In the event some are noticing that their comments don’t come up immediately, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the comment was given the boot. Rather, since the comments are moderated and I don’t get to them nearly as often as I would like, it sometimes takes a while. Thanks!]

17 thoughts on “Question for Atheists: Why something rather than nothing?

  1. morsec0de


    There is no why. It just is.

    Why implies some sort of intent or purpose.

    If you actually mean ‘how’, it seems to me that the universe has always existed in one form or another. The Big Bang being a transition point that we currently can’t see earlier than.

    That’s just my particular opinion on the matter, of course, based on my admittedly limited knowledge.

  2. Russell Miller

    Fair question. My response, as an atheist:

    Who cares?

    Seriously why is it so important to know *why*? Why not just be content with what is?

  3. AggieAtheist

    Q: Why is there something rather than nothing?

    A: There is no spoon.

    Would you like me to explain my answer? It’s a bit deeper than The Matrix (the movie the quote is lifted from), and is more neurology than physics.

  4. Ex-android

    The question isn’t a serious one to begin with. Coming from a theist it’s design is to merely entrap the atheist. It’s sad to have to open my brief comment that way. Having been beat up by theists makes one cautious to respond. I haven’t visited here before.

    But I can openly say this: like the theist, I don’t know the answer. Happily, science has given us much to muse on. Some scientific explanations sound quite reasonable as to where it all came from.

    Thanks for limiting your audience. Otherwise we would be swamped by godtalk by folks who believe, not know, they have an answer.

  5. Just to jump in for a bit — thanks, Ex-android, for your response (and the others, as well: thanks!), but comments really do not need to be opened (or ended) that way. I’m sure that many theists share your sentiment in the other direction and similarly find being swamped by “nogodtalk” equally unpleasant.

    It is a serious question, and, yes, like you mention I do believe I know the answer, which I’m sure doesn’t surprise you! And I spend time elsewhere on this blog and on our church’s TV program talking about that answer.

    But this post isn’t about that answer, it’s about your answers — what you believe about the answer to the question at hand, stated freely without the pressure of having to defend that belief to those who believe differently. We can wrestle with the topics another time and place, but not here. So please feel free to comment without disparaging the answers, attitudes, beliefs of others. No need to comment on what one believes others believe — I’m just interested here in what you believe and how you express that belief in your own words.

    This is a bit of an experiment for me, and I appreciate everyone’s so far. Thanks for participating.

  6. AggieAtheist

    To expand on my earlier comment requires a little bit of neurology, a little bit of physics (no string theory I promise, I know you put a moratorium on that), and just as much speculation as a believer (an honest believer, at any rate) engages in.

    Studies have shown that linear time is purely a construct of the human mind. I know you don’t want links in the comments, and I’ll respect that, but I recommend reading Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, particularly the case studies that highlight this, in one case where the patient appears to literally be seeing into the future (they perceived events before they happened), or in another case where the patient was permanently delayed, only seeing things several minutes after they had occurred. IIRC, both patients had damage to the limbic regions, but I may be misremembering, and my copy is several hundred miles away at the moment.

    Also search for the article “Benjamin Libet – A Short Delay” for a study that suggests the brain moves the body to act before we form the conscious will to do so — raising questions such as, do we act out of free will, or do we perceive free will due to some retrograde inbuilt interstitial amnesia, and we really are meat puppets acting either under a will that we cannot recognize, or under some other influence?

    The perception of linear time has allowed the human race to advance as it has; we remember our mistakes (if we are very observant) and attempt not to repeat them. But with that perception comes anxiety, neuroses, and the plight of the modern man. And the concomitant desire for it all to be simpler. To be explained.

    Which, in a nutshell, is why people have been trying to explain why there is something instead of nothing, for roughly three thousand years, from Africa outward.

    Where atheists break the mold, I think, is that we don’t feel the burning desire to question WHY there is something instead of nothing; we just live the best lives we can, with the only lives that we have in front of us. With what we can see, hear, smell, touch, taste, feel, and remember.

    So I would turn the question around to you, Wally, if you don’t mind: Why does there need to be an explanation for the something that we perceive? Clearly we all perceive the people and the earth and the animals around us; regardless of whether we are atheists or believers. Believers seek to assign another level of meaning to those perceptions, and atheists do not, we simply perceive what we can, and try to deal with what we can’t.

    (Please note that by “perceive”, I mean what we can physically see/hear/touch/taste/feel.)

  7. Thanks for the invitation, AggieAtheist: it’s an excellent question and one I’ve thought a lot about. But I’m really trying to stay out and leave this space open to one-way comments without any back and forth or pressure to “defend” and without adding any of my own judgments (at least in this post – my other posts are full of my judgments!). But I will admit that I’m tucking that question away for addressing in the future — just didn’t want you to think I was rudely avoiding it, and I do appreciate your taking the time to elaborate on your thoughts.

    Ack — now I’ve jumped in twice! I’ll try and be more diligent to stay out of the comments going forward. 🙂

  8. Mike

    I get a sense from theists that you think that if you ask a question an atheist or agnostic doesn’t have an answer for, then the only alternative is to believe as you do. Such as the desperate attempts to disprove the theory of evolution.

    Why something rather than nothing? I don’t know, but I do know that there is something, obviously. If the existence of something is supposed to prove the existence of a creator, then we’ll need a creator for the creator ad infinitum.

    Proving the existence of a creating entity is a tall order. Proving that this creating entity is the God of Abraham, Elohim, Yahweh, or whatever label you prefer is a much, much taller order. Proving that the compilation of ancient writings with unproven sources we call the Bible is “His Word” is at the extreme limit of possibility. When it comes to deciding whether your doctrines based on your interpretation of a translation of this Bible written in a dead language by a theoretical invisible being is “the truth”, well, fugetaboutit.

    If you have a belief system, then it will have to be proven on its own merits rather than by disproving all possible alternatives.

  9. Thanks, Mike, but I’ll have to say that much (though not all) of what you’ve written is exactly the opposite of what I am asking for, though I’m sure you did not mean it as such. My fault, perhaps, as I’ve probably been a bit vague about this. (And, BTW: No, I do not believe not having an answer always implies one must agree with the “opposition.”)

    Just to be clear (and brief, which is not my strong suit), my goal is to provide a place here where an atheist can come and give their own, personal answer to a question without feeling the need to defend themselves against some sort of attack. Consequently, I’m asking that you not attack the answers of others, as well — whether the presumed answers of “believers” or, for that matter, the other answers of atheists that might be posted above yours.

    If I can be frank, if you are going to “answer” with not much more than an attack on the answer you presume I or others would give, then I will want to jump in the ring and defend my answer. But that really isn’t the purpose of this post. I’m very capable of listening to answers I do not agree with (and can actually enjoy it), but restraining myself when someone is actively attacking my position (even my presumed position, which can be worse) is a lot more difficult.

    So, that’s the deal. I won’t jump in and begin assaulting any weaknesses I believe I perceive in your answers if you, in turn, will not spend comment space explaining what you believe is wrong with the answers you presume others would give.

    I probably haven’t been that clear up until now, so hopefully this comment helps to clarify (though I sense I’ve failed to be brief!).

    All of that said: Mike, I take it your answer is something like this: “Why something rather than nothing? I don’t know, but I do know that there is something, obviously. And I believe that any answer to the question would have to be proven on its own merits rather than by disproving all possible alternatives.” If I am messing it up, please let me know.

    Thanks for your response — I really do appreciate it.

  10. Mike

    My comment is as how I stated it, not what you’ve paraphrased it to be. If you’re going to quote me, whether here or elsewhere, don’t slice and dice my comment.

    And no, I don’t expect to change your belief system. You asked what I thought, I told you, and there it is.

  11. My apologies, Mike: I was not attempting to put words in your mouth. I was merely trying to boil your comment down to the part that was actually an answer to the question as opposed to the rest, which was an uninvited judgment on the presumed beliefs of others.

    If I ask any further questions like this one in the context of a simple and sincere request and you are, as this time, unable to provide your own answer without appending unrequested and unwelcome judgments, please feel free to exercise your freedom to keep your opinions to yourself or at least to express them in other posts where they might actually be welcome. Again, debating such questions is not the purpose of this post. (Is there some way I can make this more clear?)

    Rest assured, I will respect your wishes in the future and rather than boil your “comment” down to the part that actually answers the question, I will just delete it.

    And my thanks to the others who have grasped what I am trying to do here and have responded in kind. Your willingness to share your answers has been appreciated.

    [P.S. Thanks, Norbert, for your thoughts! You’re right, I cannot post them on this particular entry, because it is devoted to taking comments from atheists, but I do appreciate your well-worded thoughts. Maybe I can post them another time in a follow up post.]

  12. Some questions have been brought up by some, and I appreciate hearing them. Let me address them here as best I can.

    Some are concerned about being toyed with – that is, making a comment here in good faith only to find out later that those comments will be ridiculed or used to make you look foolish. Some have expressed a broader concern, rooted in what they perceive to be a societal atmosphere of persecution of atheists in the U.S. Some have also said that they are so used to poor treatment from theists on other websites that they fear the same here.

    Let me address some of the generalities. While I sympathize with a concern for cultural persecution and recognize that one’s atheism can, in some instances, make it harder to be elected to office, in a culture where George Carlin has virtually been given sainthood, I believe wide spread cultural persecution of atheism is a myth (or, at most, I believe it is no more wide spread than cultural persecution of Christianity). And I must say that I understand the fear of being mistreated by a theist, if only because I have seen how rudely – even brutally – theists have been treated on many atheist websites, and there is certainly a lot of spite and invective to go around on all sides.

    But what I will do with what is said here – that is a really good question to bring up. I think there are two related questions: Why am I asking this question in the first place? and What will anyone who responds get out of responding?

    Really, these questions apply not only to this question but also to others that I have considered asking in the future.

    I can’t say that I expect to be convinced my beliefs are wrong, and (as I have stated explicitly) I am not interested in debate (at least not in this particular post). And I can’t say that I expect any commenters to be convinced their beliefs are wrong. After all, I am not even allowing any contradictory comment to make an opposing case.

    I suppose the purpose for this post is intertwined with what I might do with the comments that are left: I want to educate myself (or, rather, have you help to educate me) on what atheists say about questions like this. Not just quotes from “luminaries” such as Dawkins or Harris, but what atheists who don’t get to publish books say about such questions in their own words. I get to read the others, but I don’t get to read you. There are enough stereotypes out there and even if elements of such are sometimes justified generalizations, I never want to lose sight of the trees for the forest. Does that make sense?

    And, yes, I expect that such knowledge will help me in my role as a pastor and television presenter. As a wordsmith, I always appreciate a good turn of phrase, regardless of the source (as did Paul, apparently), and if something is said here that really catches my eye, I imagine it is possible I could use it one day – sort of in a “Someone once told me that…” sense, without attribution. If a commenter were to request that their words – even without attribution – never be used, I would honor that. Of course, I can’t prove that to you, so I suppose that you have to trust me at your own risk, and for those who can’t I will understand their lack of desire to comment. (One caveat: Even then I have to say that all I read becomes a part of me (so be careful what you read, eh?) and a part of my life’s vocabulary, so I can’t truly guarantee that it would never be repeated in any fashion at all.)

    Also, I’m not trying to pretend to be something I’m not, and I hope my stand on these matters is clear. On this post, I am certainly biting my tongue (and asking any theists out there to do the same), but I don’t bite my tongue elsewhere – on this blog or otherwise. I emphatically do believe that I have a responsibility to “cry aloud and spare not” and to proclaim the truth expressed in Psalms 14 & 53. But I believe that posts like this one can provide opportunities for me to understand people and their ideas in ways I currently don’t. Do I disagree with atheism? Absolutely, and I believe I do so with good reason. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have something to learn about the people who currently subscribe to the position I oppose, and my thought was that posts such as this might be a way to do that. Think of it as Snoopy taking a coffee break with the Red Baron during a brief pause in the action, if you will. (Surely some of you Americans out there are old enough to get that…) Perhaps I am wrong and this is a bad idea. Well, it wouldn’t be the first bad idea I’ve had. 🙂

    Finally, as for what you get out of it posting here, I don’t know what to say. You don’t get to advertise any websites, because I felt compelled to rule that out. You don’t get to rail on any aspects of theism – whether my flavor or otherwise – because that’s my trade off for not allowing responses to or debates about your comments within the boundaries of this post. I suppose I don’t know what you get out of it, other than the chance to answer a (hopefully) thoughtful question without fear of reprisal in such a manner that might educate me a bit. I know: that isn’t much, and I don’t pretend that it is. But, then again, sometimes even a sip of coffee is worth stopping by (I’ll let you decide who’s Snoopy and who’s the other guy).

    Thanks for putting up with this excessively long comment, and I hope this addresses some of the concerns out there. If it doesn’t, I’ve no other remedy, and I certainly understand if anyone out there is still too leery to comment. I would probably be leery, too, if the roles were reversed. (Just don’t bother to comment and explain your leeriness – that’s why I am posting this, and, again, I’ve no other remedy.)

    Hopefully each post from this point on will simply be one’s personal answer to the question. Well, actually – on reviewing them I’m beginning to wonder if this question is all tapped out. If so, then all of this blather of mine may be for nothing (though I will try to repeat it or something like it if I do a new question) and I may need to close comments here, since I suspect that posts like this demand an inordinate amount of monitoring from someone as inefficient at time management as I am. Still, I will leave it open for a bit longer in the event someone has an answer that they feel hasn’t been covered by those above.

    I know that I’ve done most of the writing in these comments, but, still, I hope it has helped to answer questions and set the right environment for any future posts of the same nature. Thanks to those who’ve contributed so far – it’s appreciated. And thanks, too, for your patience.

  13. ACK! I have had to let this blog languish over the last several days. I will try to address that a bit today…

    Mr. Demery: Very funny political comment, but you’re not an atheist, so I can’t post that.. 🙂

    Ex-android: No, I don’t think you are carping or being judgmental, and I really appreciate your comments. Let me address the concerns you bring, as well as some others, up in a follow up comment, below…

  14. Ex-android

    Thanks for adding further comments.

    No thanks for the Bible quotes which are quite wrong, by the way. They don’t describe atheism. It’s infuriating to have a theist beat us with them again as they only perpetuate ignorance. I understand. You’ve got turf to defend, a boss to please, a living to earn and an audience to titillate.

    I should have done some research first before responding. I let down my guard and revealed my gullibility again. I’d never heard the subject phrase before. Now I find a philosophy book with that very title. And there are many articles on the subject that could be googled. I haven’t the time.

    Once again I find I’ve been taken in by the spirit of Armstrongism and it really hurts! Fool me twice, shame on me.

    And please allow this post to be shown in this thread. I played your little game.

  15. Thanks for writing Ex-android. I must say that, in general, your comment makes no sense to me and you seem to expect some standard of this post that is so elusive and unfathomable as to be impossible for anyone to achieve. I didn’t refer to any verses expecting anyone to agree with them — on the contrary, I figure that the audience in this post dismissed such sentiments long ago. I was simply trying to say that in all of this I am not trying to pretend that I am something I am not. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t want to risk anyone feeling like they are posting here under false pretenses, thinking that I am something I am not. How in the world can you object to that? I apologize if I somehow failed to communicate that intent. At the same time, some attitudes allow no communication to get through their filters when they’ve already decided a matter. (The irony in all of this is that I don’t want to comment in this post at all! The only reason I was writing was to respond to the concerns you expressed.)

    I’m sorry that you think you’ve been “hurt” somehow by my comment (or, I guess, by one-half of one line in that comment), and all I can say is that if such comments as I posted above in my effort to explain myself — at your request no less! — are somehow hurtful to you then you have a lot more to worry about in life than someone else’s religion, and I hope you will get some help. There are not kid gloves soft enough anywhere in the world to enable a conversation with someone so determined to be a victim as what your words would indicate (though I do hope that the picture they paint is inaccurate).

    The only “little game” you’ve played is the one you seem intent to imagine as ever present. However, I have no doubt at this point that my assurances mean nothing to you, and I expect that this is the last I will hear from you. As I mentioned before, I’m interested in answers from people who’d like an opportunity to share with me their personal opinion about the question at hand, not comments from someone with an ax to grind or off-topic stances to justify. I’ve published your comment, as you requested, to hopefully cap off all of this, however unpleasant it has needlessly become. I will not, however, publish any further off-topic posts from you — which, since you don’t seem to be interested in participating anyway, may be a win-win for both of us.

    And to everyone else reading this: Please feel free and give me your personal answers to the question — and to any further questions that get asked in this series if there are further posts like it. Morsecode, Russell Miller, AggieAtheist: I appreciate your willingness to take a chance and respond to the question in the spirit it was given, and that is exactly what I was hoping for. I’ve enjoyed reading your responses and they’ve made me think (something I am fond of doing!). Thanks, again. Ex-android: I hope you will be able to (1) look at their responses, (2) see that only your responses and Mike’s have prompted me to jump in like this (please compare to how I responded to AggieAtheist), and (3) consider that these facts speak to a conclusion that is quite the opposite of that to which you seem to have inexplicably come. I can only assume that it is because you brought that conclusion with you here and that my effort here was judged before it had a chance. In fact, perhaps the very first sentence in your very first post indicates just that.

    [The first three responders to this post helped me to feel that this was really a worthwhile thing to do. If I’m wrong and all of this is a mistake, let me know — I can take it. 🙂 ]

  16. Kirbus Christ

    I don’t know the answer.
    If anyone that claimed to know the answer actually did, I wouldn’t be an atheist.

  17. Thanks, Kirbus, for your honesty in the first sentence. And we’ll interpret the second smarmy sentence to mean “If I believed that anyone who claimed to know the answer actually did, I wouldn’t be an atheist.”

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