The Existence Of Nothing

The concept of nothingness has been something that I keep returning to. It is interesting that such an abstract concept can contain such confusion. In our intuitive view of the universe, nothing is not the absence of anything, it is the absence of something specific. If a cup is empty, we say there is nothing in it, but there is air in it. If we suck the air out there are quantum fluctuations and virtual particles that pop in and out of the empty space. We can never observe absolute nothingness, because absolute nothingness implies a lack of existence. Existence is what we intuitively observe as objects in spacetime, or maybe even spacetime itself.

The common parody of atheism on the left is plainly wrong. There was never nothing. because nothing cannot exist, and the big bang was not nothing either, it was the expansion of space from a small point to the universe we know today. The rest is also flawed, but I won't deal with that bit here. 

The major error in such thinking is thinking that absolute nothingness could exist! Indeed according to christianity god brought things into existence by saying words. Our concept of creation is really just transformation. When an artist creates a painting a mental picture that did not exist is created, but in the real world the atoms that make up the paint on the canvas had been around a long time before, and were formed in nucleosynthesis in stars, and big bang nucleosynthesis before that.

What we are left with is a problem that nothing is a concept relative to our intuitions of the world, but pure emptiness has never been observed. Someone might ask what is happening "outside" our universe. If we consider outside to be in the absence of spacetime, the existence of anything in the way we understand existence makes no sense. If something is matter existing in spacetime, then "outside" the universe we would have nothing, at least by some definition. But the term nothing is relative to something, such as an empty cup, so maybe "outside" the universe we could find unthing. Unthing would be not something, but not nothing either. Unthings cannot be geometric because geometry is a property of space. We cannot even say that unthing is, because is does not really make sense without spacetime either. 

The point is that sans spacetime, we are stuck. Our human intuitions fall apart. We are stuck with an unfathomable. I can't say unfathomable thing, because a thing is relative to the spacetime it occupies.

Alvin Plantinga, a christian apologist, attempts to make an argument against naturalism by stating that there is a low probability that our intuitions about metaphysical matters can be correct because evolution selects for survival, not for accuracy or truth. What Plantinga does not realise is that if his conclusion is wrong, namely that naturalism is wrong, and it turns out to be right, we cannot think clearly about unthings and the unfathomable sans our universe. This also means in effect that our intuitions about the supernatural (which is something not bound by spacetime or the universe) have a low probability of being correct. In other words supernatural gods are unknowable unless his premise that a god instilled intuitions about the supernatural in our minds is true. Our complete lack of ability to think about unthings and the unfathomable seems to contradict his permise. Our language and our thoughts are replete with spaceotemporal concepts. We even associate our emotions with spacetime when we mention a hard(hardness is a property of matter) task, a heavy hart or a deep thought. 

People who subscribe to the idea that nothing is some kind of thing are annoyed by the likes of Lawrence Krauss, who points out that empty space is not empty, and what we consider to be nothing in our thoughts actually has stuff in it. The concept of nothingness exists, but it seems as though the concrete nothingness is a purely fictional concept concocted by minds that were never adapted to consider it. Imagining absolute nothingness is no different to imagining a tesseract. It seems that we are doomed to marvel at its shadow, fully unable to visualise it.

A Gentle Introduction To Secular Morality

Theists often like to make the claim that their god is the basis for morality, despite the fact that the abrahamic god drowns almost all the inhabitants of planet earth because he was angry at them. I'm not going to dwell on the atrocities of the abrahamic god because it is like shooting fish in a barrell... with a missile.

Rather I want to consider how morality can be calculated reasonably by anyone with a brain. Humans can think about their own morality, so even if we had no moral instincts, we could figure out the difference between right and wrong by thinking of what we want. Consider the following scenario:

My neighbour has uprooted my beautiful tree while I was out because it was littering leaves into his garden. My garden looks bare and pathetic, and the ruined tree lay there next to a huge hole. My first thought is that I want to kill my neighbour. I am blind with rage. Let's assume there is no such thing as a state or a law code that is enforced by a leader. An anarchistic society.

If I kill my neighbour, his family might suspect me, and enact a revenge killing. They might kill me, or if they really want to they can kill someone close to me, something which is somewhat worse than death. If I consider the action of killing him there is a direct reason for me not to do it. This kind of moral reasoning pervades human morality. People shoplift more if they know that they can get away with it. Societies with ineffective justice systems also have high levels of crime. Deterrence is a powerful moral reasoning tool used by human beings. 

A good point to raise is that such a moral system would indicate that it is okay to do something unless you get caught. In other words, the logical implication of such a system is that Consequence dictates course of action.

That just won't do. Everyone ultimately chooses what they consider moral, but there has to be some rules that are common to humanity. Another system makes sense in this regard. In a society of organisms if your morality allows the suffering of others there is no reason for them not to allow your suffering. In other words a truce where each party agrees not to let the others suffer prevents future suffering by oneself. But you might say that under such a moral system we would fail to protect minorities, because there is no point in a truce with a weak opponent. Although this is somewhat rational it is detrimental in the long term. Society changes, and it may be that one day you may find yourself or someone you care about part of a minority that is abused and oppressed. Moral rationales have to work on a long term and sustainable basis. Nobody could reasonably want to suffer in the future, so that must always be considered a possibility. 

This brings me to modern moral philosophy. Namely when we think of rules, we should be ignorant to whom those rules will apply to. In other words this encourages the type of long term thought required to consider your future self or others you care for. If you hold no unpopular opinions currently, that does not mean that society cannot change. Constitutional documents and Bills of rights codify such rules, so that if we find ourselves judging a segment of society we treat them no more harshly than they are allowed to treat us, if the tables have turned. This is different from fear of reprisals, because the oppressor does not necessarily become the new aggressor. Any aggressor would do. It's all about treating everyone equally.

What is lacking in this essay is a definition of good and lists of virtues and vices, because those kinds of things are infinitely hard to figure out from our subjective points of view. There are people that enjoy things we might find repulsive, be it blue cheese, pornography or justin bieber. People can think of reasons why these things need to be outlawed, because each person rationalises their own views of what is right and good and pleasing. The problem is when morals invade preferences. With the above principle in place, we could reasonably ask how we should determine whether something is bad by imagining whether it would be bad if it was applied to us. For instance state religion is a bad idea because if a religion other than your own is imposed later, it will be detrimental to you. 

The classical liberal view is that things that don't harm others should be up to the individual. No matter how much you argue, one man having sex with another man does not directly affect you, neither does justin bieber. That way we can be sure that things aren't merely branded immoral because someone dislikes them, but because they cause real harm.This system of reasoning is not only sound, it is the system of moral reasoning that governs modern liberal societies. The success of these societies owes a lot to these methods of moral thinking, and this represents the cumulative work of many thinkers. This leaves a universal concept of what is good out, strictly so that people can decide what they deem good, without harming others. This is a moral principle that forms one of the cornerstones of liberalism. 

So what is this theistic objective morality that is sometimes referred to? I think the idea is that actions can be good in themselves, that there are some intrinsically good actions and bad actions. This fails terribly when you consider the various corner cases that moral choices can offer for which there are no obvious answers. Is it moral to kill one innocent person to save two? Ten innocent people to save 20? One thousand to save one thousand and one? That kind of thing brings us into the realm of interesting moral questions. Would it be moral to kill a baby if you knew that baby would later become Hitler?

So the rational basis for morality is basically based on our fear for repercussions, our need to avoid suffering and our need not to be harassed by others if we are not harming them. None of this is new, and I am basically just rehashing some very basic moral philosophy. I know there are many subtle points that can be brought up and that would make for interesting discussion too, but I wanted to give a basic introduction to the idea that secular morality does not require any gods, but that objective moral values can still exist, such as that we shouldn't harm others.Morality is ultimately a type of social glue. If members of a social species mistreated each other constantly and failed to cooperate there would be no point in them being social in the first place. Being social requires some sort of advantage to being social. That is an interesting topic with its own lines of evidence, but it should be mentioned here because there is no such thing as intrinsic good for its own sake. All morals are a means to the end of the advantage of social cooperation.

Dualism Shmualism

Mind-body dualism is the belief that the brain and the mind are separate. This disembodied mind is sometimes referred to as the soul or the spirit. Supposedly it attaches itself to the living human being and continues to live and exist after the human being dies. The most important reason why nobody should believe this is that there simply is no evidential basis for it. In this essay, I will argue that not only is there no evidence for the disembodied mind, but there is plenty of evidence against it. 

The undeniable fact is that when something happens to the brain, that very same thing happens to the mind. If the brain malfunctions, the mind malfunctions, if the brain is damaged, the mind is damaged, when the brain is inactive, so is the mind. 

When we sleep, so do our minds. We may have dreams that make sense sometimes, but much of the time they are nonsensical. People morph into other people, scenes suddenly change, physics is all over the place. If the mind is the rational conscious bit that we need to function and it is not present in dreams, where does it go while we dream and sleep? Most dreams indicate that the mind takes a break when the brain takes a break. When we are unconscious our brainstates change, and these states can be measured. Just as you would expect with a strictly physical mind. If we have some sort of rich mental life outside our bodies at night when our brains are sleeping, why does it disappear the next day? This makes no sense.

When we suffer brain damage, we can forget things. We can lose some aspects of our personality or gain others. Aspects of our personalities can change drastically. For instance there is a man who can never be sad[1] and the infamous case of Phineas Gage[2] shows that personality is intimately linked with the brain. So there is ample evidence to show that the mind is an endogenous effect of the brain when we look at damage, because we consider our personalities part of our minds, and damaging the brain damages the personality.

Emotions have been mapped to physical processes. We know that love is a combination of hormonal effects in the brain. The favourite topic of research nowadays is a neuro-transmitter called oxytocin that has shown to facilitate kinship bonding. Whenever we feel emotions there are certain physical causes of those sensations that result in what we normally characterize as signs of those emotions. Our love, hate, sadness and happiness are all just self administered chemical injections. In fact we do much of what we do to chase experiences of happiness and love, making us drug addicts on the very fundamental level of our physiology. The assumption that there are some emotions that transcend the mind doesn't make sense. There is no reason to posit such a thing either because we can see emotions acting physiologically in our brains.

A large part of what we consider our identities are based on our memories too. Does someone with severe dementia have a perfectly functional soul behind their fading identity? In a very real sense neural degeneration is slow death. The identity of that person slowly degrades into nothingness. It's tragic but illuminating. Where does the mind go during this traumatic time? Does it leave the body early and continue into the afterlife, leaving an empty husk? Does it just sit there, unable to communicate with the outside world because the brain is broken? What would a supernatural thing have to do with physical processes anyway? Why could a physical process impair its function? That makes absolutely no sense.

If our emotions, our memories, our conscious waking hours and our personalities are all intricately linked to physical processes in the brain, then what possible justification is there besides wishful thinking to posit such an imaginary piece of disembodied magic? Does our lack of a complete map of every brain function warrant a belief that the mind cannot be caused by the brain? Nope. Does the problem of describing consciousness fully mean that we need to posit imaginary entities to pretend to knowledge we don't have? Certainly not. 

You, me and everyone else are just our brains. Whatever happens to our brains happens to us. There is no reason to imagine a disembodied mind to explain the perplexing facts of neuroscience and psychology because it would be totally superfluous.

God Of The Gaps Cliche

I posted this comment on Jason Peterson's website Answers For Hope. It wasn't approved. I see now that the website has been changed, and the new website is without a comment section. How convenient.

Old website, with heavily filtered comments

New website. No comment section. Problem solved!

Here is the reply I gave. I saved it here on blogger because I knew there was a good chance of my comment disappearing. Note: I have updated the post somewhat, as I was going off topic slightly.
1. God of the Gaps is an unreasonable accusation because most arguments for Christianity are deductive in nature."

FALSE: Let's use the Kalam cosmological argument as examples:
"P1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
P2: The universe began to exist.

Neither P1 or P2 have been proven. You can make deductive arguments until you are blue in the face, but it won't make the premises true. You need to prove the premises before you can lay down the argument. Asserting that the universe began to exist is pretty silly, because we don't know if it did.
2. The atheists commit their own mistake, which I call “Ignorance of the Gaps.” This amounts to when the atheist says “I don’t know, therefore, not God.”

Maybe true, but intellectually mature atheists don't draw any conclusions from not knowing. Both claiming that god exists because we don't know or claiming that god does not exist because we don't know are the same fallacy, namely an argument from ignorance. You described  the "God of the gaps" fallacy as an argument from ignorance in a flipped around form, then denied it in your next point. Interestingly self contradictory.

3. An atheist will often attempt to say that we should withhold belief in God until it is shown that a naturalistic explanation is completely impossible. This is a fallacy known as an argument from ignorance.
There is a difference between withholding belief and believing that something is false. There is no claim made, except that we should only believe things once those things have been sufficiently been proven. There is no wait to a natural explanation, just the idea that for us to be able to figure out the difference between what is true and false, we need objectively verifiable evidence. Such evidence does not need to be naturalistic. It just can't be "because the bible says so" or "because it was revealed to me by god". Otherwise anyone can come out and make claims of their holy books and revelations and we would have no way of telling which is true or which is not.

4. An atheist will often claim they are justified in not believing in God because they don’t see any evidence for God, even after we have presented the evidence. This is another variation of the fallacy that is called an argument from ignorance.

A responsible atheist will make the nature of the required evidence clear. The bible is evidence, just very bad evidence. Hearsay is bad evidence. Since some theists will admit that there is no empirical evidence for god, and we can't investigate the question scientifically, we seem to be at a horrible impasse. The theist executes a dual epistemology, accepting the rules of rational scientific enquiry with everything except their dearest beliefs, comfortably ignoring the contradiction they know to exist. The inversion of the statement "An atheist will often claim they are justified in not believing in God" is also telling, because it is trying to convert the more plain statement, that there is no justification to believe in god into a statement that resembles a claim. Although you seem at least honest enough not to outright lie about the atheist's position here. bravo. As previously mentioned, if a particular piece of evidence cannot tell between what is true and what is not, then that evidence is bad.

5. An atheist often says that we will find a naturalistic explanation of the universe one day, therefore, we should assume that the universe has a naturalistic explanation for its existence. This is a fallacy known as an appeal to the future. 

You dangerously misunderstand naturalism. The idea is simply that we know the natural world exists pending knowledge to overturn the idea. In other words naturalism is not strictly the denial of supernaturalism, just the act of ignoring it until it can be proven. The honest answer, once again is, we don't know what the future will hold. Maybe god will get over his desire to appear to be non-existent eventually and you will be proven right. I should add that if that turns out to be the case, being right for the wrong reasons is just a matter of dumb luck, and all your false reasoning will still remain equally false.

Other Flaws Of The Fine Tuning Argument

The fine tuning argument for the existence of god (intentionally lowercase) has gained popularity in christian apologetics. The reasons why are actually pretty good. The argument is easy to understand, it relies on real current and generally good science, and there is no absolute refutation from evidence.

In other words it is possible that the universe is fine tuned because a deity did it, since a naturalistic mechanism for fine tuning has not been found. The flavour of refutation sometimes relies on the idea that there may be multiple universes and through sheer blind luck and iteration, our universe came configured correctly for life. I am going to ignore the idea of Earth being perfectly suited for life, because we may not know whether life exists elsewhere and under which circumstances. In any case I see this as a weaker version of the fine tuning argument.

If we consider all the finely tuned variables necessary for a universe that supports life like ours we can make a calculation. We can take those variables, specify ranges and extract probabilities. We can then multiply the probabilities to come up with a rather staggering number that makes it seem almost ridiculous to reject the argument at all. There are essentially two problems I have with this, besides some of the other arguments mentioned in opposition to fine tuning, which I will not mention here.

The first problem is that we do not know which laws act on said variables. We do not know what it is that might constrain their values. The density of any star in our universe is limited to a certain point, at which point the object collapses into a black hole. There is a requirement for the amount of fuel material to jump start a new star also. We may not know what the upper and lower limits of some, or even many of the fine tuned variables may be, because we don't know all the laws that may constrain them in a similar manner to other values we can derive from rules. How then can we calculate probability reliably? Since we cannot know this, choosing a high value of variance could simply be wrong, and it is pointless to even try before we have established underlying constraints. In other words a large section of the probability space might be occupied by sets of values that are nonsensical and impossible within the actual unknown rules that govern them.

The second problem is also of constraint, but constraints in relations. We can say that the amount of oxygen present in the atmosphere changes the size that insects can grow to. If you change the amount of oxygen, the size of insects will also change. Basically each seemingly fine tuned value may not be an island, but could be closely tied to another. There may not be such a large maneuvering space when it comes to different sets of possibilities. If one variable must change as another changes, then their probabilities cannot be multiplied, but must be seen as one. Our incomplete view of the cosmos could be telling us that variables are independent, when in actual fact they form a relation. In fact it could be possible that these relations form complex interactions that move the probability space to something much smaller. 

A possible problem with the two points above may be raised as such: If the probability space is much smaller then maybe it still indicates a sort of fine tuning. Maybe if one knob turns and another turns in relation it indicates a willful connection between them. The argument can then be formulated as the probability of the probability space being small enough for the universe to harbour life. As more facts roll in, the argument can become an infinite regress, because each time the proponent of it can say "Ha! Since there is such a small number of possibilities there, what caused those possibilities to be limited in the first place?". The argument then becomes a no-win situation and nothing could defeat it, because its proponents could just keep making up more what ifs and providing the same answer for our gaps in knowledge, namely that god must have done it.

We can put this into perspective, because the fine tuning argument is not new. It is a clever reformulation of the argument from design that was beaten to a bloody pulp by Darwin's theory of common descent. When we stare into a dark room, our eyes can play tricks on us, similarly if we stare into the abyss to try and figure out how something works, our minds can play tricks on us. The magnitude of the universe presents an abyss, and though we can speculate about what lies at the bottom, claiming that god is at work there is answering a question with no real information to answer the question with. I think that when everything is considered we should not try to answer questions even if we have only woefully incomplete sets of information to answer with, lest we behave like kids who are prone to using their imaginations when facts are absent. We are allowed to hypothesize, but believing that a hypothesis is true before testing it is the worst way to try and understand the universe, because in the world of possibilities, there are innumerably more wrong answers than right ones.