Interesting change in questions for the interfaith panel

Recall the post from a few days ago about the questions to be addressed at an interfaith panel that I will be on tomorrow (Thursday). I just received an email from the event organizer saying that they had slightly changed the questions for discussion. The old six questions and details of the event can be seen here and the new questions are:

  1. Why is there something rather than nothing?
  2. Are the gods of all the religions the same?
  3. What happens to us when we die, i.e., is there a heaven?
  4. Why do bad things happen to good people, i.e., what is the nature of evil?
  5. How does your religion address others from different faiths?

Basically new question #3 has combined old questions #1 and #4, new question #4 has combined old questions #3 and #6, while #2 and #5 remain the same as before.

The completely new question that comes out of left field is #1 and it is one that has become somewhat popular recently. It is based on the Kalam cosmological argument for god’s existence (much favored by Christian apologist William Lane Craig) that tries to make the case that the very existence of the universe is proof of god’s existence. Roughly, the argument consists of two syllogisms:

Syllogism #1

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
2. The universe began to exist;
3. The universe has a cause.

Syllogism #2

1. The universe has a cause;
2. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful;
3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

Once one opens this Kalam of worms, it can easily eat up all the time because we enter deep metaphysical waters and the moderator will find it hard to keep each person’s response to the required two minutes.

This should be more fun that I had initially anticipated!


  1. badgersdaughter says

    Nice. The way I heard question #1 approached scientifically constituted a proof that the probability of “something existing” was around seventy percent higher than the probability of “nothing existing” due to a certain amount of inherent instability in the nature of “nothingness”. I’m at work so not at liberty to do deep research at the moment, but another commenter will doubtless be able to follow up (thanks folks) 🙂

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    1) I don’t know, and neither do you.
    2) No, but they do have certain properties in common, such as nonexistence.
    3) a) worm food. b) no reason to believe it.
    4) Random chance. Plate tectonics. Most human-caused evil can be traced to simple sources: putting one’s own interest ahead of the interests of others, putting short-term pleasure ahead of long-term security, with a few others, such as spite.
    5) people are people, no matter what crazy-ass shit they believe.

  3. alric says

    Probably the best way to deal with Kalam is to point that even if true that everything has a cause, all identified causes to date have been natural and not a god. There is no reason to propose a god for the initial cause of the universe.

    The rest are just baseless assumptions as well.

  4. badgersdaughter says

    I’m with #3 alric, as the simplest and clearest way to put the question to bed.

  5. Tadas says

    Why do bad things happen to good people? To balance out all the good things that happen to bad people!

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    Whatever begins to exist has a cause…

    The apologist will try to claim that this does not apply to God, since He has always existed. To which you can ask, “How do you know?”

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Kalam is a category error. Causation is something we observe in the stuff which makes up the universe (matter, energy, spacetime). Knowing how billiard balls behave tells us nothing about how the table (or the balls!) got there. Reginald Selkirk‘s answer to #1 is the best, IMO.

  8. says

    I’m somewhat on board with Reginald Selkirk on #1 after my weekend at an apologetics conference. I spoke with a Christian who seemed rather puzzled at my suggestion that “I don’t know” could even be an answer. They were trying to insist that one must come to a conclusion and that seemed to be their justification for why believing in a god was not a god-of-the-gaps argument. (Kudos, perhaps, that they realized it looked like a god-of-the-gaps, but their reasoning for why it wasn’t was really weak. We didn’t get into this further, but I suspect their reasoning for why one must come to a conclusion would have led to Pascal’s Wager.)

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    @Reginald Selkirk #6: yes, that is the whole point of syllogism #2.

    Anyway, “An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful” is a good description of Azathoth.

  10. wsierichs says

    I think the answers to No. 1 are:
    1) The only thing the universe proves is the existence of the universe. It does not prove that it was created or not created.
    2) The last substantial article I read on this issue was an argument that quantum mechanics almost -- but not certainly -- guarantees a universe will exist. I take that one with a grain of salt, but it least it was based upon actual science, not someone’s dreams, visions or hallucinations.
    3) The possibility that many universes exist, with each one possibly having different “laws” based upon initial conditions, points to a purely uncreated origin of our universe. Until the multiverse hypothesis has been ruled out by good evidence, no argument that our universe was created and therefore had a creator, can be valid. If the multiverse hypothesis is ever proven to be true, then the odds tilt heavily toward a strictly materialistic origin, not a created one.
    4) If evidence is ever discovered that our universe was caused, that still does not prove the “cause” was a god of any religion. It could be that all religions are wrong and it’s some god or gods that no one has ever envisioned. Furthermore, the multiverse hypothesis opens the door to the possibility that billions or trillions of years ago (using our concept of time), a universe came into existence with laws that allowed aliens to be vastly more intelligent and technologically advanced than is likely in our universe, with the kind of technology that is possible only in very imaginative science fiction. In this possibility, the aliens could reach outside of their universe, to the greater cosmos that spawns universes, and influenced it to create universes with laws that allow for intelligence and for matter that allows advanced technology. These aliens would not be gods in any of our concepts, and would only be creators to the extent that they could bias the greater cosmos toward spawning universes more likely than not to allow intelligence.
    I know No. 4 is highly speculative, but my point is, it’s as probable as the existence of the various gods people believe in.
    Of course, this entire argument is pointless if we live in The Matrix and are unknowing living batteries for powerful robots. But then, is the universe inhabited by the robots caused or uncaused?

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    badgersdaughter @1:

    the probability of “something existing” was around seventy percent higher than the probability of “nothing existing” due to a certain amount of inherent instability in the nature of “nothingness”.

    This is simply redefining “nothing” a la Krauss, and it doesn’t deal with the question. The problem is that the “nothingness” you’re talking about isn’t actually nothing. There are still underlying fields, even if there are no initial excitations of the fields (aka particles). In other words, there has to be something which can be inherently unstable.

  12. moarscienceplz says

    Kalam of worms

    That is a pun. And a pun, spelled backwards is a nup.
    And a nup is a nup!

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    wsierichs @10:

    3) The possibility that many universes exist, with each one possibly having different “laws” based upon initial conditions, points to a purely uncreated origin of our universe.

    How does more than one universe point to anything except more than one universe?

  14. doublereed says

    I don’t really get the first question. Obviously if there was nothing then we wouldn’t be here to talk about it, so who cares? Frankly, I don’t even understand how there are any theological implications to the question, even after reading your syllogisms.

    It’s like asking a theist “Why is there a God when there could be no God?” It’s just a bizarre question, and I don’t see how it reveals anything about people’s beliefs at all.

  15. says

    Go on the attack on #1:
    “I have no idea. Unlike the religions -- which make up ‘reasons’ why there is something rather than nothing -- I’m just going to admit it and move on. Religious explanations for why there is something rather than nothing depend on the idea of a god… Well, why is there a god rather than nothing?”

  16. busterggi says

    Lassi @9. -- Don’t forget that Azathoth just loves pipe music -- makes him the only deity with pipers. Pan doesn’t count, he plays but he doesn’t listen.

  17. says

    How does more than one universe point to anything except more than one universe?

    More than one universe points to the “many gods” theory, of course. Each universe has its own creation! We wound up with that asshole yaweh, but another universe might have been created by Joe Pesci.

    The “many gods” theory makes as much sense as the “one god” theory. That is a problem for goddy theories. It’s best not to offer theories when there is no evidence that supports any theory at all! In terms of theories:
    We observe the universe exists, therefore …?
    The goddy theory says “therefore god!” Why don’t they have any supporting evidence for that, at all?

  18. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Assuming they skirt the black hole of #1 and get to #2, it deserves an answer: “Clearly not!” and a quick review of some examples: Hinduism (3rd largest by number of adherents) posits many gods none of which correspond to the god of the three great monotheisms. Buddhism (#4?) basically says, yeah, sure, believe in whatever gods you like, but they are all suffering on their higher plane and need the Buddha’s message for liberation. Islam might allow that Allah == Yaweh but the trinity essential to Christian doctrine is definitely false and Jesus was no more than a prophet (now superseded). Judaism absolutely says Jesus was at best a clever rabbi and not god as the Christians insist. Do NOT let slide any fuzzy-minded ecumenical waffling on this.

  19. Lofty says

    1. I was under the impression that the universe is essentially flat, i.e. the positive energy of mass is precisely balanced by the negative energy of the gravity wells it lives in. In other words, the average energy of the universe is zero, indistinguishable from nothing. We are just random fluctuations in the nothingness. Even if you only count the mass, there is a vast amount of nothingness to balance the tiny amount of matter in it. Nothing to see except for some sparkly lights that’ll eventually go out and evaporate. The human problem is simply one of perspective. Does the universe at large need a god?

  20. anat says

    To RobGrigjanis @14: More than one universe means there is nothing inevitable about our own universe. It means any question along the lines of ‘why does it have to be that X’ is meaningless. X is that way in our universe, but could be entirely different in one of the other ones.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    Lofty @20:

    the positive energy of mass is precisely balanced by the negative energy of the gravity wells it lives in.

    If only it were that simple. With the currently accepted model, the density of dark energy is constant, so as the universe expands, so does the total dark energy.

    More importantly; there is no concrete notion of conservation of energy in GR. This is because spacetime itself is dynamic, so there is no time-translation invariance, which is what gives conservation of energy via Noether’s theorem in other field theories.

  22. Rob Grigjanis says

    anat @21:

    More than one universe means there is nothing inevitable about our own universe.

    I have no idea what that means. Why couldn’t they all be inevitable?

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    #22: so as the universe expands, so does the total dark energy, the total dark energy increases.

  24. wsierichs says

    The theists’ argument is that our universe is unique and is finely tuned, which is evidence of design and a creator/designer. If, instead, there are multiple universes and the “laws” of physics are different in each one, so that matter might not exist in one universe while another universe has matter but it can’t form stars or planets or, at least, can’t allow life, then the probability drops that there is a creator/designer. The multiverse hypothesis posits some greater cosmos spawning universes at random, which would account for each one having its own, differing, fundamental “laws” of physics (such as electrons’ mass being greater, for example}. So our universe is not unique nor finely tuned. We exist in this universe because its fundamental “laws” allow stars, planets and life, just as we live on Earth because it is the only planet in our solar system that allows our form of life to exist. Life might exist on Mars or Jupiter’s moons, but they don’t have forests, surface-dwelling animals or any signs of intelligent life.
    As long as the multiverse idea is possible, then arguments that our universe is unique and finely tuned, and therefore is created, are not valid.

  25. Rob Grigjanis says

    wsierichs @25: The multiverse would effectively counter those theists who think that a single universe is necessary for a creator (do all of them think this?), but you seem to be accepting their premise. Why? Ignoring what some or all theists think, why would the multiverse make a creator less probable? Can you quantify the probability as a function of the universe multiplicity?

    As I said earlier, the best answer to #1 is “we don’t know”. Anything which tries to engage theological arguments is a mug’s game, like Krauss’ “something from nothing” (a bullshit redefinition of “nothing”), or the ubiquitous “there are uncaused effects like radioactive decay” (a bullshit redefinition of “causation” to mean “determinism”).

  26. Hank Tholstrup says

    Number 2 always gets me.
    When they say ‘the same god’, they are automatically assuming that there is only one god. ie jehovah or allah.
    But for most of history people have talked in terms of MULTIPLE gods. It’s only the monotheistic religions (jews, christians, muslims) that push the single god line. I think that science with its parsimony of reasons/causes tends to favour the single god idea, and everyone seems to take it for granted that that’s what we are arguing about, but to me it is no more plausible than the multi god idea.
    So no more of this single god rubbish. Let’s hear it for the zillions of gods that people have invented throughout history -- the ones with weird and special powers, the ones with personalities, the cool egyptian and sophisticated greek goods, the gods of mountains, thunderstorms and rivers. GO POLYTHEISM!
    (Have you noticed how much the muslims HATE polytheism?! Christians can’t take it seriously, but the muslims get very riled…)

  27. DanDare says

    As others have pointed out the theists assume their god is something so when they ask q1 they are silently appending ‘with the exception of my god’.
    Pure nothing has no attributes which includes rules that would prevent something from being there. As there can be no time either then if something can be then it must be. End of story.

  28. wsierichs says

    #26 I fully agree that “We don’t know” is the best answer. But it’s not the only one. That’s why I say the existence of the universe proves only its existence, not that it was created, which is one form of the “we don’t know” answer.
    The multiverse hypothesis is not theological; it has a scientific basis, although we cannot (as far as I know) test it. Its value is that it invalidates theists’ argument that the universe must be created because it’s finely tuned for our existence. Because we don’t know that this is the only universe and that other universes, if they exist, are just like ours rather than having very different fundamental “laws,” the fine-tuning argument is untenable and therefore cannot be used to prove a designer.
    To me, saying “we don’t know” if this is the only universe, is simply another variation on the whole “we don’t know” response to theists. This version hits one very specific argument a lot of theists want to believe is proof that a god exists.
    In response to #27: I like to say that polytheism is less irrational than monotheism (which is not saying polytheism is rational) because most polytheistic systems that I know of say bad things happen to good people because the gods are quarreling. Alternately, because the gods can disagree, a good person can unwittingly offend one particular deity but not others. Monotheism requires a single entity to be responsible for everything, good and bad. Christianity cannot accept that, so it twists its beliefs in all kinds of absurd ways to say that, somehow, it’s actually people who are to blame for “evil,” not the Christian deity. A variation on that is, Adam and Eve were seduced by a talking snake, and their sin was so enormous that it has continued across time, so people are not directly at fault, but are born flawed and cannot fix ourselves; only the Christian deity can do that.

  29. anat says

    Hank Tholstrup, polytheists ended up merging gods from different pantheons that had some traits in common, so perhaps they were willing to accept that the gods of different cultures were similar enough to their own, while maintaining the different identities of their various gods.

  30. bargearse says

    Ah the good old Kalam cosmological argument. Everything that begins to exist has a cause…except this one thing that I need to define as not requiring a cause otherwise my entire argument fails. Obvious bullshit is obvious.

  31. lanir says

    If I understood Stephen Hawking’s “The Grand Design” correctly the answer to #1 is…


    The rest is the anthropic principle at work.

  32. Nick Gotts says

    One semi-serious answer to #1 is that it’s a matter of probability (or more precisely, measure theory): there’s only one possible way for there to be nothing, while there are an infinite number of ways for there to be something. Whatever measure theory you use to deal with the problems of sampling from infinite sets, the set of possibilities in which there is nothing will have a single member, will thus be finite and thus have measure 0, meaning it is certain that if you select a possibility at random, it will be one in which there is something. In fact, now I think about it, the same reasoning indicates that reality is infinite: there are only a countable number of ways for it to be finite, while there are an uncountable number of ways for it to be infinite -- and a countable subset of an uncountable set will, I think, have measure 0 in any consistent measure theory.

    However, I admit that you might be able to deploy parallel reasoning to show that there are actually an infinite, or even uncountable, number of gods! Unless “god” is so defined that there cannot be more than one, in which case I think measure theory doesn’t get you anywhere, because the subsets of possible realities with and without a god will have the same cardinality.

    Slightly more seriously, general relativity indicates that time is inextricably linked to space and energy (and while it’s presumably not the final theory of everything, any replacement is likely to preserve this feature), so the notion of time “before” our space-time existed is otiose; and causation assumes the existence of time, so our space-time cannot have had a cause. Nor did it “come into existence”, because this again implies there was a time before it existed.

  33. badgersdaughter says

    Thanks for the comments addressing my post #1, folks; goes to show you shouldn’t make a half-assed reference to something without doing due diligence 🙂

  34. Matt G says

    Here’s another way to answer something-not-nothing: we don’t have enough evidence to say with certainty, and to answer “God” means you don’t care about evidence. Further, we may *never* have enough evidence.

  35. QueexForSomeReasonAllLoginsAreBroken says

    Number 1:

    ‘Cause’ has no place in a formal syllogism. It’s an imprecise term used in common speech, but any attempt to define it rigorously reveals problems like the category error mentioned earlier.

    What does ‘A causes B’ mean? That B cannot happen without A? That B is likelier to happen with A? In the former case, what if A is ’caused’ by some unseen other factor C? If you introduce C into your model, does it still make sense to say that A causes B? And if you can extend your model to include extra term and still have it be valid, why can’t you reduce it to a single event and still have it be valid? Kalam is just First Cause in new clothes, and both have the insurmountable problem of claiming that only infinitely complex models are valid models (after correcting for the error below).

    Graph theory shows another fatal flaw with those arguments -- to have _any_ thing without a cause would break assertion #1, so the only valid models we are left with are cyclic models and models of infinite chains; neither of which can possibly accommodate the kind of divine force Kalam is trying to establish. In short, the first premise of syllogism 1 would disprove the existence of god if it was true.

  36. Bronan says

    Slight variation on “why is there something rather than nothing” is “how can something come from nothing”.

    Lofty @ 20 gives an interesting retort to the original question, but for the latter I usually respond that all one needs is 2 equal and opposite “somethings”.

    0 = 1 -- 1

    I eagerly await the discovery of the negaverse.

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