Ask a stupid question countdown... seven

TodayChristian.net posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

7. Where did the universe come from?

Having written several thousand words in response to these questions already. I'm tempted to be terse:

We don't know, and neither do you.

Of course, you've come all this way, so I might as well make it worth the trip for you.

The question itself has several problems with it. As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli "It's not even wrong." By that I mean that the question is not posed in such a way that it's even possible to give an answer. If you ignore the weirdness of quantum mechanics and focus on just General Relativity (one of the most well established theories in science) then when you trace back the history of the universe you arrive at a point where time and space stop. Asking "where" is meaningless because when you are creating a universe (meaning you have no universe yet) there is no "where" in which anything can happen. It gets slightly worse because "happen" means something changing with time but, there would seem to be a time before which there was no time. Stephen Hawking makes the analogy of asking what happened before the big bang is like standing at the south pole and then asking for directions "south". Now if you try to include Quantum Mechanics back into things what you will get is something so grotesquely removed from our intuitions that language in general is useless and the only people who would be able to speak intelligently on the subject are those who have dedicated their lives to the study of ridiculously complicated physics.

So this is where the "and neither do you" part comes from.

But just because we are ignorant of the very beginning (which is why you see people working on the problem all over the world instead of claiming to have an answer they don't) doesn't mean we don't know an awful lot about the universe past, present and future. One thing which is very clear is that the universe is extremely big, extremely old and that we are extremely insignificant. If there is a god behind things with a purpose in mind, that purpose is not us. Actually, when you think about the mind boggling size of the cosmos, if there were a god checking up on things, it's not even clear how he would have even noticed we had evolved yet. It's much more likely he doesn't even know we're here yet.

And if a god existed, and were revealing stuff to us, it's slightly odd that no holy book or creation myth ever gets the size, scale, age or history of the universe remotely right. Most of them have the earth being at the centre of the universe. A few of them (even the bible) hint that the earth is flat. None of them seem to realize that the sun is bigger than the earth or that we revolve around it, not the other way around. Genesis has the order that things were created in completely wrong, and also puts water in the wrong places. We never get any kind of hint about what stars are made of, or how far away they are. You would think a god would be slightly more knowledgeable about the universe she created.

This is the shortest answer so far so I want to take a moment to address a point of simple logic. When we operate on intuition and instinct, we typically only have enough brainpower to spare to deal with two options at a time. The logic seems straightforward and appealing. It must be either A or B. It isn't A so it must be B.

But the universe is not so simple. If you are going to do the argument correctly (ignoring the irritating case of both A and B) it should read. It must be either A or B or X, where X is an alternative I haven't thought of yet. It's not A, so it must be either B or X. But since X is a thing I haven't thought of yet, I can't actually check to see that it's not X. This is the problem of living in a complicated universe. You never know with absolute certainty you won't find out about a new option tomorrow and have to throw out your old solution.

This is the well known logical fallacy of the false dichotomy. Reduce the discussion to two options and say if it's not A, it must be B. (Never mind for now that the religious have no compelling case for not A.) But as we've seen just now, this is dishonest (or at least slightly confused) because the correct conclusion is "it could be B".

There is a not-so-subtle subtext to all of these questions and once you start to notice it, it becomes incredibly irritating. It says that "If I can find a hole in your position, I must be right by default." The assumption that "Christianity is assumed to be true until proven otherwise" is simply an elementary logic error.

The compliment however is correct. It is reasonable to believe that no god exists until you see credible evidence that she does. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that leprechauns, Darth Vader, Pokemon, Lord Voldemort and Sponge Bob do not exist and it would take evidence to convince us that they do. The same is true of god/s.

Stay tuned for question six...