The following is an open letter to a man I admire deeply, whatever his views on God and cosmology. I have agreed to post his rebuttal at a later date, should he choose to compose one.

Dad,

It seems no matter where we begin a conversation on God and the universe, we digress to the “everything from nothing” question. It’s a fair sticking point, unlike evolution which has been proved a thousand times over, for it is admittedly a question which science has not yet illuminated with similar certainty. Cosmologists have worked out candidate solutions to the question, however, and God just isn’t among them. I’d like to explain in clear and simple terms why this is.

  1. Science does not support claims by making appeals to human ignorance. Two hundred years ago, there was no working theory to explain the diversity of life, so God was the stand-in explanation. Widespread contentment with the God-explanation might help explain why it wasn’t until the 1850s that Charles Darwin finally worked out the simple mechanism by which life rose to complexity from humble beginnings. This may have crossed Thomas Huxley’s mind when he famously said of Darwin’s discovery, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”

Had Darwin contented himself to say “I personally cannot understand how life might have achieved such complexity on its own, and it’s self-evident to me these finches were designed by an intelligence,” biology may have suffered a major setback. Deferring to God in our ignorance nearly always retards understanding and never grants it. The best theism can do is take things we already know and come up with “plausible” (appealing would be the truer word) reasons  why God might have done it that way.

Take a moment to think of just one supernatural explanation which has ever come to replace a well-established natural one. This is unheard of, and yet the reverse happens with great regularity as science refines its methods and bolsters its output. If we were face-to-face, I’d pound a fist to emphasize the point: our growing understanding of the world only ever points away from supernatural religious explanations, never toward them.

Appeals to human ignorance and incredulity are especially poor in a universe like ours, which is not especially intuitive. “Something cannot come from nothing” is a fair rule for a discussion on lawn care, but it may not apply to all topics. The universe toys with our intuitions in this way. Some things about the universe which we know to be true beat our common sense bloody. A beach ball can’t be in two places at once, but an electron can. “Why?” is a question we can’t even consider until we overcome our personal incredulity. We live in a queer universe, and our intuitions have been proven, again and again, inadequate where its secrets are concerned.

  1. One shouldn’t apply laws which hold true within the universe to the universe itself. Our understanding of time and even the rules of cause and effect break down at the big bang, the event horizon of black holes, and at extremely small scales. When you claim the universe could not have come into being except in a way which is consistent with nature as you perceive it at a certain scale, the only thing you argue effectively is the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you recall from a past conversation, this cognitive bias causes us to be especially confident to speak on topics we are not competent to discuss in the first place. It is therefore no coincidence that the people who know least about cosmology appeal to the God-explanation while the people whose jobs it is to understand it do not, by and large, make this mistake.
  1. There is no reason to assume there ever was “nothing.” A number of cosmological models predict an infinite bubbling froth of universes. It could be the case that our universe is one little bubble in an eternal cosmos. There is no hard evidence for this, but it is plausible and explains the same data the God hypothesis seeks to explain, with the distinct advantages of relative simplicity and consistency with cosmology as we know it.
  1. God doesn’t solve this problem. An appeal to God is an appeal to something of greater complexity than the thing which needs explaining. This isn’t always bad policy – simple paintings on a cave wall are explained by brains more complex than the drawings themselves – but it begs another question. Theologians have answered the question “What explains God?” with blithe obstinacy: God is that which requires no explanation. This is a slimy way to define one’s way out of a problem, and yet it is a luxury theism has, ironically, never allowed her opponents.
  1. A universe without God would look just like ours. We’ve discussed how matter and energy are really one and the same thing, how mass can be converted to energy and vice versa. Atomic bombs exploit this principle by deriving huge amounts of energy from a relatively small amount of enriched uranium. It turns out that if you weigh all the mass in the universe against the negative potential energy due to gravity (adding the positive and negative figures), the best estimate for what you have left is zero. A universe from nothing should add up to nothing, and it looks as though ours probably does. There is something to be said for an explanation that can make predictions like this.

The God-explanation, by contrast, makes no predictions whatsoever, and those it would seem to make do not match our observations. For example, theism would seem to predict things like special creation, just societies, clear and moral instruction from the creator, and a reasonable amount of suffering, if any. Yet theism (my fist is a gavel on this point as well) gives itself a free pass to reason backwards: rather than use its theory to predict the data, it whips up excuses as to how the data can be made to fit the theory. When we allow ourselves this indulgence, we gain the ability to justify anything and lose the ability to identify and correct our errors.

How can something come from nothing? I’m not sure, but it does happen quite a lot. Tiny particles pop in and out of nothing all the time in otherwise empty space. Our failure to understand this (and why should we expect to?) does nothing to render it any less true. The universe pays no homage to common sense or folk wisdom. On that score, if “everything came from nothing” sounds unbelievable to you, then “everything came from nothing because God” should be no improvement. Yet you have little-to-no trouble believing God defined our world into existence (as you were not incidentally raised to believe) in the same way you have no trouble defining him into existence. Why might that be?

It could be that we were wired by natural selection to see agency where it does not exist, patterns where there are none, and causation where there is only correlation. You may be discouraged to hear that when we test this possibility, we are met with resounding, unambiguously positive results to exceed our most pessimistic expectations. When we lazily ponder existence in our cars and showers, we fail to divine correct answers, even the “easy” ones, nearly every time.

Thankfully, we have found a way out of our heads. We have been refining a method of thinking and testing ideas which has granted us real knowledge, one which proves itself over and over in the form of inventions, accurate predictions, and a true understanding of how we came to be as we are. Theism quiets curiosity on these matters, never satisfies it.

You’re not likely to denounce theism after reading this, but I hope to have drawn you an inch closer to the scientific method in favor of armchair, “makes sense to me” philosophies which do stand up to the rigors of science. I’ll close with the words of cosmologist Sean Carroll who speared the very heart of the matter in his debate with theologian William Lane Craig: Immanuel Kant famously said, “There will never be an Isaac Newton for a blade of grass.” In other words, sure you can find some physical explanation for the motion of the planets but never for something as exquisitely organized and complex as a biological organism. Except, of course, that Charles Darwin then went and did exactly that. We can paraphrase [the theist’s] message as saying “there will never be an Isaac Newton for the cosmos,” but everything we know about the history of science and the current state of physics says we should be much more optimistic than that.

Sincerely,

Your son, Cole

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I earned my Bachelor's in English at the University of St. Thomas in MN with a minor in Philosophy. I'm a former evangelical Christian who enjoys reading and writing about evolution, psychology, and religious issues.

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