[tl;dr for Posh Hugs Inn: The Catholic-atheist-dialog website “Strange Notions” imploded so I’m using a blog again, and I’m starting with a monolog on how I went from Catholic to atheist.]
One of my last blog posts as Weigh and Consider mentioned the website strangenotions.com, which was billed as a Catholic effort to dialogue with atheists online. It attracted many atheists and other skeptics eager to discuss the difficult-to-believe aspects of the Catholic faith, and also a few cranky souls who just wanted another forum in which to mock believers. Disappointingly few Catholics ever stopped by the site to offer their side in dialogue.
It was a delightful alternative to blogging, not that I have ever blogged much or ever will, not that that matters either since I don’t publicize my blog. A clash of beloved ideas is a better way to refine the ideas and their presentation than isolated development of personal philosophies! Not everyone loves sports ball competitions, but there’s some form of joyful sparring for every type of person.
However, the founder and primary moderator of Strange Notions was unprepared for the demands of moderation given the thousands of comments posted there, and additionally it seems he was unfamiliar with online etiquette, and so he frequently resorted to hitting the big red reset button. He would ban a few or a few dozen of the most active atheist commenters and delete their contributions to the site, and then things would calm down again for a while until new folk arrived. Amusingly, there was a period when he would also ban anyone who mentioned the mass bannings, perhaps because it interfered with the effort to reset the conversation on the site. But being banned without any previous warnings or rule infractions tends to leave we humans willing and eager to gripe, so some of the illustrious eliminees migrated to Estranged Notions for commiseration, documenting the misbehavior, and continuing the conversation on a more ethically-moderated forum.
While there has been much to learn over at Estranged Notions, and many jolly jokes to share, there is predictably also less disagreement. With several courageous exceptions, the few Catholic commenters at Strange Notions stay within that walled garden forum. Without the exchange of views, I might as well be blogging as commenting.
So now it’s back to blogging! The parallel and appropriate topic of the reborn blog is therefore to put down in writing how I deconverted from Catholicism to generic skeptical atheism. Wise people always counsel those who would engage in arguments that virtually no one is converted or deconverted on the spot by an argument. Far be it from me to ignore anonymous wise elders. After all, as humans, our ideas are interconnected to a great degree, literally composed of the same neurons connected in various ways, and we can’t just let go of one of the ideas at a time. It’s not just a matter of disproving unfounded beliefs and unraveling tangled notions. New ideas and new connections have to be built and woven together in place of the old.
With that in mind, let me take the received wisdom and chuck it. I was sitting at an airport thinking about Life, the Multiverse, and Nothing, and something new occurred to me. I was a devout Catholic before, and two seconds later I knew I was an atheist. Maybe things can move that quickly when considering alternative theories of all of reality in general. It’s the sort of thing talked about in the popular philosophy book, Why Does The World Exist?, by Jim Holt, which I had been reading recently. SPOILER: We don’t know.
The alternative theory that came to mind was one that Holt did not discuss, nor have I since encountered it anywhere else. There’s a good reason for that, which is that it’s total baloney. But it’s beautiful baloney. I could recognize even on first perceiving the theory that there was no good reason to assume it was true, and yet even more unambiguously it is a far simpler, far more evidenced, far more informative explanation for why there is Something Rather Than Nothing than any theist account out there, and that could potentially begin to explain why that Something looks the way it does.
Let’s be dramatic and call it nihilogenesis. The idea is that the universes that really exist are those mathematically describable as the continuous lawful evolution of null initial conditions. It’s related to the branch of philosophy of mathematics called Platonism or mathematical realism. If that philosophy is right, then mathematical truths have their own necessary existence as abstractions and don’t depend on the physical world or on our imaginations. Theoretical physicists like Vilenkin have argued that our universe looks like it could have developed from a singularity that was a spherical vacuum with zero radius, zero mass, zero energy, and any other properties it might have similarly zeroed out. Now let’s combine the superpowers of Plato and Vilenkin, and assuming both guys are right, we notice that it appears to be the case that some abstract reality exists corresponding to the formula “Given laws X and null properties Y, a universe will pop out without need for a pre-existing substance” for some X and Y. But the physical laws (X) of universes like ours are mathematical and would also have the same abstract mathematical existence, and null properties (properties that are all zeroed out) have only abstract existence until they become non-null. All the parts are in place. The cosmological statement and the X and Y to fill in its variables all are as real as they need to be and are together sufficient for a universe, so there’s a universe, too.
Some philosophically inclined theist may point out that mathematical laws and null properties aren’t absolute philosophical nothingness. This was the objection leveled at Lawrence Krauss’ book, “A Universe From Nothing”. And it’s quite right. This whole line of thought was inspired by a throw-away line in Jim Holt’s book, where he opined that the only psychologically satisfactory sort of answer to the question, “Why Does The World Exist?”, is an answer that makes the existence of Something logically necessary. Holt did not pursue that line of thinking, but I did, and this is where it lead. I’m willing to accept that, if something exists as a matter of logical necessity, it seems least problematic to suppose that mathematical abstractions do. And if they do, then yeah, that may not be absolute nothingness any more, but it’s really close. I mean really damn close: there’s literally zero of anything that might distinguish it from absolute nothingness. And it would get us a set of universes much like ours, one for each valid X and Y pair as in the above paragraph, expanding outward from nothingness.
This isn’t just metaphysical woo. If it were true, it would imply that, in Aristotelian terms, the world is all “form” and no “substance”. Therefore it could in principle be disproved by discovery of some fundamental thing not fully describable in terms of its relations to other things. Some people argue that qualia have precisely the characteristics of a “substance” that could be the disproof, though it has yet to be genuinely shown that there is no reductionist explanation of them. A second example method of disproving nihilogenesis would be if we discovered that the universe has probably always had nonzero total energy.
Is there any reason to accept mathematical realism in the first place? Not much beyond the intuitions of mathematicians. Maybe there is some evidence in the applicability of mathematics to unknown physical systems. You don’t need to examine the latest and greatest perpetual motion machines to dismiss them as violating the equations that are the principle of the conservation of energy. And if abstractions were only real when physically realized, it might seem downright puzzling that we can nevertheless prove various properties of how a physical computer will perform a nonexistent algorithm regardless of the physical principles by which the computer operates. So maybe it’s wooey baloney, but it’s wooey baloney that could conceivably be recognizably similar to a future One True Description of the Way Things Really Are.
Let me reiterate that I don’t believe in nihilogenesis or endorse it. The point is not that this is the Way Things Really Are. The point is that it is a better explanation than Goddidit for why the world exists. The moment I first saw this alternative, I realized I no longer had rational grounds to presume a God was part the explanation for existence.