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Agnosticism and the Varieties of Certainty

July 4th, 2010 · 119 Comments

Here’s a little paradox.  Suppose we propose to meet for a drink at The Passenger after work, and I tell you that it’s on 7th just above Massachusetts Ave in Northwest. Perhaps being acquainted with my spotty geographic instincts, you ask if I’m certain. And of course I am, I go there after work often, and just to humor you I’ll double check it on my phone—I’m absolutely certain.  Or perhaps, out of an excess of caution, I say that at any rate I’m about as sure as I can be about anything—call it 99 percent sure. Alternatively, we can imagine it’s been a while, and I’m really only 70 percent sure—but at any rate, sure enough to assert it with some confidence while allowing that I might, of course, be mistaken.

After a few drinks at the bar—because really, when else would this happen?—you bring up that old Philosophy 101 chestnut: How can I be sure I’m not a brain in a vat, inhabiting an elaborate Matrix-style simulated world? That I haven’t always been? Even that I’m not a simulated intelligence brought into existence mere moments ago, with a suite of false memories pre-installed, including the memory of saying earlier that I was sure about the bar’s location, and all the supporting memories of having been here before?

I’d have to allow that I can’t rule out the possibility. Not only that, I can’t even meaningfully tell you how confident I am—90 percent? 50? 10?—that none of these is the case. The way the question is framed, nothing in my experience could really count as evidence either way. I don’t, in practice worry about these things—I take it pretty much for granted that I have a certain real history that’s taken place a real external world. But if you force me to focus on the question, to bring this background assumption into the foreground by framing it explicitly, I have to admit it can’t itself be justified. My attitude toward it—for the purposes of our discussion, if not in everyday life—must be one of radical uncertainty. It’s not just that I can’t be certain, it’s that I can’t meaningfully assign any particular level of confidence to the belief. It is—I might say if I wanted to be a bit Fancy Town about it—intrinsically unknowable.

Aha! you say. How can I be absolutely certain The Passenger is on 7th Street—or 99 percent sure, or even 60 percent—if I can’t even be certain I or the bar or 7th Street or my memories of them are real at all? Doesn’t that radical uncertainty affect every belief I have about the world? Mustn’t I be radically uncertain, too, about where the bar is?

It’s a cute dorm room puzzle, but the answer is that of course I need not be, because these are questions at very different levels. When I say I am confident about the bar’s location, I’m not talking metaphysics. My assignments of confidence to beliefs are, we might say, local—they’re internal to a system of reasoning and other beliefs that collectively are the grounds for asserting or denying any particular proposition. The brain-in-a-vat question, and variants where my capacity for making or identifying logically valid inferences has been manipulated, are non-local. To be sure, we can imagine things that would count as evidence that the brain-in-a-vat hypothesis is true after all. Maybe some stylish superpeople in mirrored shades and leather trenchcoats release me from my vat. But of course, the question could still be posed—perhaps with more practical urgency!—in the world into which I’d been released. Until then, at any rate, I at least have no internal reason to think I need to take this abstract possibility very seriously. So it would seem odd to declare myself “agnostic” when it comes to garden variety propositions about where bars are located or who won the latest World Cup match.

With that in mind, it should be clear what’s wrong with this Slate essay by Ron Rosenbaum clucking its tongue at the so-called New Atheists and calling for a more humble New Agnosticism:

Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

There are a couple claims at issue here, and throughout the piece. One is just the commonplace observation that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris &c. can come across as arrogant jerks, which is fair enough, but then, who else is going to really proselytize for the absence of a belief? It’s like starting a non-chess-players club; plenty of people fit the membership requirements, but only those with an active hostility to the game are going to feel the need to make a point of joining. In any event, this is at most an observation about a particular group of people; it doesn’t have much to do with the soundness of an atheist position as such.

The real argument is a variant on the familiar point that, of course, you can’t prove with mathematical certainty that there isn’t a God, supposedly making atheism (at least) as unsupportable a position as theism. But then, are there many self-identified atheists who would really pretend to such apodictic certainty? Believers sometimes claim proudly to have access to some kind of special revelation that obliterates the possibility of error. But when I say that I think there is no God, I don’t mean anything so grandiose. I mean just that I see no good reason to think that there is, and that all the various stories told about deities appear to me equally likely to be mythical. I don’t believe in basilisks or psychic powers either—probably neither do most religious believers—but few of us, on reflection, would be so bold as to say this is a belief we are absolutely certain about. It’s possible we could be mistaken, even if the possibility seems too remote to bother much about or, indeed, take all that seriously.

Presumably, Rosenbaum gets this much. We do not declare ourselves basilisk agnostics just because we have to admit we could possibly be mistaken. We just say, without qualification, that we don’t believe in basilisks, with the implicit understanding that, of course, one might always be wrong. If that’s all “agnosticism” added, it would indeed be little more than what Rosenbaum calls “polite atheism”; an agnostic here would for practical purposes be an operational atheist who makes a point of saying “but I may be wrong” a little more frequently, or demurely refrains from asserting his secular background worldview too explicitly.

So Rosenbaum’s looking for a metaphysical skyhook that will let him elevate that mere polite atheism to the brain-in-a-vat realm of radical uncertainty. His preferred candidate is another old philosophers’ quandary, and another non-local question: Why is there something instead of nothing?

I’m inclined to say that the question is meaningless—it has the form of a meaningful, even a scientific question, but it can always be framed in a way that places it outside any system of causal explanation. It’s a kind of grammatical misfire, like “This sentence (or proposition) is false.”

To the extent that it is a meaningful question, I have no reason to expect that science either eventually will, or even in principle could answer it. But I am not sure why I am supposed to care, except insofar as it’s interesting to mull over, if you go for that sort of thing. Suppose I allow that it is a genuine mystery—radically uncertain, even. It’s outside the realm about which we can talk meaningfully or offer evidence. So what? If there were some part of the world about which we couldn’t even in principle gather information, would I have to declare myself a basilisk agnostic because, after all, they might be there?

Rosenbaum’s mistake is to suppose that atheists are committed to providing some kind of utterly comprehensive worldview that explains everything in the way religious doctrine sometimes purports to. But why? Can’t we point out that claims made on behalf of one brand of snake oil are outlandish and unsupportable without peddling an even more wondrous tonic?

I don’t know why there’s something instead of nothing, if the question is even intelligible, any more than I can prove I’m not a brain in a vat. These are interesting facts to reflect on in an epistemology seminar. They have very little to do with my ordinary assertions about how to get to The Passenger or whether the details of any particular cosmology seem persuasive, or whether praying to Mecca or confessing to a priest seems like a sensible thing to do. The question of whether there’s a God is only really interesting or a live debate in practice because its embedded in these more particular traditions. Punting to the non-local question of why there’s anything at all is, ultimately, just changing the subject—a fact that may be obscured by gesturing at the realm of mystery and calling the question mark that lives there God.

I see no good reason to think that there are basilisks, or Olympian gods, or even that rather minimalist watchmaker God more often encountered in philosophical treatises than any actual, practiced religious tradition. The existence of dark spots on the physical, metaphysical, or epistemological map is no evidence for any of them. So Rosenbaum’s challenge—explain, atheist, why there is something instead of nothing!—may well be unanswerable, but it doesn’t require an answer. There’s still no reason to treat God talk as anything more than another bit of human storytelling, and no reason to add elaborate hedges to the assertion that The Passenger is on 7th north of Mass.

Tags: General Philosophy



119 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Julian Sanchez v. Ron Rosenbaum // Jul 4, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    […] Sanchez offers a thoughtful response to Ron Rosenbaum’s horrible Agnostic’s Manifesto. But when I say that I think there is […]

  • 2 NFQ // Jul 4, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    28/1, Julian. Nice work.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Jul 4, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Thanks. But… 28/1? What’s that?

  • 4 NFQ // Jul 4, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Err… I was awarding you 28 points, and the 1 in the round.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 12:11 am

    Oh, hah! Didn’t realize this was another old
    APDAoid–guess it’s been a while.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 12:24 am

    Is this someone I knew on the circuit, by the way?

  • 7 K. Chen // Jul 5, 2010 at 2:20 am

    “There’s still no reason to treat God talk as anything more than another bit of human storytelling”

    Depending on how you constrain “God talk” it seems to me you’re talking about either one of the oldest and most pervasive bits of human storytelling around, or a set of the some of he oldest and most pervasive bits of human storytelling around. That alone seems to elevate the talk to a different category than say, Nicholas Sparks’ latest New York Times bestseller, or your favorite Aesop fable.

    Likewise, not all mythological creatures are created equal – if for no other reason than the depth of their cultural penetration. No one cares about the existence or non-existence of basilisks, no one, apart from the existence commitment has any issue of faith or trust or fear of basilisks – as opposed to say djinn, angels and avatars of Vishnu.

    Which is a long way of saying that- at the very least, even restricting religious questions as stories – the stakes differ so much to make any treatment of one set of stories like any other set of stories foolish.

  • 8 southpaw // Jul 5, 2010 at 10:24 am

    I suppose it’s only fair to demand that Rosenbaum explain how and why his God came into existence.

    Perhaps the broader point is that you can’t escape taking certain propositions on faith. My confidence (such as it is) that I am not a brain in a vat is in some sense an article of faith. It is a token of my belief that the simplest explanation of observed phenomena is likely to be the best (the religion of Occamism?). I happen to think that’s a more justifiable and convincing belief system than elaborate religious faiths, but I don’t really have any more evidence for my beliefs than they have for theirs.

  • 9 Why the crusade against “new atheists” is silly « Derek Peterson // Jul 5, 2010 at 11:18 am

    […] the crusade against “new atheists” is silly I wanted to drop in to share this post from Julian Sanchez: There are a couple claims at issue here, and throughout the piece. One is just […]

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 11:38 am


    Well, it’s not “his God”—Rosenbaum isn’t s a believer. But I think it is fair to ask why the existence of these (probably) unknowable domains should be any warrant for taking any particular hypothesis for which there’s no evidence any more seriously in practice.

    Also, I think I’d put it a little differently. Any system of explanation, reason giving, justification, or whatever must stop somewhere, so there are always going to be some bedrock premises that can’t be independently justified. But I think it’s dangerous to leap from there to a kind of facile equivalence between any propositions someone might want to take on faith. “I am not a brain in a vat living an elaborate illusion” or “modus ponens is valid” aren’t on all fours with “The world was created by an omnipotent and omniscient being, who may have various preferences about how we conduct our lives.” The first two (or at any rate, some propositions playing a similar role) are inevitable background premises of any system of knowledge. I think it would be a serious mistake to take that as some kind of general license to accept ANY old proposition without evidence.

  • 11 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Peter van Inwagen has a way of making the why-something-rather-than-nothing question intelligible. It turns on whether you think there are qualitatively identical possible worlds (we have to be at least ersatz modal realists for purposes of discussion). I.e., a world A and a world B in which precisely the same distribution of local, relational, and global properties obtains, but which are nevertheless distinct worlds.

    Van Inwagen assumes there can’t be duplicate worlds. Consequently, there is at most one nothing world — a world at which literally nothing exists, while there are uncountably many (at least aleph-2) something worlds, worlds at which at least one thing exists. So the answer to why-something-rather-than-nothing is that literally nothing has a probability of 0 (though it’s still possible! probability math is fun like that). Of course, uncountably many of those something worlds are pretty boring — a spinning gold sphere in one, a little bit of mud in another, and nothing else — but they’re not nothing worlds.

    Van Inwagen’s assumption that there aren’t duplicate worlds is certainly controversial and depends a lot on what you take to differentiate worlds — what about two nothing worlds at which different laws of nature hold; thus different and incompatible counterfactuals are true at each world — but it at least gives you a way of making the question meaningful and interesting.

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    I don’t have time to get into the weeds, and even if I did I probably shouldn’t spout off before reading van Inwagen, but it really seems like something’s got to be wrong there. What are the constraints on possibility? How do you assign probabilities to possible worlds? Statistical arguments like this need a background against which to operate; I’m not at all convinced this kind of reasoning works in the void between universes, so to speak. The mental image here, I guess, is that there’s this infinite range of possible universes, and one somehow gets picked from the grab-bag to become actual? This just seems like it takes the figure of speech “possible worlds” way too seriously.

  • 13 Amy Alkon // Jul 5, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Great piece, Julian. I call myself an atheist because I see no evidence there is a god. I likewise see no evidence that a giant purple gorilla has picked up my house and is licking my chimney. With proper evidence for the existence of either or both presented to me, I will of course, believe that it’s likely there is a god — or I’ve gotten some hallucinogens mixed in with the parsley.

  • 14 southpaw // Jul 5, 2010 at 1:32 pm


    As you say, one is always going to have “some bedrock premises that can’t be independently justified.” In addition, it seems to me, one needs a system that can’t be independently justified for evaluating the validity of such bedrock premises.

    Why is “I am not a brain in a vat living an elaborate illusion” not on all fours with “The world was created by an omnipotent and omniscient being, who may have various preferences about how we conduct our lives?” (By the way, don’t get me wrong; I hold to the first proposition and reject the second.) If you tilt your head the right way, those two propositions are nearly antithetical. The creator of the elaborate illusion would be pretty close to an omniscient, omnipotent being within the world of the illusion, and such a creator’s intercessions in the world of His creation to reveal His various preferences could take the form of improbable outcomes (lightning strikes or natural disasters) and revelations to prophets, on the one hand, or Agent Smith, on the other. Believing in a living God affords the believer the same catch-all explanation for mysterious phenomena that one would get from believing in a brain-in-a-vat scenario. Having that sort of omnibus catch-all isn’t something I find necessary (based on observations thus far!) to the coherence my system of explanation, which is why I reject it. But I can’t justify that rejection except by resorting to my system of explanation, based on the bedrock premises I find persuasive.

    The question “What sort of axioms can we accept without evidence?” is just a way of restating the question “What do you believe in?” Isn’t it?

  • 15 Michael Drake // Jul 5, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    “It’s like starting a non-chess-players club…”

    …in a country in which chess is the asserted national sport, and in which love of chess is a proxy for moral fitness, etc., etc. Under such circumstances, though, there would be much wisdom in starting a non-chess-players club, no?

    Other than the pro forma distancing from Dawkins et al., then (as if everyone, and militant agnostics in particular, weren’t capable of coming of as arrogant jerks), very nice post Julian.

  • 16 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Well I don’t mean to make things excessively weedy, but I will note, first, many people do take the figure of speech “possible worlds” very seriously, including David Lewis obviously, but also lots and lots of people who disagree with Lewis as to whether possible worlds are real concrete things.

    For “possible worlds,” substitute “possible ways the actual world could (have) be(en),” and take possible to mean “logically possible.” I take it that such a possible way for the world to be is a set of sentences S such that any sentence p is either implied by S or else not-p is implied by S. (That’s standard ersatz modal realism. We can fine-tune it by talking about the kinds of sentences that are members of S.)

    Now there are a lot of S’s — uncountably infinitely many — but at most one of them is true (i.e. every sentence p that is a member of such S is true) — because there is one actual world. One potential answer as to why the actual world corresponds to one S rather than another is that some divine hand selected deliberately. But we’re not interested in that kind of answer (neither is van Inwagen, incidentally, even though he’s a theist). So let’s assume that every possible way the world could be is equally probable and which one is actual is selected randomly.

    Hope that helps and doesn’t just confuse things further. My own answer to this is: if you assume that there can be duplicate worlds, and assume standard set theory including the axiom of choice, than the probability of something rather than nothing (and nothing rather than something) is non-measurable. (That is, in fact, what I assume). If either of those assumptions fail, however, than the probability of nothing is 0.

  • 17 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Incidentally, great post. Completely nails what’s grating about non-believers who look down their noses at Dawkins & Dennett.

  • 18 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Well, you can imagine beings with such radically different ground-level premises that meaningful communication between them is impossible. But it seems like we’ve got a great deal of overlapping cognitive furniture. I think it’s reasonable to posit that the structuring axioms we can’t do without are basically universal. In practice, believers and nonbelievers do seem to be able to argue the question in much the same way they argue other more conventional questions of fact.

  • 19 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    “So let’s assume that every possible way the world could be is equally probable and which one is actual is selected randomly.”

    This seems like a pretty big sticking point. Why assume this? It seems like a radical overextension of a mode of highly local reasoning. The laws of probability are derived, after all, from an actual physical world.

    It also sounds suspiciously like a punt. We can reframe: Why this world of all the possible ones, whatever that means? I understand what “one is selected randomly” means when we’re talking about picking marbles from a sack, but here it just sounds like “this one just is”. Assuming no duplicates, this one is exactly as improbable as all the others, including the nothing-world. Even assuming the frame is intelligible, invoking random selection sounds like a rather circuitous way of saying “It just is.” Which would have worked as well as an answer to “why is there something instead of nothing?”

  • 20 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    I think the reason to make the equiprobability assumption is to maximize the probability of a nothing world being chosen. (I.e. given the best possible odds for nothing rather than something the odds of nothing are still either 0 or non-measurable, and that’s why something rather than nothing).

    As for the laws of probability, the axiomatization of probability theory is defined in terms of abstract notions such as sample space and measure, not physical entities. Consequently the drawing marbles from a sack metaphor can’t be thought of too literally or as too constraining.

    You could argue that mathematical truths are parasitic on the laws of nature but I think the majority view is that mathematical possibility is more or less equivalent to logical possibility (intuitionistic mathematics is kind of a dead project) and much broader than physical possibility.

    Like I said, I think, depending on your assumptions, the answer to the question is either “nothing has non-measurable probability i.e. it just is,” or “nothing is extremely improbable,” but at least by thinking about the question in terms of probability you can make the question meaningful.

  • 21 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    P.S. When God draws a marble from the sack, what He’s really doing is coming up with a choice function for the set of possible worlds.

  • 22 Why Not Atheism «  Modeled Behavior // Jul 5, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    […] Markedly Tipped to Julian Sanchez Follow Modeled Behavior on […]

  • 23 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Slightly orthogonal observation: Let U be the universe we appear to inhabit as of right now at time T, with a history stretching back many billions of years (at least). U would be indistinguishable from U(N) which sprang into existence N instants ago with precisely the same configuration as U had at T-N. And for each U(N) there are uncountably many universes which have the history of another possible universe until T-N, at which point it spontaneously reconfigures to mirror U at (T-N). If our only constraint is LOGICAL possibility, it’s not clear why the bespoke physical laws of the universe could not permit this. Applying van Inwagen’s reasoning, the odds that we inhabit U rather than one of these variant universes are infinitesimal. I don’t quite mean this as a reductio—like the brain in the vat, these are possibilities that can’t really be ruled out. But it’s worth pointing out that a lot of fairly weird results flow from those assumptions.

  • 24 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Needless to say, of course, many of these will be universes in which we have recently sprung into existence with totally erroneous beliefs about the laws of probability, assuming there are more ways to be wrong than right. Which would put the assumptions of the argument in conflict with our grounds for trusting its result…

  • 25 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Yeah, that’s correct, if all possible worlds are equiprobable then the odds we inhabit any one of them are 0. But we do inhabit some world, and all the U, U(N), U(N’)s you’re positing are worlds in which there is something and not nothing, so I’m not sure that it’s all that weird that it’s extremely improbable that we inhabit the world we actually inhabit. It’s extemely improbable that you are the one human being you actually happen to be rather than one of the six billion others.

    The question of something or nothing is, equivalently, whether the world we inhabit falls in the subregion of possibility space containing only something-worlds, or the subregion containing only nothing-worlds. As long as those spaces are measurable, my assumption is that the way it works out is that the probability of being in the nothing-region is 0 (or at least very, very small).

    On the other hand, if those spaces are non-measureable, that gives an answer to why-not-nothing as well. It happens to be my own answer and I think it tends to be overlooked: assuming classical logic, exactly one of “there is something ” and “there is nothing” and the negation of either implies the other. We can see pretty readily that there is something. Even if I’m a brain in a vat, there are at least two things: the brain and the vat. So it is not the case that there is nothing; therefore, something.

  • 26 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    Hmm, I just saw your pont at #24 after writing #25. I think I’d say that there’s reason to trust the axioms of probability theory even if we’re radically skeptical about which of the U worlds we inhabit. For example, the same mathematical truths hold (I assume) regardless of whether we’re brains in vats or massively misguided about the laws of nature. There’s more than one way to axiomatize probability theory but I’m not sure it makes sense to say any one way is “wrong” or “right”; such empirical tests as there are can’t really be fine-grained enough.

  • 27 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Right, I’m supposing arguendo that the truths of mathematics and probability theory are constant across possible worlds. For each world in which you have accurate beliefs about the axioms of probability theory, it would seem there are vastly more in which the laws of probability to which you subscribe are wildly wrong. If you are radically skeptical about which U world you inhabit, then if you accept those axioms, you should conclude that the axioms you accept are very likely to be wrong.

  • 28 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Aha, okay. This is the point I find questionable:

    “For each world in which you have accurate beliefs about the axioms of probability theory, it would seem there are vastly more in which the laws of probability to which you subscribe are wildly wrong.”

    There are a number of ways of axiomatizing probability, e.g. the Kolmogorov axioms or Cox’s theorem, but they all fall within certain constraints, such as P(A) + P (-A) = 1 (or in the latter case the Bayesian equivalents for P(A|B) etc.). Axiomatizations of probability theory that don’t fall within those constraints can be dismissed out of hand. Within axiomatizations that do fall under such constraints, the probability of nothing rather than something would be calculated in different ways but the result would (presumably) not be meaningfully impacted.

  • 29 Karl Smith // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Dan –

    Your set of possble worlds construct doesn’t get us out of Rosenbaums fundamental question because we are simply left with depending on how you want to think about it

    1) Why should there be any possible worlds

    2) Why should the meta-set of possible worlds itself exist.

    My take is that the fundamental problem is that Rosenbaum is asking a nonsensical question. You have to postulate “something” before you can talk about explanation.

  • 30 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    …and for each universe in which you have accurate beliefs about the constraints on axioms (and about which can be dismissed out of hand), there is a vastly larger number in which you have false beliefs held with equal confidence, because that’s the way your brain is wired in that universe. My point is that our belief in even elementary logical truths corresponds to a physical process or state of the world. Assuming the equal probability of physical states corresponding to unshakable-seeming beliefs about those axioms and inference rules, the axioms and inference rules you currently hold compel the conclusion that your beliefs about which are valid are vastly more likely to be wrong than right.

  • 31 southpaw // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    “Axiomatizations of probability theory that don’t fall within those constraints can be dismissed out of hand.”

    Why can they be dismissed out of hand?

    If we’re taking a skeptical position toward theism, then it seems to me we ought to be careful about appealing to consensus to validate certain axiomatic systems. The proposition that there are one or more omniscient, omnipotent beings who intercede in the affairs of the physical world enjoys an extraordinarily broad consensus amongst mankind. It’s a pretty popular premise for systems of explanation.

  • 32 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm


    (1) and (2) are actually pretty straightforward. The set of all possible worlds necessarily exists, simply assuming classical logic. That is, some propositions are true since if any proposition is false, it’s negation is true. Whatever is true is possible, and something is true, so it’s impossible that nothing is possible.

    If you want to ask me why classical logic, then I’ll tell you that every non-classical logic has been shown to be radically deficient in some basic ways. If you want to ask why any logic, then I have to fall back on Julian’s original point that there is literally no way to make sense of that question — trying to make sense assumes the answer.

  • 33 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:02 pm


    The most succinct answer I could give you is that you could also axiomatize arithmetic in unfamiliar ways, but you almost certainly wouldn’t do so.

    More broadly, and @Julian, the constraints I’m speaking of, AFAIK, are not really subject to probabilistic decay.

  • 34 Will Wilkiknson // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    When I was in grad school at NIU, van Inwagen came to give a guest lecture, and I was the grad student welcome wagon guy. We got talking about modality, and I said that I, like Quine, thought there was only one possible world. I remember him giving me something like a verbal equivalent of an incredulous stare. That led to a brief discussion of ontological commitment, which I think just ended in mutual bafflement (an incredulous staredown?) and, then we talked about how ugly the campus was or something. Anyway, whenever I see the ad hoc craziness that inevitably spins out from arguments based on the assumption of strong modal realism, I feel reinforced in the righteousness of ontological austerity.

  • 35 Neel Krishnaswami // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Why can they be dismissed out of hand?

    They can’t be, actually. Constructive mathematicians can reject P(A) + P(~A) = 1, and there’s still no feasible dutch book against them. Note that Daniel was careful to first claim that intuitionistic mathematics was dead before he asserted this. Lots of philosophers believe this for some reason, but actually this claim is untrue. Intuitionistic mathematics is in the best health it’s ever been in; it’s heavily studied in category theory, theoretical computer science, and structural proof theory.

    (As an aside, “intuitionism” in mathematics means exactly the opposite of what it sounds like: it’s a branch of mathematics that is much more stringent about what is regarded as a valid proof than in classical mathematics.)

  • 36 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    What I’m saying is, you can make any of the foundations of mathematics and logic seem pretty flimsy if you squint at them hard enough, but the reason not to do is even more compelling than the reason not to seriously entertain brain-in-vat scenarios.

    Cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundational_crisis_of_mathematics#Foundational_crisis

  • 37 Karl Smith // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Perhaps, some might conceed that either there is a universe or there is not, but as soon as you move to assign any non-zero probability to the set of existant universes then you are faced with the “why that”

    Falling back, as you seem to suggest on the anthropic notion that well look the probability of nothing is zero since we are having the conversation is a trap door from Rosenbaums “but why”

    The ulimate problem, I see, with the “but why” is that why needs premises and Rosenbaum is asking for deduction without premises. This is not possible.

  • 38 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:11 pm


    Yes, BUT. Classical mathematicians don’t claim that constructive mathematics is unsound. Of course not, and you point out a few of the many successful applications it’s found. They only claim that constructive mathematics isn’t the only sound mathematics.

  • 39 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:14 pm


    I object, this is only weak modal realism.

  • 40 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    P.S., @ Neel, I’d assume the constructive replacement for P(A) + P(-A) = 1 also won’t materially impact the result in this example (and indeed, in general, what makes constructive mathematics viable as an applied project is that within its restricted scope it’s compatible with classical assumptions).

  • 41 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:26 pm


    Do you believe every true proposition is necessary? How about “X [who is a citizen of country A] is a citizen of A”?

  • 42 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    I feel like one of us is not quite getting the other, and I’m not sure which is which…

    I’m suggesting that the van Inwagen argument seems to permit the existence of an infinity of Dan Koffler counterparts, some of which have accurate beliefs about the axioms of logic, laws of probability, and sophisticated proofs establishing the validity of all these. But many will have popped into existence with utterly erroneous beliefs on all these matters, but hardwired such that those beliefs SEEM equally justified, supported by proofs, and so on. Your argument has to assume that you are not the unfortunate inhabitant of one of these many many universes, neurologically doomed to harbor an unshakeable conviction in utterly false principles of logic or probability. But it also follows from the argument that it is vastly more likely that you are, in fact, in one of those unfortunate universes, haunted by fictitious memories of reading compelling proofs that alternative logics are invalid.

    I’m not sure whether it’s that I’m being unclear, or that I’m not getting something about your reply…

  • 43 Neel Krishnaswami // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Daniel: I think you need to disagree with me, and argue that intuitionism is bad logic! Conceding that it’s okay seems to crash your argument about the inevitability of probability theory.

    For example, Cox’s theorem can no longer be appealed to the way you did, since of course an intuitionist will reject P(A + ~A) = 1. (Actually, a rigorous intuitionist would probably reject probability theory in its current form as lacking a proper treatment of evidence, but set that aside.) Likewise, you can’t assume that a possible world must decide all sentences if you grant that intuitionism is a reasonable position to take.

    I think it’s tricky to argue that intuitionism is deficient, though, since classical logic is a subsystem of intuitionistic logic — classical logic what you get when you remove the existential quantifier and disjunction from intuitionistic logic, and require all atomic formulas to be double-negated.

  • 44 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Okay, let me take one more crack.

    This part: “many will have popped into existence with utterly erroneous beliefs on all these matters, but hardwired such that those beliefs SEEM equally justified, supported by proofs, and so on” is fair enough. Indeed, it’s overwhelmingly likely that some of my beliefs about these things are erronenous. What I’m getting it is that the infinitely many ways in which they are erroneous are marginal enough as to not make much difference in terms of how to calculate the prior probability of living in a something-world or a nothing-world.

    Here’s an analogy that might help. We often talk about ideal physics vs. actual physics, in that the latter is wrong about countlessly many things but (we hope) is getting closer and closer to the former, just as in the transition from classical to quantum mechanics. But classical mechanics, although false, is close enough to true most of the time that it’s still worthwhile to learn it in high school and use it all the time (for example, when playing pool).

    We rightly worry about the correspondence between our latest, best, physical theory and the actual laws of nature. But we don’t have to worry about the countless totally crazy physical theories that wouldn’t ever work any of the time for anything. The broadest constraints on axiomatizations of probability theory are a bit like that.

  • 45 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:47 pm


    Of course I think it’s bad logic. I think -p implies p, after all. I just think it’s okay applied mathematics in the sense that you can restrict yourself to constructive methods and still do a lot of mathematics (although there’s a whole lot you can’t do). Cf. the classical/quantum point raised above. Classical mechanics is false, still it has its uses.

  • 46 Neel Krishnaswami // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    @Daniel: measure-theoretic probability is a hack. It’s a glorious hack, which will stand for ages as a testament to Kolmogorov’s genius and vision, but it’s a hack nonetheless. The reason is that there’s no way to show that Kolmogorov’s axioms are forced by coherence theorems[*] the way you can with Bayesian probability, which lack countable additivity for precisely this reason. Without countable additivity a lot of metaphysical usage of probability is blocked at the outset, since you can’t really use probabilities to talk about real distributions, except as limits of finite processes. (This is exactly what E.T. Jaynes did, fwiw.)

    [*] This is how intuitionistic probability actually starts to make sense, IMO. In the standard di-Finetti-style setup, you assume that any bet you can construct can be settled. But if you observe that empirical propositions can be affirmable (i.e, can be demonstrated with finite evidence), refutable (i.e., can be disproven with finite evidence), both, or neither, then you need a richer structure than boolean logic can give you. In particular, the natural structure of affirmable propositions correspond to the open sets of a topology, and then you’re off to the intuitionistic races, since that’s a Heyting algebra.

  • 47 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:54 pm


    “Without countable additivity a lot of metaphysical usage of probability is blocked at the outset” Yes! But remember how all this started, as a discussion about how to make the why-not-nothing question meaningful. Van Inwagen’s answer turns on a metaphysical usage of probability. If I can’t have that, then….

  • 48 southpaw // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:57 pm


    I think you’re discounting the ability of theories that are, in fact, wildly wrong to explain a broad variety of phenomena. It’s possible to propound a very complicated and essentially coherent cosmology around the axiom of geocentrism, for instance. See also, flat earth.

  • 49 Julian Sanchez // Jul 5, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    “But we don’t have to worry about the countless totally crazy physical theories that wouldn’t ever work any of the time for anything.”

    Why not? Wouldn’t there be an uncountable number of worlds in which your counterpart believes any wild absurdity you can name, but has precisely your subjective feeling that it is borne out by all available evidence? Especially if worlds bound by something like our linear causality are no more numerous (and perhaps vastly less numerous?) than worlds in which arbitrary configurations of matter effloresce for a few instants, then are replaced by others, like brief snippets from different films stitched together in a surreal montage?

  • 50 Neel Krishnaswami // Jul 5, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    That reminds me of an anecdote on Scott Aaronson’s website:

    There’s a joke about a planet full of people who believe in anti-induction: if the sun has risen every day in the past, then today, we should expect that it won’t. As a result, these people are all starving and living in poverty. Someone visits the planet and tells them, “Hey, why are you still using this anti-induction philosophy? You’re living in horrible poverty!”

    “Well, it never worked before…”

  • 51 jadagul // Jul 5, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    @Daniel: I think what Julian is saying is precisely that, given your assertions about the probability distribution over possible worlds, there are exactly as many worlds in which you disbelieve “-p implies p” as there are worlds in which you believe “-p implies p.” That given any actual sentence about probability, you’re just as likely to be in a world where you believe it as to be in a world where you disbelieve it. So you’d have to do a truly impressive amount of work to show that your argument works under all plausible beliefs about probability theory–you’d need to show that it’s more or less infinitely robust, which seems implausible.

    On the specifics of your argument: I really don’t see any justification for assuming any two worlds are equally likely. Actually, if the set of possible worlds is infinite then under measure-theoretic probability (which is the only one I can think of that makes sense), the claim that all possible worlds are equally likely is basically meaningless. Either it’s just a statement that any individual possible world has probability zero–which is just asserting what you’re going to try to prove later–or it’s literally meaningless.

  • 52 Dan Koffler // Jul 5, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    @Neel !!!!

    Okay, let me just say one last thing because, Jesus, Rosenbaum didn’t earn all this:

    These why-something-rather-than-nothing arguments are usually deployed against non-believers on the basis of an assumption that a random selection among equiprobable worlds would almost certainly result in a nothing-world, so something must have deliberately tipped the balance the other way. What I hope I’ve been successful in communicating is, that definitely doesn’t work. I.e., given the assumption of no divine hand in creation, there is no reason at all to have a prior expectation that the actual world is a nothing world, so why-something-rather-than-nothing not only is no quandary for a non-believer, the existence of something is (weak) confirmation of her theory.

  • 53 Lee // Jul 6, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Good post, Julian!

    I would just add that Rosenbaum’s focus on the beginning of time is telling: “Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”

    The creation of the cosmos by God in a mythical time of origins was a story resonant with spiritual significance for people living on earth; it explained why we ought to rest on the seventh day, our dominion over the animals, the roles between sexes, why snakes don’t have legs, etc. But the universe at time t=0 isn’t like that! In the secular conception of space-time, there is no founding of the cosmos, and nothing that happened back then has significance for our lives. Rosenbaum doesn’t seem to have come to grips with the implications of disenchantment, and his focus on The Beginning indicates he’s still caught up in a cosmic conception of the world, even while he pretends to be weighing atheism against religious adherence.

    It is like he is trying to show up anarchists by saying, “You think you have a better account of the foundational speech acts that chartered our government? How can you be sure?” To which an anarchist would say: “WTF? You don’t get it.”

  • 54 x. trapnel // Jul 6, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Just popping in to say how much I love the “incredulous staredown” coinage. Now someone needs to illustrate it. Perhaps WW’s fellow Canadian Kate Beaton, of ‘Hark, a Vagrant’? http://www.harkavagrant.com/

  • 55 Will Wilkinson // Jul 6, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    @Dan 41

    “Do you believe every true proposition is necessary? How about “X [who is a citizen of country A] is a citizen of A”?”


  • 56 The Search for Ultimate Truth and Other Afternoon Activities «  Modeled Behavior // Jul 7, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    […] to get too, too fancy town as some might say but this is a sort Popperian perspective that I do not hold. I take a Bayesian view that says that […]

  • 57 Michael Caton // Jul 7, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    I like the non chess players club analogy. And sometimes it’s not unreasonably asked: if you don’t like chess, why bother telling chess players they shouldn’t play chess? Why not just leave them alone? Why form a non-chess-players alliance and in a way define yoruself by something you don’t think is real or good? Because the chess players tell their kids not to play with my kids because I don’t play chess, and there are so many of them that they vote in chess-playing legislators who try to outlaw basic technologies that my company needs if it’s going to beat its Asian competitors (like stem cell technology) and when they get really mad, they shoot doctors they don’t like and crash planes into buildings instead of trying to convince us rationally why chess is a better way to live our lives. That’s why it’s worth forming non-chess-players’ clubs.

  • 58 Dan Koffler // Jul 7, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    @Will #55

    So you would agree there are other ways things could have been?

  • 59 80sfan // Jul 8, 2010 at 5:01 am

    Julian, you put the “red” in “withered by book-learning”

    I admit, I didn’t “read the whole thing”, it’s just that foundational-crisis bit distracted me too much. I could be wrong, but nobody in the history of the In’ernet has ever brought up that point. 2 + 2 really does = 5, wow. Excuse me, I have to go watch some YouTube videos of Ridley Scott commercials now

  • 60 sam // Jul 8, 2010 at 7:43 am

    Perhaps we can invoke Ramsey’s Principle here: Given two diametrically opposed metaphysical positions, here theist vs atheist–Rosenbaum version, we can usually find something they both agree on that is false. Here I suspect that the agreed-upon-but-false thing (Rosenbaum-version) is something along the lines of “The theist account is an explanation of the world.” So, Rosenbaum’s argument would go: “Hey, atheists, theists have an explanation of the existence of the world, so you guys, in order to counter them, have to come up with an explanation, too.” But if God talk is not explanatory, regardless of what its speakers think (and here the weeds assume Everglades-like proportions), then an atheist need not offer a “counter-explanation”.

  • 61 Sanchez v. Rosenbaum: New Agnosticism and the Varieties of Uncertainty or Not… « Bear Market News // Jul 8, 2010 at 10:24 pm

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  • 62 Friday Link Roundup #7 | No Forbidden Questions // Jul 9, 2010 at 8:43 am

    […] week I’ve seen a few more good responses to that Slate column about agnosticism, including this one by Julian Sanchez and this one by Ron […]

  • 63 Hal Morris // Jul 10, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    I do think this (Sanchez) article is excellent and thought provoking, however, I was thinking of issuing some sort of “Agnostic Manifesto” myself.

    I have thought of myself as a mystical agnostic at times. I think the question “Why is there anything?”, taken too literally, can get silly, but absolute inherent limitations on what we can know are important precisely because it is SO MUCH OUR NATURE TO REJECT THEM.

    I’m convinced that something in humans-in-societies works inexorably towards a theory of everything (or at least everything that matters), and the rejection of competing theories of everything. Societies, even small hunter gatherer ones, need a common understanding of reality. We had no idea in that preliterate stage, or until very recently (and who know, maybe not even now) how MUCH there was to understand. We thought it (everything that really mattered) would pretty much fit in one book (once we started writing books). In that “state of nature” (a very dubious phrase but let’s try it on for a moment), it had to be coherent, which meant deciding what fit and what didn’t, and maybe having a downright revulsion toward what didn’t fit — to be maintained and developed in the minds of at most a few hundred people called for a lot of coherency and a much less impressive degree of “rightness” — it just had to serve to keep us interacting with our environment in a way that was conducive to survival. So consistency of understanding within the tribe VERY IMPORTANT; anything resembling rightness to the modern mind OUT OF THE QUESTION.

    A few thousand years ago in the early stages of literacy, the belief systems of some societies developed a LOCK-IN CLAUSE. Some mechanism of orthodoxy-seeking was always needed to make coherent systems possible, but Judaism and still more Christianity, and still more Islam made believing the system THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THERE IS. Merely to call something important has limited efficacy, but to say believe X and you’ll be in eternal paradise after death; don’t believe it and you’ll be tortured for eternity; once that becomes part of the system. There are corollaries like “If your children don’t grow up believing the TRUTH, they will be tortured for eternity”, which can make cruel practices seem beneficent.

    You can believe in fairies, or Buddha, or the Great Pumpkin all you want, but this lock-in clause makes a belief system rapacious and virulent.

    Agnosticism, besides being right in my opinion, is a deliberate step back from this threatening posture of one belief system towards another. The harsher variants of Christianity and Islam have long ago developed automatic reaction mechanisms to ideas that threaten their most vital parts (I am thinking along the lines of a meme-adaptation — adaptive for the belief system, while benignly or malevelently indifferent to people as such), so threatening stances are especially counterproductive with them.

    I think if we could gently but persistently emphasize just the one point – that the lock-in clause of certain religions – ingeniously adapted by Communism and particulary the ever moving target of Stalinism – is such a cause of misery, we might start to get out of this predicament.

    If I seem too full of myself, truth is, I hope I’m not all that original and would appreciate pointers to other thinking along the same lines because I think I’m onto something important, and doubt I’m up to bringing the world around to it by myself.

  • 64 ToddSeavey.com » Blog Archive » Paul the Psychic Octopus Fhtagn! // Jul 11, 2010 at 10:06 am

    […] •But Julian Sanchez, as one of my co-workers points out, has nicely summarized why we needn’t run around being either dogmatic or completely agnostic all the time. […]

  • 65 Of Jehova and Basilisks « Obey This Journal, M.D. // Jul 11, 2010 at 10:46 am

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  • 66 Russell // Jul 11, 2010 at 10:52 am

    What Rosenbaum misses is that the question of whether there is a god has no bearing on his other question, why is there anything? That last question remains just as unanswered, even assuming that our universe has its origins in the classical omni-everything god. Why did that god happen to be? To that, the believer can only answer: that’s just the way things are.

  • 67 Christopher Carr // Jul 11, 2010 at 11:11 am

    I still think the only reasonable position to take is noncognitivism.

  • 68 mathew // Jul 11, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Mr. Sanchez seems unaware of the background for Rosenbaum’s article. There is in fact a claim, implicitly made, by the new Atheists, that the certainty of there being no god is equal to the certainty of there being a god. Given that those on the “there is a god” side of this equation claim such certainty in their beliefs, based on whatever reasons- a book that tells you it is holy, purported communications from this god or some other basis that is described as spiritual–the claims that the atheists make appear to the outsider, i.e., the agnostic, to be made with equally, and to the agnostic, baffling, uncertaintly. What Mr. Sanchez proposes is to redefine the term athesim to include some welcome uncertainty about the confidence in the proposition, something which makes HIS atheism look remarkably–and a little suspiciously– like agnosticism.

  • 69 Roger Evans // Jul 11, 2010 at 11:35 am


    The problem I have in most of these conversations is that I’m a Catholic believer who is much more comfortable with your post than with almost all the casual objections to it by believers.

  • 70 Stuart // Jul 11, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    I’m always surprised when I see such vehement arguments against the “New Atheists,” as if they are a doctrinaire foe to believers. Challenging an atheist on his or her metaphysical belief system is like challenging a poet to a surfing contest–an atheist’s perspective is orthogonal to supernatural belief, and I am constantly surprised how hard that is to communicate.

    Also, am so tired of seeing agnosticism criticized as a milquetoast, “I dunno” sort of position. Agnosticism doesn’t mean “I don’t know,” it means “I can’t know,” or “that is unknowable to me.” This is the most honest position in the entire debate, I think, and is often maligned because it doesn’t take sides and thus can’t be argued against. To those in the comments thinking that “a-ha! He’s really AGNOSTIC!!”: this doesn’t somehow disprove disbelief, to call an atheist agnostic. It’s not weakening his argument nor is it pushing a nonbeliever toward belief by degrees, nor is it in any way strengthening your argument for literal belief in the supernatural. Saying that someone is not really an atheist because they might actually admit to not being able to know and are thus agnostic does not push us toward Pascal’s Wager. It’s much more like telling me I don’t like ice cream because I’m eating vanilla instead of chocolate. Atheism and agnosticism are both clear positions of non-belief and share far more common ground with one another than with the position of the believer.

    Which is my point: there is nothing there to argue with the non-believer. As you point out, Julian, there are big mysteries left to us, and that’s OK. Not knowing is OK. I recognize my emotional need to believe, to feel that something, anything is there for me, watching me, waiting for me after I die. I just can’t indulge those existential emotional needs with what to me are obviously allegorical wisdom narratives/cultural histories being read as non-fiction supernatural accounts.

    To dissect and challenge non-belief may make a believer feel somewhat better, but my sense is that such pedantic challenges are much more indicative of insecurity on the part of the believer than any weaknesses in a worldview that simply states “I proceed empirically.”

  • 71 Adam // Jul 11, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    This post seems to me to sum up the case nicely, especially your rejection of the assumption that most atheists are in the market for a comprehensive doctrine and your emphasis on the logical peculiarities of the “why something rather than nothing?” question. I want to elaborate on this second point, since, it seems to me, careful reflection on it reveals that we don’t even know what an answer to that question would look, and this strongly suggests that the question itself is conceptually confused.

    First, the question is paradoxical: Any answer to the question that is genuinely explanatory must appeal to a “something” with causal powers, such that it could explain existence as such. The paradox is that the question seems to require that we appeal to something already in existence in order to explain existence. Hence, a dilemma: Any such appeal will not appear to have genuinely answered the question, but a confession of ignorance appears to leave a genuine question unanswered.

    But this dilemma is an illusion. We can see this more sharply if we ask: What would count as a genuine answer? If “God” is offered as an answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, then we can ask: “Where did God come from?” If the believer declares that this further question is off limits, he is thereby rejecting the original question by answering, in effect, that there has *always* been something, namely God, and so the “rather than nothing” part of the question cannot be answered. Furthermore, if God cannot be explained, then we’ve simply replaced one mystery with another, the origins of the universe, with the origins of God. By Occam’s Razor, one might as well cut out the middle man and simply say the universe, or some of its features, have always been. These answers are logically equivalent in evading the original question by offering an answer that rejects the very terms of the question–but a further difficult confronts the “God” answer.

    This is that it is either circular or vacuous. It is circular if God is stipulatively defined as “the being that created the universe”, which would be tantamount to answering “What made the universe?” with “A Universe Maker”. (Compare Moliere’s: Why does opium put one to sleep? –In virtue of a dormitive power). Circularity can be avoided only if God has substantive, identifiable properties that distinguish him from what he is invoked to explain, and at that point, we are owed some account of what those properties are, and how we know about them. As I have already explained, invoking “universe maker” as an central defining attribute in this context lapses into circularity; failing to offer other substantive characteristics in a way that avoids the paradox lands one in vacuity.

  • 72 B // Jul 11, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    If I say ‘ I don’t believe in God’, by -Christianity’s own standards- I am more than agnostic, even though I haven’t made any sort of proposition about what I know.

    It’s my preferred way of saying it. I don’t believe in God.

  • 73 B // Jul 11, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Derek Parfit is good on ‘something rather than nothing’ — http://www.lrb.co.uk/contributors/derek-parfit

    But he isn’t sceptical enough for me. It doesn’t occur to him to ask, ‘How do we know there could have been nothing? How do we know there ever was?’

  • 74 B // Jul 11, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    If you saw the Robinson interview on The Daily Show, I hated it when Stewart said scientist’s belief in the existence of antimatter or dark matter (I’m not sure what he meant) is faith as faith-like as Robinson’s belief in God.

    No, I thought: the difference is math. There isn’t any theological math.

  • 75 B // Jul 11, 2010 at 2:16 pm


  • 76 Jong // Jul 11, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    One cannot say that something is convincing and that it is also an illusion.

    My answer to the question “What if you really are just brains in a vat, what then?” is:

    If I am really just a brain in a vat then everything I know, all my experiences, everything I am –including my powers of reasoning — is an illusion. You didn’t just ask me a question because I am not real. So it doesn’t matter how I answer, if I answer, or not.

    If on the other hand I am not an illusion then the obvious answer is that the question is ridiculous.

  • 77 conradg // Jul 11, 2010 at 3:35 pm


    I think you’re missing the point of the “why is there something rather than nothing?” question. It’s not meant to be answerable. It’s a rhetorical question that points out that scientific enquiry can never answer the final question of origins.

    In other words, even the multiverse theory doesn’t actually satisfy the “something from nothing” question, because it doesn’t presume an actual “nothing”. It still presumes that there are innate laws of quantum mechanics that can generate universes. But where did those laws come from? How were they generated from nothing? Is there even a possible answer to this question? No, there isn’t. So it demonstrates that there’s no final philosophically sound solution to the question of origins through the scientific method of reasoning.

    The religious method of reasoning, however, can answer this question by positing that there is never a “nothing”, that there is an eternal, infinite Godhead from which universes emerge. The religious method imbues this Godhead with qualities and character that science can’t get away with. So for the religious this question self-destructs, since religion says that there is never “nothing”, but that there is always and eternally “God”, from which all laws and universes spring. Even QM can be said by the religious to come from God. So the religious response to this question is philosophically satisfactory, whereas the scientific response is not. And that’s why religious people generally pose this question, and not atheists.

  • 78 G. Amis // Jul 11, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    @Russell (#66)
    If we believed that God was a being outside of space and time (i.e. outside of the universe), then the question of that being’s coming into existence might not make any sense. But we would still be left with the question, Why would such a being create the universe, or indeed, anything at all?

  • 79 conradg // Jul 11, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    I saw Robinson’s interview, and Stewart’s remark about “anti-matter” made sense if you presume he was actually referring to dark matter. Dark matter is just a hypothesis as of yet, not at all proven, and yes, there’s a fair amount of “faith” going on in the hypothesis right now. In fact, the originator of the Dark Matter/Dark Energy theory recently said, when asked if he expected the new LHC experiments to prove his theory, “I hope it disproves it, because it would make for a much more interesting universe”.

    There’s a real problem in modern physics that many things it is proposing can’t actually be proven because we can’t do the experiments which might prove them. Too much of that and science does become indistinguishable from faith. It’s just a kind of provisional faith, not the sort of thing one finds in most religions. Many scientists become attached to their ideas, but some are more than happy to see them disproven.

  • 80 conradg // Jul 11, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    As to the whole “we may be living in the Matrix” idea, check out this article:


    The gist of this research is that the entire universe may, in fact, be a projected hologram, with all the actual “information” that creates this holographic image resting on the inside surface of an expanding black hole.

    Other researchers have come up with similar notions that every particle in this universe is actually a tiny, decaying black hole, and they have the mathematical description of how every particle we know of can be accounted for in this way.

    So the whole Matrix idea isn’t really all that far-fetched – just the machines feeding our brains part. We can cut out the machines and just see the whole thing as a spontaneous “simulation” built out of information trapped in the surface of a black-hole. Perhaps even more unsettling.

  • 81 Julian Sanchez on Atheism | Secular Shawshank // Jul 11, 2010 at 3:51 pm

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  • 82 Darwiniana » An Atheist Walks Into A Bar … // Jul 11, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    […] Agnosticism and the Varieties of Certainty I guess it was inevitable that the New Atheists would attack Rosenbaum’s Agnostic Manifesto. However, the agnostic position is almost impregnable, and extremely simple: who knows. The New Atheists are dumb enought to try and find some grounds for certainty, but their efforts are doomed. […]

  • 83 Russell // Jul 11, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    G. Amis, the question isn’t temporal, about why such a being “came into existence,” but why it is at all, in any sense. Not just time and space, but also gods and laws of physics are wrapped into the “something” when one asks: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

  • 84 Mark Borok // Jul 11, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Can there be such a thing as “nothingness”? If there is a state of nothingness, then there is no time (because time is a measure of the duration of “something”). If there is no time, then a state of nothingness must instantly cease to exist, i.e. be replaced by something.

  • 85 Harry // Jul 11, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Brain in a vat: This can be ruled out if one’s perspecitive is based on some evidence and a chain of reasoning that joins to evidnce to conclusions. That is the basis of science. There is no need to “be agnostic” about it.

    As for why there is something rather than nothing: we don’t know. But someday we might, just as two hundred years ago we didn’t know about star formation and quantum mechanics and evolution and many other things. Phenomena explained by these scientific ideas seemed magical and supernatural (how does the sun shine) before they were understood. Existence is also magical (and seems supernatural) , until we explain it.

  • 86 Tim Miller // Jul 11, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    The “why is there something rather than nothing” question is double-edged in that it can be asked of theists as well as of atheists. If there is a God, why should God exist rather than not exist? The question cannot be answered by anyone, theist, atheist, or agnostic. The existence of a God or Gods does not answer the question.

  • 87 Pithlord // Jul 12, 2010 at 12:08 am


    Not sure I agree there isn’t any theological math. The argument from design can be rephrased as the mystery of the usefulness of math. Why does reality persistently use obscure math discovered without any physical motivation?

    Yahweh of Hosts seems a bit too much of the dumb jock to explain such a subtle mystery, but maybe he had a geeky side.

  • 88 Pithlord // Jul 12, 2010 at 12:13 am

    Anyway, the real epitemological problem is that we *are* just brains in a bone helmet. Our cognitive system was designed to help us propagate genes, not find truth. Natural selection is Descartes’ demon. But scientific naturalism depends ultimately on the human cognitive system it tells us was designed without truth-finding in mind, so why should we trust it?

  • 89 Marshall // Jul 12, 2010 at 1:26 am

    I think maybe it’s wrong to get focused on the question format of this conundrum. The point is that there is (surely we all agree?) something. Then there is the observation that the long arc of history bends towards justice. The suggestion is that the Universe has a purposive being. If you like you can have purpose without a purposer and creation without a creator, but I say why bother? A purpose and a creation are enough to put ‘God’ in the picture while leaving Him completely unattached to any local observance or authority, which are left to the discretion of the individual. Personally, I think it’s good and healthful to be grateful, even if it should turn out that there’s nobody there to be grateful to, and likewise I find it motivating to live in a Universe that has a purpose although the details are far from clear to me. Certitude is not something I demand, nor does it seem to be available. But I do think it would be better if more people cultivated an attitude of purposiveness and gratitude. “Seek first the Kingdom”, as somebody said.

  • 90 K. Chen // Jul 12, 2010 at 5:46 am

    The existence or non-existence of God isn’t really the point anyway. Its just a convenient question to hang your hat on that has the illusion of primacy.

    For example – bracket the belief – in – existence question for a moment, and in Christianity you still have a lot to wrestle with: Sin. Faith – that is trust. The question of earthly hierarchy, or not. In Buddhism, whether or not you believe that the Maitreya does/will exist, you still have the questions about suffering and happiness.

    Bracket all questions of doctrine and afterlife and you still have a powerful question: is there such thing as sacredness?

    If there is anything that I want the new atheists to address with humility and agnosticism, it is addressing the place of sacredness in society and psychology – of which the God question is just a tiny part.

  • 91 Jeff Hutchins // Jul 12, 2010 at 8:28 am

    I call agnostics the “magnetic levitators of truth,” because as soon as they begin to lean in one direction, their reason pulls them back in the other direction. They mistake this level of indecision for “balance.”

    I perform a satirical one-man-show on this topic, and have published a book based on the show. It is called “A Press Conference with God,” and is available on Amazon.com and other sites. See the book’s website or my personal site, http://www.jeffhutchins.com.

    It occurs to me that I may not actually be Jeff Hutchins, but Julian Sanchez in disguise. I agreed with — and have probably said — virtually everything in this column. It’s not just that things are unknowable; it’s that trying to be certain about the unknowable is a fool’s endeavor. But then again, I could be wrong about that.

  • 92 Jong // Jul 12, 2010 at 11:47 am

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

    The fact that we are here to ask the questions is the answer.

  • 93 TaoJones // Jul 12, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

    Far from being a convincing argument, this question is absurd on many levels. If there was nothing, we wouldn’t be around talking about it, would we?

    The way the question is framed betrays the askers lack of understanding. In my experience, the kind of person who asks this is merely trying to fit the universe into the box they have for it in their heads.

    The discussion that usually follows — the “something from nothing” issue — is equally pointless in my estimation. Who determined that “nothing” is the default when clearly “something” exists? Based on my limited understanding of science, I believe the nature of time itself precludes the possibility of there once having been nothing. So while philosophical discussions of the metaphysical may be fun, they may not be useful if the analogies don’t match reality.

    Not having all the answers doesn’t make the atheist position untenable. It just means we should assert our ignorance. There is no reason why we cannot be atheist and agnostic. The former is a question of belief or ontology while the latter is a question of knowledge or epistemology.

    Finally, there is a grammatical error in the article. You capitalized the word “God” when referring to gods in a general sense. The word god is only capitalized when used as a proper noun to refer to the Christian god.

  • 94 CBERT // Jul 12, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    K. Chen posts, ” the stakes differ so much to make any treatment of one set of stories like any other set of stories foolish.”

    I would point out that the stakes are only different to the believer of the story. To those of us viewing the stories all as stories, there is no elevation of stake in the god stories.

  • 95 Adam // Jul 12, 2010 at 1:00 pm


    The “why is there something rather than nothing” question is really a red herring – it’s entirely irrelevant to the theism/atheism debate. Neither one provides an answer. Atheists don’t profess to have an answer, so demanding that they provide one is a pointless endeavour. Theists profess to have the answer, and then provide an explanation that does not actually explain anything: “there is something because God created it”. But if we presume that God is something rather than nothing, then all that they have really said is “because”.

  • 96 Neil Bates // Jul 12, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    I surfed here from Andrew Sullivan’s. Well first, the argument about the Matrix is a red herring since the issue is more about the credibility of various ideas of conditional v. unconditional existence (ie, what should “just exist” and why if any reason.) BTW, if you were a brain in a vat you could prove it by trying to cause brain damage – mere orchestrated sensory inputs could not simulate the marring of your cognitive ability etc., unless there is also an elaborate way to operate on the brain as well.

    Sullivan quotes Ron Rosenbaum, stimulus for this post:

    Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually.

    But no, science literally cannot ever do that – for deep logical reasons. There never was, or could be support for any logic-based, “scientific” explanation of our particular universe “existing” as a material entity apart from conceptual descriptions of same. Arguments such as put out by modal realists (please look that up) make clear (IMHO) that math and logic do not have any tools to bless some possible worlds with why they should be “materially real” and instantiated beyond the math model, and not others.

    Scientific theories can’t do it, they must use models which don’t have an extra special ingredient about realness in them. They are just math models that could just as easily be about an imaginary world “on paper.”

    Think, how could they? It can be horned in semantically by just referring to it but that doesn’t validate the distinction: why this possible model world, why not others additionally or instead. Logic and math simply describe in terms of themselves. There are no genuine mathematical tools to distinguish or justify a given “real world” versus a description we talk about, but e.g. with other laws

    Just put aside the strong MR idea that there cannot even be the distinction, but rather accept the weaker MR idea that selections for “realness” can’t be justified or explained logically. Math and logic simply allow models and descriptions and takes it from there.

    As far as we know, there is no way to find more about a model universe, some special hidden trait, that would make it suitable “to exist” in the sense we feel that we do. It would be like saying “the number 23 has an additional, non-mathematical property not accessible to logical analysis (like number theory) that makes it special and suitable for reification as a real thing and not just an abstract number.”

    If we are intellectually honest in the face of such insights, we must admit one of the following:

    1. Some or some set of universes exist because of a special, extra-rational (mystical, actually) “why” that makes them “really exist” among possible worlds. There is no way to explain that in terms of theory. Even (per MR) the distinction itself is not describable in terms of pure logic/math.

    2. “All possible worlds” exist equivalently since there is no logical way to specify or explain a special distinction. This is like modal realism or Max Tegmark’s MUH. But then we have Bayesian problems, such as our expectation is of a universe only just orderly enough to get us this far (and it would be littered with tiny inconsistencies etc. that did not impede our current status, since all possible models means just that – descriptions that are messy and ugly, not just “beautiful.” And there are infinitely more of the former than the latter. More ways to describe with inverse square law of 1/r^1.99976 or electrons all being a little bit different, or laws changing in time etc.

    3. “Someone” or some foundational Something orders what can exist, even if not at detail level (~ Deism in broadest sense and forms spectrum with #1.) It may seem mystical, but #1 is anyway in a different sense (whether anyone likes it or not) and #2 leads to expectation problems.

  • 97 Neil Bates // Jul 12, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    @Adam – a few points: First, it isn’t all about whether someone professes to be able or not, the issue of whether they just plain can do so is often of prime importance as in the case. Second, you description of theistic arguments is shallow and false. Experience thinkers in the subject know it’s a straw-man claim is run “everything had to be created” then who created God, etc. or just the claim being thrown out of God’s existence, etc. The whole point is to argue over just what indeed is a reasonable “just is here, just because” or not and look at the framing of the issue. That’s the whole history of real philosophy, from Plotinus through Hegel etc. (which BTW is not to be confused with tradition-based “religions” anyway.) I’m giving such an argument above, for better or worse.

  • 98 K. Chen // Jul 12, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    Replying to CBERT : “I would point out that the stakes are only different to the believer of the story. To those of us viewing the stories all as stories, there is no elevation of stake in the god stories.”

    This isn’t true, for several reasons. First off, god stories carry a lot of baggage with them – baggage that is mostly fused into the culture(s) around us. For example, if I say “savior” in most of the Western world, regardless of the individual’s religious stance, they’re going to a large overlap of agreement on what “savior” means. That isn’t true if I say “savior” to one of the few remaining isolated tribes in the Amazon.

    Aside from just definitional issues, stories, separate from our agreement with or even awareness of them, have a great deal of power. The myth of the American citizen-soldier, retold in every elementary classroom in this country with revolutionary fighters hiding in trees and bushes firing with their own guns at the massed redcoats has a great deal of power – entirely besides whether or not it is true or if you’ve even thought about it, if for no other reason that it helps inspire neighbors to buy guns. I’m certain you can think of god stories that have similar power.

    Finally, that this conversation exists indicates a certain level of stakes. There is no word that I am aware of labeling myself an un-believer in “traditional medicines,” psychic powers, or non-Euclidean geometry. With athiest and agnostic on the other hand, not only do the words exist, but people spend an awful lot of energy defining themselves by those labels, and arguing their contours.

    God talk in specific, and religion in general, are not things that lose their importance because someone has decided they don’t believe. In fact, this lengthy thread probably goes to demonstrate how important god talk is to us (as a people) how big the stakes are (individually and as a society), even if most people seem to find the importance in rejecting the belief.

  • 99 Agnostic Front | The American Book of the Dead // Jul 13, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    […] the new atheism tends to get on my nerves.  A piece by Julian Sanchez called Agnosticism and the Varieties of Certainty counters the idea that atheism is really just agnosticism – i.e. it’s not a […]

  • 100 Karl Miller // Jul 14, 2010 at 1:39 pm


    Thank you for taking up this issue. You cut to the heart of RR’s Manifesto with more elegance than I could. My own response is here:


    Keep up the good work. Looking forward to reading more.


  • 101 Owlmirror // Jul 14, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    I’m inclined to say that the question is meaningless—it has the form of a meaningful, even a scientific question, but it can always be framed in a way that places it outside any system of causal explanation. It’s a kind of grammatical misfire, like “This sentence (or proposition) is false.”

    In order to match the question, perhaps the self-reference needs to be modified a little:

    “Why is this sentence true rather than false?”

    Or in other words, why is it the case that there is tautology (of truth, for the sentence, or existence, for reality) rather than the incoherence of paradox (of a self-asserted falseness, for the sentence, or of nothingness that can somehow be asked about)?

  • 102 Owlmirror // Jul 14, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    (After thinking about self-reference a bit…)

    Or rather:

    “Why is “This sentence is true” true rather than false?”

  • 103 conradg // Jul 16, 2010 at 8:36 pm


    It might be hard to admit it, but yes, the “why is there something rather than nothing?” question is more internally consistent with religious views than with materialist ones. In part that’s because religious view are more complex in the first place, and can deal with “God” in ways that materialism can’t. While materialism wants to put God in a box and define him materially, and even has to, religion does not have that obligation in order to be consistent. Religion can come up with, and does, all sorts of ways of understanding God which are no materialistic, not bound to “things” or “thingness”, and which render even the notion of “nothing” as a mere dualistic illusion, the flip side of “something”. So there’s just a whole lot more one can say from a religious point of view about this whole question which materialism hasn’t got the flexibility to work with, or even comprehend, and it’s only response is “hey, that’s not fair according to materialism”, which is moot since most of religion isn’t materialistic to begin with.

    My own ultimate religious point of view is closer to the Advaitic teaching that “nothing ever happened”, which is also a great rejoinder to this question.

  • 104 Owlmirror // Jul 17, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    It might be hard to admit it, but yes, the “why is there something rather than nothing?” question is more internally consistent with religious views than with materialist ones.

    “Internally consistent” implies logical coherence, but this is exactly what religion does not have.

    In part that’s because religious view are more complex

    Or rather, more incoherent.

    While materialism wants to put God in a box and define him materially, and even has to, religion does not have that obligation in order to be consistent.

    Or rather, religion rejects any sort of obligation to be consistent.

    Religion can come up with, and does, all sorts of ways of understanding God which are no materialistic, not bound to “things” or “thingness”, and which render even the notion of “nothing” as a mere dualistic illusion, the flip side of “something”.

    And this is fundamentally incoherent.

    Of course, you might argue that even the notion of coherence is a mere dualistic illusion. But this destroys your own argument: If you’re going to reject logical consistency, you can’t honestly claim that religion has any consistency in it at all.

    My own ultimate religious point of view is closer to the Advaitic teaching that “nothing ever happened”, which is also a great rejoinder to this question.

    Which contradicts the sentence you started this comment out with.

  • 105 conradg // Jul 18, 2010 at 7:39 pm


    You are wrong to suggest that religious views are inconsistent, simply because they are not consistent with materialism. They are often inconsistent with one another, but they are not internally inconsistent. Or, at least, many religious views are internally consistent and work hard at it.

    What I find in many materialists is an inability to even comprehend religious views, and a strong disinclination to even educate themselves about them. They simply declare that anything inconsistent with materialism is also internally inconsistent, and out of touch with reality.

    This is well demonstrated in your response to my remark about the Advaitic teaching of “nothing ever happened”. You interpret that phrase in a simplistic materialistic manner, without any understanding of the context or tradition of that point of view. You claim this is inconsistent with a question about why there is something rather than nothing, without understanding what it actually means, and what it doesn’t mean. Materialists like to reduce everything to something materialism can understand, and then look for inconsistencies, but this is a pointless exercise that demonstrates nothing more than the simple fact the materialism has very little philosophical strength or flexibility, and depends entirely on reductionist arguments.

    In fact, it is materialism that is even more internally inconsistent than religious views, and that’s why it can’t deal with philosophical issues like this very well, and can’t even see that other views deal with it better.

  • 106 Owlmirror // Jul 21, 2010 at 1:40 am

    You are wrong to suggest that religious views are inconsistent, simply because they are not consistent with materialism. They are often inconsistent with one another, but they are not internally inconsistent.

    They are either indeed internally inconsistent, or they are incoherent — they deny that consistency is necessary.

    In your case, you’re also denying that you’re inconsistent, which is even more inconsistent.

    They simply declare that anything inconsistent with materialism is also internally inconsistent, and out of touch with reality.

    I’m sorry that truth hurts your feelings.

    This is well demonstrated in your response to my remark about the Advaitic teaching of “nothing ever happened”. You interpret that phrase in a simplistic materialistic manner, without any understanding of the context or tradition of that point of view.

    The phrase, as you presented it, is either simply false, utterly incoherent, or tautological to the point of being consistent with materialism. In no way does it answer the question any better than materialism.

    And, if you don’t want to be misunderstood, it’s your responsibility to present sufficient “context” or “tradition” to avoid misunderstanding.

    Materialists like to reduce everything to something materialism can understand, and then look for inconsistencies, but this is a pointless exercise that demonstrates nothing more than the simple fact the materialism has very little philosophical strength or flexibility, and depends entirely on reductionist arguments.

    And immaterialism depends entirely on a failure to analyze its epistemic methods for consistency.

    In fact, it is materialism that is even more internally inconsistent than religious views, and that’s why it can’t deal with philosophical issues like this very well, and can’t even see that other views deal with it better.

    Your fallacious and incoherent combination of slagging and boasting is noted.

  • 107 Fr. Bill // Jul 27, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    I should have thought that Javier’s beef jerky, Tom Brown’s cocktails, and Derek Brown’s Columbia Room at the Passenger would all be more than sufficient evidence for the existence of God…

  • 108 James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil // Aug 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    I tink you can demonstrate that no god exists. At least not in the judeo/chjristian/islamic omnipotent father-figure image. Simply point out the contradictions in observed reality with the image of the loving god that is aware of every sparrow and “numbers the hairs of your head”. Clearly, no such deity exists and there is no devine intervention in either a positive or negative sense.

    For that matter, it can be mathematically demonstrated that prayers are not answered, either. Even the behavior of religious groups when confronted with practical matter demonstrates that they do not believe in the “power of prayer” either. If they don’t trust that, they must not really have much faith in their “god” either.

  • 109 Brian // Aug 30, 2010 at 5:10 am

    I logically -should- call myself an agnostic, but the evidence is weighed so much against a supreme being, that it seems pointless to call myself anything but an atheist.

    On a related note here’s a really good atheist store I found. Well, primarily atheist and science stuff…

    Aristotle’s Muse

    Maybe wearing an atheist T-shirt won’t change the world, but then again, it cant hurt. Every little bit helps.

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