From Nothing to Something

(originally published in: http://www.sunstar.com.ph/davao/opinion/2013/04/04/uyboco-nothing-something-276011)

Photo by Smithsonian Institution
Photo by Smithsonian Institution

I received an email from a reader named Tony which goes:

I am an admirer and follower of your articles which are thought-provoking.  May I request your opinion to the statement “nothing comes from nothing” as this leads me to believe there is a God. Thank you for your free thinking.

Thanks for the kind words, Tony. To address your query, the statement you gave is actually one of the classical arguments for the existence of God. In Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas gave the Quinque viæ, the five ways, or five proofs of God. “Nothing comes from nothing” is actually the same as Aquinas’ second argument – the argument from causality.

In simple terms, this argument states that we observe in our world the phenomenon of cause and effect. Everything that exists has a cause, and that cause also has a cause, which also has a cause, and so on. If we keep going back, we will eventually bump into a First Cause that is itself uncaused – and that Uncaused Cause is what we call “God.”

Mike Licona, a well-known Christian apologist, uses this argument against atheism: “The Big-Bang actually creates a tremendous problem for the atheist. If nothing at all existed prior to the Big-Bang, then what exploded? Moreover, the atheistic view, that the universe is all there is, requires that the universe, for no reason, just came into existence out of nothing. But again, this seems absurd.”

Now this is a reasonable argument, but I would like to point out a few things worth thinking about:

  1. The argument itself may point to a creator, however, it tells us nothing about the characteristics or attributes of that being.  So now you have a “God” but how does that affect your life? What does this “God” want you to do? Is it even concerned about you? Is it good or bad? Is it omnipresent, omniscient, or omnipotent? Does it have emotions? And so on and so forth. All these questions cannot be answered by this argument alone. So if a particular religion uses this argument, they still have to make the connection between that creator being and the particular “God” they believe in. In other words, why should I believe that this being is Jehovah, and not Allah or Krishna or Jesus or Zeus?
  2. To claim that it “seems absurd” for a universe to pop into existence from nothing might not be as absurd as you think. On what basis is it absurd? Perhaps in the limited experience of humanity, that is true. But what if there were conditions beyond the current human experience and intelligence, in which something could come from nothing? One never knows. There are a few, natural phenomena which seems absurd at first but are genuinely verifiable, observable and accepted in the scientific community. The wave-particle duality of light, for example, which I cannot discuss here in detail because of space limitations. The short version is: there was an argument whether light was a wave (as in radio waves) or was it composed of particles. It could not logically be both. However, experiments have shown conclusively that it is indeed both, contrary to common sense and logic. Hence, one’s logic must give way to reality.
  3. What if that Uncaused Cause were the universe itself? For all we know, the universe could be one big sentient being and we function in it like our cells function in our body. Our cells live, grow, fight their battles and die without any conscious intervention from us. We could very much be in the same situation. So a deity might exist but it is oblivious to our day-to-day activities and in that sense does not require our worship or even our belief.

Perhaps, the deeper, underlying question here is “What meaning is there in life if there is no god and no afterlife?”

It is a valid question but not one which causes me sleepless nights. My life is meaningful because of the lives I touch and the lives that touch me – my friends and family. The way I see it, I get one shot at this life and I want to make the most out of it as I possibly can.

In the words of Seth Andrews, “Life is a precious, brief, fragile, amazing thing. And instead of being so fixated on living after death, I want to truly live before it. And be thankful, that against incredible odds, I was able to witness this particular part of the universe, with my own eyes, firsthand.”

There Are No Sides Because The Earth Is Round

(originally published in: http://www.sunstar.com.ph/davao/opinion/2013/03/22/uyboco-freethinking-me-274152)

Photo by zenpixel
Photo by zenpixel

One of the very first things ingrained to me when I was young was not to question my beliefs (or the beliefs handed down to me). There was one God and the Bible was his Word – divinely inspired and without error. I grew up in a family, church and community that sincerely believed, taught and lived out this truth. In fact, I would like to say that those who know me should in no way feel that they have been inadequate or that they are somehow at fault for the way I am now.

Before I was 10, I had already learned to defend my faith. Against my wishes, my dad enrolled me in the Ateneo for Grade 1, instead of the church-run school where most of my friends were, because it was too far from where we lived and therefore inconvenient to their daily routine. Perhaps he was confident in his ability to raise a Protestant son who went to a Catholic school.

After all, he lived by example, served his church wholeheartedly as an elder, and would quote the Bible to us when he wanted to teach us something important. Every day, he would wake us all up early in the morning and we would sit in a small circle. We would each take turns reading verses from the bible passage of the day.

My dad would then expound on that verse and give a mini-sermon. After that, we would kneel down and pray and each of us would have to utter a few words, not memorized, but from our hearts.

I remember coming home from school one day, eager to show something new that I had just learned. Before dinner, I led the prayer and made the sign of the cross. My dad promptly, but gently, told me that we don’t do that, and I got my first lesson in how my belief was different from almost all the others in my school.

And so the battle-lines were drawn. I resolved to learn all I could about my particular belief so that I could better defend myself in the “hostile” environment I was in. I listened intently in Sunday School. I participated in church activities like fellowships and Bible Quizzes and would marvel at the older kids who seemed to know a lot and I tried to emulate them.

I learned to read at an early age, and found a number of books in our house that talked about how to defend ourselves against Roman Catholicism, and I devoured these and memorized the arguments and the verses that countered them.

The Christian Life Education (or CLE) classes we had, however, rarely dealt with the topics I read about in my books, but rather focused on doctrines commonly held by both Protestants and Catholics alike — Jesus as the Savior, the Trinity, Original Sin, Loving Others, and so on. So I had no opportunity to show my teacher where he or she was “wrong” without waylaying the topic and looking like a total jerk.

I think I was around 12 when I gathered a couple of friends and went to challenge an old priest about why it was wrong to pray to Mary. I found Fr. Brugger seated on one of the stone benches overlooking the “front field” as we called it. I asked him, “Father, why do we need to pray to Mary?” I hoped to bait him into one of the arguments presented in a book I had just read, and planned to use certain verses to show why praying to Mary was idolatry and why it was a sin to do so.

His answer caught me off-guard, “You know, my boy, we don’t really need to. Some people just find it comforting to do so. It’s like talking to a friend who knows someone really important. But sure, you can talk directly to Jesus if you want.”

While I was still collecting my wits on how to convert this seeming stalemate into a win, he said something else, “You know what? People think that prayer is about you talking and talking and talking to God. But prayer is really about listening. When I pray, I just sit still, close my eyes and listen to what God is trying to tell me.”

And that totally floored me. I had no arguments against that. So I mumbled my thanks and left. I learned then that perhaps there was more to this whole thing than “Us versus Them.” That they are not the
“enemies,” as I always thought they were, and that it was very possible to have meaningful discourse and dialogue that leads to better understanding across beliefs and cultures.

We are all humans, after all, and there are no sides because the earth is round and the universe is vast.

*****

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. You may email him at andy@freethinking.me, but if you just want to point out that earth isn’t actually round but spherical, well, I already know that.

False Dichotomies

Photo by GiniMiniGi
Photo by GiniMiniGi

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a dichotomy as “a division into two especially mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities.”

If we were playing chess, for example, you would either be black or white. If you were black, then I would be white, and vice versa. There is no ambiguity about it. The simplicity of it appeals to our minds because it provides a neat and tidy solution to a dilemma.

Many people like to make statements and arguments that present a dichotomy, then proceed to demolish the other position, thereby leaving their chosen position the only logical choice to make.

Reality, however, is not quite so neat and tidy. If one digs deeper, one can find alternatives other than the arguments presented. Hollywood director, Ridley Scott, once said, “Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find?”

Heroes and Villains

I believe we acquired this black-and-white thinking from the stories of our childhood where characters are neatly divided into heroes and villains – Prince Charming vs. the Witch-Queen, or the X-Men vs. the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, or Dora vs. Swiper, or Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort and so on.

Look at Filipino soap operas which usually features a rich and bitchy amo (master or mistress) vs. the poor, downtrodden servant or employee.

These stories have conditioned our minds to think that people are either good or evil. Some Catholic bishops have used this in their Team Patay – Team Buhay campaign, cleanly (and unfairly, if I may add) dividing political candidates solely based on their position in the RH Bill.

These are false dichotomies and we must be wary about them. Learn to look for alternatives. Life is usually not just about two choices but many more. Just because a person has made bad decisions in the past does not mean he is a bad person. But we are often so comfortable with black and white thinking or we are simply too lazy or judgmental and we rarely think outside the box anymore.

Pascal’s Wager (And What’s Wrong With It)

French Mathematician and Philosopher, Blaise Pascal, made a statement known as Pascal’s Wager which goes like this: Either God exists or he doesn’t. If God actually exists, then believers have infinitely more to gain (eternal life) and nonbelievers have infinitely more to lose (eternal punishment).  However, if God does not exist, both believers and nonbelievers will have lost only something finite (some temporary pleasure or gain in this life). Since there is greater gain in believing in God, it makes more sense to believe in Him than not to.

Many people still use this kind of thinking to justify belief in God. But let me show you why this is a false dichotomy and why the choice may not be as simple as you think.

First, it assumes the word “God” refers to the Christian definition of God (as Pascal was reportedly a Christian). But what if in reality, “God” is not the Christian God at all and the Muslims happen to be right, or the Deists, or Hindus, or Pantheists, or Zoroasters, or the ancient Greeks? Then you would still go to whatever “hell” this god has decided because you placed your bet on the wrong one.

Second, it assumes that the afterlife refers to a Christian view of the afterlife (heaven or hell). But what if it were the Buddhist concept of reincarnation and Nirvana? What if the ancient Chinese have it right and that you would bring your riches with you? They make and burn model houses and paper money so that the one who died would have these comforts in heaven. Or what if there were no afterlife at all and this life we have is our only shot?

The appeal of a dichotomy is that it makes thinking easier because you only have to analyze between two alternatives, but it is often not a reflection of reality.

Worry and Faith

I saw a Facebook meme going around a few of my friends’ walls which says, “There isn’t enough room in your mind for worry and faith. You must decide which one will live there.”

Sounds like a perfectly good quote to “like”. But I replied on one wall and said, “Reason, please show both of them out the door.”

Life offers so much more than two choices, and for that I am glad.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. You may either email him at andy@freethinking.me, or not. But that doesn’t mean you can’t treat him for lunch.

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