“Atheists believe everything happened by itself” is not an uncommon accusation to be fired at atheists. I recently watched a video on how internet memes spread, so I have a vague concept of how that sort of considerable misinformation spreads so rapidly. But how about getting under what the problem with this accusation is. To an extent it is understandable: the religious person making the accusation sees reality as having two monolithic layers, the natural and the supernatural. The natural is finite and began at some absolute point in time; the supernatural is eternal and created the natural. The religious person then assumes that atheists have the exact same model, but cut out the supernatural side, leaving everything to simply emerge by itself.
This is poor thinking. If you don’t engage in the religious debate, it is permissible; you don’t spread your ideas so I don’t expect your ideas to be moderately researched and you probably acknowledge that you don’t fully understand the oppositions. However, if you do engage in debates about the existence of God or the creation of the universe, perhaps your view should be a little better researched.
Implicitly assumed in the accusation that “atheists believe everything happened by itself” is that “everything” is some sort of a monolith without nuance or hierarchy. Again, if one doesn’t do their research this is an understandable mistake. For linguistic ease we talk of the universe as coming from ‘nothing’. It is therefore assumed (by laypeople) that the state the universe came from is the same as the philosophical concept of nothing. The philosophical concept of nothing is the complete negation of all things and properties; no nouns or adjectives could possibly apply to this philosophical nothing. But to make the state the universe came from and the philosophical nothing synonymous is a mistake.
Michio Kaku, in the BBC’s Horizon documentary What Happened before the Big Bang? explained that “the universe did not come from absolute nothing… It came from a preexisting state–also a state of nothing–that our universe did in fact come from this infinitesimal, tiny, little explosion that took place, giving us the Big Bang”. Kaku’s non-absolute nothing is a nothing in which equations still function. It follows that if equations still function, phenomena like the uncertainty principle apply, as they are solely mathematical phenomena, but the result of that is actual and tangible ephemera. Lawrence Krauss defines “nothing” in a similar way; nothing becomes a state devoid of all stuff, except equations and rules and those rules give way to energy and material. Kaku and Krauss are talking about a sort of hierarchy of things, and once you are low enough down the hierarchy they use the word “nothing” for simplicity, but it will never share a resemblance to the absolute or philosophical nothing non-physicist philosophers want.
For those who are left with a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to a physics-based definition of nothing, there are bigger problems yet. Lee Smolin, in the same documentary as Michio Kaku, believes there was a very real phase before the Big Bang, only ever full of stuff. He believes there is one giant expanse of universe that is going through hyperinflation. Hyperinflation means that the expanse of universe is growing at a rate faster than the speed of light, making it entirely unintelligible and stopping all sorts of physics and causal relationships from happening. This unintelligibility and highly limited causality is due to the fact that the speed of information through the universe is limited to the speed of light, so if the universe itself is moving faster than that, there can be no interaction and there can be no moments or information that travel through it. Our universe is simply a pocket of the greater expanse of universe where inflation has slowed down (and it would follow that there are many more pockets like this. Smolin compares it to Swiss cheese, lots of bubbles that cannot communicate through the actual cheese/intelligence-blocking regions of hyperinflation). Before our universe, there was still a greater expanse of universe, quite plausibly eternal, with all sorts of things in it. If Lee Smolin is correct, it’s more than a linguistic game to call what came before our universe “nothing”, it would be outright wrong.
The thing that began 13.8 billion years ago was not “everything”, it was the intelligibility of our pocket of spacetime. 13.8 billion years ago was not necessarily the start of time and matter and things, it was simply the start of discoverability. Einstein’s theory of Relativity suggests there was no Big Bang singularity from which all things came and such a singularity has only ever been speculative. Markus Pössel, in his essay The Tale of Two Big Bangs, talks of the very early stages of inflation in our universe (the Big Bang phase) as the element of the Big Bang confirmed by observation, and the pinpoint it all supposedly came from (the Big Bang singularity) being speculative, unknowable with current physics (Relativity doesn’t allow it) and superseded by singularity-free hypotheses like the ones mentioned above.
To have been told this and still bandy around the accusation that ‘atheists believe everything happened by itself’ is to have muted your own thinking, a sort of silence of mind.