The Raving Theist

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Saving Julia Sweeney

August 15, 2005 | 68 Comments

Comedian Julia Sweeney (Saturday Night Live) is a Catholic turned hardcore atheist. She talks about it in this interview, in her one-woman show, Letting Go of God, and in her upcoming book, My Beautiful Loss of Faith.

It all came about when she was 38 and felt she was “being taken care of by God.” That made her decide to “get serious about religion” and join a church. That, in turn, led her to sign up for a Bible study class.


To quote Sweeney: “[T]he most surprising thing overall is that anyone takes it seriously at all.”

But it’s not over yet


68 Responses to “Saving Julia Sweeney”

  1. BC
    August 15th, 2005 @ 4:12 pm

    She actually thinks Jesus turned the *people* into pigs. Hahaha. If you can’t understand what you read then you’re doomed from the start. Homer would be proud. Doh!

  2. franky
    August 15th, 2005 @ 4:12 pm

    Yes, let’s keep her right where she is. Too bad we don’t have more outspoken atheist celebrities. Oh well.

  3. BC
    August 15th, 2005 @ 4:26 pm

    You want this outspoken celeb? If her understanding of the pigs passage is any indication, she may do more harm to the atheist community than good.

    Best to keep her away from any atheist-friendly books or she’ll likely butcher them too.

  4. Mister Swill
    August 15th, 2005 @ 4:56 pm

    Right, BC, because what it actually says is so much more plausible. If I’m interpreting it correctly, the two men are possessed by demons. The demons are driven into the bodies of the pigs, who run into the water and drown.

    That would work well in the legal system. We can tell a criminal has been rehabilitated if there are animals committing mass suicide in his proximity.

  5. Reed
    August 15th, 2005 @ 6:19 pm

    Um, how is turning people into pigs any less plausible than driving demons from them?

    In any case, Sweeney was recently featured on _This American Life_, a syndicated radio show, where you can listen to her detail her loss of faith with great wit:

  6. BC
    August 15th, 2005 @ 6:22 pm

    About as plausible as something coming from nothing a la this universe. Figure that one out and you’ll have your answer to the pig question.

  7. Mookie
    August 15th, 2005 @ 8:26 pm

    And we are to assume that puppykiller has always existed? If such a thing is to be believed, why not apply that to the universe, and not to puppykiller?

  8. Mijae
    August 15th, 2005 @ 8:41 pm

    Putting demons into the pigs, turning men into pigs, blah de blah de blah, I’m sure it has great theological significance, but surely either way she can still feel bad for the pigs.

  9. Reed
    August 15th, 2005 @ 10:31 pm

    BC, is it a matter of routine for you to be so condescending to others? I generally expect better from believers.

  10. leon
    August 15th, 2005 @ 10:51 pm

    Huh? So demons need a physical body to use as a vehicle. Why can’t demons float around like ghosts? Aren’t all these magical things made of the same stuff? Souls, ghosts, angels, demons, invisible pink unicorns and god are made of the same stuff, so why can’t they all do the same things?

    Stupid demons; they asked Jesus if he drove them out of the men to send them them into the pigs who drowned themselves. Or did Jesus make the pigs run into the water? If he did then why did he send the demons into the pigs in the first place and then kill the pigs? He could have just driven the demons out of the men without sending them anywhere. Water can’t hurt demons. Whats the point of the story? That Jesus drove them out? That Jesus wasn’t afraid of demons? That Jesus kills pigs? In the story there is no mention of the disciples that came with him in the boat. What happened to them? It simply looks like this story was inserted in the bible at this point for no other reason but to show the reader that Jesus had magic powers to drive demons out of people. In 27, Jesus was in a boat with the disciples. Then in 28 he gets out of the boat and the chapter ends. In the next chapter the first thing Jesus does is get into a boat. What the fuck? Is it the same boat? It doesn’t seem so.
    The writers of the bible made this shit up.

  11. BC
    August 15th, 2005 @ 11:20 pm

    Either something always existed because it was not subject to the dimension of time, or something came from nothing. Take your pick. If you can think of others let me know.

  12. boywonder
    August 15th, 2005 @ 11:41 pm

    I heard Ms. sweeney’s commentary on “This American Life” as well. It was good.

    God is similar to Sweeney’s character “Pat”. They are both non-gender specific. Some think God is a male while others female while still others think God is both or none. Both Pat and God also seem benign but still make you cringe at the thought of either of them. Oh, and both are fictional characters.

  13. Jennifer
    August 15th, 2005 @ 11:58 pm

    Pat exists

  14. Debbie
    August 16th, 2005 @ 12:18 am


    “About as plausible as something coming from nothing a la this universe. Figure that one out … ”

    If you are genuinely interested in the early universe, how it emerged out of nothingness, and the nature of space and time prior to the big bang, do yourself a favor and read up on quantum cosmology, Hartle-Hawking and the spatialization of time. Quantum physics can explain the “something from nothing”, not through fuzzy words, but through precise mathematical statements which are consistent with real, precisely measured quantum phenomena.

    Quantum concepts are very hard to grasp as they operate at a scale so far from our daily experience, but that appears to be the way the world works, whether we ‘believe’ it or not.


  15. BC
    August 16th, 2005 @ 12:50 am

    From what I’ve read about QM, these particles come not from nothing, but from something. Either a vacuum, an energy flux or some other “thing”. Something is not nothing.

  16. Jason Malloy
    August 16th, 2005 @ 12:53 am

    If I could I would do everything in my power to keep Sweeney from knowing the true story of Jesus and the pigs. If she learned the truth she might see that the bible isn’t full of illogical prescientific stories from ancient alien cultures and run right back to Catholicism. But I’m afraid I’m powerless, she will find out that Jesus sent demons into pigs, not turned people into pigs – and realize that the entire religion of atheism is built on lies and misrepresentations of biblical facts.

    I just hope this doesn’t dampen our chances of snapping up Rob Schneider and that Chris Kataan guy; after all Scientology is a tough competitor in those quarters, and you obviously need the appearence of logical probity and integrity with the truth if you’re going to compete with that.

  17. Fred Evil
    August 16th, 2005 @ 1:27 am

    BC – Your own comments backfire on you, indeed, how did “something” come from nothing? How can the concept of an omni-everything entity who has always existed be so much easier to grasp than a large amount of energy and material? And if the entity was not “subject to the dimension of time”, then why did it rest on the 7th day? To give us some ammo in our fight for a 6 day work week?

    Umm, and Ms. Sweeney is known as a comedienne, I’m willing to bet she understood the passage just fine, but twisted it a little bit for comedic effect….Kind of like the Roman who stabbed Jesus’ in the side….

  18. Mookie
    August 16th, 2005 @ 1:41 am

    “Either something always existed because it was not subject to the dimension of time, or something came from nothing. Take your pick.”

    Which amounts to: “Ah, to be or not to be. If we are to be, and the universe is to be, then that must mean there is something that has always been, and this ‘alwaysbeen’ has created all that is, was, and ever will be.”

    What would happen to something not affected by time? I know of no such thing, and can only fathom that such a thing would have no means by which to affect the universe in any way, because our very existence is dependent on time. The only things that are beyond time – a dimension or any force in nature – are mere abstractions. If I can imagine that something can defy time itself, then that thing must exist.

    I’ll take the something out of nothing. Why? Because I have never encountered a “something” that is not affected by the dimension of time. My consciousness, as it is right now, did not exist in its present form prior to this moment. It did not exist at all before I was born – something out of nothing. This eternal business is a matter of human language, not of reality. If anything is to be eternal, it is the universe.

    More to the point, however, is the fact that we really don’t know all that much about our universe. These philosophical questions should wait until we gather more evidence.

  19. BC
    August 16th, 2005 @ 2:00 am

    I’m just laying out the possible solutions to the beginning of the universe. At this point in time it looks like the answer requires a violation of known physics. Guess we just have to stay tuned…

  20. qedpro
    August 16th, 2005 @ 2:27 am

    Actually not knowing how the universe began doesn’t imply a violation of known physics, its just implies that we don’t know those particular equations yet. Perhaps we should try to figure it out instead of ignorantly saying “oh god did it”.

  21. qedpro
    August 16th, 2005 @ 2:30 am

    Yes god created the universe. and he did it in 6 days. Which explains why we all fuck like dogs. He just didn’t have time to figure out a good way of doing it. I think a 3 year old could come up with a better way. so maybe god isn’t well… a god. He seems pretty stupid to me.

  22. Question
    August 16th, 2005 @ 4:57 am

    “If she learned the truth she might see that the bible isn’t full of illogical prescientific stories from ancient alien cultures”

    So talking snakes and people bodily rising from the dead is logical?

    And atheism is not a religion.

    Scientology is bunk too, and man-made, just like all religions.

  23. Debbie
    August 16th, 2005 @ 9:12 am

    On the subject of comedy and religion, you may enjoy visiting the christian web site They created a competition in response to the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, being considered by the British Government, to discover the boundaries or what is deemed acceptable. They state “Ridiculing religious beliefs, criticising religious practices and offending religious people is surely a mission from God. Not in all cases, necessarily, but certainly in some. It’s not a freedom so much as a responsibility.” I can’t imagine this Christian site is approved of by Hermesten’s Oklahoma fundie friends …

    My personal favorite is the following:

    A little girl is standing on top of a cliff, looking down at the sea and crying. A priest approaches and says: “My child, why are you so upset?”

    The girl tells him: “My mummy and daddy were in their car, and it just rolled over the cliff and smashed on the rocks down there.”

    The priest slowly looks around him while unbuttoning his cassock and says: “It’s just not your day, is it?”

  24. bighead
    August 16th, 2005 @ 9:38 am

    I would tell Miss Sweeneyn to ignore this Amy Welborn. I’ve had a personal discussion with her via email (I believe it was her, but I can’t be sure that it was, in fact, her), she replied to me once about why I was banned from her website. I responded with a rebuttal but was met with nothing…she banned me from criticizing catholicism, and then she blocked me from sending her emails. What a silly bunt.

  25. hermesten
    August 16th, 2005 @ 9:49 am

    Debbie, this can’t be from a “Christian” website. Would a true Christian reveal the contents of important Vatican documents? And only a devious atheist, or maybe a Unitarian, would suggest that a priest had a taste for “little girls” –what with all those succulent altar boys running around.

  26. a different tim
    August 16th, 2005 @ 10:38 am

    On that earlier stuff, my understanding of the Hawking no boundary condition is that the beginning of the universe is, indeed, not subject to time. Hawking was able to produce a mathematical model of the universe with no originating boundary or singularity, and consequently no “beginning” to explain (this is different from the old steady state theories in that although there is no behinning the universe does not stretch back into the infinite past – read “a Brief History of Time” which is about precisely this issue for the full explanation). There is a story that when he met the Pope (the old one, not the Hitler youth guy) he (the Pope, not Hawking) said the the beginning of the universe was outside the realm of science and that Hawking was too polite to mention that he’d just invented this new theory…… I appreciate that it is one theory among many but it still seems a lot more plausible than the God hypothesis to me.
    Most serious theological thinkers, by the way, would argue that invoking God to explain stuff we don’t understand (known as “the God of the Gaps”) is bad theology on the grounds that 1) we may come to understand that stuff in the future, at which point we’d feel pretty dumb for having postulated God to explain it, and 2) If you are a believer then surely you should believe in a God of stuff we do understand as well as a God of stuff we don’t.

  27. leon
    August 16th, 2005 @ 12:13 pm

    Why do you people think there was a BEGINING of the universe?? Do you even know what a universe is? Oh that’s right. You think the universe is this thing we live in that is 15 billion light-years in diameter that came from the bigbang. Buzzzzzzzz-wrong.

    The thing the bigbang came from was in the universe. The universe always existed.
    To apply a little bit of logic to this:
    Things do not come from nothing.
    Something always had to have existed infinitely.
    Therefore the universe always existed.
    Time always existed.

    Therefore there is no god.
    There never was any god.

  28. bighead
    August 16th, 2005 @ 12:29 pm

    But if you read a Brief History of Time, or even just watch a few discovery channel shows about the begining of time, you’ll see how it makes sense that time did NOT always exist. It’s way over my head how it all works out mathematically, but the basic theories, (when reading them) made sense to me…check it out.

  29. June
    August 16th, 2005 @ 1:13 pm

    The universe is an accordion that stretches and shrinks and stretches again.
    At the moment, we are on a stretch, which takes about 30 billion years.
    The accordion is playing “As Time Goes By”.
    Trust me.

  30. Frank
    August 16th, 2005 @ 2:20 pm

    leon, June — it’s neat how you make such sweeping statements about the nature of the universe as if it’s a verifiable fact. That the universe “always existed” is a theory and, as yet, is unproven. The stretching and shrinking universe is a theory and can’t be proven since none of us lives long enough to see an entire cycle. You state these things as fact when what you really are doing is accepting them on … da da daaaaaaa …. faith! OH MY GOSH!

    And isn’t this the very thing you ridicule Christians for?

  31. leon
    August 16th, 2005 @ 2:56 pm

    Time is merely a measure of change whether applied to classical physics or quantum physics or M-theory. Time cannot have a beginning because that would infer that there was a period of ‘no-time’ and that existence was frozen. In fact, there could not be any existence with out time because existence would be impossible. If the universe was frozen we could not exist today. Why? Because in a frozen-universe nothing would ever change, it would remain frozen; essentially, there would be no universe. Even the words

  32. Bryan
    August 16th, 2005 @ 2:57 pm

    No Frank, the Universe has not always existed (also, time has
    not always existed–yes, a difficult concept; you’ll have to take
    some advanced physics before you can understand it).

    Unfortunately for Christians, God has never existed. Happily, if
    they wish it hard enough, they can pretend he does.

    Now, listen to the interview, starting at 39:38. The best

    (59:33) … I saw all these people walking to church,
    holding their bibles, and I wanted to yell out the window,
    “have you read
    that book?” I felt like I was
    in a horror film, and I realized that the clue to the insanity
    was not some secret document; it was a book that
    was holding, that was in every hotel room; the biggest
    bestseller of all time, and yet, if you cared enough to just
    glance inside, you found you’d opened the door to an insane
    asylum, with a bunch of crazy people dancing around, yelling,
    “yippidy, yippidy, yah!”

  33. leon
    August 16th, 2005 @ 3:23 pm

    They are not

  34. leon
    August 16th, 2005 @ 3:25 pm

    No one needs to understand physics to realize the story of a god is pure bullshit.

  35. June
    August 16th, 2005 @ 4:19 pm

    Well, there is much evidence that one basic building block of the universe is the cycle, the loop, endless repetition of a theme. Electrons orbit the atom; stars orbit galaxies, and the universe quite likely orbits something. At least this idea has better credentials than the idea of God having himself killed to make up for screwing up his creation in the first place.

    As for ‘believing’ this, it was a joke! A gin-and-tonic-induced image of a cosmic fool playing the theme song from ‘Casablanca’, a direct reference to time and eternity, and a more subtle hint that all of our thoughts do not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Many people are actually able to distinguish such playful fantasy from reality, Frank.

  36. hermesten
    August 16th, 2005 @ 5:43 pm

    Gin and tonic…mmmmmm. I think the real leap here is your assertion that the accordian is playing “As Time Goes By.” I think there is more evidence that it’s playing a Monty Python number, probably “The Galaxy Song.”

  37. BC
    August 16th, 2005 @ 7:41 pm

    Time had a beginning. If not then there would be an infinite past and we all know you can’t have an infinite past. If you doubt me, crack open your calculus book.

  38. Mookie
    August 16th, 2005 @ 9:53 pm


    A circle has no beginning and no end. A ray has a beginning and no end. If you know that time is like a ray, and not a circle, why not write out all the equations and show some smart physicists? You’ll be the next Einstein. Or, how about you withhold judgement until you actually know how time operates?

  39. With 10% more blasphemy
    August 16th, 2005 @ 10:09 pm

    Backup everybody! BC is trying to figure out solutions to the beginning of the universe. Somebody give this theist a PhD in astrophysics!

  40. BC
    August 16th, 2005 @ 10:29 pm

    Time is linear so your circle theory is nice but not very applicable to reality.

    10% more:
    So you’re not trying to figure it out? Lazy.

  41. leon
    August 16th, 2005 @ 11:35 pm

    BC said:
    Time had a beginning. If not then there would be an infinite past and we all know you can’t have an infinite past. If you doubt me, crack open your calculus book.

    Welllll now then. What started time? Huh?
    Fill in the blank_____________.
    What ever you fill the blank with was m o v i n g

  42. BC
    August 17th, 2005 @ 12:26 am

    As I said, crack open a calculus book and you’ll see you’re wrong.

    Hawking, got around a beginning to time using imaginary numbers, but admitted that a real beginning was unavoidable because at some point you have to transition into real time. If Hawking says time had a beginning, I’m going to listen.

  43. Question
    August 17th, 2005 @ 2:52 am

    There is an article titled “Where did the Universe come from?” that might help some of you with the question you are debating. You may want to check out the related questions also.

  44. Mookie
    August 17th, 2005 @ 3:01 am


    Please stop trying to describe time with 2D models. Calculus goes a long way in describing the motion of bodies through space, but it lacks a dimension or two to adequately describe time. Causality can be described with or made analogous to a line, but this is not necessarily time.

    We have no means of detecting time. We experience it, we arbitrarily measure its passage, but we have no natural nor designed instruments that can detect time. Time itself may not be a detectable “thing” at all. Any theory regarding time would be just that, a theory.

  45. BC
    August 17th, 2005 @ 3:10 am

    If you can show me that time is 3D or some other then go ahead. Until then I’ll stick to describing time as we know it.

    I never said time was a “thing”.

  46. BC
    August 17th, 2005 @ 3:16 am

    Thanks for the article link. The one part I liked….

    “In 1973, Edward Tyron proposed that the Universe is a result of a vacuum fluctuation. The main difficulty of this proposal is that the probability that a 13.7 billion year old Universe could arise from this mechanism is extremely small. In addition, physicists would question Tyron’s starting point: if the Universe was born from empty space, then where did the empty space come from? (Note that from the point of view of general relativity, empty space is unambiguously something, since space is not a passive background, but instead a flexible medium that can bend, twist and flex.) ”

  47. leon
    August 17th, 2005 @ 7:27 am

    To say that time had a begining results in an infinite regression. You are saying something caused time. That thing in itself had to have existed with a dimension of time; so, what caused its’ time to begin, and then what caused that things’ time to begin and so on and so on…ad infinitum.

    Absolute zero, estimated to be about -459.67 F, can never exist. Before the bigbang the temperature of the universe may have been perhaps -4.5966X10 to the googleplex to the googleplex to the googleplex BUT NEVER absolute zero. Add another googleplex of zeros to the formula if you want, but no matter how many zeros you put on that number the temperature of the universe was always ABOVE absolute zero, otherwise we would not exist. It may seem as if time did not exist, but it did, but at different scale.

    A simple example would be your freezer. Why does frozen food last longer? Because the movement of the atoms has been slowed down. But sooner or later after a long period of time even frozen food will deteriorate so much that it cannot be eaten and the reason is because the atoms are merely slower, but still moving. So what’s going on that food deteriorates even while frozen? There is still chemical activity, but only much slower. Even the bacteria is still alive.

    The only difference is before the bigbang there were no atoms.

  48. DamnRight
    August 17th, 2005 @ 9:39 am

    I’m hearing a lot of “If you can’t explain it, it didn’t happen that way”…

  49. a different tim
    August 17th, 2005 @ 10:25 am

    The big bang, didn’t take place “in” the universe. that’s kind of the point. You can postulate an extrauniversal medium if you like but there is no actual need to physics-wise and Ockham’s razor suggests otherwise. Mookie’s circle metaphor is reasonably close to the original Hawking theory. the circumference of a circle is, incidentally, one dimensional so there is no contradiction between this and time being “linear” (in physics terms it’s a bit of an oversimplification though as there is no guarantee that the universe will eventually loop back on itself – in fact the most recent observations seem to show the exact opposite. sorry about that June but I like the idea that it plays tunes.). In the revised and updated “brief history of time” the imaginary time/no boundary condition stuff is still there, so I must assume it is not that outdated.
    Having said that, Hawking claims to be a positivist – (introduction to Hawking and Penrose – Nature of Space and Time) and only interested in developing predictive mathematical models and not at all intersted in metaphysics (indeed the pure positivist position is that all metaphysics is essentially bullshit as it can’t be logically deduced or empirically verified. I have to say I’m attracted to this position). I mentioned it because of BCs implied argument that we need a God to explain the universe and specifically the beginning of the universe. This is only a good argument if there is no alternative argument that doesn’t involve God.
    There are other possible “begining of the universe” theories – if we really want to annoy theists we should take up the Linde/Guth et al “chaotic inflation” model which in at least one version can be made to incorporate natural selection – universes are selected according to how many black holes they produce (black holes bud off baby universes, allegedly, so those with more black holes “breed” more….you get the idea). By combining suitably godless cosmology with Darwinism we get a double whammy!

  50. BC
    August 17th, 2005 @ 11:16 am

    different tim:
    The beginning could have been caused by god, could have been caused by something else. Don’t know. Your theories are meta-physical theories that go WAY beyond physics so I fail to see how your theories are valuable from a scientific standpoint. You could have easily said the toothfairy, santa clause and the invisible pink unicorn all worked together to create our universe and make predictions based on that.

  51. a different tim
    August 17th, 2005 @ 11:46 am

    Could have been. That’s the point.
    As I recall the point I was trying to make was you can’t claim the beginning of the universe as evidence for God. Which I thought you were trying to do in your post (no 6 above). I’m saying that the existence of other plausible (or equally implausible) theories means you can’t make that claim.
    I agree that a lot of these theories go way beyond physics, which is why I’m attracted to the positivist position. Having said that, they’re not actually my theories – they were advanced by physicists. And they are (so I am told – I’m afraid I don’t have the maths to check this) at least mathematically consistent with what is known about the universe from measurable experimental results.
    Are you agreeing with me that God is about as plausible as the tooth fairy, santa claus and the invisible pink unicorn? If so I’ve misinterpereted you and I’m sorry.

  52. Vernichten
    August 17th, 2005 @ 11:58 am

    Another possible theory is that the universe continually expands (to a physics-governed limit) and then contracts (to a relatively tiny, also physics-governed, pinpoint) and always has done so, like an infinitely throbbing heart. At that pinpoint time might actually come to a stop, since everything in the entire universe would be compacted, but it might start again instantly so that time actually never stood still, it stopped and then started. If anyone has evidence that disproves this (other than simply saying “open a calculus book”) I would be interested to learn.

  53. markm
    August 17th, 2005 @ 12:01 pm

    The thing I always wondered about the demons-into-pigs story is where Jesus found the pigs in a country of devout Jews who’d never eat pork?

    I also came to atheism through a Bible study class, but I was only 7 at the time. I guess I was precocious. This shows that the medieval Catholic church was correct in the first place, when they ensured the Bible was not translated into the common tongues, so the peasants could only learn the little bits the priests selected for their sermons. Once you learn too much about it, you either have to completely abandon common sense and logic, or start wondering why people believe something that’s 50% BS.

  54. BC
    August 17th, 2005 @ 12:46 pm

    different tim:
    The point of my post #6 is god is a possibility. It’s one of the options. Yes there are other naturalistic options, I don’t deny that.

    When someone says turing people into pigs (even though that’s not what the text says) is highly implausible I just refer back to the beginning of the universe. None of what happened back then [i]appears[/i] to be occuring today either, and the theories to explain it go way beyond physics.

    I mentioned the toothfairy, etc. to poke fun at all the theories out there. These theories go beyond physics so they are essentially untestable, unproveable statements of belief similar to religious claims. You can say we’ll prove these theories true or false someday, but then I could say the same about god or some group of aliens living outside the universe.

  55. a different tim
    August 17th, 2005 @ 1:24 pm

    Vernichten – two bits of evidence and a philosophical argument that contradict that view.

    1) Expansion of the universe seems to be accellerating (summary here I’m afraid that as with all NS stuff you need to be a subscriber to get the full article but it is probably orderable through a public library. If you want to start a campaign to open up the New Scientist archives to non subscribers I’m right with you). This means that it is unlikely to start contracting again.
    2) The best theories of the early universe (note to BC – I’m talking about post big bang stuff here which is in the realm of physics) currently have, as a crucial part of their model. a phenomenon called inflation. (these models have made detailed predictions which are confirmed by COBE satellite evidence) – You can get a .pdf on this here
    (I say the best theories, I mean the only ones that work at all).
    Inflation means that the universe must have a flat geometry which means that it will continue to expand but approach, without reaching, a stable state (in other words, expand but the rate of expansion gets slower and slower) Crucially, a flat universe would not have enough matter in it to collapse under gravity.
    Now, you may say, suppose other unknown forces, not gravity are at work? and why in my point 1) above does the universe’s expansion seem to be accellerating if the universe is flat (which according to inflation it should be) and therefore expanding slower and slower?
    Physicists tend to put these possible unknown forces in one basket and call them the “cosmological constant”. This can override gravitational effects due to density – if you look at the sidebar in the pdf it says something of the kind. So a universe that was flat – in other words did not have quite enough matter to collapse – could do so if the cosmological constant was negative or continue to expand if it was positive. To get what you want (an oscillating universe) the cosmological constant would have to be negative. Unfortunaltely observational evidence as discussed in point 1) above indicates that it is in fact positive and that the universe will continue to expand for ever.

    3) It is also the case that an oscillating universe is philosophically inelegant. Under either Hawking style no boundary models or models that involve a singularity there is no way of getting any observational evidence from an earlier universe. This sounds like a cop out but is in fact a philosophically strong claim that an earlier universe could not have affected us in any way (otherwise it would have left evidence in those effects). In which case why say other universes are “before” ours? you may as well say they are “sideways to”, “above” or “after” ours. In any case, they cannot explain the existence of our universe so postulating them is rather like..well, postulating God without any evidence. This is a similar point to the one made by BC in post 50 but I draw a rather different conclusion from it than him.

    You may as well claim that Jesus turned people into pigs and have done with it.

    Hope this clears some of it up. You can find more by Googling , going to the New Scientist site and searching , or googling same. And yes, it is a pisser that they won’t let you see the whole article unless you subscribe.

    BC – I would argue that detailed mathematical models which are consistent with observed and measured evidence and furthermore, do not require the addition of extra entities (be they Gods or earlier universes) are way better epistemelogically than stuff written by desert tribes thousands of years ago. Reasons? 1) Ockham’s razor – if you don’t need extra stuff to explain something, don’t put it in. (This is, as well as being a ground rule of science, a theological argument as William of Ockham was a theologian and it is therefore legit when discussing religion. Just in case you were thinking of trying the “different types of knowledge” argument). 2) Inflationary theories in particular are testable as they make detailed mathematical predictions about the nature of the universe, and currently they have passed the main tests set them which are whether they match observational data from the COBE and IRAS satellites. 3) The models which deal with the universe before inflation, such as the no boundary condition or indeed singularity models, are mathematisable and are at least consistent with what we know from observation. The bible – or any other religion – has not as far as I know produced any kind of mathematical model and indeed the whole notion of testability is foreign to religion which explicitly argues we should take it on faith.
    Yes, it could have been made by God (the Catholic church likes the big bang – fiat lux and all that) but then again it could have been made by the tooth fairy as you suggested. It is both philosophically and scientifically better to prefer a theory that the universe did not have to be made at all, if such a theory is possible. And it is.

    Sorry these posts are a bit long, but if you guys will keep asking for logic and evidence…….

  56. a different tim
    August 17th, 2005 @ 1:28 pm

    sorry, the stuff to google seems to have got lost there. go to new scientist and search universe expansion cosmological constant, or to google and do the same, or google COBE satellite inflation evidence. Thankyou.

  57. BC
    August 17th, 2005 @ 2:11 pm

    Math models can be good, but there’s no guarantee that the model will mean much unless you can use it to make predictions. Stock pickers do this all the time. Developing a model to fit past data and then claim they’ve explained how the stock market works. It’s one thing to curve-fit past data, quite another to predict what will be found in the future without having to tweak your model to fit the new data. Like the stock picker, it’s easy to tweak your model to fit the new data. At some point you’ve got to stop tweaking or admit you have no idea what’s going on.

    We’re not there yet, but like you I’m excited to learn more.

  58. a different tim
    August 17th, 2005 @ 2:46 pm

    I’m with you on the predictions and testability but would still argue that Ockham’s razor applies – if you have two pictures of a phenomenon and one is conceptually simpler than the other we should go for the simpler one. As it is possible to model the universe without God these models are therefore preferable to models with God.
    The implications of all the mathematically consistent models are that we can’t really explain the universe in terms of outside phenomena anyway, as mentioned in my point 3) to Vernichten. this means that even of there is a God you can’t really use him to explain the universe. It’s bad theological practice to argue for God from unknowns anyway – a God of the Gaps argument as I mentioned oh so long ago.
    Now I also agree that some of these big bang models seem to be being tweaked possibly past the point of reasonable belief – the only reason they endure is that nothing else works even slightly. But then again modifying your model to a certain extent to fit the data is what science is about. Inflation seems pretty sound so far as it has made very detailed predictions which agree with observation to an amazing degree. It therefore seems that whatever else happened in the early universe, inflation is a good bet.
    What I don’t see is how you can use any of this as an argument for the existence of God – which is what I assumed you were trying to do. If you believe in God anyway, based on faith, fine (actually not fine but that is an argument for another time and place) but in that case you could still believe in God even if every iota of the universe was explained, measured and modelled. I’m just saying that it is possible, and logically simpler, to account for the existence of the universe without him, to do so in a reasonably precise mathematical way, and that this makes more sense than biblical or other religious accounts.
    Which I guess is quite a strong claim, which is why I have to try to justify it in these very long posts.
    I’m going to eat my supper now (food time in the UK) but will look on this thread tomorrow and argue my case further if anyone’s still interested. I think it’s just us two….

  59. leon
    August 17th, 2005 @ 3:03 pm



    There isn’t any data for a god…

    is there. . .


  60. Vernichten
    August 17th, 2005 @ 3:44 pm

    Goddamn adt, you’re a credit to our species! Thanks a lot!

  61. BC
    August 17th, 2005 @ 5:26 pm

    different tim:
    The question of inflationary theory being a more Occam-friendly than a god theory is debatable in my opinion. Both theories contain large doses of philosophy which makes it really hard to say one would make Occam happy and the other would make him cringe.

    From what I understand this theory is about what happened AFTER the universe came into existence. It says nothing about how everything came from nothing other than to say it came from a vacuum. As I said before a vacuum is not nothing, so where did the vacuum come from?

  62. Edward
    August 17th, 2005 @ 10:13 pm


    But a bigger question than “where did the vacuum come from?” is “where did God come from?”

    Clearly we have to postulate the existence of something because… well, we are here. Whether that something is the “bulk” and the universe represents a brane within the bulk that has 3 large spatial dimensions and a single time dimension or God, it is necessary to minimally postulate that *something* exists and that *something* existed “before” the big bang.

    The question then becomes whether that something was intelligent, had free will, and the ability to generate universes. That requires postulating something far more complex than postulating the existence of a set of rules for interactions among physical entities and rules for how these entities might come into being spontaneously. Unless there is good data supporting the existence of intelligence and free will associated with the universe generating process, it is certainly unparsimonious to postulate the existence of those attributes for the universe generating process.

    Obviously, to pantheists who would call the universe generating process and other aspects of order in the universe “God” there is no problem. But a pantheist would really have a world view not that different from an atheist – they just say the rules that guarantee order in the universe – even if those rules are not associated with intelligence or freewill – ARE God. But that isn’t what most folks call God.

    So I would say:

    1. We have evidence that a universe creation process has operated in the past.
    2. We don’t know how it works, because known science breaks down as we approach the beginning of the universe.

    So we all – atheist or theist – have proof of a universe creation process that operates *somehow*

    3. Theists claim that the universe creation process is intelligent and that it has free will (it is God).

    Where is the proof for that? Is there *any* evidence whatsoever?

    We believe in the universe creation process because there is evidence for it. We don’t believe in demons makin’ pig run off cliffs because there isn’t any evidence for it. We don’t believe that the universe creation process is God because there is no evidence that the universe creation process is intelligent and that it has free will – and postulating that it does increases the complexity of the thing you are postulating (in violation of Ockham’s razor)

  63. June
    August 18th, 2005 @ 9:58 am

    [bring up accordion music]
    “… the fundamental laws apply, as time goes by …”

  64. a different tim
    August 18th, 2005 @ 10:49 am

    My understanding of the no boundary condition and the alternative singularity based theories is that you don’t even really have to postulate that *something* existed before the big bang. In fact it is highly questionable whether the notion of “before” the big bang has any meaning in a causal sense. (and if there is a “before” in some acausal sense what could that possibly mean? Cause and effect pretty much defines time – causes happen before effects). It has been apparent since Einstein that time is a feature of our universe rather than something that our universe happens in. That’s why it is called the space time continuum.
    Now I appreciate that it is difficult in our human experience to imagine such a thing. My personal opinion is that this is because humans have evolved in a specific set of circumstances on earth, and although we can deal with medium sized objects (rocks, planets, sabre tooth tigers etc) moving quite slowly, we have a lot of difficulty with very small stuff, very big stuff, and notions like the beginning of the universe. This is why we have to do incredibly complicated maths and build huge expensive telescopes and particle accelerators to get some kind of a handle on them.

    I would also point once again to my post 55 #3) discussion with vernichten on this. If we cannot in principle get any data on something (stuff that happened “before” the beginning of the universe, say, assuming for the sake of argument that actually means anything, which I don’t think it does) that means it cannot have affected us in any way – including creating us. (If it did that would be a measurable difference to us). I cannot overemphasise how important and strong a philosophical principle this is. We should not assume stuff that makes no difference. If we do we may as well give up and also assume invisible pink unicorns etc.

    BC – Now, while I admit (and always did – see post 55 #2) – about the first thing I said about inflation) that inflation is a “post big bang” theory , you did come back to me on it and claim it is both metaphysical and less Ockham friendly than God. I fail to see how this can possibly be justified. Inflation fits the data, is well enough grounded in physics that it is harder to explain things if it didn’t happen than if it did, has made extremely precise predictions, and those predictions have been confirmed by very precise observations from at least 2 different satellites. It is the minimal theory that fits the relevant observations and furthermore is both physically and mathematically elegant (so much so that Guth commented that “if it didn’t happen, God missed a good trick”).
    The God theory makes no predictions (it used to – short earth creationism for example predicts that we shouldn’t find any astronomical or earthly objects more than about 6000 years old but those predictions did not work out ,besides which I don’t get the impression that you are arguing for short earth creationism anyway), fits no measurable data and is logically unnecessary to explain the universe. It requires we postulate a whole new meta continuum for God to inhabit (or possibly to be if you hold him to be omnipresent) for which there is likewise no evidence and no logical need. If we were to accept such a meta continuum there would be even less need for God as you would no longer have to bother with knotty philosophical issues regarding the beginning of time anyway. The God theory leads to an infinite regress – if you aren’t going to accept arguments that the universe is outside time (in other words that time is an internal phenomenon of the universe as discussed above), by the same token you shouldn’t accept arguments that God is outside time either so it is legit to ask “what created God? and what created that?” and so on ad infinitum.
    Ockham’s razor may be stated as “don’t unnecessarily multiply logical entities” and that is precisely what the God theory does -in fact it multiplies them infinitely. Inflation does not as the only logical entity it postulates is the universe, which most of us accept the existence of from other data (like, we can see it and move and everything).
    A minimal, but necessarily complex descrition of what exists is perfectly consistent with Ockham. Adding extra stuff without evidence is not.

  65. Leo
    August 20th, 2005 @ 7:13 pm

    I think different tim makes a fantastic argument. I also really like the idea that God is separate and largely irrelevant to explaining the universe. Saying that God did it doesn’t explain how he did it, which, theist or not, is what physicists are interested in. I’m quite glad I found this site. :)

  66. a different tim
    August 21st, 2005 @ 11:09 am

    Thank you. You’re too kind…..

  67. Daniel Lenaghan
    August 26th, 2005 @ 6:41 pm

    Via “Laws of Form” –
    Mark a distinction. Do this by planting one heel in the ground and rotating in a circle with one arm outstretched (victims of Chernobyl forgive my arrogant presumptions of universality of the bodily form – not as though the particulars matter here). Call it the World. Call it Creation. I just call it “This” viz. Aristotle and Sri Poonja. I think that such simplicity prevents making the sort of transcendental errors our dear friend Immaneual Kant spent so much time obsessing over. So, we’re Here. We can go There, and yet we remain Here. Additionally, from the standpoint of the observer, myself, for I speak for no one but myself, ‘You’ might as well be ‘I’ since each of these words applies to us all equally. So: That distinction can be drawn, that there is some physical/ideal reality at all, whether subjective or objective or some fantastic synthesis of our meager cognitions, can we have faith in existence? It seems no one can deny this, whether a Christian, atheist, physicist, novelist, etc., since, well, we can play at semantic games about the identity of reality but the fact remains that if I strike you, I hit you, so there appears to be some shared, mundane aspect of simply Being Anything At All. If there were nothing, wouldn’t the story go something like: . . .
    Well, the dots are my waiting for a response. Tao, God, This, Being Here Now (viz. Baba Ram Dass), arent’ these simply names for the Divined (as in, we’re in the act of divining right now by conceptualizing all of these essentially linguistic distinctions which fall over ‘a this,’ like particles emerging from an electromagnetic spectrum) Absurd. I call This the Divined Absurd for a simple and lyrical, not logical, reason (reasons are reasons, emotion is reason, emotion provides for reasons, even absurd reasons are by in large simply categorically dismissed as ‘stupid’ or ‘senseless’ by an opposing understanding), that reason being, viz. Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, “How strnage it is to be anything at all…” By the way, isn’t it the fact that Gods of various names and traits are identified as having desires which ofen correspond to those of their followers and thus by calling God a desiring being one exempts one’s own desires from the need for explanation or integration into a wider social scheme, like polygamy/monogamy, or freedom/shame, thus not only social contracts, but the emotive responsive in the organism as the individual responds to it’s environment? I found my metaphysical curiousities assuaged by the Tao Te Ching. But clearly, I am a crackpot.

  68. Daniel Lenaghan
    August 26th, 2005 @ 6:46 pm

    Oh yeah. And isn’t the admission of God simply a way of making desires of the one professing ‘revealed truth’ outside the realm of discussion? The declaration of the divine often profanes the material world by calling that which is physical a mistake or some other departure, whether through ‘love’ or by simple consequence, from God. Thus when you say ‘God’ these days, unless you are naturalistic or somewhat pantheistic, you sever Creator and Creation and thus provide a means of grounding social authority in something that is then categorically inaccessible to change. What is past is passed – must we continue to suffer in the present for the foolishness of our equally arrogant and fearful ancestors?

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