big bang

Agreeing On Nothing

Dear Russell & Friends,

Good morning.  I’ve missed you and thought often of you as I fire up the Charity Miles app.  Our RussellandPascal team has 6 members now with a total of 169 miles.  If my math is correct, that is over $41 donated to various charities that move us.  If my musing is correct, that is new money that we had perhaps intended to give but had not acted on.  Please join our team if you are able.  We would like to see half the blog followers join in the next one year and our goal for mileage is >10,000 (time to goal uncertain).

Russell and I had breakfast a week ago and after two hours we agreed upon nothing.  Don’t despair.  The reason I led with the Charity Miles collaboration is to remind you of how much we do agree on.  And, one cup of coffee in, it is quite possible that my insistence we agree upon nothing is a double entendre.  We talked about this book that I lent to Russell over Christmas break – –

the information

I loved the book and further thought that it might help me to understand my friend.  It did.  Here is another book that I’m reading with an extended quote below.


Love is not an easy thing; it is not just an emotional urge, but an attempt to move over and sit in the other person’s place and see how his problems look to him.  Love is a genuine concern for the individual.  As Jesus Christ reminds us, we are to love that individual “as ourselves.”  This is the place to begin.  Therefore, to be engaged in personal “witness” as a duty or because our Christian circle exerts a social pressure on us, is to miss the whole point.  The reason to do it is that the person before us is an image-bearer of God, and he is an individual who is unique in the world.  This kind of communication is not cheap.  To understand and speak to sincere but utterly confused twentieth-century people is costly.  It is tiring; it will open you to temptations and pressures.  Genuine love, in the last analysis, means a willingness to be entirely exposed to the person to whom we are talking.   —  Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There

How did these two books relate?  Gleick, in The Information, helped me to love my friend Russell.  I read the book with fascination and took notes in the cover.  I think I took notes – – Russell still has the book.  I read it around the same time that Russell introduced me to Sean Carroll and Howie and began to think – – why don’t I think this way?  It is quite a beautiful way to think.

Information theory then has become an area of interest for me and obsession for Russell (I’ll ask him to correct me if I overstate; I frequently do for effect).  Information theory found its way into our taco breakfast last week and helped us to agree on nothing.  Please accept a brief paraphrase.

R:  Even in the outer boundary of the known universe there is information.

P:  I don’t see it.  Quantum fluctuation maybe . . .

R:  But, that is information.

P:  I’m tracking – – I just didn’t consider that useful information.  So you’ll accept the noise and not just the signal?

R:  Yes.

P:  Remember how we’ve had a hard time agreeing about the definition of nothing?  How I insist that the Universe can’t naturally be made from nothing?

R:  Yes, but that has never bothered me.

P:  You know it bothers me?

R:  I do.

P:  So would you accept the complete lack of information as nothing?

R:  I would.

There are not many readers of this blog who will recognize the milestone that this represents in Russell’s and my communication.  We have gone to great lengths to understand each other, deconstruct straw men and yes – – to love each other.  As Schaeffer says, it has not been easy.  But this agreement, on nothing, meant the world to me.

Where will it lead?  Do I jump directly to an apologetic based on ex nihilo nilo fit?  Absolutely not.  I finish the post and prepare to run a 10K trail with two of my sons, thankful that I’ll log 6.2 more miles for water.  On that run I’ll thank my God for my friend and thank him for the love that lets us to talk to not past each other.

Pascal – – 1:16

Two Smart Guys

Dear Russell,

I’m up early again, but the pressure of work is easing.  I’m looking forward to the weekend and time to finish up Christmas shopping.  The boys start holiday Friday afternoon.  I really enjoyed our breakfast time as always.  I’m posting the video that you recommended.  I primarily listened to it in the car on my short, but cummulative commute this week.  I finished it at home this morning.  I found Sean Carroll’s nerdy voice to be comforting and familiar after spending 12 hours with him here.  Hans Halvorson was new to me.  Rebecca Goldstein is currently my philosopher of choice.  I digested the last 20 minutes of the discussion from my laptop this morning.  What did that add above the voices?  Body language and facial expression.

These two smart guys did not really debate.  They discussed.  They did not talk past each other.  I enjoyed hearing Carroll’s story and was humbled to hear a Christ follower share his struggles.  I think we need more of this type of dialogue.  So – – you and I agree that we’re not as smart as these guys, but I do think our attitude is similar.

More this weekend – – until then blessings on you and our friends.




Is There Such a Thing as a Good Atheist?

I’ve heard the phrase fractally wrong used several times lately to describe some reasoning or conclusion that the arbiter thinks is wrong at every conceivable resolution. Personally, I’ve never been inclined to use such a phrase. I feel it carries far too much insult, especially if one is hoping to resolve differing opinions. I was going to say that phrase feels grandiloquent when I realized that the use of the word grandiloquent is what really feels grandiloquent. With that said, Pastor Rick Henderson’s article titled, “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist,” has helped me appreciate that there may be circumstances where such a phrase is technically appropriate. Please read his article in context. To be clear, I don’t think his article is fractally wrong, but I did find so many points of contention that I thought it worth bringing up this increasingly common phrase.

Henderson asserts:

Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism.

I disagree with the parts prior to this, and find significant problems with the logic of the conclusions he draws about morality later in the article, but for the sake of time I’ll stick to these premises.

  1. In some ways, immaterial things may be the only things that DO exist. Matter is a state of energy, after all. It’s an instability. A vibration in a field whose physics we are just beginning to unravel. It’s the field that creates the wave that creates the particle, not the other way around. What layers lie beneath? It would be tough to know if some supernatural concepts would really be best classified as natural, since we don’t understand all of nature yet. And I don’t have a problem with the existence of the supernatural or think it doesn’t exist. I, like most scientists, support methodological, not metaphysical naturalism (e.g. I run experiments on the properties and relationships of natural objects and find it most useful to assume natural causes, which is not the same as Henderson’s claim that I must have assurance that there is nothing supernatural).

  2. Many people of vastly varying worldviews think the universe is scientific, so this is not much of a point. Personally, I do not hold a positive belief that the universe is scientific. I hold no position on the matter. I treat it as if it is, insofar as it has appeared to be. I have no idea if the entire thing is consistent and entirely running off of discoverable (in principle) laws. At the level we can measure, we measure and hope to continue being able to measure, peeling back the layers. What’s ultimately at the bottom? Who can say? Nobody should say. Over 95% of the known universe that we know is there is presently dark to us (dark energy/matter) and we don’t know how many dimensions we’re dealing with – and all that is just at the resolutions we can measure (in principle). It’s certainly going too far to say if you do not hold a belief in a particular deity you must believe the ultimate foundation of the universe and it’s cause are fundamentally consistent and testable (scientific).

  3. Again, I have no idea. There could be a universal consciousness, or a conscious mind (something like God) could exist and be a part of what we would call nature if we knew enough about nature to fit it inside. Conscious minds are hypotheses of reality which I don’t currently think are the most likely, which is far from saying I think they aren’t possible. There is much to discuss on this topic, but I’ll leave it for another time.

Henderson says that denial of any one of these three premises is a fatal blow to atheism. I disagree with each premises and I still lack belief in God(s). I still think my worldview is consistent and not contingent upon any of his premises. It is the only worldview I know of that I can consistently hold right now.

I’m sure Henderson is a great guy. I think we just have some differing views on what it means to be an atheist and what an atheist must accept. Perhaps one day we’ll meet and talk it out.

Is there such a thing as a good atheist? I’ll leave that up for debate. It depends a lot on who or what is doing the judging, and what they mean by good and by atheist. My position is that if you’re going to claim there are no good atheists and then present a defense for that claim so that we can all be the judge of your reasoning, you should first understand the primary ways the atheist position is interpreted. It is generally held to be one position on one claim – the existence of one or more things that can be considered a “God/god.” Henderson alludes to this, but then he goes too far in assuming it must also mean all those other things as well, and I think he misunderstands “disbelief.” Many self-professed atheists are properly using the label even when they do not hold a positive belief that there is no God. Without knowing more than, “John is an atheist,” you can’t infer that John believes the universe is ultimately material, purely scientific, or ultimately impersonal. I know at least one atheist who technically disagrees with all three. 🙂

Gentleness and respect,

What if ?

What if Genesis told the story in a way that pre-scientific man could understand?  Could Adam and Eve be man and woman with sentience?  Can creation and evolution be used in the same sentence without angering believers and skeptics alike?  If God chose the Jews to be his people and to bless the world, would that anger a pagan gentile like me, or would I be glad to be included?

640px-Nicolas_Poussin_041  347px-Selection_Types_Chart

What if the flood was local?  Again told from the perspective of the ancients who did not know the heliocentric solar system or spherical earth.  Am I married to literal interpretation?  Am I allowed to consider the evidence of geology without accusing God of deceit or fantastic existence?  Will the skeptics hold me to a literal interpretation of all scripture when I don’t view it that way myself?  Can I ask these questions in church?  As a student?  As a teacher?

Jebulon own work CC640px-Quebrada_de_Cafayate,_Salta_(Argentina)

What if my childish question about Babel was right thirty years ago?  “Could a tower reach to heaven when heaven is not a physical realm?”  What if the story resonates with the neo-Babylonian ziggurat?  What if the story of language confusion is an allegory to explain pride and our disconnection?  Is God offended by me interpreting the story in nonliteral terms?  Are the skeptics handing me a revolver, compelling me to shoot, then insisting that I commit intellectual suicide every day I believe the Bible?  Are my questions welcome in the church?


What if the Nebuchadnezzer II that I read about in the book of Jeremiah actually existed in ancient Iraq?  How would I know if old books, written by fallible men, could not be trusted?  How do I know he destroyed Solomon’s temple?  Was I there?  When does story end and history begin?  If he existed, then why would I believe the writings of one who claimed to be a Hebrew prophet?  Why trust any writing at all?

Fotothek_df_ps_0002472_Innenräume_^_Ausstellungsgebäude Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon Nebukadnessar_II

Too many questions.  Here’s my answer.  I love history although I can’t test it all scientifically.  I love science although I can’t verify it all historically.  I love people, even when I disagree with them.  The Bible can be true and not be subject to the straightjacket of literal interpretation.  How can I avoid going too far?  That is a question that all thoughtful believers must ask.  The scripture is one of my four cornerstones of faith because it tells a story that I can believe – – man created, fallen, and redeemed.  It has immense explanatory power.  I realize that ancient religions were asked to explain phenomena that we now understand as natural.  But for the deeper questions – – the very nature of nature and love and hate and who I am and how I should treat you –  I still look to God.  In the few decades I have left on this earth, that is unlikely to change.



*all photos and illustrations; wikimedia commons, under public domain or CC license, generosity of the contributors much appreciated

The Slippery Slope

Slippery Slope Jonathan Billinger

Dear Russell,

We’ve talked several times since your last series of posts that explain your difficulties with the Hebrew & Christian scriptures.  You know that I’ve wrestled with this in large part because you are wrestling with it.  Several of your points have affected my thinking.  I’m not going to quote you but rather address the questions that your writing has raised for me.  Other readers will have different questions.  If we can help them, we will.

What is the effect of my upbringing in scripture and how can I compare that to what others have experienced?

My parents were older when they had me.  They were both 36.  By today’s standards that’s not that unusual.  40-odd years ago, however, it shaded to the right of the bell curve mean.  There are both benefits and challenges to having older parents.  One benefit – – by the time I was four, both parents had both feet firmly planted in middle age.  They, like me, were different people at 40 than they were at 20 – – mostly better for it.  One challenge – – they were not fit and active.  That, of course, can often be mitigated.

Mom was a new Christian – – about 10 years into her walk.  Dad was raised in the faith.  I still have my mother in the flickering light of dementia.  Dad died from cancer about five years ago.  I’m writing to his sister now to find out more about him as a younger man.  She is so gracious in her replies.  We actually use papers, envelopes, and stamps.  Mom adopted a charismatic faith in the 1970’s – – listening to Derek Prince, Oral Roberts, and Kenneth Hagen.  Dad was raised a Baptist.  My aunt is still strong in faith and I’m eager to find out more about how they were raised.

Why this mini family history?  It has occupied my thoughts and journal more of late.  Where did I come from?  Why am I the way I am?  Surely my parents contributed both the DNA and the environment that so strongly influenced me.  What was the scripture in my house?  I saw different things from Mom and Dad.  Dad read the Bible stories to me and had a regular quiet time.  Mom devoured the scripture for herself and encouraged me to read each day as soon as I could.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

We are different ages when we realize the humanity of our parents, different ages when we learn to forgive them, still different when we gaze into the mirror and see their flaws and glory.  How did the scripture survive when they inevitably fell off their pedestals?  How will it survive in my children when I stumble off mine?  So much had to do with the content of the message.  For better or worse, the message of the Christian scripture is that man is broken and needs forgiveness.  That was a concept that took early in my life and insulated me from the inevitable disappointment of human frailty.  It has helped me to be gracious to others and to receive the grace that I need.

I try to read 20 books each year outside of my profession.  In many ways, I’m remediatiating a broad education as my work tends to be more technical.  I’m on pace this year to meet and even exceed the goal.  My stagnancy in updating the list is not disinterest.  I’m close to finishing two 1200 page + tomes.  One is A Suitable Boy by  Vikram Seth.  The other is Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer.  I think about what we write here as I learn by reading.  In A Suitable Boy, I just finished a chapter relevant to this discussion.  What if I was raised with different scriptures?

The first book is the story book that my father used – – I began reading the scripture on my own in primary school, probably at the age of 8 or 9.  The entire Christian bible (hebrew scriptures old testament + new testament) is about 1000 pages depending on font and pagination.

Taylor's Bible Story Book Shia Children's Book children's ramayana

 The next two would be used by Muslim or Hindu parents to teach their children.  A Suitable Boy is set in post-partition India in the time before the first general election.  I have many Indian American colleagues in my field, often first or second generation, and the culture of India fascinates me.  I didn’t realize until reading this book that there even was a partition.  Pakistan and India became independent of British colonial rule on consecutive days in August 1947, forming independent nations.  Why split the subcontinent?  What is Pakistan’s capital since the 1960s?  Islamabad.  Pakistan and India were partitioned to separate Muslims and Hindus.  Muslims stayed in or moved to Pakistan and vice versa.  Minorities of both faiths remain in each nation, but minorities they are.  There are proportionally more Muslims in India than Hindus in Pakistan.

In chapter 15 of the book, I was introduced to both Hindu and Muslim traditions, prophets, and gods who were unfamiliar to me.  What if my first children’s book had been book two or three above instead of book 1?  I would then view the world through that lens.  Is it fungible?  Can you ever erase the indelible imprint of your childhood?  Can you ever examine it as an adult with tools of metacognition and logic?  I think you can. So many of my skeptical friends (yes Russell – – the list has grown) or friends of other faith have.

Can you choose to keep your childhood faith and make it your own or must it always be rejected?  I offer that it must always be examined and that doubt is not sin.  Every believer and every skeptic must understand why she believes or doesn’t and she must construct the answer in a language that resonates with her own personality, intellect, and experience.  She can’t borrow too heavily from me, John Piper, Russell, or Sam Harris.  Her belief or disbelief must be her own.  And if disbelief is the choice – – a choice that you know I respect – – a positive construction must follow.  Must?  Of course not.  The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  Should.

Slippery slope?  I don’t mind them.  A good trail run to me often involves a muddy face or bloody knee.  The Bible is precious to me.  As I’ll explain in the next post, however, I’m not off put by learning of concordant creation or flood accounts.  I’m also not offended by scientific evidence that proves the world is old or that a flood was local.  I’ll explain why.

Why are my children’s stories more reasonable than the others?  I can only answer that as an adult – – with gentleness and respect.  But, I’m not able to now – – I’m just too ignorant.  Learn with me.



photo:  by Jonathan Billinger, CC license

Romans 1:18-20


18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  Romans 1:18-20 (ESV)

I consider Romans 1:16 to be the fulcrum of the first chapter of a letter that encapsulates Christian theology.  That said, I constantly reference the life of Christ in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) as I read Paul.  Paul’s words would mean much less to me if I didn’t have a chance to meet Jesus.  I suppose that all philosophy, civil or religious, is trying to both define and answer a question.  Is there a problem?  What is the problem?  Is there a solution?  What is the solution?  Although there must be people who say there is no problem, I have not yet met them.  My skeptical friends argue, sometimes rightly so, that the religious are the problem – – words say love, actions say bigotry.  My religious friends will decry the godless atheists (ironic, no?) and militant gay agendists.  Surely the kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven if only the abortionists and gays would go away.  No.

Is there a problem?  Yes.  What is the problem?  According to this passage of Romans, the problem is that God is angry at our actions that suppress the truth.  Is he angry at us or our actions?  Without semantic gymnastics, I am uncomfortable separating the two.  I remember angry mother, father, teacher or friend and find a difficult time in recognizing if it was me or my actions that received the wrath.  So – – the text says that I am not godly and not righteous – – and that by my unrighteousness I suppress the truth.

How do I suppress the truth?  Pause here to recognize the difficult assertion that there is capital “t” Truth.  Consider that in respect to what Russell has recently written about the solutions of science.

I suppress the truth by not acknowledging God.  How can I know anything about God?  There are two threads in Romans 1 and in fact in Christian thought – – words (scripture) and creation.  Russell and I know scripture well and we’ll open the discussion about reliability here.  Are these the words of God given to man?  Billions of people feel that way about very different words in different religions.  Let us only agree now that words have power for humans.  I would place spoken and written language in the top 10 accomplishments of evolution and technology.  Pascal – – why did you locate creation and evolution in the same paragraph?  Keep reading.

I believe (true or false belief I acknowledge) that God created this universe.  I also believe that truth with a capital “t” is truth.  Can I have it both ways – – specially pleading for God’s truth and science’s truth?  Not if I want to be consistent.  I desperately want to be consistent – – and I ask that from you.  So, in my philosophy, truth is truth.  If God is the author of truth, then science is not the Devil’s Workshop.

How old do you think the earth and universe is Pascal?  Is that not the shibboleth of the authentic Christian?  Do you find your answer here or here?  Who made it?  How?

For question 1, I answer with the truth of science and start with Google.  For question 2, I answer with philosophy and start with Genesis.  For question 3, I honestly go to both – – more on that later.  According to Romans 1, what can be known about God by pre-scientific man?  His invisible attributes:  eternal power and divine nature.  Thats not a lot to go on.  But somehow I get it.  I’ve seen stars away from city lights.  I’ve hiked a 14,000 foot peak.  I’ve felt so small at the edge of the ocean.  Either I am a happy accident, or I was a part of created plan.  How insecure of me to desire the latter.  How human of me to have desires at all.  Welcome to my wish fulfillment Dr. Freud.  More about my Daddy issues soon.





The 5th grader noticed one of his apps had auto-updated on his quantum iPhone 72, so he opened it.

He watched as multiple fluctuations began to appear and disappear randomly in all shapes and sizes — sometimes bumping into each other and merging, sometimes exploding. He zoomed into one of the isolated bubbles and saw nothing but emptiness. In another bubble he saw white hot plasma. Time sped up and he watched it cool and dissipate into nothing as the bubble disappeared. Many more bubbles began to form. One expanded and collapsed again, causing part of the bubble to grow back out the other side. Some bubbles expanded so quickly some of the simulated energy cooled to form superheated matter, which eventually cooled further and began to clump together. He zoomed into one in time to see countless clumps collapse into beautiful stars which exploded into heavy elements that coalesced into planets. Eventually a chemical on some of the planets replicated, and in time, living things emerged. The small life forms evolved and some became intelligent and self-reflective like him. One of them wrote a speculative blog post about him and his app. He smiled, intrigued. His bus arrived at school. “Time to go”, someone said. With a small grin still on his face, he thought, “I’ll play it again on the ride home”. As he popped the bubble, trillions of virtual creatures ceased to exist. He closed iMultiverse and walked to class.

In another reality, fingers moved, and the bubble the fifth grader was in left the screen. The creature was excited to see that some of the bubbles on her app had developed life forms that could create virtual worlds of their own. However, the creature was heartbroken at the mindless loss of life. Did they not realize the simulation was real to those inside each bubble?! She suddenly froze, captured by a thought. Am I in a simulation, too?

Somewhere else, a smile formed.

Author’s comments…
What did the smile belonged to? Perhaps another simulator in an infinite regression of simulators? An uncreated creator with the special ability to create events in an existence that has no events? Nothingness itself? A random fluctuation in the first uncreated eternal nothing? An entity with a mind in an original uncreated eternal universe? Something else?

One point of this post is to illustrate that the cause for our universe could be eternal, or there could be no meaning to asking about a first cause if time/events once did not exist, or any number of things could exist outside it and causally before it. This story is one example of many potential a-priori realities in which a creator does not have to be all-knowing, all-good, etc. The events in any reality outside the universe we live in are not necessarily subject to our laws of causality (which, incidentally, may not even be laws in our universe). All we can have confidence in is the things that exist at scales we can measure in the known universe. We can know nothing of what might exist outside our universe.


  1. Is it justifiable to be absolutely certain about the cause of the Big Bang (assuming such a cause is even meaningful or required)?
  2. Are “an eternity of nothing” or “an all-knowing, all-loving God” the only options? Is that a false dichotomy?

We welcome your thoughts.

Gentleness and respect,

P.S. Here is the app’s skeleton code for my fellow geeks

defaultStateOfRelationalExistence = nil; // set the initial state to nothing, 0, void

while appOpen { // keep running this loop until the app closes

   function universeGenerator() {
      return (totalFluctuation + totalOscillation + totalInstability + totalExcitation + totalOpposition + totalForce + totalCharge + totalPotential); // etc; basically the sum of all values for all relationships between all real and potential forces in the default state of the default environment

   function checkStatusOfUniverse(previousStatusOfUniverse) {
      return previousStatusOfUniverse * defaultStateOfRelationalExistence;

   function continueUniverse(relationalExistence) {
      while (relationalExistence) { // keep repeating the loop until the value of relationships exactly equals 0
         refreshScreen(relationalExistence); // displays interesting patterns to the iPhone screen
         relationalExistence = checkStatusOfUniverse(relationalExistence);
         continueUniverse(universeGenerator()); // if a new instability exists at any reference point, recursively call continueUniverse

         if (relationalExistencePoppedByUser) relationalExistence = nil; // if the user pops a bubble, remove all its relationships

   do {
      defaultStateOfRelationalExistence = universeGenerator();
   } while (!defaultStateOfRelationalExistence); // keep repeating the loop until at least one relationship emerges in the default environment