The cause of death: Arguments from silence – Quantum physics and the Cosmological argument

apologetics Philosophy of Religion science

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The kalam cosmological argument is the argument that since the universe began to exist, it must have had a cause. William Lane Craig is perhaps the most prolific defender of the argument – see here for a his presentation of the argument. I won’t go into all the details of the argument, because that’s not the point of this post. Simply stated, the argument starts with the general principle that whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence, it moves to the claim that the universe began to exist, and it concludes, deductively, that the universe must therefore have had a cause.

I just want to look at one very specific objection to the argument. Specifically, this objection denies the first premise of the argument (“whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence”) on the grounds of discoveries in quantum physics. The claim is made that scientists now know that quantum particles – some, at least, are continually “popping in and out of existence” ( a popular phrase to describe the phenomenon), and their doing so is not caused. Hence, it is just not true that “whatever begins to exist has a cause of it existence,” meaning that the kalam cosmological argument should be rejected as unsound.

Well, what of this? Is it true? I won’t pretend to be any sort of expert on quantum mechanics. Just Google the words “quantum,” “popping” and “existence” and you’ll find plenty of instances of this claim. What has been observed, as far as I can tell, is that things called “virtual particles” do suddenly appear and then disappear. But after that observation, conjecture on “what lies beneath” is pretty murky stuff – and as far as I can tell even those who are experts on such things accept as much. For example, precisely how would we determine whether or not the actions or appearance of a virtual particle were caused. The most honest answer I can detect out there is – who knows? They appear in a world where they are surrounded by matter and energy, and causes might be lurking anywhere.

It’s also not even clear-cut that these virtual particles really are literally popping into existence at all. Perhaps they’re just popping into a state where we can observe them. Philip Caputo (source), in his article entitled “Is There a Correct Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics?” says:

Quantum particles or expressions, exist in a so-called superposition until they are interacted with. They are aware of all these possibilities at once. This sounds familiar – if you think of yourself as being aware of many different possible life experiences that you could choose from at any given moment. Sometimes you randomly just choose to do something and at other times you plan something to experience, like a date or a movie or something. If some observer was watching you (and was the size of our galaxy) he/she might conclude that you were existing in a so-called superposition of all possible experiences until you randomly jumped into one. Of course we know that you simply choose that experience. Likewise on the quantum scale. Maybe these quantum particles are aware of their possible experiences, and simply choose which one to experience. To us they appear as just little points popping in and out of existence, similar to that of the galactic observer watching us. But we know that they are simply expressions of consciousness just like we are, who when forced to make a decision – make one. Sometimes they are favorable and at other times not so favorable.

So that’s reply #2 to the objection. The first was my comment about our ignorance of whether or not these events/objects really are uncaused. Now, the first response this invites (and the only response I intend to look at here) is that this might look, initially, like a “cause of the gaps” theory. I mean sure, as long as we don’t know whether they are caused by any particular thing, we can hypothesize until the cows come home. We can hypothesize that there are green geese on the far side of Alpha Centauri too – as long as we can’t observe what really is there.

But this objection fails for a couple of reasons. Firstly, remember that the initial objection I described was an objection to the claim that “whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.” The only way to counter this with evidence is to provide an example where there is no silence,  but in fact where we do know that no cause exists. So it simply won’t do to say “here’s an example that has no known cause, but for which we can’t establish whether or not there was any cause.” This would simply be to beg the question against the first premise of the cosmological argument.

Secondly – many thanks to “philosophicus rex” for using this counterexample – we don’t reason this way in everyday life. Just imagine, for example, if the coroner or the police reasoned this way. “We’ve just found the body of a 30-year-old man, and we can’t establish what the cause of death was. Now, let’s not appeal to any mysterious “cause of the gaps” here, we’re serious thinkers, so let’s conclude that therefore his death was uncaused.” This would be ludicrous in the face of a fairly well established principle that when 30 -year-old men die, there’s a cause of death!

The lesson: Silence does not overturn generally well established principles.

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{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Rob October 5, 2008, 8:10 pm

    ****“here’s an example that has no known cause, but for which we can’t establish whether or not there was any cause.” This would simply be to beg the question against the first premise of the cosmological argument.*****

    OK. So scientists observe virtual particles popping out of the quantum foam apparently un-caused. They look for a cause, but they can’t find one. So it seems to me that this is a scientific observation that demonstrates that the the 1st premise is false.

    But you reject this because you want more certainty, it seems. You would require that the scientists say “we are certain there is no cause”. But a scientist cannot be certain. All scientific findings are provisional.

    So you have declared by fiat that the first premise is unfalsifiable.

    For even if a scientists did say “I am certain there is no cause”, you could always just counter “No, you have just not found the cause. The cause might be un-discoverable by the methods of science”.

    A scientist can only report what she observes. You should not expect a scientist to report the absence of the un-discoverable.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood you. But it seems to me you require an extreme degree of certainty to the point that the first premise is unfalsifiable. If it’s unfalsifiable, then we may as well discuss angels on pin-heads.
    —————————–
    All moot anyway. Kalam fails for so many other reasons this matter is trivial.

  • Glenn October 5, 2008, 10:07 pm

    Rob, I think your very first sentence goes awry: “apparently uncaused” is not supported. It’s not that it’s supported with inadequate certainty (that is not part of the issue that I have raised in any sense at all), it’s that you’re talking about something being apparent that is not “apparent” at all. You’re assuming that no cause presenting itself is the same as “uncausedness” presenting itself. This is fundamentally wrong. In the cause of these quantum particles scientists who say that they have NO cause (and I’m not suggesting that this is a scientific consensus at all) are pointing into something they just can’t see. The fact is that we simply can’t tell whether or not such particles are caused or not because we can see so little about them. It’s like asserting that there are no rocks on the moon Xenon 53 in a galaxy on the other side of the Universe. How would we know? Likewise, since the causedness/uncausedness of quantum particles isn’t something we can observe, it is unscientific to claim that we have evidence that they are not caused.

    As I hope you now see, it’s not about the level of certainty.

  • Rob October 5, 2008, 11:56 pm

    OK. I misunderstood you.

    I’m wondering though, how would “uncausedness” present itself?

  • Glenn October 6, 2008, 11:21 pm

    I think it would present itself best when an event occurs and best we can tell it is preceded by no cause – AND when we are actually in a position to say that we are highly aware of the circumstances under which the event occurred and any possible cause would be accessible to us (the latter is necessary to avoid arguments from silence). That’s subjective, necessarily, but it does mean that Quantum particles are not a safe place to make bold claims one way or the other.

    I think, incidentally, that methodological naturalism proceeds and actually requires the principle that whatever begins (to exist or occur) has a cause. Otherwise the natural sciences would be a much less interesting enterprise.

  • Rob October 7, 2008, 4:09 am

    “I think it would present itself best when an event occurs and best we can tell it is preceded by no cause – AND when we are actually in a position to say that we are highly aware of the circumstances under which the event occurred and any possible cause would be accessible to us”

    I think we are talking about degree of certainty here, despite your protests that we are not.

    I heard an interview yesterday with a physicist who was quite disturbed by William Lane Craig’s continued use of Kalam, despite Craig knowing that it was unsound:

    http://www.doubtcast.org/podcast/rd22_god_sarah_palin_and_other_failures.mp3

    I think Craig is probably a decent man. I also think he is a pious fraud.

  • Anon December 17, 2009, 2:38 am

    Might be something interesting to ponder

    “It does not matter if scientific experiments have revealed that on the smallest scale individual particles display random and unpredicatable patterns of behaviour. Quantum theory is able to make meaningful predictions about these very same particles, albeit statistical predictions concerning large numbers of them. This would be impossible if the particles and their behaviour were uncaused. Besides, although individual particles display random, unpredictable movements, the whole method of scientifically observing them is based on the prediction that the said particles will be there to observe, and not, say, armchairs or elephants. In other words, the very fact that the same old particles keep arising, complete with the same old recognizable properties, proves that these particles cannot be uncaused. Non-causality is non- discriminatory, and it has the entire infinite range of possible forms for it to randomly choose from.”

    http://www.theabsolute.net/minefield/athnews3.html

  • Glenn December 17, 2009, 10:06 am

    Rob: “despite Craig knowing that it was unsound” – this is merely a case of making up stories about Dr Craig.

    Anon – fascinating!

  • Andrew October 25, 2010, 12:58 am

    As a matter of interest, no theory of quantum mechanics predicts that particles simply pop into and out of existence completely uncaused.

    What in-fact happens is that the particles appear temporarily from random fluctuations in the quantum vacuum. Now the quantum vacuum is not a standard vacuum in the sense that we typically talk about a vacuum. A quantum vacuum is essentially a rolling sea of energy which, on a very particular interpretation of quantum mechanics, fluctuates randomly to produce these particles that exist for only a short time before disappearing again. In this sense, these particles are not “un-caused” as there is still very much a material cause.

    However, as Glenn has rightly pointed out, presently there is no empirical way of determining which particular interpretation of quantum mechanics is accurate. However, Astro-physicists show an increasing preference towards a fully deterministic interpretation of Quantum Mechanics as propounded by David Bohm

  • Sean February 3, 2013, 11:01 am

    PS. For all you who agree that quantum particles popping in and out of existence uncaused = an uncaused universe… the quantum particles that scientists have observed, and what it means to be a ‘quantum particle’ at all, is that they do so in a quantum vacuum, which, despite what you may think, is NOT nothing. A quantum vacuum is a ‘spaceless’ void acted upon by outside particles of energy…so to simply presume that they are existing in ‘nothing’ is illusory. Where is the quantum vacuum getting it’s energy? How is IT existing? Where are those outside particles of energy coming from? Created from nothingness, using quantum mechanics as your proof, is a philosophical statement, not a scientific one…and a false one at that.

  • fregs February 18, 2013, 2:11 pm

    I won’t argue on whether quantum particles of this type prove that things can come into existence–I agree, we just don’t know. However, I reject the first premise of the KCA because i believe its a categorical mistake. Everything IN the universe, so far as we can tell, seems to have a cause. That says nothing about the universe itself. The universe itself is made up of time and space, causes and effects. To say something “caused” the source of time and space is to smuggle in the concept of time where none exists. To ask what “caused” the universe may in fact be a meaningless question, because there were no causes and effects before the universe began. The universe may just exist as a brute fact. The universe may be bounded and limited but in a way eternal. We see the universe as a set of causes and effects because we exist in spacetime. But if we were able to look at it from a “God’s eye view” outside of spacetime, the universe might appear to be this eternal thing, like a tree with roots and branches that always exist and never changing. The roots of the tree is the start of space/time and the branches are its effects and ends.

    Thats just one possible theory. Maybe something else did cause our universe–black holes which have their own spacetime, virtual quantum particles popping into existence, or a Deity. Nobody knows so everyone should stop acting as if they have certainty or have it all figured out.

  • Glenn February 18, 2013, 8:37 pm

    “Everything IN the universe, so far as we can tell, seems to have a cause. That says nothing about the universe itself.”

    If that were the way the Kalam argument went, it would amount to a fallacy of composition. But of course, that’s not the what proponents of the argument say.

    Moreover, it’s vital to see that proponents of the kalaam argument definitely – definitely do not smuggle in the time of cause prior to the universe to allow for a material cause of the universe. Bill Craig, for example, has responded to that claim, pointing out that it merely presupposes that the only type of cause that exists is a physical cause, requiring space and time. But of course, we can’t presuppose materialism prior to examining the argument, or we would be flagrantly begging the question.

    What’s more, it’s not really true that all causation – even physical causation – must involve a passage of time between cause and effect. Think of a book sitting on a shelf, where the shelf continues to be the cause of the book not falling further, and cause and effect are simultaneous.

    So these aren’t new criticisms. They’ve been met before and found wanting.

  • fregs February 19, 2013, 2:49 pm

    I think this may be a case where communicating via web or email something is lost in the translation. I don’t think you are understanding my argument or I’m doing a poor job at explaining it. I was not arguing fallacy of composition.

    What I’m asking is this: How can we talk about the cause of the universe when cause and effect, before and after, that is time itself…does not exist? There may be a first cause in the finite stream that is time, but how can that there be another cause before that stream began? There were no befores. In order to have a cause (let’s say God) and effect (the universe) don’t you need…time? Isn’t that smuggling the idea of time where no time exists or can exist?

    On your book example, isn’t that a whole host of causes and effects there, all inside of time? Isn’t the book is on the shelf because someone placed it there earlier and the shelf is there because someone built it before that? The book and shelf did not appear together instantaneously. Also, the shelf’s electrons are pushing on the books electrons preventing it from falling. Those are all also causes and effects inside space and time. You could say that the shelf is preventing the book from falling, but the reason its not falling is due to another set of causes and effects.

    I’ll be the first to admit that all these arguments have been discussed by finer philosophers than I. Its all been argued over and over for centuries in various ways. To you, the materialist objections seem wanting and to atheists yours do. Its unfortunate when people like WLC or Richard Dawkins discuss their points, they tend to act with arrogance and smug certainty. Its fine to have strong opinions, but I think we owe those with opposing views a certain amount of patience and charity.

  • Glenn February 19, 2013, 11:19 pm

    Hi fregs. Earlier your objection was that just because everything in the universe has a cause, it doesn’t follow that the universe has a cause. And this really is to accuse the kalam argument of committing a fallacy of composition. But OK, I’ll assume that you aren’t making that accusation.

    “but how can that there be another cause before that stream began?”

    Well, as I tried to explain, this is just a general expression of scepticism that there can be a non-material cause (i.e. a cause that’s not part of the universe). But we just can’t allow that as an objection without simply ruling one possibility out from the outset of the discussion. If the argument is successful, then it shows that there was a cause of the material universe that isn’t part of it. So the argument gives you a reason to give up the scepticism that there could be a cause outside of that stream.

    “Isn’t the book is on the shelf because someone placed it there earlier and the shelf is there because someone built it before that?” This misses the point of the analogy. If the question is “how did the book and the case get there,” then yes, the answer will have to do with the fact that people put them there in the past. But if the question is “why does the book continue to remain at that height right now?” then the answer is “because right now there’s a bookcase under it.” That’s simultaneous cause and effect.

    Google search the words “simultaneous cause and effect” and you’ll find that the concept of simultaneous cause and effect is nothing novel. Nobody can really deny that it occurs all the time.

    It’s true that we should discuss things with patience and charity. However, I don’t at all think there’s any real comparison between the level of arrogance and haste exercise by the likes of Richard Dawkins over arguments like this, and people like Bill Craig who invest years of their life making sure they understand them accurately. My point in noting that your objections have been addressed quite a few times is not that I have no patience with you raising them. The point is that they really have been addressed. It’s not that I just tenaciously find them wanting because of my religious beliefs. They are logically inadequate as objections and they should simply be abandoned – and they largely have been. They’re no longer concerns for the Kalam argument, and if people are to undermine it, they need new objections. The most common objection these days is to reject the first premise, and to claim that actually not everything that comes into existence has a cause.

  • Ross February 19, 2013, 11:59 pm

    Hey Fregs, don’t know if you intended this to be just between yourself and Glenn but here I am anyway!

    Your point earlier (about the universe being bounded but still eternal) I think is basically expressing the static or tense-less theory of time according to which all moments in time are equally real. On this view there is no actual coming into or passing out of existence; all things, all moments past present and future exist timelessly. Hence although the universe would have an edge, like a footpath may have an edge or boundary, it would be false to say that the universe came into existence at that boundary (like the footpath). Your tree analogy I believe basically captures this idea. I personally believe that although this theory is not without major problems, it is probably the best most astute philosophical argument against premise 2 of the kalam (certainly better than mere hand waving about ‘quantum physics’). Refuting it though would take a whole book (or several blog posts!)Craig is well aware of this potential argument however and has appropriately published just such a book. (titled God time and eternity).

    As for causation before time, while it is correct to say that there is no ‘time’ before time began this need not be a problem since God could exist timelessly. He would therefore timelessly cause the universe into existence which does require that the cause and effect be simultaneous with eachother. Hence the relevance of simultaneous causation, which the example of a book on a table is meant to show is not an incoherent concept.

  • fregs February 22, 2013, 6:39 am

    Let me back up a step. The definition of time is the dimension where events take place, i.e. changes occur. Are you suggesting that a change or event can occur, without some sort of time, via supernatural causes? If the universe didn’t exist, then it began to exist (whether thru natural or supernatural causes) what do we call that?

    I think your book analogy is just an illusion of how its worded. The reality is that the book remains at that height because of the electrons of the book and shelf pressing on each other. That is a whole series of complex causes and effects happening in time. The interactions of the electrons is the cause and the book remaining stationary is the effect.

    I find WLC as self-congratulatory and smug as RD. Just my person impression. Even in this discussion, you seem to feel that all this has been wrapped up and that your side has firmly won. Peter Rollins (a christian philosopher) has said that arguments for and against the existence of God are not taught past freshman philosophy classes, not because one side or the other has conclusively won but because there is no end to the argument in sight.

    Ross, i can try to respond to you but I dont’ know if i’ll have time (ha ha) for two conversations.

  • fregs February 22, 2013, 6:49 am

    Ross,

    I think that is a pretty good way to look at it (god creating timelessly.) Its certainly a possible rational way to look at it. However, I still think it smuggles the idea of time in. I am really suggesting a problem with premise 1. By saying the universe “began to exist” you are saying first the universe didn’t exist, then an event happened, then it existed. That stream of events sound like something happening “in time” to me. I am skeptical whether time itself can have a creation event, because changes, creations and events all imply time already being there.

    Craig

  • Glenn February 22, 2013, 7:21 am

    Are you suggesting that a change or event can occur, without some sort of time, via supernatural causes? If the universe didn’t exist, then it began to exist (whether thru natural or supernatural causes) what do we call that?

    Fregs, no-one is saying that there was some time passing when the universe didn’t exist, and then during that time, the universe began to exist.

    Instead, time began with the universe. So if the universe had a cause (and the Kalam argument shows that it did), that cause was not involved with a period of time prior to the universe. So the only kind of cause that we can talk about is a “timeless” cause, or simultaneous cause and effect.

  • fregs February 22, 2013, 7:59 am

    Thats not what i asked. I asked if you believe a change or event can occur without time via supernatural causes.

  • Ross February 22, 2013, 4:51 pm

    In timeless causation/causality the cause and effect must exist simultaneously with eachother. If you have one you necessarily have the other. The two exist side by side as it were. Hence talk of ‘first there was this, and then this happened’ simply cannot apply in this instance since (as you say) it implies time.

    God’s creation of universe then should be considered as one event (not three successive states) in which the cause and effect are related to each other not with respect to time but with respect to the relation of dependence one has to the other. The cause and effect would be two sides of the one coin (event). Perhaps we could rephrase the causal thesis as; There was a moment x, such that no moment preceeded x, but which was the timeless effect of cause y.

    Perhaps you are right, perhaps the phrase ‘begins to exist’ does denote in most peoples minds a temporal flow of time. If so however this would not show anything wrong per se with the Kalam, it would simply be bad terminology. Yet this type of confusion may be inevitable give that talk of timelessness and timeless causation is undoubtedly stretching our language and rational capacities to their limits!

    Craig attempts at an answer to this issue in the following links
    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/causation-and-spacetime
    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/beginning-to-exist

    Given that you are, as you say, carrying on two conversations I think I’ll leave it here. Thanks for the discussion.

  • fregs February 28, 2013, 1:42 pm

    I guess i really don’t understand the concept of timeless cause and effect, and most google searches seem to lead to WLC but not anything in mainstream philosophy or physics. I guess i don’t see the possibility of causes and effects or events or changes are happening at all. It seems like a logical contradiction. How can “Time begin with the universe” when without time, there is no beginning, middle or end? How can events happen (like creation) without time? That is what time is–events and changing. I do think the KCA brings in the concept of time but yes perhaps its just poorly worded.

    All that being said, I think I better understand your points of view (Ross and Glenn both.) You both seem to be proposing more of a ground for the universe, in the same sense that Paul Tillich talks about God as the Ground of all Being or buddhists talk about Buddha-nature being the underlying substance of everything. Also, I do agree that this stretches our minds to the limits. Its hard to understand anything timeless since we are always in the midst of time.

  • Glenn February 28, 2013, 7:30 pm

    “How can “Time begin with the universe” when without time, there is no beginning, middle or end?”

    Well that’s an easy one: The beginning of time was the beginning of the universe, so there was no beginning without time. So even if you don’t buy timeless causation, the possibility of timeless causation should help this to seem more plausible.

    For what it’s worth, when I did a Google search for timeless causality, this was the firs result: http://lesswrong.com/lw/qr/timeless_causality/

    Also among top results: Henry Allison’s book Kant’s Theory of Freedom (Cambridge University Press)

    And quite a number of non-William-Lane-Craig related pages. In fact it is a mainstream idea. On a related note, the fact that Bill Craig is a religious apologist certainly doesn’t make him non-mainstream.

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