#117

July 13, 2009

Objections to the Causal Principle

Dear Dr Craig,

I am an agnostic/atheist who has recently been debating the merits of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) with an acolyte of yours on a forum. I think I have all my objections clear in my mind now and was hoping you could give some commentary on them. My objections concern the first premise, "Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence".

Firstly I need to investigate a little your definition of "begins to exist". Do you consider this phrase synonymous with "has a finite past"? Here are a couple of premises:

(a) Whatever has a finite past begins to exist.
(b) Whatever begins to exist has a finite past.

If you endorse these, which I expect you will, then it is a matter of logical necessity that you consider the two synonymous. If you reject one of them (likely (a)) then I would be interested in your definition of "begins to exist". Under most other definitions of "begins to exist" I am liable to reject the second premise (that the universe began to exist) rather than the first.

If their synonymity is accepted, you can't have any objections to me modifying the first premise:

1´. Whatever has a finite past has a cause of its existence.

Now a side note on your use of language. While I'm sure you are familiar with the argument that questions about what came before the Big Bang are meaningless (the usual analogy is "What is north of the North Pole?") you insist on using language which makes it appear that you have not understood this argument. For instance, I have seen you use language such as "creatio ex nihilo", "coming out of nothing", "springs spontaneously out of the void", all of which imply a transition from the state of nonexistence to the state of existence. The alternative to a caused universe is not a universe which "sprang into existence uncaused", but a universe which was never not in existence and hence for which there was no transition from nonexistence to existence. To say that the universe was in a state of nonexistence implies an external perspective on the universe, which implicitly rejects the idea that the universe is all there is. If the universe is all there is, there was no creation event, but simply an initial state of the universe. Another forum poster put it succinctly when he wrote: "There is nothing the universe came from" is not identical to "The universe came from nothing". Rather, the contention is that applying "came from" to the universe is a category error.

This brings me to my first objection, which is that the modified premise 1´ has little of the intuitive force of the original. Here's the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the consequences of the change:

Whereas behind [the original premise 1] lays the ancient Parmenidean contention that out of nothing nothing comes, no principle directly connects finitude with causation. Critics contend that we have no reason to think that just because something is finite it must have a cause of its coming into existence.

If you choose a definition of "begin to exist" which requires a transition from one state to another, as opposed to merely a finite past, I will reject the second premise instead. However, my sense is that such a position would not be tenable given what you have previously written on the KCA, for example:

But, in any case, as I've argued elsewhere, viable non-singular models (like Stephen Hawking's model) still involve a merely finite past and therefore a beginning of time and the universe.

My second (separate) objection is simply that it is unwise to extrapolate general metaphysical truths from everyday experience. "A thing cannot be in two opposing states at once" is a premise that might once have seemed an "ontologically necessary truth", "one which is constantly confirmed in our experience". However, when we ventured into the world of subatomic physics, we discovered that things there did not accord with our experiences in the macro world. You seem familiar with the example of uncaused virtual particle pair formation leading to Hawking radiation, which is currently thought to be uncaused. You object that:

Now in fact particle pair production furnishes no analogy for this radical ex nihilo becoming, as Davies seems to imply. This quantum phenomenon, even if an exception to the principle that every event has a cause, provides no analogy to something's coming into being out of nothing. Though physicists speak of this as particle pair creation and annihilation, such terms are philosophically misleading, for all that actually occurs is conversion of energy into matter or vice versa.

However, this is a double standard, since everyday examples of things which "begin to exist" also do not involve actual creation. Thus, you seek to disallow uncaused transitions as precedent for an uncaused beginning to the universe, while using causative transitions as the intuitive basis for a causative beginning. Either such events are similar to the beginning of the universe or they are not. (Note that as per objection 1 I don't agree that the universe "came into being out of nothing"; this is a separate objection).

However, I don't want to spend too much time on this point, since even if I grant you that there is nothing uncaused in our experience, the inductive argument is still not valid. Here are a few inductive arguments similar to the KCA:

1. Every patch of land on the Earth is attached to a more northerly patch of land.
2. The North Pole is a patch of land on the Earth.
3. Therefore, the North Pole is attached to a more northerly patch of land.

1. Every positive integer has a positive integer which is one less than it.
2. One is a positive integer.
3. Therefore, there is a positive integer which is one less than one.

1. Everything of a finite size has one or more things surrounding it.
2. The universe is of a finite size.
3. Therefore, there are one or more things surrounding the universe.

In each case, the argument is valid if the premises are valid. Also in each case, counterexamples to the first premise other than the ones mentioned in the second premise are unavailable. The only way to reject the arguments is to reject the first premise, something nobody has any difficulty doing. It is obvious to us that in an argument concerning size, the smallest positive integer cannot be treated the same as the rest. In an argument about the direction north, the most northerly point must be treated differently to other points. Similarly, in an argument about a series of states of the universe which cause each other, the initial state must be treated differently to all subsequent states. The fact that we don't observe any other beginning to a chain of causation is no more mysterious than the fact that there are not multiple smallest integers, or multiple most northerly points.

I included the third "argument" above because it seems to me to most closely match the KCA. The idea that finite space implies something beyond that space is little different to the idea that finite time implies something beyond that time. Both are rejections of the idea that there could be finite boundaries to what exists.

To summarise my objections:

1) To the extent that the premise is based on intuition, causation is intuitively associated with something moving from one state to another, not with a finite past. A metaphysics in which the universe is all that exists rejects the idea of a transition from nonexistence to existence, since there is nothing - not even a void - for the universe to have transitioned from. Language such as "sprang into existence uncaused" is an attempt to avoid dealing with this alternative.

2) To the extent that the premise is based on induction from everyday events:

a) One cannot generalise from everyday events to the world of physics. ("Everything that happens around me appears to have a cause, therefore virtual particle creation must have a cause" would be an example of this kind of bad argument).

b) Even if such arguments were valid, the specific example in the KCA is not, because in an inductive argument involving a linked sequence, the first and last items must be treated differently to all other items.

I conclude the premise has little basis in either intuition or induction. Thanks for reading and I hope you have the time to write a response.

Chris

I don't normally select questions that are as long as yours, Chris, (hint to would-be submitters!), but since you raise responsibly several common objections to the first premiss of the kalam cosmological argument as I have stated it, I decided to respond briefly to each of your objections.

But before I do, it's worth noting first that what you offer are merely undercutting defeaters of premiss (1), not rebutting defeaters. That is to say, your objections attempt to diminish the warrant we have for believing the causal premiss but do nothing to falsify it. Your conclusion is that "the premise has little basis in either intuition or induction." That is not only consistent with its being true, but even with its being more plausible than its negation, which has, I should think, even less going for it by way of intuition or inductive evidence. In that case you should still believe the causal principle rather than its negation.

But is the causal principle so bereft of warrant as you allege? Let's consider first its intuitive support. As you note, metaphysicians as far back as Parmenides have recognized the principle that Being can come only from Being, that something cannot come into being from non-being. I think you yourself recognize this, for your strategy in undercutting the causal premiss is to try to show that on atheism the universe does not, in fact, come into being out of nothing.

In order to make your case, you focus on the expression "begins to exist" and propose to substitute for it the expression "has a finite past," in which case the modified premiss "has little of the intuitive force of the original." Therefore, the warrant for the original premiss allegedly evaporates.

This objection is confused on a number of counts. First, it falsely assumes that if a statement A is logically equivalent to a statement B and B is not intuitively obvious, then the intuitive warrant for A is nullified. That is clearly wrong. Think of some complex mathematical equation which is equivalent to 2+1=3. The opacity of the former does nothing to undermine the intuitive warrant for the latter. In fact, one could quite plausibly argue that the direction of warrant runs the other way: in view of their logical equivalence, the intuitive obviousness of A goes to increase our confidence in the truth of the less obvious B!

Similarly, I am inclined to agree that your

1´. Whatever has a finite past has a cause of its existence.

is logically equivalent to my premiss (1) and is less obvious as well. But I think that in view of the obviousness of the causal premiss as I have stated it we have good reason to think that your equivalent statement is also true. My objection to your modifying the first premiss, then, is that it is obscurantist, like substituting "27+62/41 x ½" for "2" in "2+1=3."

Second, you confuse a definition with an analysis. You aren't really looking for a definition of "begins to exist." These words are so simple that a junior high school student understands them. Synonyms would include "starts to exist" or "commences to be." What you're really looking for is a philosophical analysis of what it is to begin to exist. Whether there even is such an analysis is open to debate. It may well be that such a concept is primitive and cannot be analyzed in other terms. In my published work, I have tried to provide the following analysis of "begins to exist":

A. x begins to exist at t iff x comes into being at t.

B. x comes into being at t iff (i) x exists at t, and the actual world includes no state of affairs in which x exists timelessly, (ii) t is either the first time at which x exists or is separated from any t*< t at which x existed by an interval during which x does not exist, and (iii) x's existing at t is a tensed fact.

It would be obtuse for the argument's detractor to respond that if you substitute the above analysis for "begins to exist" in the original premiss, then the premiss loses its intuitive warrant. Analyses aren't supposed to capture the intuitive obviousness of the terms to be analyzed; on the contrary, they're typically much more complex than the notion being analyzed. What is important for a successful analysis is that the conditions laid down in the analysis do not themselves use the notion under analysis and that they are such that anything meeting just those conditions will, in this case, properly be said to begin to exist.

Now the key clause in my analysis is (B) (iii). By presupposing a dynamic or tensed or (to appropriate McTaggart's convenient terminology) A-Theory of time, according to which temporal becoming is real, the proponent of the kalam cosmological argument justifiably assumes that the universe's existing at a first moment of time represents the moment at which the universe came into being. Only if you adopt a static or tenseless or so-called B-Theory of time, according to which temporal becoming is an illusion of human consciousness, will the first moment of the universe's existing not be the moment at which it comes into being. Thus, the real issue separating the proponent of the kalam cosmological argument and critics of the first premiss is the objectivity of tense and temporal becoming.

Now your expression "has a finite past" is at best a purported analysis, not a synonym, of "begins to exist." Given a tensed theory of time, I'm inclined to accept your analysis. Anything that is finite in the past came into being at some time in the past. It doesn't matter that your analysis isn't as intuitively obvious as the original premiss. Analyses hardly ever are.

As for your concerns about my use of phrases like "come into being out of nothing," I have in my published work stated explicitly that such expressions are not to be interpreted as the postulation of a state of nothingness prior to the existence of the universe. Rather they are expressions of the fact that the universe's beginning to exist is a tensed fact, as (B) (iii) states. As I wrote in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology,

From start to finish, the kalam cosmological argument is predicated upon the A-Theory of time. On a B-Theory of time the universe does not in fact come into being or become actual at the Big Bang; it just exists tenselessly as a four-dimensional space-time block which is finitely extended in the earlier than direction. If time is tenseless, then the universe never really comes into being, and therefore the quest for a cause of its coming into being is misconceived. Although G. W. F. Leibniz's question, Why is there (tenselessly) something rather than nothing? should still rightly be asked, there would be no reason to look for a cause of the universe's beginning to exist, since on tenseless theories of time the universe did not begin to exist in virtue of its having a first event anymore than a meter stick begins to exist in virtue of having a first centimeter. . . . Thus, the real issue separating the proponent of the kalam cosmological argument and critics of the first premiss is the objectivity of tense and temporal becoming.

I suspect that this is the issue that separates us as well. When you say, "If the universe is all there is, there was no creation event, but simply an initial state of the universe," you seem to be endorsing implicitly a B-Theory of time. I also note your assimilation of time to space in your comment, "The idea that finite space implies something beyond that space is little different to the idea that finite time implies something beyond that time."

By contrast, a cosmologist like Alexander Vilenkin uses precisely the same sorts of expression I do when characterizing the beginning of the universe, speaking freely of the universe's being "spontaneously created out of nothing" and "popping out from nothing." He obviously doesn't think that there was a state of nothingness prior to the Big Bang. Rather the appropriateness of such expressions depends on your view of the reality of tense and temporal becoming.

I have, again, with Thomas Aquinas, explicitly rejected the idea that creation is a type of change or transition (see my and Paul Copan's Creation out of Nothing [Baker, 2004]). The universe does not transition from non-being into being, since in creation there is no enduring subject but the absolute coming-to-be of that subject. Rather, the key notion here is again the reality of temporal becoming. Is temporal becoming real? If so, then in beginning to exist the universe came into being. Should you be interested in pursuing this debate over the A- vs. B-Theory of time, I commend to you my Time and Eternity (Crossway, 2001).

As for your second objection, that "it is unwise to extrapolate general metaphysical truths from everyday experience," it seems to me wholly unobjectionable to say that the causal principle enjoys experiential support. Should we just ignore the uniform data of experience in support of premiss (1) and behave as if it were just as likely as its opposite? Talk about being blind to the evidence!

I don't understand your misgivings about my response to the claim that virtual particles are uncaused. They're not. They are fluctuations of the energy in the vacuum. The quantum vacuum is not nothing. It is a roiling sea of energy. The German philosopher of science Bernulf Kanitscheider emphasizes that in so-called quantum creation events we're dealing with "a causal process leading from a primordial substratum with a rich physical structure to a materialized substratum of the vacuum. Admittedly this process is not deterministic, it includes that weak kind of causal dependence peculiar to every quantum mechanical process" (Bernulf Kanitscheider, "Does Physical Cosmology Transcend the Limits of Naturalistic Reasoning?" in Studies on Mario Bunge's "Treatise," ed. Weingartner and G. J. W. Doen [Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990], pp. 346-74).

It just occurred to me that perhaps your difficulty is that you have failed to differentiate between premiss (1) and

1*. Every event has a cause.

My argument does not commit us to (1*) and so is quite consistent with quantum events' being causally indeterminate. What I deny is that things, substances endowed with properties, can come into existence without a cause of any sort. As noted above, in quantum physics as in everyday experience there are always causal conditions of things' coming to be.

So there's no double standard here, so far as I can see. What the first premiss requires is that anything that begins to exist has a cause of some sort, and that condition is fulfilled for virtual particles. We know of no exception to the causal principle. Why shouldn't we be impressed with this evidence?

You give a few allegedly inductive arguments that fail. But, Chris, the arguments you give are all deductive arguments! And they each have a false premiss! These aren't at all analogous to the universal inductive evidence in support of the causal principle.

I'd also caution you to be wary about attacking a particular inductive argument just because other inductive arguments are failures, lest you wind up rejecting induction altogether. Then you will be landed in absolute scepticism. The distinguishing feature of an inductive argument, as opposed to a deductive argument, is that the truth of its premises does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion. But inductive reasoning remains largely reliable and, moreover, is indispensable to rational behavior.

But you insist that in this case we have good reason to think that the beginning of the universe is an exception to the causal principle. If you were right, that would indeed, undercut the inductive evidence in support of premiss (1). But what reason is there to think that the universe is an exception to the causal principle? You state, "in an argument about a series of states of the universe which cause each other, the initial state must be treated differently to all subsequent states." Why? I see no reason to treat such a state as an exception. Indeed, I should have thought that the uncaused arising of an absolutely first state is even more obviously impossible than the uncaused arising of a temporally embedded state. In any case, the burden is on you to justify this exception or it becomes an arbitrary dismissal of the causal principle.

You add: "The fact that we don't observe any other beginning to a chain of causation is no more mysterious than the fact that there are not multiple smallest integers, or multiple most northerly points." This statement seems confused. The fact you mention is just neither here nor there so far as the inductive evidence for the causal principle is concerned. The inductive argument is not that it's mysterious that we don't see causal chains beginning abruptly without antecedents. It's rather that we have uniform empirical evidence that things which begin to exist do have causes—without exception. Besides, in the cases you mention it is logically impossible for there to be the postulated entities (multiple smallest integers or most northerly points), whereas no logical impossibility has even been suggested in the universe's having a cause of its beginning.

I cannot help but suspect that it's the looming implication of theism that makes you sceptical of the otherwise impressive evidence for the causal principle.