|Anything that Begins to Exist Has a Cause|
|< Prev | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next >|
Objection: Physics gives examples of things coming into being from nothing.
Science has observed that fluctuations in the quantum vacuum bring about virtual particles, and since the particles come from a vacuum we have something coming into being from nothing. Also, physics tells us that if we have two physically identical uranium-238 atoms, it’s possible for one to emit an alpha particle (two protons and two neutrons) while the other one doesn’t, with no causal explanation for the different outcome. Thus, the alpha particle emission is an uncaused event.
Alleged examples of things coming into being come in at least two basic types. The first instance (as in the particles emerging from the quantum vacuum) uses the term “nothing” to refer to the quantum vacuum or some other sort of physical reality, which isn’t literal nothingness. Nothing by definition isn’t anything. So here’s a test: if the “nothing” you see someone describe has physical properties, then it’s not literal nothingness. Something coming into being from literally nothing means it doesn’t come into being from anything—not physical laws, not quantum vacuums, not anything. The phrase “X comes from nothing” doesn’t mean X comes into being from something and that something is called “nothing.” Rather “X comes into being from nothing” means X comes into being but there isn’t anything that X comes into being from, i.e. X comes into being with no efficient cause and no material cause. That means X doesn’t come from a quantum vacuum, the laws of physics, or anything else.
The idea bears repeating: if they’re talking about the physics of the alleged nothingness, then it’s not literal nothingness. Literal nothingness (nonbeing) has literally nothing—no space, no time, no matter, no energy, no physical stuff at all—and thus no physics. One might as well talk about the physics of the number six.
Another basic type of “scientific” response is to conflate causality with determinism, or at least to conflate a cause of an event (as in outcome 1 coming about versus outcome 2) with a cause of the existence of a thing. The difference is important but subtle. To illustrate, consider the case of two physically identical uranium-238 atoms A and B, where atom A emits an alpha particle and atom B does not. It may indeed be true that identical physical conditions can produce different outcomes, and while this would rule out the uranium atom deterministically bringing about the alpha particle, it doesn’t rule out indeterministic causation. So let’s consider the theory that the uranium atom indeterministically causes the existence of the alpha particle. This theory would entail that the existence of the alpha particle has a causal explanation, but this theory would also imply that there is no causal explanation for why uranium atom A emitted an alpha particle and physically identical uranium atom B did not, i.e. there wouldn’t be a causal explanation for the different outcomes between the two physically identical atoms (though there would be a “random chance” explanation for the difference), even though the existence of the alpha particle would have a causal explanation. The “anything that begins to exist has a cause” claim says that every thing that begins to exist has a cause, but allows for the possibility of uncaused events (e.g. outcome 1 coming about versus outcome 2).
It’s also worth noting that if nothing else, the alpha particle has a material cause: the two protons and two neutrons come from the uraniuim-238 atom itself, thereby transmuting the uranium-238 atom into an atom with two fewer protons and two fewer neutrons. One could say that the alpha particle has a material cause but no efficient cause, but then if the uranium-238 atom with its properties does not indeterministically cause the existence of the alpha particle, why does the uranium isotope have a highly predictable half-life? And why is it that the uranium isotope consistently (albeit randomly) emits alpha particles whereas carbon-twelve atoms do not? By far the best explanation is that the properties of the uranium atoms indeterministically bring about alpha particles.
But as I mentioned ealier, even if the alpha particle didn’t have an efficient cause, it remains true that the alpha particle has a material cause. So even if the event is uncaused (no causal explanation for the different outcomes), the thing (the alpha particle) still has a cause for its existence—a material cause if nothing else.
Objection: Ex nihilo nihil fit applies only within our universe
The theist commits a fallacy of composition, thinking that what is true of its parts (stuff within the universe) is also true of its whole (the universe itself). Specifically, the theist reasons “Ex nihilo nihil fit is true within the universe, therefore it also true of the universe.” But that’s fallacious. Maybe stuff within the universe cannot pop into being from nothing, but that doesn’t mean the universe itself can’t pop into being from nothing.
First, the fallacy of composition depends on the circumstances, viz. whether the composition would create a relevant difference. If for example a wall is made entirely of large red tiles, we can justifiably say that the wall is itself red. Second, the fallacy of composition doesn’t really apply here. While one could make an argument like, “Ex nihilo nihil fit is true within the universe, therefore it’s true of the universe” that argument wasn’t made in any of the three reasons I gave for the “anything that begins to exist has a cause” claim. That said, scientific and empirical confirmation do constitute legitimate evidence for ex nihilo nihil fit (ENNF). But couldn’t one argue that scientific confirmation only establishes ENNF holding true for within our universe?
One thing to understand is that ENNF is not being offered as a mere physical law but rather a metaphysical principle that applies to anything in reality. One view on ENNF is that, just as the number six lacks the potential for things to come out of being from it, nothingness qua nothing likewise lacks the potential for things to come out of being from it such that ENNF is a metaphysically necessary principle that applies not just in our universe but everywhere. But another idea is that ENNF holds merely as a physical law, a principle that holds in the universe but possibly not outside of it. How to explain why ENNF holds as a physical law but not a metaphysical one? How to explain why ENNF holds within the universe but not outside of it? Two types of factors present themselves:
- Intrinsic. In general, one way for a constraint to occur in different circumstances is that the properties of the thing in question (e.g. the properties of the electron) bring the different constraint about. This doesn’t hold true for nothingness, since qua nothing there isn’t anything to have properties.
- Extrinsic. Another way is for some external “force” to place constraints on the thing in question. This doesn’t work for nothingness though, since qua nothing there isn’t really anything to constrain. So neither the universe nor anything in it can place a constraint on nothingness where there would otherwise be none, since qua nothing there isn’t anything to constrain.
If ENNF can be violated, it really does become inexplicable why not anything and everything pops into being uncaused out of nothing all the time. The proponent of ENNF violations would have to say something like, “Well, things could pop into being from nothing all around us, but this just doesn’t happen and there’s no explanation for why it doesn’t happen.” In light of scientific conservation laws this doesn’t appear plausible. It seems that physical laws describe a genuine necessity, that e.g. fifty kilograms of electrons can’t just pop into being uncaused out of nothing before one’s eyes. So scientific confirmation is important not only for establishing that ENNF holds true in our universe but also for establishing that ENNF applies everywhere. Consider the following argument:
- If violations of ENNF are possible outside the universe, then they’re possible within the universe.
- Violations of ENNF are not possible within the universe (as confirmed by science).
- Conclusion: therefore, violations of ENNF are not possible outside the universe.
Another problem with certain conditions making it more likely (as from impossible to possible) for a thing to come into being “uncaused” is this. If conditions C make it more probable for thing x to come into being, and x comes into being when no factors apart from C brought x into being, then C by definition causes x to come into being. This will of course depend on one’s definition of “cause” but it works with the conception that I (and I think many others) use, because by conditions C causing x I mean that C (deterministically or indeterministically) brings about x such that if C is the only thing making it more likely for x to come into being, then C causes x’s existence should x come into being. To illustrate, if the rays from a fired ray gun is the only thing that increases the probability of a mouse coming into being (say, from 0% to 30%), then the ray gun causes the mouse to come into being should the mouse come into being. So external conditions making “X comes into being uncaused” more likely does not seem to work if one is looking for a bona fide uncaused creation event. If the ex nihilo nihil fit principle is to apply in some conditions, it applies in all conditions, because one cannot sensibly say it applies only to some conditions and that other conditions make it more likely for things to come into being uncaused. Thus the ex nihilo nihil fit principle holds either everywhere (i.e. in all conditions) or nowhere.
 Note that I’m defining “cause” in such a way that includes “conditions C indeterministically bringing something into existence.” On the other hand, if one’s definition of “cause” is “that which deterministically brings about something” then an indeterministic cause is (on this definition) logically impossible, and I’ve seen some define “cause” in such a way to include only those things that deterministically brings about something, but I don’t think this matches what people normally mean by “cause.” Suppose for example a special kind of rock thrown against a glass window has a truly random 50% chance of breaking the glass, and that this rock breaks the glass. Since the rock breaks the glass, the rock brings about the breaking of the glass, and so the rock causes the glass to break in the ordinary conception of “cause” even though it would be indeterministic causation.
< Prev | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next >
Comment on this article