|Anything that Begins to Exist Has a Cause|
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Objection: Violations of ex nihilo nihil fit occur far away
The second reason offered for the ex nihilo nihil fit principle is that if the principle could be violated it becomes inexplicable why anything and everything doesn’t pop into being uncaused out of nothing. But how do we know that doesn’t happen? True, we haven’t seen it, but that’s an awfully small sample space given how huge the universe is. Perhaps anything and everything does pop into being uncaused out of nothing, and it’s just that this happens somewhere out there in the vast cosmos beyond our own observable sphere.
One wonders if critics would give the same skepticism to the physical laws that astrophysics relies on as they do to ex nihilo nihil fit, since astrophysics also assumes that the laws that hold in our own tiny observable sphere also apply far out in space. Should we reject this assumption that astrophysics relies on, and thereby also reject the claims of astrophysics? I think not. Science in general assumes something called the uniformity of nature (nature operating uniformly, in some relevant sense, in the past and in the future throughout various locations; e.g. the physical laws of last year on earth will apply next week on Pluto), and this axiom is particularly useful in astrophysics. If the critic doesn’t apply the same level of skepticism for the physical laws that astrophysics relies on and offers no justification for the double standard, I think we have a case for special pleading here because there doesn’t seem to be a relevant difference between the two.
One reason there doesn’t appear to be a relevant difference is this: anything and everything popping into being uncaused out of nothing somewhere out there in the cosmos flagrantly violates physical laws, in particular the conservation of mass-energy. Should astrophysics embrace the uniformity of nature only when it isn’t inconvenient for atheism? That seems pretty extreme.
On top of that, we can modify the claim and note that if ex nihilo nihil fit can be violated it becomes inexplicable why anything and everything doesn’t pop into being uncaused out of nothing within our own observable sphere. After all, why would nothingness have a proclivity to have some things pop into being from it only when we’re not looking? What makes nothingness so discriminatory? Again, nothingness has no properties, so to ascribe such a proclivity to nothingness would be to make a category error, like ascribing weight to the number seven. And again, “inexplicable” means “there can’t be an explanation.” So it’s not just that ex nihilo nihil fit is the best explanation for why anything and everything doesn’t pop into being uncaused out of nothing within our own observable sphere, it’s the only explanation. All things considered then, saying “Maybe anything and everything pops into being somewhere out there in vast unobservable space” not only abandons the laws of physics, it does little more than move the problem elsewhere. Thus we’re better off accepting the laws of physics and accepting that it is not the case that anything and everything pops into being uncaused out of nothing, but if one insists on abandoning such laws of physics, we still have serious problems with abandoning ex nihilo nihil fit, albeit problems moved into another room.
Objection: Violations of ex nihilo nihil fit happen rarely
Perhaps the reason why we don’t see violations of ex nihilo nihil fit is that they happen too rarely to be observed. This, it still might be possible that (for example) the universe sprang into being uncaused out of nothing.
It’s notable that this sort of response wouldn’t be accepted in cases where atheism isn’t threatened. Think back to the case of the police officer finding a suspiciously large amount of money in my trunk. If I say, “This money popped into being uncaused out of nothing” not even an atheist police officer would accept this is a plausible theory. If the police officer noted that scientific evidence and common experience suggests that this sort of thing just doesn’t happen, the response “Well, maybe it does happen and it happens only rarely” would do little to convince any reasonable person that the money popping into being uncaused is a viable possibility. Why then should we make the universe an exception to this sort of thing? I thus think an atheist who thinks “the universe came into being uncaused out nothing” is a viable option might be using double standards.
Regardless, there are other points to consider. First, it becomes inexplicable why violations of ex nihilo nihil fit would happen only rarely. Remember, nothingness has no properties, so it wouldn’t make any sense to ascribe a “things always come into being only rarely from it” property to it.
Second (and related to the first reason), we couldn’t rely on the uniformity of nature to think that this pattern of “it happens only rarely” will continue to work in the near future for our own observable realm. There can’t be anything to constrain how often things come into being from nothing, because (qua nothing) there isn’t really anything to constrain. We also cannot ascribe to nothingness a lawlike property to (for example) ensure have things pop into being from it only once every x number of years such that it happens too infrequently for us to notice, because nothingness has no properties (since qua nothing, there isn’t really anything to have properties).
Why is that a big deal? Because the typical atheist will naturally have a great deal of skepticism about something coming into being from nothing (at least when it’s not inconvenient for atheism). To illustrate, imagine you’re an atheist who rejects the uniformity of nature with respect to things coming into being from nothing. If I say that a rock I am holding popped into being uncaused out of nothing, you could not justifiably dismiss it merely because we haven’t seen such things happen in the past if you grant that ex nihilo nihil fit could be violated, because there cannot even in principle be any metaphysical or physical law (or anything else) restricting the frequency of things popping into being uncaused out of nothing. So even if you believe that it’s currently rare for things to come into being from nothing, you would have no basis for thinking that would hold tomorrow or next week in your neighborhood, since the uniformity of nature wouldn’t apply to how often things come into being nothing. You could then be reasonably worried that a large building might pop into being from nothing above your home and crush it, but clearly such a worry seems unreasonable.
To illustrate this one step further, suppose astronauts landed on Pluto and found robots there. One astronaut, desperate to avoid believing in a nonhuman creator, says, “Maybe these robots popped into being uncaused out of nothing shortly before we got here.” If others told him we’ve never seen such a thing happening, his reply that “Maybe things pop into being only rarely, at least until recently” or “Maybe it happens only when we’re not looking” would seem terribly ad hoc, in addition to all the other problems I’ve mentioned (the three reasons to believe ex nihilo nihil fit I gave earlier). But more to the point, you would greet the astronaut’s claim with severe skepticism, but unless you held to the uniformity of nature (as regarding the impossibility or rarity of things popping into being from nothing) you could not possibly justify your skepticism, and if ex nihilo nihil fit violations can happen at all, you would have no basis for thinking that the uniformity of nature regarding the rarity of things coming into being from nothing would continue to apply.
We thus have two options: (1) abandon seemingly justifiable skepticism against claims like the astronaut saying the robots popped into being from nothing; (2) accept ex nihilo nihil fit.
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