|Anything that Begins to Exist Has a Cause|
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Relevance to theism
The claim that “anything that begins to exist has a cause” has important relevance to something called the kalam cosmological argument (KCA). The KCA goes like this:
- Anything that begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe begins to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause.
The meaning of the first premise
First some philosophy lingo. A material cause is that which a thing is made out of, and an efficient cause is one that produces the effect. For example, in the case of a woodworker making a wooden sculpture, the sculpture’s material cause is the wood and the sculpture’s efficient cause is the woodworker.
It’s important to keep in mind that “anything that begins to exist has a cause” is using the phrase “has a cause” in a way to include both material and efficient causes, such that it means “anything that begins to exist has a [material or efficient] cause.” Put another way, the first premise means “it is not the case that something begins to exist with no efficient cause and no material cause.” Something beginning to exist with no efficient cause and no material cause constitutes that something coming into being from nothing, with “something coming into being from nothing” meaning that something comes into being but it doesn’t come into being from anything (no efficient cause and no material cause). So the first premise is basically just an affirmation of ex nihilo nihil fit.
Justification for ex nihilo nihil fit
The ex nihilo nihil fit principle has intuitive plausibility right off the bat. To illustrate, suppose a police officer finds a suspiciously large amount of money hidden in the trunk of my car and she asks me how it got there. I say to her, “Well officer, all the money just popped into being uncaused out of nothing!” Any rational police officer, even an atheist one, would immediately disbelieve me. Even if I showed the officer a video of the money apparently popping into being from nothing (one frame shows no money, the next frame shows the money) the officer would still disbelieve me and suspect I faked the video recording in some way. When confronted with a claim that something (as money, rocks, or cars) popped into being from nothing, our normal reaction is severe skepticism. If an atheist shares this same skepticism but suddenly abandons it when it comes to the universe, such a maneuver would strike me as intellectually suspicious. In any case, there are at least three reasons to accept ex nihilo nihil fit.
First, violations of ex nihilo nihil fit are literally worse than magic. When a magician waves his magic wand and *poof* a rabbit pops into being, at least you have the magician and the wand to bring about the rabbit. A rabbit popping into being without any cause whatsoever is like magic but worse because there’s not even anything to poof the rabbit into existence. A similar thing holds true for mariachi bands, tuna factories, and space shuttles poofing into existence uncaused; it’s like magic but worse because there’s not even anything to do the poofing. If the intelligent atheist has good reason to accept the implausibility of magicians who can pop things into being by waving their magic wands, she has even better reason to accept the implausibility of things popping into being uncaused out of nothing.
Second, if something can pop into being out of nothing, it becomes inexplicable why anything and everything doesn’t pop into being uncaused out of nothing. If someone says only universes can pop into being out of nothing, this raises an important question: what makes nothingness so discriminatory about what can and can’t pop into being from it? Nothingness has no properties (since there isn’t anything to have properties), and so to ascribe nothingness with a proclivity to have some things pop out of it and not others would be to make a category error, like saying the number six has a color. Another way to look at it: if things can pop into being from literally nothing, there’s nothing that would restrict or constrain what would come about, because there isn’t really anything to constrain (nothingness is quite literally nothing after all). Thus if things can pop into being uncaused out of nothing, it becomes inexplicable why anything and everything doesn’t pop into being uncaused from it; e.g. it becomes inexplicable why horses, mountains, and root beer floats don’t also pop into being uncaused. And of course, “inexplicable” means “there can’t be an explanation.” So it’s not merely that ex nihilo nihil fit is the best explanation for why everything and anything doesn’t pop into being uncaused, it’s the only explanation. The fact that that ex nihilo nihil fit is the best and only explanation for why not everything and anything pops into being uncaused provides substantial rational support for “anything that begins to exist has cause.”
Third, common experience and scientific evidence confirm that something cannot come into being from nothing. For example, if ex nihilo nihil fit could be violated it becomes inexplicable why (for example) there are not violations of the conservation of electric charge via a bunch of electrons coming into being from nothing, yet we can be pretty confident in thinking that the conservation of electric charge is a bona fide law of physics. The fact that this (and various other) laws of physics disallow various things coming into being uncaused out of nothing provides confirmation of “anything that begins to exist has a cause.” The third reason is also related to second reason. The empirical fact that we don’t see anything and everything coming into being uncaused gives us reason to think such a thing can’t happen, since ex nihilo nihil fit both explains and predicts this. It’s not as if nothingness could have a predisposition for things to pop into being from it such that it happens in cases when we’re not looking but never when we are looking. What would make nothingness so discriminatory? Nor is it the case that things popping into being from nothing is prohibited by some locations (as the ones human occupy) and not others. It doesn’t make sense that our own observable sphere puts constraints on nothingness where there would otherwise be none, because nothingness isn’t anything, so there’s literally nothing to constrain regarding what, where, and when something comes into being out of it. (It’s more sensible to view nothingness qua nonbeing as simply having no potential for something to come into being out of it.) One can’t exactly inhibit the cause of something popping into being when there’s literally no cause. If things can pop into being uncaused (i.e. no efficient cause and no material cause), they can do so anywhere at any time precisely because there is no cause.
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