Thursday, 22 August 2013

Has Science Shown Some Things Begin to Exist Without Cause?

An important premise in some arguments for God’s existence is that anything that begins to exist has a cause. That is, things that come into being don’t just pop into existence for no reason. There is some cause that explains why that thing started to exist when it did. There is a causal story involving your parents that explains why you exist, for instance, and it would be odd, to say the least, if there weren't. This premise – anything that beings to exist has a cause - seems intuitive, reasonable and attractive to most people. Check out the video below for a neat summary of one argument for God’s existence – the Kalam Cosmological Argument – that features this premise.  

We’ll call this premise the causal premise or “CP” for short. In an argument featuring CP it will usually be other, more controversial premises that draw critical discussion. In the Kalam Cosmological Argument, it is more common to question the second premise’s claim that the universe began to exist than to question CP. Most critical discussion of Kalam centres on whether we really do have good scientific evidence or philosophical arguments for thinking that the universe has a finite history. But sometimes CP draws critical attention and is challenged too.

Sometimes it is asserted that, in fact, the recent findings of science have given us good reason to reject CP. It is alleged that research (usually regarding the quantum world) has actually shown us that some things (certain tiny particles) can come into being without any cause at all. When this assertion is made, what typically follows is a discussion of the particular research the challenger of CP has in mind, and whether it truly implies that some things have begun to exist without a cause. That’s all well and good but I think the question of whether science has refuted CP can be settled at a “meta” level. That is, when we reflect on the very nature of science, not just particular scientific endeavours, we see that science could never rationally lead us to conclude that CP is false. It’s just not within the possible scope of science to determine that anything has begun to exist without cause.

Why think science has such a limitation? Consider the state of affairs in science that, if obtained, would most suggest that CP is false. Presumably we would have some entity that we know is not eternal (we observe tokens of its kind beginning to exist) which we are trying to find the cause of. Let’s call this entity the appearing particle or “AP” for short. Presumably, if we’re tempted to say that AP is causeless, that’s because scientists are having a nauseatingly hard time locating a cause for AP. That is, presumably we have no plausible candidates for AP’s cause and almost zero confidence that we will find one. After all, if we had a plausible candidate for AP’s cause, or a reasonable hope of discovering one, we would likely not conclude that AP is causeless. To conclude that AP is causeless while a plausible causal explanation is on offer is to just throw away a potentially good explanation of AP’s existence. So, to reiterate, the most suggestive scenario for the conclusion that CP is false is the existence of something like AP and, after sufficient study of AP, a total lack of plausible causal candidates or hope for any to emerge.

How we interpret this scenario from here will depend on what we consider to be possible candidates to put on the table in a scientific explanation.

On quite a mainstream view of science, the discipline is constrained by methodological naturalism. That is, only naturalistic explanations can feature in scientific explanations. Only causes that are naturalistic are allowed in science. What exactly counts as naturalistic is fuzzy but taking a mainstream interpretation again, a cause counts as naturalistic if it is physical. So on this mainstream understanding of science, only physical explanations and causes can be appealed to.

Well then, assuming methodological naturalism in our above scenario, our scientists, in so far as they have been practising science and not something else (like pseudo-science), will have found themselves lacking any plausible physical cause for AP’s existence. They will have searched high and low for a physical cause for AP, come up short, and have good grounds for being highly sceptical of the future prospects of finding a physical cause for AP. This, given methodological naturalism, would be the scenario that would most suggest rejecting CP on the basis of science. But would we actually be rationally justified in concluding that CP is false on the basis of this state of affairs?

I think not. After all, because of methodological naturalism, none of the scientific research conducted will have examined the plausibility of a non-physical cause for AP. On methodological naturalism, non-physical causes just aren’t entertained as part of science. As such the scientists weren’t looking for non-physical causes and so wouldn’t have ruled out some such cause. So while the option is open to us to conclude that AP is simply without a cause, it is open to us to consider also that AP might have a non-physical cause. The question would then be: which is the more rational option to take?

It seems to me that it would always be more rational to conclude that AP has a non-physical cause rather than concluding that AP is causeless. If we conclude that AP is causeless we leave ourselves without any intelligible explanation as to why AP comes to exist exactly when it does, or why, if CP is false, it’s AP and not also tigers, cats, buildings etc that can come into being without cause. To make sense of what we observe we would need to suppose that there are some sort of rules that govern which non-existent entities can come into existence uncaused and when. But non-existence entities don’t exist! There are no rules that can apply to them. A non-physical cause, on the other hand, even if inaccessible to further study, could still in principle account for the order and intelligibility in APs coming to existence.

I conclude, then, that if we operate with methodological naturalism, the scientific scenario most suggestive of CP’s falsity would not in fact warrant the conclusion that CP is false. It would in fact strongly warrant the conclusion that there exists some non-physical entity! Of course, given the methodological naturalism, this conclusion – that AP has a non-physical cause - wouldn’t count as science. We couldn’t include it in a scientific textbook or teach it in a science classroom. But so what? It would still be what we should rationally believe. It would just fall under some other domain of human knowledge. Philosophy perhaps.

How do things look, though, if we instead jettison methodological naturalism as a constraint on science? What if, for the sake of argument, we allow scientists to entertain non-physical entities as well as physical entities as candidates for scientific explanation? What if any possible entity could in principle feature in a scientific account? Are the prospects for falsifying CP any better? Let’s consider such an unfettered scientific enterprise. What would be the scenario most suggestive of CP’s falsity?

Presumably it would be much the same as the previous scenario but with much wider scope. That is, our scientists are trying to explain how AP comes to exist and have no plausible candidates for explanation of any possible sort. There seem to be no physical entities or non-physical entities that work as a causal explanation of AP and it seems highly unlikely that any will emerge. Again, if we did have a plausible candidate, we would reach for it, and the scenario would not be suggestive of CP’s falsity. But we are imagining the scenario most suggestive of CP’s falsity and so we are imagining that no plausible cause is at hand. With physical causes and non-physical causes of AP utterly lacking, everything would seem to be ruled out. AP’s coming to exist would seem utterly causeless.

This looks like a more promising scenario for rationally concluding that AP is causeless. Trouble is, this scenario could not ever possibly occur. That’s because while we are throwing open the scientific gates to any conceivable entity, we are always faced with the following possibility: there exists an entity E that is the cause of AP but which is otherwise utterly imperceptible to scientific study. Such an entity could never be scientifically ruled out and is always a potential explanation of AP. Indeed, E would always be a better explanation of AP than that AP began to exist without cause, for the same reasons of intelligibility elaborated above. Even entity E allows, in principle, for the intelligibility of APs coming to exist in a way that the causeless explanation does not.

So even if the floodgates of science are opened way wider than methodological naturalism allows, the most suggestive scenario of CP’s falsity could never rationally warrant the belief that CP really is false. The most radical possible scenario would actually warrant the belief in an entity like E which explains AP but which we cannot otherwise scientifically study. And the conclusion that E exists would even be a proper part of science.            

However you slice it, then, science just cannot directly rebut the causal premise.


  1. What causes your free will decisions to begin to exist?

    What is meant by 'contra-causal free will'?

  2. 'Everything that begins to exist has a cause.'

    Hands up those people who know about literally everything that has begun to exist and so can say that this is true or false.

  3. Hi Steven. Is there any argument in the actual article you would like to address?

    1. 'If we conclude that AP is causeless we leave ourselves without any intelligible explanation as to why AP comes to exist exactly when it does, or why,...'

      So is there a non-physical thing creating particles at random? Because these particles are created randomly.

      Why would any god want to act in such a way that it is impossible to tell the difference between God and a random number generator?

    2. I have no interest, in this post, in arguing that God is the cause of anything (and if God were involved, it might not be easy to conclude that these particles are ultimately random but that's another issue). Do I think it is more plausible to think that some sort of non-physical entity is creating particles at random than that these particles just begin to exist uncaused? Yes, for reasons of intelligibility mentioned in the article.

  4. I just did.

    Your argument appears to be that science can't prove there is no such thing as karma influencing things.

    True, but so what?

    How do you know about literally everything that has begun to exist?

    And do free-will decisions begin to exist?

    What causes your free-will decisions?

    1. If you think my argument is /just/ that science can't rule out certain explanations, you have misunderstood the argument.

      What sort of epistemic principle are you implicitly invoking when you ask me whether I know about whether literally everything that has begun to exist has a cause?

      I also don't care about your free will questions. Perhaps CP would also entail that libertarian free will is false (as you seem to be implying). Whatever. Perhaps compatibilism is true. That's just a whole massive issue that takes us far away from this post's concerns.

  5. There seem to be to main atheistic responses to the cosmological argument
    1) Our universe is only one sample of an infinite succession of universes
    2) The principle “everything which begins to exist has a cause” is an induction only valid for things in our universe, but not for our universe itself

    So far as I know, no theist has been able to disprove both answers, that’s why I consider the cosmological argument to be a failure

    That said, 2) is a dangerous route for an atheist to take, since they can also no longer justify Occam’s razor and their use against theism, as I explain here

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  6. Lothar - surely 2) can be rebutted thus? If we think of the universe as being simply the sum (or collection) of all things contained within it, then surely, if everything in our universe that begins to exist has a cause, then by extension, if the collection of everything within the universe (i.e. the universe) begins to exist, then it too must have a cause? (I confess philosophy is not my area of expertise, but I don't see why this reasoning should be wrong) Also I'm not sure what you're getting at with 1) - is this a reference to cyclic universe models?

    Steven - You say, 'What causes your free-will decisions?' I'd have thought the straightforward answer would be the agent doing the deciding (i.e. me, bearing in mind the use of 'your' in your question)? You also say, 'So is there a non-physical thing creating particles at random? Because these particles are created randomly.' If there were a non-physical thing creating particles, surely they would not be random, but determined (since they would be caused)? It does look a bit like begging the question to assert they are random when that is what is at issue. In any case, we only have reason for asserting their creation is random (as opposed to apparently random) if the Copenhagen interpretation of QM is true (which I would dispute).

    Regarding the actual post - 'If we conclude that AP is causeless we leave ourselves without any intelligible explanation as to why AP comes to exist exactly when it does, or why, if CP is false, it’s AP and not also tigers, cats, buildings etc that can come into being without cause.' The objection to CP would largely come from proponents of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (which, incidentally, is currently rejected in cosmological circles because it requires specifying a privileged 'observer' reference frame - I would also reject it personally because of its positivist leanings). Bear in mind there are a number of deterministic interpretations of QM out there (e.g. Bohmian mechanics, Everett, etc.). Anyway, bear in mind that APs arise in QM because of the energy-time relation of the uncertainty principle - in other words, the higher the energy of the AP, the less time it will exist for. So regarding why tigers, etc. do not spontaneously appear, since a tiger has much more energy than, say, an electron (many, many orders of magnitude more), it would exist for such a blindingly small period of time it would be unmeasurable. More to the point, supposing that all the particles constituting the tiger popped into existence at once, there would not be time for the particles to interact in such a way as to construct a tiger before they were subsequently annihilated (e.g. there would be no time for chemical bonds to form between particles to form the tiger's DNA, etc.). Anyway I am being pedantic here, but my point is that, supposing CP were untrue, we would have no reason to suppose that tigers would appear out of nothing, but we might have reason to suppose a particle might. That said, I have just used physical reasoning to argue against a metaphysical principle, but I was simply arguing against this particular bit of inductive justification for CP. I do in general agree with this blog post, and I do think CP is true (in large part because I think Copenhagen is bad science).

  7. 'You say, 'What causes your free-will decisions?' I'd have thought the straightforward answer would be the agent doing the deciding (i.e. me, bearing in mind the use of 'your' in your question)? You also say, 'So is there a non-physical thing creating particles at random? Because these particles are created randomly.' If there were a non-physical thing creating particles, surely they would not be random, but determined (since they would be caused)? '

    So if your free will decisions are caused, as you insist they are, are they not determined by the state of the universe prior to the decision (Let's assume you exist in this universe)?

    And you can ask 100 scientists if quantum mechanics works according to purely random statistical methods, and 99 will say yes. The other won't have heard the question properly.

    And if scientists can't disprove the existence of non-physical things like karma, then so what?

    No god is going to create anything any time soon. Because Christians worship an idol, and we can see that their idol can't create any new creatures. That just doesn't happen.

    The equations are deterministic, but the real life observations show things happening purely randomly. There are no hidden , local variables.

  8. Steven, the point of this article was simply to demonstrate that science can't disprove the causality of something's existence; it was not to prove that everything has a cause. The point is valid. As a very well-educated scientist myself, I have observed how so many scientists very unscientifically eliminate potential causal hypotheses either because they don't think they scientifically can or don't want to consider them, not because they have any scientific rationale for doing so. One must choose with great faith to worship science as god--a gold-standard of truth--before one can determine something is causeless or does not exist simply because he doesn't think he scientifically can study why or doesn't want to study why.
    Jason @

  9. Science uses Occam's Razor - not multiplying entities beyond necessity.

    Are you claiming that Occam's Razor is not infallible?

    Most scientists will simply say 'So what?'.

    If you want to claim that A causes B, you have to show that A exists. Simply claiming that science can't disprove the existence of A will be met with blank looks by sceptics.

    And, of course, it tends to be theists who claim that there is such a thing as 'contra-causal free will', usually just after they have explained that causes can never be ruled out....

  10. Hi Steven - just thought I'd provide a few thoughts:

    1) You say, 'So if your free will decisions are caused, as you insist they are, are they not determined by the state of the universe prior to the decision (Let's assume you exist in this universe)?' So far as I am aware, most philosophers who advocate libertarian free will would argue the mind has some element to it that is not reducible to physical states of affairs, and so our decisions would not be completely determined by the prior state of the universe (there are a number of different positions that would support this in one form or another, ranging from Cartesian dualism to some form of emergence hypothesis). Philosophy of mind is a frightfully complicated subject, and certainly neuroscience is too young a science to be able to adjudicate between theories at present. Within a completely dualist framework (say, substance dualism), the mind exists immaterially, and so the causal chain of decision making stops with the agent doing the deciding. With emergence, things are more complicated, but I still think agent causation has meaning within such a theory.

    2) On QM. You say, 'And you can ask 100 scientists if quantum mechanics works according to purely random statistical methods, and 99 will say yes. The other won't have heard the question properly.' I doubt it - having studied the academic literature quite a bit (I do study the subject after all), there is a certain amount of debate about the interpretation of QM (providing the author cares - an awful lot of physicists take the 'shut-up-and-calculate' approach, preferring not to ask what QM actually means - while I disagree with them, I can understand why). Many-worlds (which is completely deterministic) is growing in popularity. I've already said that Copenhagen (which would support your 'truly random' suggestion) is rejected by cosmologists because it isn't compatible with the way cosmology is done. You also say, 'The equations are deterministic, but the real life observations show things happening purely randomly. There are no hidden , local variables.' I would dispute that. It's true that Bell's and Leggett's theorems have eliminated some hidden variables theorems, but by no means all of them (there are huge classes of them that are currently beyond the realms of experiments). Hidden variables theories would have to be non-local (which is a feature shared with Copenhagen). My current feelings on the subject is that the correct interpretation of QM has yet to be found. Cosmologists mostly currently adopt many-worlds (with a minority adopting Bohmian mechanics), though this is pragmatic, and most don't believe it to be the correct answer to the problem (perhaps merely a step in the right direction). QM is in a bizarre state where the maths works (fantastically), but no-one is terribly sure what the maths means (hence the huge number of different interpretations, and why a lot of physicists prefer not to get involved and just go for 'shut-up-and-calculate'). I do not think Copenhagen is right - instead of providing answers to questions, it just shrugs its shoulders and says 'that's just how it is'. I do not think physics is at a stage where this is a particularly reliable conclusion, and a lot more research is needed. Certainly, the jury is very much out over whether APs are truly random, or whether they only appear to be that way (and I think the latter is a lot better conclusion - Martin's blog post is helpful here. You might also be interested in reading some David Deutsch, a physicist who has written a lot on QM).

    3) Is Occam's razor infallible? I think Lothar's link is quite helpful here.

    Anyway, I've said quite a lot (QM is a subject I'm quite passionate about, in case you hadn't noticed - it's a fascinating subject), but I hope my ramblings have been helpful. This'll do for now. :)

  11. 'and so our decisions would not be completely determined by the prior state of the universe '

    How on Earth can you possibly know this?

    Are there any hidden, non-local variables which determine your free-will decisions? Free will decisions which you insist are caused.

    You can't claim science can rule out causes, but philosophers are free to claim that things aren't determined by the state of the universe.

    And how does your body manage to evade the laws of physics, even if your mind can?

    Are you claiming the deterministic laws of physics you say exist do not apply to your body?

    '... so the causal chain of decision making stops with the agent doing the deciding. '

    It can't stop. The deciding began to exist, so that must have a cause. That cause began to exist, so that must have a cause, etc....

  12. Hola - enjoyed this immensely. I'll resist the urge to go all metaphysically nuance-ish and just try and stick to one point; namely the bit about removing methodological naturalism from science. That sounds like an enormous contradiction, especially if it leads to entertaining non-physical 'entities'. By definition a field fundamentally based in empiricism can't deal with agents outside of that domain. There would be no way to acquire data. We'd be straight back to pure metaphysics, science just couldn't follow. I appreciate that you mentioned how this would be the case, relegating an explanation of AP back philosophy, but it would be impossible to validate anything if it couldn't be tackled with science, surely. That is, if it couldn't be reduced to its basic principles and explained.

    Also, while I think of it, there's no reason in my mind to invoke non-physical causes for AP. There are plenty of interesting theories around in modern physics that could potentially explain not just AP phenomena but appearing universes too, such as cyclic cosmology or, pretty close to my heart, the universe as an agent that gives birth to itself. These could still all be physical, or - I guess - normative, causes.

    What I imagine most hardened materialists would take issue with here is the notion of 'non-physicality' in the first place. I'm not sure there's a solid ontology out there yet to even explain what that term means. It's not so much that our science hasn't yet developed to a point to address it, but rather I think that it is, by virtue of what it is in the first place, impossible to even demonstrate what it might mean. There's no way to represent it, to my knowledge. You certainly couldn't quantify or replicate it. And for that reason I can't imagine empiricism or any of the other traditional standards of knowledge would ever be able to incorporate it into its model of the world.

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for your response!

      Just to clarify, I wasn't, in this post, claiming that we should in fact remove methodological naturalism from science. I just wanted to cover all the bases and see whether, /if/ methodological naturalism were removed, we would have any better chance of scientifically disconfirming CP (and I argued that we wouldn't). So perhaps actually removing methodological naturalism from science would be crazy. That's fine. I had already argued that standard science - set within the bounds of metaphysical naturalism - would be unable to scientifically disconfirm CP, and it's that inability that I was solely concerned to demonstrate. I don't think, though, that there would be any sort of epistemic problem in "relegating" a non-physical explanation of AP to philosophy rather than science. You might have to give me more insight into the problem you perceive.

      Also, you might be right that there are plenty of physical explanations for the kind of "AP"s science is presently discussing. In which case, CP is under no threat.

      Moving on, is "immaterialism" conceptually meaningless? Well, I don't think so, and I think there are plenty of materialist who don't think so either (such materialists would think that immaterialism is a coherent concept that could be instantiated in reality but, as it happens, is not). But certaintly some materialists, you rightly observe, do not think immaterialism is conceptually robust enough to even begin to play around with in explanatory theories. If that's right - if immaterialism can't even get off the conceptual ground - then my argument will plausibly be undone. If only material explanations are conceptually possible then it might indeed by possible for science to disconfirm CP. I doubt, though, we'll be able to settle the conceptual validity of immaterialism here. Good point in bringing it up though.

  13. Alex - really enjoyed your comment. :) My personal approach to philosophy of science would be (roughly, at least) Popperian, and I'm not convinced methodological naturalism fits in well with such a framework. Apart from anything else, while I recognise methodological naturalism does not commit one to the ontological variety, I'm not convinced a coherent definition of 'natural' has been found, so I'm not sure either brand of it has much use in serious discussion - it seems a little arbitrary to me to call, say, an electron natural (or physical), but a ghost non-natural, without some systematic criteria. I also agree that physical/non-physical is not very helpful either. Nevertheless, you could probably replace the word 'non-physical' in the article with 'immaterial', and it would still remain coherent (and valid, in my opinion). I am not convinced science is necessarily committed to empiricism - certainly Popper disagreed with it. I think scientific theories must be open to falsifiability, but also to criticism. The key thing here is that, even if an entity is unmeasurable, it is still accessible to criticism, and we can criticise a theory to see if it 'works'. In this way, it is possible for a theory to be falsified, not just by experiment, but by criticism (in fact I would go so far as to say that, without criticism, we have not properly understood an experiment). You briefly mention cyclic models - these tend to end up having a beginning some point in the past, even if the singularity leading to this particular universe isn't the initial one (either due to the second law of thermodynamics, or the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, or some combination thereof). I'm a little confused by the phrase 'the universe as an agent that gives birth to itself' (mainly the use of the word 'agent') - could you expand? It sounds interesting. :)

  14. Also, I think the point of the article wasn't that we should conclude APs have a non-physical cause, but that if no physical cause could be found, it would be better to say the cause was non-physical rather than to there was no cause at all) :)

    1. Right. I wasn't arguing that for an AP-like entity currently in scientific discussion we should, right now, be concluding a non-physical cause (after all perhaps there are good physical explanations to hand for this entity). I was just arguing that, if circumstances seem to favour a non-causal explanation of an AP, those cirsumtances would in fact better favour some non-physical cause of AP.

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