Does Physics Disprove the First-Cause Argument?

September 25, 2013 | 5 comments

In a previous post I argued that a common atheist intuition about what would count as proof for the existence of God also provides a foundation for the intuition that something cannot come into existence from nothing without a natural cause. If this intuition is true, then it would provide much more support for the first premise of the kalam cosmological argument. For those who are unfamiliar with this argument for the existence of God, it goes like this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

I alluded in my previous article to observations in quantum physics that critics claim are direct counter-examples to the premise “Whatever begins to exist has a cause.” I’ll call this the quantum physics objection. So what exactly is this objection?

Tiny Physics

Physics describes how objects move and behave in the world, but traditional physics has a limit when it comes to describing really small objects, such as electrons or quarks. For that we need quantum physics (also called quantum mechanics), which explains the nature and motion of atoms as well as the particles that make up atoms. Because these particles are so small, they can act in strange ways.

For example, scientists have observed so-called “virtual particles” emerging, apparently without a cause, from an empty vacuum. They have also observed atomic nuclei decay and emit alpha, beta, or gamma particles in an unpredictable way that appears to not have any cause. 

If these things can occur without a cause in the quantum realm, then it seems that premise #1 is not true and the Kalam cosmological argument is undermined or refuted. How could a defender of this argument respond to this objection?

Not Something from Nothing

The major intuitive support behind premise #1 is that something can’t come from nothing without a supernatural cause. The case of virtual particles “popping into existence” does not overturn this intuition, because these entities do not emerge from “nothing.” They instead emerge from the quantum vacuum, or a field with a very low energy level. Columbia University Philosopher and theoretical physicist David Albert writes,

[V]acuum state—no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems—are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff . . . the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those [quantum] fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

Albert’s reasoning also applies to alpha or beta particles that emerge from a decaying atomic nucleus, an event that is also not a case of “something coming from nothing.” Since the quantum physics objection does not invalidate the broader intuition “something can’t come from nothing” that undergirds premise #1 (“Whatever begins to exist has a cause”), then we could reformulate the KCA and just rely on this uncontested foundational intuition:

  1. If the universe began to exist from nothing, then the universe has a transcendent cause.
  2. The universe began to exist from nothing.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a transcendent cause.

Some people object to this reformulation because, in the words of atheist Aron Zavaro, “[M]odern physics has seriously challenged the common-sense intuitions which have given rise to belief in P1,” such as the intuition that something cannot come into existence from nothing without a supernatural cause. Zavaro goes on to claim that, “[T]he everyday man on the street would surely tell you that empty space stays empty! The man on the street would also surely tell you that a spaceless-timeless state could never produce anything without God's help . . . such commonsense intuitions are false.”

Overcoming Intuitions

I disagree with this critic’s assessment. First, people may not properly think through a hypothetical situation involving the word empty. If you ask most people what it would be like to spend twenty-four hours in an “empty" room, they’ll usually say it would be “boring,” as opposed to being “fatal,” which is the correct answer, because you would quickly suffocate in a vacuum without oxygen or even air pressure.

The normal man has a correct intuition that “empty” space cannot produce anything; he is just mistaken about a factual claim related to what he perceives to be empty space. The space he thinks is empty isn’t truly empty; it contains an invisible, low-level quantum energy field. Armed with that knowledge, the average man may indeed agree that small particles could come into existence from that energy field, but he would rightly judge that these particles have some kind of cause or origin for their existence.

On the other hand, there is no further analysis that will demonstrate that a true state of “nothing” (or a total lack of being) can have a hidden property which allows things to come into existence through it.

Still Causes at Work

Even if the event of a virtual particle coming into existence or the event of an atom decaying are completely random, it doesn’t follow that the virtual particles or the alpha particles themselves are without a cause for their existence. Their causes are the quantum vacuum and the decaying nucleus, respectively. The events associated with the coming into existence of quantum particles simply have a probabilistic cause (as opposed to a predictable physical cause) that regulates their occurrence under given conditions.

If this were not the case and these particles were truly mysterious, uncaused entities, then scientists would be unable to replicate in the laboratory the circumstances where these particles come into existence. John Jefferson Davis writes,

Quantum-mechanical events may not have classically deterministic causes, but they are not thereby uncaused or acausal. The decay of a nucleus takes place in view of physical actualities and potentialities internal to itself, in relation to a spatiotemporal nexus governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. The fact that uranium atoms consistently decay into atoms of lead and other elements—and not into rabbits or frogs—shows that such events are not causal but take place within a causal nexus and lawlike structures.[i]

Similarly, the actions of creatures with libertarian free will may not have an antecedent physical cause, but that does not mean that those actions occur “without” a cause. Just because I cannot predict exactly when a person will choose to speak, this does not entail that the words that emerge from her mouth are some kind of weird “uncaused” event. The words she speaks have a real though indeterminate cause.

Conclusion

Uncaused events in quantum mechanics do not refute the principle that something can come from nothing. Furthermore, the reduction of causation in quantum events to unpredictable probabilities does not refute our normal experience that objects simply do not appear without a cause. This leaves us with sufficient evidence to believe that “whatever begins to exist must have a cause for its existence.”

To learn more about how to answer contemporary challenges to the arguments for the existence of God, pick up a copy of my new book Answering Atheism, availble from Catholic Answers Press.




[i] See John Jefferson Davis. Frontiers of Science and Faith: Examining Questions from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 2002) 55-56.


Ever since he converted to Catholicism at the age of seventeen, Trent Horn has had a passion for explaining and defending the Faith. After earning a degree in history from Arizona State University, Trent traveled the country training pro-life advocates on college campuses to engage opponents in...

Answering Atheism
Today’s popular champions of atheism are often called New Atheists, because they don’t just deny God’s existence (as the old atheists did)—they consider it their duty to scorn and ridicule religious belief. But there’s nothing really “new” about their arguments. They’re the same basic objections to theism that mankind has wrestled with for centuries. We don’t need new answers for this aggressive modern strain of unbelief: We need a new approach. In Answering Atheism, Trent Horn responds to that need with a fresh and useful resource for the God debate, combining a thorough refutation of atheist claims with a skillfully constructed case for theism based on reason and common sense. Just as important, he advocates a charitable approach that respects atheists’ sincerity and good will—making this book suitable not just for believers but for skeptics and seekers too.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Dave Jones - San Marcos, California

Well said. You can't make something out of nothing there had to be an intelligent mind to plan all of this and that was God.
Hawkins can't even explain why a butterfly comes from a caterpillar.

September 29, 2013 at 6:45 pm PST
#2  Tod G - Lewiston, Idaho

I am glad to see Catholic theologians and apologists using the Kalam variation of the cosmological argument. I think William Craig has done a lot of good work perfecting it, and there isn't any reason why Catholics shouldn't learn and know it in addition to Aquinas' five ways.

September 29, 2013 at 7:08 pm PST
#3  Susan Petonic - North Ridgeville, Ohio

I agree. On top of that, we know that love is a learned behavior. Children are born selfish and must be taught to love and put others' needs ahead of their own. If there was no loving God to teach man to love, how did he learn it?

October 1, 2013 at 9:58 am PST
#4  Marius de Jess - City of Manila, Rizal

I just like to say that in all exchange of thoughts with atheist scientists it is very important that both sides first take the task of coming to concur on the concepts of the terms used, like nothing, something, existence, vacuum fluctuation, etc.

Then next, we invite them to consider whether the concepts concurred on are purely in our mind or also most important they represent actual objective things outside our mind, so that even if we do not think of them, they exist, like for example a pebble is not just a word/concept in our mind but there is an objective thing outside our mind that corresponds to the word/concept in our mind.

QUOTE
Columbia University Philosopher and theoretical physicist David Albert writes,

[V]acuum state—no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems—are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff . . . the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those [quantum] fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.
UNQUOTE

Vacuum state, is that a concept in man's mind and in the mind can be manipulated with other concepts, but without any objective thing corresponding to the concept, vacuum state?

And the manipulation of this vacuum state in the mind of man with other concepts that do have objective things corresponding to them, that is a recipe for all manners of fallacious conclusions on existence and/or non-existence of things outside man's mind.

As regards fist and fingers and fist popping in and out of existence, I think the analogy of David Albert is a bit fallacious, to say the least.

Fist is the collectivity of fingers when they are grasped together, so there is really nothing that is distinctly independent of fingers, which as fist does pop in and out from nothing: instead it pops in and out of existence from fingers.

My point is that such a utterance is purely in the mind, and forgive me, it is magic to use fist as an example of something that pops in and out of nothing, not being true, because the fist pops in and out from fingers.

There is simply no example at all in objective reality of something that pops in and out from nothing.

Perhaps, David Albert thinks that he is doing a good argument, but atheist scientists are not convinced, and they are quite smart to declare that David Albert is into magic talk as usual with folks who are into religion, which folks are really into fallacious now you see it, now you don't, with the abuse of words/concepts to do apologetics magic.

The better approach would be to require atheists to explain what they mean by nothing, and what they mean by vacuum state, and are they talking purely in the realm of the mind or and also with connection to the realm of objective reality?

June 13, 2014 at 2:45 pm PST
#5  Anon Anon - A, Nevada

God is not necessary for the creation of the universe.

September 14, 2014 at 7:44 pm PST

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