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Does Physics Disprove the First-Cause Argument?

Trent Horn

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.


Uncaused events in quantum mechanics do not refute the principle that something cannot 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.

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