The Case for a Creator: It's All Because of Quantum

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 5

In discussing the kalam argument, William Lane Craig makes some points that touch on modern research in cosmology and physics, so I’ll address those. He begins with the premise that “whatever begins to exist has a cause”:

“It seems metaphysically necessary that anything which begins to exist has to have a cause that brings it into being. Things don’t just pop into existence, uncaused, out of nothing.” [p.99]

If we accept that William Lane Craig’s notions of what is “metaphysically necessary” constitute binding law on the universe, then this is a strong point; otherwise, not so much.

In fact, the uncaused appearance of particles and events is a regular feature of quantum mechanics, the probabilistic theory that governs the behavior of the subatomic world. For example, the radioactive decay of an atom, according to our best understanding of QM, is uncaused in the strongest of senses. It happens completely at random, such that even a superintelligence possessing all facts in the universe could not predict precisely when a single atom will decay.

Another feature of QM is “virtual particles”, which occasionally appear, at random and uncaused, out of fluctuations in the subatomic vacuum. Craig dismisses these as “merely theoretical constructs” [p.101], but unfortunately for him, virtual particles exert effects that have been directly detected and measured – such as the Casimir force, a slight attractive force that exists between two parallel conductive plates in a vacuum. In fact, engineers who craft microscopic mechanical systems have to take this force into account lest it cause their components to behave in unexpected ways.

“The quantum vacuum is not what most people envision when they think of a vacuum… it’s a sea of fluctuating energy, an arena of violent activity that has a rich physical structure and can be described by physical laws… So it’s not an example of something coming into being out of nothing, or something coming into being without a cause.” [p.101]

Craig has done nothing to refute the claim that quantum events are uncaused, although his point is well taken that the subatomic vacuum is not “nothing”. But in that case, he has to accept that “nothingness”, as traditionally conceived of, does not exist – which renders specious his complaints about atheists who believe that particles and forces can emerge from the void. By his own account, all we’re claiming is that these phenomena emerge from the quantum vacuum, which he himself seems to find perfectly plausible.

Craig’s next point is a real howler:

“And then we have to ask, well, what is the origin of the whole quantum vacuum itself? Where does it come from? …You’ve simply pushed back the issue of creation.” [p.101]

And postulating a supernatural magician as the first cause evades this problem? Or is it that Craig has copyrighted the word “uncaused” and so he’s the only one who gets to decide how it may and may not be applied?

This would have been a good place for a journalist to jump in and ask the obvious followup question of why postulating God as the first cause is not also just “pushing back the issue of creation”, why God doesn’t need a creator of his own. But Strobel seems to feel that Craig’s blatant special pleading is something that will whiz by his likely readers without their taking notice, and he may well be right about that.

Logically speaking, there are only two possibilities for the ultimate origin of the universe: either there is an infinite regress of causes, or there is a first cause that cannot be explained in terms of earlier causes. Both atheists and theists should be able to agree that those are the choices. If there’s an infinite regress of causes, it seems pointless to keep investigating further and further back; such a quest would be guaranteed never to end. If there is a first cause, though, we can productively ask questions about what sort of thing it might be.

This is where Craig and Strobel run into trouble, because we already have an excellent candidate for a first cause: the quantum vacuum, a timeless, chaotic state that continually spawns new universes through random statistical fluctuation. We already know that the vacuum exists and we know what many of its properties are, so no new entities are required in this explanation. In arbitrarily deciding that the vacuum must have a cause, however, Craig introduces a new entity – a supernatural deity which he believes has the power to create new universes. This is something we have no experimental evidence for, and it solves the first-cause problem no better than making the vacuum the first cause. Later in this chapter, Craig declares his allegiance to the principle of Occam’s Razor, and this unnecessary extra step is the kind of superfluous add-on that the Razor is tailor-made to cut away. We have every reason to believe that the quantum vacuum is perfectly sufficient as a first explanation for the universe. Why multiply entities beyond necessity?

Other posts in this series:

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  • Elfstone

    But…but… the vacuum can’t tell you what to do and condemn those you disapprove to eternal suffering! (Well, maybe it can, more research is needed :P)

  • prase

    This post steps on a very thin ice. I completely agree that the kalam argument is nonsense precisely for the reasons given in the post: either any event must have a cause (which one may understand as some other event earlier in time which is somehow logically connected with the later event) and thus there is no first event, or there is some first event which is therefore uncaused. Note also that the non-existence of some first event doesn’t necessarily imply that time goes to minus infinity. Time can be bounded from below without existence of any first moment, in the same way as the positive real numbers are bounded from below while there is no lowest positive number.

    But, why quantum vacuum?

    First of all, as understood in quantum field theory, vacuum is the lowest energy state of the system, which here is the whole universe, so it is somehow strange to say that it continually spawns new universes through random statistical fluctuation. Quantum vacuum doesn’t exist outside a universe.

    Also, the vacuum isn’t an event. I know that philosophers speak about different sorts of causes, like Aristotle’s material, formal, efficient and final cause, but it doesn’t seem to me fitting into the context of searching the first cause. If we suppose that it has some sense to speak about time before the universe came into being (I believe it has no sense), then we can perhaps have the idea of some eternal entirely chaotic state of things, from which, by complete random, the universe emerged at some moment. But I wouldn’t call it cause. Causality is the antithesis of randomness.

    As for the virtual particles, they play a role in interpretation of calculations rather than being directly observed things. The concept of virtual particle is extremely useful in calculations using the Feynman diagrams. But the Casimir force can be derived and explained entirely without mention of them.

  • http://friendlyhumanist.blogspot.com Timothy Mills

    First, let me congratulate you for what (I think) is a reference to Terry Pratchett in your title.

    Second, I have to quibble slightly with your assertion that “If there’s an infinite regress of causes, it seems pointless to keep investigating further and further back; such a quest would be guaranteed never to end.” As a scientist, I’d be delighted at the thought that I will never put myself out of a job by discovering the answer to the next question.

    Okay, so it’s not likely in any case. But you know what I mean: if there is an infinite regression of causes, then we’ll never have to “weep that there are no new lands (of knowledge) to conquer.” Learning about atoms was not rendered less meaningful by the discovery of the proton, electron, and neutron. That was not in turn made less worthwhile by the discovery of consituent quarks.

    Each discovery enriches our understanding of the universe, enhances our capacity to improve one another’s lives (think X-rays, GM crops, vaccines, PET and CAT scanning, lasers, etc), and opens up a new frontier of knowledge for the next generation of searchers.

    I for one would rather live in an infinite-regress world than in one where, someday, the final question might be answered and leave nothing more to explore.

  • 2-D Man

    I’ve been thinking about the Kalam argument recently. I noticed something a little odd:

    If an atheist posits that there is no god (often this part is even unnecessary), her theistic (or deistic) friend will assert that one needs to search the entire universe, and sometimes beyond, in order to know that. I’ve never seen someone call Craig out on similar grounds for declaring that all things with beginnings need causes. Has he gone out and cataloged every object in the universe with a beginning, just as is demanded from my hypothetical atheist?

  • Polly

    The same people who think all events must have causes, don’t seem capable of acknowledging the causal chain connecting their god to The Fall. Or their god’s connection to, say, the existence of Satan. Go figure.

    Some believers are likely to hold notions about free-will that mandate they be uncaused to be “truly free”(Such notions are not confined to religion). So, by this line of thought, there is no such thing as free-will and, hence, no moral basis for judgment and punishment.

  • Polly

    Oops! Left out a word.

    Shold read: Some believers are likely to hold notions about free-will that mandate choices be uncaused…

  • konrad_arflane

    For example, the radioactive decay of an atom, according to our best understanding of QM, is uncaused in the strongest of senses. It happens completely at random, such that even a superintelligence possessing all facts in the universe could not predict precisely when a single atom will decay.

    I’m not sure I agree that we can say that radioactive decay is uncaused because it is impossible to predict.

    The thing is that while the point in time where a particular atom decays is unpredictable, it *is* possible to predict whether or not a particular atom will decay or not – and even how likely it is to decay within the next 10 minutes.

    Indeed, AFAIK it is uncontroversial to state that we know what causes radioactive decay (the interplay of certain fundamental forces within the nucleus), even if we don’t know (and indeed, may never know) how to predict the timing of it in individual atoms.

  • paradoctor

    I see three possible partial resolutions to the paradox of the first cause:

    1. Infinite regress; so there is no first cause. This implies an infinitely complex universe.

    2. First cause, itself uncaused. This violates the rule that all effects have causes. An uncaused first cause is itself chaotic, and would introduce chaos into all of its effects.

    3. A first cause, caused by itself. No infinite regress, causation prevails; but somewhat loopy, so to speak. It implies a self-referential world, one that is ‘self-determinate’.

    The paradox of the first cause is like the ‘why?’ stage that all children go through. The kid asks ‘why’ over and over until something gives. You can tell the kid to shut up, or ‘just because!’, or that you don’t know; in any case the kid wins.

    An uncaused first cause, resolution #2, is like telling the kid to shut up. A causal loop, resolution #3, is like telling the kid ‘because!’ An infinite regress, resolution #1, is like telling the kid you don’t know.

    I admit to being fond of the loopy explanation. At least it’s self-consistent, though admittedly void of information. And I think the quantum vacuum is as loopy an explanation as any.

  • paradoctor

    Related to the Paradox of the First Cause is a little joke I call the Grand-god Problem.

    Define Grand-god as God’s God. Is there a Grand-god? That is, does God have a God? Does the worshipped worship?

    If not, then God is an atheist.
    If so, and Grand-god is other than God, then God isn’t really God.
    If so, and Grand-god is the same as God, then God is an egotist.

  • Staceyjw

    Interesting post! Though I know so little about it I can’t offer a good comment.
    Staceyjw

  • Lynet

    Like prase, I’m concerned about the distinction between particles emerging from space (in a quantum vacuum) and space and time expanding out from the big bang.

    On a completely different note, I’m actually quite skeptical of the notion of cause. I think it’s a tool we use to understand the universe, not a fundamental physical notion. As an example of one of the notion’s quirks, consider konrad_arflane’s comment:

    Indeed, AFAIK it is uncontroversial to state that we know what causes radioactive decay (the interplay of certain fundamental forces within the nucleus), even if we don’t know (and indeed, may never know) how to predict the timing of it in individual atoms.

    One thing that is highlighted here is the flexibility of the word ’cause’. For example, if I knock over a vase and it falls to the floor and breaks, you could say that the cause of the vase falling was the fact that I knocked it over. But you could also say that ‘gravity’ was the cause of the fall. I’m inclined to think that when we say that things are ’caused’ by physical laws, this can be different to what we mean when we say that things are ’caused’ by a previous event.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    As usual, any discussion of the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics with N participants will have N+1 opinions. :) A few thoughts:

    First, for prase:

    First of all, as understood in quantum field theory, vacuum is the lowest energy state of the system, which here is the whole universe, so it is somehow strange to say that it continually spawns new universes through random statistical fluctuation. Quantum vacuum doesn’t exist outside a universe.

    This is a debate over semantics. If you take “universe” to mean “everything that exists”, then no, the vacuum doesn’t exist outside the universe, by definition. If you take “universe” to mean “our locally observable slice of reality”, then yes, the vacuum does exist outside the universe.

    If we suppose that it has some sense to speak about time before the universe came into being (I believe it has no sense), then we can perhaps have the idea of some eternal entirely chaotic state of things, from which, by complete random, the universe emerged at some moment.

    Yes, that’s the kind of explanation I was driving at. I had in mind something like Andrei Linde’s theory of chaotic eternal inflation while writing this post, though of course the details may well prove to be different from those in his specific model. I also agree that the vacuum is the lowest energy state of the universe, but that doesn’t mean it won’t occasionally tunnel to a different state, if you have an eternity to work with. If the net energy of the universe is zero, due to the negative contributions of the gravitational field, even better.

    First, let me congratulate you for what (I think) is a reference to Terry Pratchett in your title.

    Well spotted, Timothy. :)

    But you know what I mean: if there is an infinite regression of causes, then we’ll never have to “weep that there are no new lands (of knowledge) to conquer.”

    I suppose that’s true. But if we could somehow know that there was an infinite regress, we’d also know that the question of ultimate origins – “why is there something rather than nothing?” – would be an ill-formed question with no answer. I think many people, including myself, would find that to be frustrating, even if we’d have little choice but to accept it.

    If an atheist posits that there is no god (often this part is even unnecessary), her theistic (or deistic) friend will assert that one needs to search the entire universe, and sometimes beyond, in order to know that. I’ve never seen someone call Craig out on similar grounds for declaring that all things with beginnings need causes. Has he gone out and cataloged every object in the universe with a beginning, just as is demanded from my hypothetical atheist?

    Superbly argued, 2-D Man! I have to admit, that argument never occurred to me. Of course, Craig would probably resort to some handwaving about “metaphysical necessity” if called out on it.

  • http://reasonvsapologetics.blogspot.com jim

    “The quantum vacuum is not what most people envision when they think of a vacuum… it’s a sea of fluctuating energy, an arena of violent activity that has a rich physical structure and can be described by physical laws… So it’s not an example of something coming into being out of nothing, or something coming into being without a cause.”

    This should be shouted from the mountaintops! So often one hears creationists misstating the claim of science that ‘existence came from absolute nothingness’. I’ve never seen one scientific statement to support that idea. It’s just a way to make their claim- God created existence out of nothing- seem relatively less ridiculous.

  • prase

    This is a debate over semantics. If you take “universe” to mean “everything that exists”, then no, the vacuum doesn’t exist outside the universe, by definition. If you take “universe” to mean “our locally observable slice of reality”, then yes, the vacuum does exist outside the universe.

    Well, yes, but when speaking about such things, it’s quite hard to avoid debates over semantics. It is surprisingly difficult to discuss non-familiar concepts because different people often interpret the same statements differently, and worse, usually you don’t notice when they do it. More specifically, I think that the theists who use the kalam argument use the word “universe” in the sense “everything which exists” rather than “locally observable stuff”, if they think about the distinction at all. Of course, everything which exists except God. God has always exceptions in theist logic.

    By the way, Ebon, what you say about random fluctuations reminds me of Boltzmann brains. What do you think about that? To be clear on this, I don’t take the possibility that we are Boltzmann brains much seriously, but after all, I don’t believe that our observable universe is a random fluctuation, whatever it means.

  • prase

    @Lynet

    For example, if I knock over a vase and it falls to the floor and breaks, you could say that the cause of the vase falling was the fact that I knocked it over. But you could also say that ‘gravity’ was the cause of the fall. I’m inclined to think that when we say that things are ’caused’ by physical laws, this can be different to what we mean when we say that things are ’caused’ by a previous event.

    You are right. The use of ill-defined or even undefined terms and sloppy language in precise logical arguments is plaguing philosophy from time immemorial. I think that in ordinary use, anything without which the vase wouldn’t fall can be called a cause of the fall. Both gravity and the fact that you knocked it over fit the definition, which may be not so bad, since there is no need for an event to have only a single cause. The problem comes, however, when one starts to think about meaning of “cause” intuitively, combine and conflate different meanings and derive “logical” conclusions. One can then dig a lot of paradoxes from such thinking, and people like Craig are very good in this ignoble discipline. The word “cause” is very useful in ordinary language, but I think it is a bit overrated in philosophy.

  • ancora imparo

    paradoctor’s “Loopy Explaination” & “Grand God Problem” (posts #8 &#9) are LDS doctine. Mormons believe that if they play their cards right they get to be Gods of their own planets.

    BTW: Thank you for your remarkable site (I’ve been lurking since April). Reading the excellent posts & subsequent comments has helped me to clarify why I am an Atheist.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    #11 Lynet: “Like prase, I’m concerned about the distinction between particles emerging from space (in a quantum vacuum) and space and time expanding out from the big bang.

    I’m concerned about that as well, and I think it works against Craig. His argument that nothing happens without a cause is based on observation of things within the material universe. To extend that to the universe itself seems to be a fallacy of composition. In other instances, Craig has no difficulty imagining things which have never been observed within this universe (e.g. a mind with no material instantiation). He seems to be very selective in extending physical observation to unknown realms.

  • 2-D Man

    Thanks, Ebon.

    There’s another thing in the OP which I think deserves some attention.

    Craig says:

    “The quantum vacuum … has a rich physical structure and can be described by physical laws.”

    “And then we have to ask, well, what is the origin of the whole quantum vacuum itself? Where does it come from? …You’ve simply pushed back the issue of creation.”

    One cannot ‘push back an issue’ with a ‘rich physical structure’. The two are, by definition, mutually exclusive.

  • Alex, FCD

    2-D Man says:

    One cannot ‘push back an issue’ with a ‘rich physical structure’.

    I don’t see that. Consider the following:

    Demea: Where did your laptop come from? What is the ultimate origin of your laptop?
    Philo: Well, Steve Jobs made it.
    Demea: That’s all well and good, but where did Steve Jobs come from? You’re just pushing back the issue.
    Philo: You’ve got me there.

    One can argue that Demea isn’t really raising a particularly interesting point, but I don’t think it’s the case that ‘pushing back the issue’ is impossible whether or not either the laptop or Steve Jobs have an intricate physical structure. Are we working with different understandings of what it means to ‘push back the issue’?

  • 2-D Man

    I’ve come down with a cold and am having trouble putting my thoughts in order, but I think your question deserves an answer, so I’ll try.

    Essentially, what I’ve always understood to be pushing back the issue, is where you give an answer that provides nothing new. The question(s) that arise from the answer are fundamentally the same, but have a slightly different wording.

    In your example, if Demea is really ignorant of what a “Steve Jobs” is, then, yes, Philo is merely pushing back the issue (Note that this means Demea needs more than an illusion of knowlege; when Steve Jobs in invoked, the two are thinking of the same thing whether they know it or not.). We need to be able to say more about Steve Jobs than the circular, “He’s the creator of laptops.”

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    “The kid asks ‘why’ over and over until something gives. ”

    In my case, it’s the kids. One day my nephews and nieces spent an hour asking me “Why?” I kept giving them answers. Eventually they gave up.

    It was awesome. :D

    “pushing back the issue”

    The Steve Jobs analogy doesn’t really hold. Asking what made Steve Jobs is a very different question than asking what made your laptop. But asking “where did everything come from?” is the same as asking “where did everything come from?” Unless you grant that god(s) is transcendant; i.e. not part of the world, and therefore not “everything” or even bound by causality.

    Of course, the correct answer to a god who is not part of reality is “Who cares?”

  • Alex, FCD

    We need to be able to say more about Steve Jobs than the circular, “He’s the creator of laptops.”

    Asking what made Steve Jobs is a very different question than asking what made your laptop. But asking “where did everything come from?” is the same as asking “where did everything come from?”

    Ah, I think that clears up my confusion. Thanks.

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