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: