Saturday, November 5, 2011

Objections to the Kālam Cosmological Argument

     One of my first posts in this blog was a post outlining and defending the Kālam Cosmological Argument. It is a very easy argument to understand, and it’s premises are generally accepted by the average person, which is one reason I regard the argument so highly. It is not, however, without its detractors, and I would be first in line to point this out. The KCA is a contentious argument. So I was not surprised to find a reader of this blog posting some objections to it in the comment section of that post. In brief, he rejects each premise as well as the conclusion. But in order to outline the objections he raises, I think it’s best to review the KCA a bit.

P1: Everything which begins to exist has a cause.
P2: The universe began to exist.
P3: Therefore the universe has a cause.

Objections To Premise 1:

“You employ (P1) either as a strong statistical generalization or as an a priori truth. If the latter, then (P1) is patently false. First, I would argue- pace W.V.O Quine- that there are no a priori truths. Second, there is no logical contradiction in conceiving of an event which has no cause.”

     I employ P1 as metaphysical intuition; I do think that we can arrive at its truth without appealing to our experience, and in that sense I think it is an a priori truth. Now, my reader wants to argue that there are no a priori truths. Well, I’d be happy for him to argue that. He does not do it here, and I fail to see how “I would argue that X is the case” is a substitute for actually arguing that X is the case. But in fact his claim is stronger than this; he says that my claim is “patently false,” and the evidence that he offers is that he “would argue” that it is false, and second that it is logically possible to conceive of an uncaused event. That’s as may be. But P1 says nothing about events as such. It speaks of things beginning to exist. It can be the case that some events are uncaused but that all things which begin to exist are caused to do so. We can see therefore that the statements “Everything which happens has a cause” and “Everything which begins to exist has a cause” are logically distinct propositions. The KCA asserts the latter, and it will do no good in rebutting the KCA to state that the former is logically coherent.

     An a priori truth is a truth which we can know independently of experience. It is, as it were, a truth which we can know by mere reflection, or conceptual analysis. This is relevant because P1 is often defended as a metaphysical principle, the falsehood of which is metaphysically impossible (note that metaphysical impossibility is not identical with logical impossibility). Now, Eamon contends that, since there are no a priori truths, we cannot a priori rule out a-causal geneses. We cannot rule out things beginning to exist without a cause until we have perhaps done some investigation of it. But such investigation is something defenders of P1 normally claim is unnecessary. So I’ll first examine his claim that there are no a priori truths.

     If he is correct, then we can know nothing without having done some sort of investigation or research; without gathering data in some way. First, this does not contradict P1; it merely attacks our justification for believing P1 to be an a priori truth. It does not rule out our knowing P1 on evidential grounds. Second, suppose we ask whether the following statement is true: “There are no a priori truths.” Obviously if this is true, it is not true a priori. So then it must be justified by evidence, right? But Eamon offers no evidence for it. Indeed, as an epistemological beginning point, it is difficult to see how evidence for this statement is even possible. It is itself a foundational assertion about epistemology and justification which all further claims to knowledge will have to satisfy; it is not itself satisfied by evidence. Consequently, as an assertion about the way in which knowledge must be justified, it seems to be self-refuting.  But if so, then a priori truths are possible, and P1 could in principle be such a truth.

     The objector seems to think that any proposition which is not self-contradictory could be true, but this ignores the distinction between logical possibility and metaphysical possibility. As such, the objection is not that P1 is false, but that we can negate it without committing to logical self-contradiction. Perhaps so, but this does not mean that it is really possible. The statement “I walked through the wall without damaging it or myself,” is logically non-contradictory, but this does not imply that this statement is really plausibly true, or even possibly true. So the objector seems to misunderstand the justification for P1, thinking that it is offered as logically impossible when the impossibility is really postulated to be of a metaphysical sort.

“I find that the available scientific evidence does not justify any inference to statements of ultimate causation – or lack of it.”

     In the first place, I might simply concede that the available scientific evidence does not justify statements of ultimate causation. But this seems to be an objection to P1 only if we include the following statement: “propositions which are not justified by the available scientific evidence are not justified at all.” If we add this, then the objection is patently false, since it, as an epistemological principle, is itself unjustified by the available scientific evidence. If we do not include it, then, as I say, there seems to be no significant objection to P1. We might just as well say that the available scientific evidence does not justify the view that an external world exists. True…but trivially true, and we are fully rational to accept the external world on other grounds.

     But on the other hand, must I accept that the available scientific evidence does not justify inferences to statements of ultimate causation? Rather, science seems to rely upon this assumption (I have not claimed that it is inferred, so the objection is a straw man) that things which begin to exist have causes, else it seems futile to try to understand the world in terms of predictions of future events by studying current or past events. It seems absurd to suggest that, for instance, science does not at least search for underlying causes of things beginning to exist. Species began to exist, and we do not typically find scientists declining to search for a cause on the grounds that scientific inferences do not justify statements of ultimate causation. They do search for a cause. And a cause of the cause. And so on as far back as they are able. If science does not or cannot in principle justify statements of ultimate causation, then this shows merely that science is not omni-competent; it does not at all show that statements of ultimate causation are unjustified.

     But here we come to an interesting rabbit trail: my objector would deny that species began to exist presumably because he denies the A-theory of time (which I’ll come to in a moment) but more importantly because he is a mereological nihilist. Mereological nihilism is the view that composite objects do not exist. So according to my objector, I do not exist, he does not exist, no trees, rocks, animals, elements, etc… exist. Only whatever is not composed of parts exists. For our purposes we might suggest that sub-atomic particles are simple and not composed of parts. A mereological nihilist would say, then, that only sub-atomic particles exist. So then, strictly speaking, the material of which “I” am composed exists, but the entity composed of that material does not.

“…causality appears to break down completely in quantum processes, and good experimental data show that quantum vacuum fluctuations and virtual particles come into existence (i.e. create measurable effects such as the Lamb effect and the Casimir-Polder force) acausally all the time.”
     So what of this claim? First of all, it does not seem to be the case that “come into existence” and “create measurable effects” are at all identical. Something which comes into existence would no doubt create a measurable effect. But something which already exists also can create a measurable effect. If so, then there is no identity between these two terms. If no identity, then they are logically distinct concepts, and we cannot infer that some measured effect represents the uncaused-coming-into-existence of something.
     But at any rate, the vacuum, in which these fluctuations take place is, in the words of physicist Laurence Krauss (himself an agnostic), “really a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles that are popping in and out of existence in a time-scale so short you can’t see them.” If the vacuum did not exist, would these particles still be popping into and out of existence? This does not seem to be the case. But if not, then the vacuum represents at the very least a causal condition which has to be satisfied in order to produce un-caused virtual particles.

     The primary thing to relate here is that there are multiple interpretations of quantum physics, and not all of them are indeterministic. For instance, the Bohmian interpretation, as noted by Craig, is fully deterministic, the appearance of acausality residing only in our minds. Moreover, Bohmian mechanics is empirically indistinguishable from interpretations of quantum physics which are indeterministic; one cannot tell on the basis of the empirical evidence which, if any, of these interpretations is correct. So if the atheist wishes to use the “indeterminacy of quantum physics” argument, he is appealing to some indeterministic interpretation which is only as empirically  justified as some deterministic one. To suggest that quantum physics just shows that things come into existence uncaused is at best highly misleading and at worst a lie. It shows nothing like that. Therefore supposed indeterminacy in quantum physics is not a good counter-example to P1.

To Premise 2:

“If time and space came into being at the initial development of the universe, then there could be no time in which the universe 'began' to exist.”

     Time is a feature of the universe which, rather than describing events or things in spacial terms (above, behind, to the right of, etc…), describes events or things in earlier-than and later-than terms. Time is, in a very real way, a fourth dimension; objects endure through time just as they do through space. The objection is logically equivalent to saying that time must be eternal in the past, since there is no “time” at which it could begin to exist. But time is just the temporal relation between events. It follows that if time is eternal in the past, so are events, and hence the universe. So the objection entails that the universe did not begin to exist, which is question-begging. What a good objection must do is argue that the universe is eternal in the past, not just assert something which entails that. Furthermore, the objection seems incoherent because it assumes that if time began to exist, it would have to do so in a time (he says there is no “time” in which the universe ‘began’ to exist). And what a philosopher of time might suggest is that, while we are currently at T=n seconds, the beginning of time happens at T=0. The universe and time itself began to exist at T=0, and there seems to be nothing conceptually problematic about this. Time begins to exist at a point but not at a time, except perhaps T=0.

“it certainly could not be the case that god could have 'caused' the universe to come into being since for y 'to cause' x entails that there are temporal relations which exist between y and x. But per the hypothesis there is no time before x, and thus no temporal relations which might exist between y and x.”

This objection is equivalent to stating that there are no a-temporal events. All causes precede their effects in time, necessarily. But this ignores simultaneous causation. The famous example (for instance in C.S. Lewis) is a ball resting on a cushion from eternity. Obviously the ball causes the depression in the cushion, rather than the curvature of the depressed cushion causing the roundness of the ball. But if they rest this way from eternity, it is false that causes must precede their effects in time. The objection relies on the impossibility of simultaneous causation. In order to defeat P2, the objector must show that it is impossible, and indeed, he tries. He states that:

“…simultaneous assymetrical [sic] causation entails that the causal influences between x and y propagate instantaneously, which is problematic since the special theory of relativity limits the transmission of causal influences to the speed of light. Thus, x and y cannot occur simultaneously.”

     This seems to miss the point, because we are here talking timeless causation in which, timelessly, there exists a dependency relationship between x and y. As in my example, a ball resting timelessly on a cushion does cause the cushion to depress. Special relativity applies within space-time; even if special relativity decisively rules out simultaneous causation within the universe, it is no way follows that without the universe simultaneous causation is impossible. And besides, the objector has not too previously insisted that the scientific evidence does not justify statements of ultimate causation; how then does he suppose Einstein’s theory of SR to absolutely and ultimately preclude simultaneous causation? SR does not directly address the type of causal relationship the cause of the universe is asserted to have with the universe because it applies within, rather than without, space-time.

“Theists cannot avail themselves of standard cosmological models of the origin of the universe *and* employ finiteness arguments consistently. E.g., in Big Bang cosmology, the infant universe is held to entail infinite density, pressure, and temperature if interpreted via general relativity (we have no other macro-level interpretation).”

     The objection asserts that theists are being inconsistent here in arguing against the existence of an actual infinite while conceding standard cosmological models which entail infinite density, pressure, and temperature at the singularity from which the universe evolved. But the problem the theist sees with infinites pertains to their countability. That is, an infinite number of discrete things (events in the past) could be counted, can be assigned numbers, and absurdities result from doing certain mathematical functions with these numbers. This is not so with the infinite heat etc. of the early universe. So the theist’s objection to actual infinite quantities cannot be construed as an objection to qualitatively infinite things; the term “infinite” is not used to refer to the same thing in these two cases, and so the atheist objection seems to equivocate by treating them as if it is.

“there is no contradiction or absurdity entailed in saying that… before any point in time there was a preceding point in time.”

     Let’s translate this. If before every point in time there is a prior point, then before every point in time there are an infinite number of prior points. This seems straightforward when one thinks about it. So the objection seems about the same as saying that there is no contradiction entailed by suggesting that the past is eternal. But then, the objector must have a defeater for the philosophical arguments offered in support of the finitude of the past. And since I’m responding here to a specific person, all I can really say is that this individual did not offer any defeaters. Moreover if Craig’s arguments in favor of the finitude of the past are successful, then there is absurdity in asserting a proposition which entails infinite past time. If the past must be finite, as Craig argues, then at least some point is time (i.e. the first) has no preceding point. What the atheist has to show is that Craig’s arguments against the eternality of the past are false, and only then can he assert that there is no contradiction or absurdity in claiming infinite past time.

“…one can either let one's (antiquated medieval) metaphysics direct one's science, or let one's science direct one's metaphysics. Apparently, and unadvisedly, you insist on former: That all that which begins to exists requires a cause is very much an empirically testable hypothesis and the *best* experimental data reveal that causation breaks down in a fundamental way. To be sure, the data indicate that causation is rather a macro-level description and has no home in the quantum world.”

     To his credit, the objector did apologize for any rudeness contained in his comments to me, and for that I’m appreciative. Consequently I’ll divest my reply of sarcasm to the extent that I’m able. I’ve already addressed the germ of this comment at some length, but in particular I’m puzzled by his comment about metaphysics directing one’s science. Science only proceeds upon the back of certain assumptions. For instance that the external world exists and is intelligible, that the future will be like the past, etc… These are not truths which derive from science; rather they are necessary in order to do science. Consequently it seems to me that, necessarily, one’s metaphysics will direct one’s science to some extent; science only works given certain metaphysical assumptions. Now as to whether I (advisedly or not) insist on this, the answer is yes. I do insist on this. I fail to see how science could proceed with no metaphysical direction at all.

     P1 is indeed testable to some extent, but the assertion that the best empirical evidence suggests its falsehood seems to be an unproven assertion. To which evidence does he refer? We’ve already seen that no interpretation of quantum mechanics cries out to us as true over and above the others, so on what basis does he contend that an indeterministic interpretation is better evidenced than or should be preferred to a deterministic one?

 “(Note that below there is much not mentioned [in particular Dr Craig's implicit employment of the contentious A-theory of time in the KCA], but the following remarks should suffice.)”

     This seems bizarre. The objector remarks that the A-theory of time is contentious. Note that the A-theory holds that only the present is real; the past and the future are not real. This sounds like it could be contentious until it is better understood. The A-theory holds that there is a past and will be a future. Past events were real when they were present events, but are no longer real. Compare this to the B-theory of time, which holds that past, present, and future events are all equally real. Now I say this objection is bizarre because an early comment made by my objector makes it clear that he himself accepts the A theory. He states that for x to cause y, there must be a temporal relationship between x and y. He seems to mean that x must precede y in time in order to cause it, and in this manner he thinks he has ruled out simultaneous causation. But x preceding y in time requires that the A-theory of time is correct over and above the B-theory. So is the objector just drawing attention to the fact that the A versus the B theory of time is contentious, although he personally holds the A-theory? It is difficult to tell. If this is all he is doing, then he may as well not have, since literally all the issues discusses herein are contentious in some respect. Moreover, he says that “the following remarks should suffice,” which implies temporal becoming, which is what the B-theory denies.

He gives a further comment concerning it, however:

“An A-theory of time is no longer plausible given Einstein's special theory of relativity and thermodynamics.”

     The comment seems to suggest that a new state of affairs has obtained; that we have gone from a state of plausibility concerning the A-theory of time to a state of implausibility as a consequence of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This is, again, bizarre, because this seems to me to imply temporal becoming, which is just what a B theorist of time denies. He does not elaborate on the exact nature of the implausibility, and I do not want to speculate about what his objection precisely is.

“The best relevant cosmological models entail that space-time came into existence with the 'Big Bang'. Thus, the universe was not created 'in' time, which is to say there was no time 'before' the universe. (To assert otherwise is ipso facto to assert that there is something like a Newtonian absolute time in which the universe began to exist.) Hence, we may say that there is no time at which the universe did not exist.”

     This, far from being an objection, concedes P2 of the argument. The universe began to exist, but it did not do so “in time.” That is, time came into existence along with the universe rather than at a discrete point along some timeline which could contain temporal points “prior to” the universe. Time, like matter, is a feature of the universe. Just as the universe was not created “in time” it was not created “in space” since space itself came into existence with the big bang. So yes, we may agree that “there is no time at which the universe did not exist,” but as the objection concedes that the universe (and time) began to exist, it also concedes that the number of events in the past history of the universe is finite. And for my part, I would be happy to agree with the objector insofar as he asserts this.


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  3. Kilo,

    If you post something other than a rant, I will allow it to stay up. But until then, you'll not get the attention or satisfaction you obviously crave.