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Monday, April 16, 2012

First Cause Part II

So now that we’ve reached a regular old Sunday, I figure it’s high time I continued my thoughts on the First Cause Argument.  As promised, this week I’ll start focusing on what physics and mathematics have to say about the idea of an uncaused first cause for the universe. This will of course include more technical concepts than last time.  But don’t worry, you won’t need to know any serious physics or math to understand what’s going on here.

Last time I explained why the FCA doesn’t actually show what it claims to show, even if we take its premises at face value.  There are many supposed qualities of gods that aren’t shown in the argument, despite the insistence on using “God” to refer to the uncaused first cause.  This time around, we’re going to take a look at the premises and the lemma and see what physics and mathematics have to say about them.

Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

The first thing I have to say about this premise is that it is very difficult to figure out what it would mean in the world of particle physics.  While people will endlessly debate when human life “begins” in the context of abortion and contraception, one thing is very clear in the physics of the situation.  The matter and energy (which are basically the same thing) that make up the cells – the sperm and egg, the fetus, the heart or the brain or whatever organs you think are important landmarks in fetus growth – all of that matter existed well before birth, before fetal development, before conception, and even before the conception of the baby’s great great great great great great grandparents.  So in particle physics, the baby never “began to exist” in the sense that the matter suddenly poofed into existence.  All those macroscopic events we think of as a baby beginning to exist are just pre-existing matter and energy re-arranging itself into a new form.

So we have to ask what precisely is meant by “begins to exist.”  I’m going to introduce two new terms, to help keep things strait.  “Forms” is the word I’ll use to refer to pre-existing matter taking a new shape.  If we claim “everything that forms has a cause,” then it seems we are saying that whenever matter takes a new shape, it must have had a previous shape and some general rules governing how it got from the old shape to the new shape.  And the previous shape plus the rules is what we call the cause of the forming.  For the other interpretation, I’ll use the word “appears.”  When matter appears, it goes from not existing to existing.  In other words, there has to be some net gain in total energy of the universe in order for matter to be appearing.

Now it is immediately apparent to most anyone who is familiar with the ways of theology that the first cause argument is supposed to be about matter appearing, not matter forming.  After all, physics already has a very good handle on how matter transitions from one state to another.  Once you already have the matter, figuring out the cause of the next shape, the “forming cause,” is something physics has excelled at time and again.  Physics already has most of the tools to answer “How did the first arrangement of matter develop into the subsequent arrangements?” and advancements in quantum gravity are expected to provide us with the rest.  It would be very dangerous for the theist to try and promote God as an answer to this question, since physics has just about answered it already.

(Of course, I wouldn’t put it past the theists to try and insert their god here anyway.  After all, people are still insisting intelligent design is a legitimate theory.)

Besides, if you can trace all the various formings back to the original arrangement of matter, then the next question isn’t “What caused this shape to form from the previous shape?” because there was no previous shape.  Rather, the next question is “What caused this matter to appear in the first place?”  It is this question that people find so mysterious that they’re tempted to insert an intelligent, omnipotent, exceptionally moral force into their ontology to try and explain it.  But it is here that we reach the first realization about the FCA. While the first premise feels obvious to most people, what it says in the world of physics is actually quite bizarre.

When people look at the first premise and try to check it against their observations, I suspect they tend to think of all the times they’ve seen matter going from one shape to another.  They think of all these formings and realize that yes, every time they saw matter going from one shape to another, there was a previous shape and a causal force at work.  What caused the apple to fall?  Well it was up high in a tree, and there’s this thing called gravity.  What caused the wood to burn?  Well it got really hot when I rubbed the sticks together, and there are these chemical equations governing the phenomenon of combustion.  This is what we call to mind when we think of cause and effect.  So when we hear “Everything that begins to exist has a cause,” we think of all those times we saw matter reforming into new shapes and say “Yeah, there was a cause there.”

But this is not the premise the argument needs.  What the argument needs here is to claim that whenever matter (and energy) appears, there must be a cause at work.  This is a very different sort of claim, because we can’t look through our history of observations for conformation.  The simple fact is that whenever scientists have seriously looked at any apparent appearance of energy, they have found that it was actually pre-existing energy transitioning from one form to another.  And that’s not what the premise needs to be about.  So when we actually try to check the first premise, it is abundantly clear that we don’t have a great cache of observational history to verify it.  In fact, the first premise is about something that nobody has ever observed!

This puts us in very peculiar waters.  It’s like me telling you that whenever somebody teleports to Mars, they must have been holding blue socks.  Is this a true premise?  Certainly you don’t have any observations of people teleporting to Mars, so you can’t check back to those non-existent recollections to see if they were holding blue socks.  But does anyone want to argue that someone could teleport to Mars without holding blue socks?  Sure, it seems ridiculous that “holding blue socks” is a requirement for teleporting to Mars, but if teleporting to Mars isn’t even possible, then how can we address the claim that you have to be holding blue socks in order to do it?  It’s less a question of whether or not the claim is true or false and more a question of whether or not it makes any sense.

As far as physics can tell, matter (a.k.a. energy) can’t appear.  So it doesn’t make much sense to claim that whenever matter does appear, it must have had a cause.  Indeed, if matter can’t appear, than claiming “Matter appears implies a cause” doesn’t do anything.  It is fairly worthless to identify a necessary condition for an event that you’ve already determined can’t ever occur.  So if the law of conservation of energy is correct, and energy can’t appear, then the first premise isn’t so much true or false as it is utterly unintelligible.  And unintelligible premises are hardly a way to start an argument.

And that brings me to page three of this long-winded article, which is taking up much more space than I’d anticipated.  So I’m going to stop here for the night and go ahead and post this.  Next week, I’ll further examine the first premise in light of some interesting results from quantum field theory.  Then I’ll delve into the second premise, which will bring yet more physics and mathematics to bear.  Until then, have a nice week!


  1. Another good read, looking forward to part 3. I'm surprised you didn't touch on the Big Bang in this post. You say that physics (as we know thus far) tells us that matter cannot appear from no matter -- but isn't this precisely what proponents of the Big Bang have suggested? I know that the Big Bang is highly hypothetical, but I'm hoping you'll talk in your next post about how it interacts with your position as stated above.

    1. To my knowledge, the big bang theory says nothing about where matter came from. It simply says that all matter used to be concentrated on a single point which expanded outward to become the universe as it is today.

      I'd liken it to evolution. Evolution has nothing to say about where the first living thing came from, only how living things have changed and developed since the first one formed.