#1 Does everything that begins to exist have a cause?

Question:

A criticism aimed at the Kalam’s first premise is that nothing ever actually “begins to exist” in the material sense of the word. Let’s look at an example — say, a penny. Pennies don’t “begin to exist” when they are minted; they are merely reformatted from previously existing material (in this case, a copper sheet). Of course, the penny’s form began to exist; that is to say, the penny’s shape and characteristics began to exist when it was minted. But the material out of which the penny was made did not. The distinction to be made is a distinction between: the cause or explanation of a things ARRANGEMENT of atoms and the cause or explanation of the existence of the ATOMS THEMSELVES. But it seems to me we have no motivation to demand a causal or explanatory account of the existence of physical matter itself, for we never actually see such a cause or explanation in the real world… all we ever see is an explanation or a cause for why a particular arrangement of pre-existing matter comes together in a certain way. This also seems to apply to the PSR. It seems odd that one might seek for an “explanation for a things existence”, because we are only really ever actually explaining the ARRANGEMENT of pre-existing material for this thing.

So, my question is, why do many PSR-proponents demand an explanation for the existence of things, when we actually have no experiential or inductive support that such an explanation is actually a real feature of reality? It seems we have no warrant for affirming such explanations even exist, and if we do affirm they exist, they do not seem to be based on experience or induction.

This relates to Felipe Leon’s Principle of material causality which states that “everything with an originating or sustaining cause has a material cause for its existence.” Now, as an a posteriori inductive principle, does this principle still allow your argument from possible causes to work? I am really curious about your thoughts on these matters.

-Naturalistically Inclined


Rasmussen’s response:

You raise a valuable question about the scope of causation. I offer three considerations to help shed greater light on the issue.

Mere Difference vs. Relevant Difference

First, a universal principle is simpler (and hence, intrinsically more likely) than competing, restricted ones. For example, the principle that all emeralds are green is simpler than the principle that all emeralds are green except those on tall, unexplored mountains. So, if we are to restrict a principle, then we will need some reason to restrict the principle. Otherwise, we multiply restrictions beyond necessity.

Now we might theorize that when it comes to a principle of causation, arrangements are relevantly different from the things in the arrangement. But is that true? Is there some reason to think ATOMS can come into existence uncaused more easily than ARRANGEMENTS? Sure, atoms differ from arrangements. But why think this difference is relevant to the ability to appear from nowhere?

We should keep in mind that not all differences are automatically relevant. In general, every inductive principle will apply to a class C of unobserved things, and there will be differences between members of C and non-members. Merely citing these differences is not by itself enough to call into a question the principle.

To draw out this point, take the principle that every emerald is green. This principle is an extrapolation that goes beyond the emeralds we have observed. It applies, for example, to emeralds in dark, unexplored caves. But suppose someone objects: we have no experience with emeralds in dark, unexplored caves. Hence, we have no motivation to demand that emeralds in dark, unexplored caves will be green, for we have never actually seen their color. This objection rests on a unstated assumption. The assumption is that the location of emeralds in dark, unexplored caves would be relevant to their color. Well, being in a dark, unexplored cave is a difference. But unless we have a reason to think this difference relevant, restricting the principle is itself unmotivated.

My suggestion so far is that mere differences, even “big” differences, are not automatically relevant to the principle at hand.

Empirical Support

Second, we can actually enter the dark cave with a flashlight in hand. Unlike the emeralds hidden from sight, the causal order is visible to our eyes right now. We observe right now that random chunks of matter (both ARRANGEMENTS and ATOMS) are not flooding into existence. Why don’t they? There are infinitely many possible objects of any size and composition. So why don’t any come into existence uncaused? None of them came into existence before your eyes in the last 30 seconds. Right? Why didn’t they?

This sort of observation is so familiar that it is easy to lose sight of its significance. No matter where we go or what time it is, we repeat this observation again and again. We observe causal order. Our consistent observation of causal order–uninterrupted by, for example, floods of purple spheres–is empirical evidence. This evidence itself supports the simple, universal principle that things (ARRANGEMENTS and ATOMS alike) never come into existence uncaused.

Again, why multiply restrictions beyond necessity? The light of reason extends our vision beyond our local observations. Just as our observations of gravity on earth let us “see” that gravity holds beyond the earth, so too, our observations of causal order on earth, let us “see” that the causal order holds beyond the earth.

Getting Along with Material Causality

Felipe’s principle of material causation poses no problem for unrestricted causation. In fact, we are co-authoring a book, Is God the Best Explanation of Things?, where I explicitly grant Felipe his principle for the sake of argument. His principle merely adds a restriction on the nature of the cause: the cause needs to be “material” in the sense that it contains the ingredients out of which the effect is made. That’s compatible with my arguments for a necessary foundation; it’s also compatible with theism broadly construed. Imagine God creating the world from the elements of his imagination.

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4 thoughts on “#1 Does everything that begins to exist have a cause?

  1. Thanks for the response!

    One further thought:

    How can we relate this to the notion of sustaining causes of existence? In one of my recent posts, I provided JH Sobel’s critique of sustaining causes of existence, which a lot of Aquinas’ metaphysics relies upon. I am curious how we can extend what you said here in relation to this notion of a concurrent, sustaining cause of existence. Ed Feser argues that the molecules of coffee are a sustaining cause of the coffee, but for me that seems unconvincing because the coffee, it seems, just IS the molecules out of which it is composed… unless we want to say things are their own sustaining cause… but that does not seem to give him the notion of sustaining causation he needs to motivate his Aristotelian argument for theism.

    I think I would agree that things cannot spring into existence uncaused, but some of my thoughts have more-so been aimed at the presupposition that anything has ever come into existence in the first place. Or, rather, whether we can say that matter itself has ever come into existence in the first place so as to demand a causal explanation. The law of conservation of matter/energy seems to provide some motivation for affirming that there is, indeed, a relevant difference between matter itself and actual arrangements of matter, since there is no law forbidding the destruction or generation of arrangements of matter. While I grant that this is a scientific, not a metaphysical law, it seems that we can gain metaphysical insights through analyzing it. I guess I am just having a hard time seeing why things need sustaining causes of existence, or why we should suppose that matter itself ever came into existence in the first place.

    I admit that so much of what I have said here is tentative, but that’s because I am nowhere near as philosophically informed as you and Felipe Leon are. Anyway, I hope you get a chance to read this comment, and I thank you tremendously in advance for your time!!!

    Cheers,
    NI

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s well-expressed. And it provides a nice follow-up because it shows how your original question can be converted into an objection to the second premise of the Kalam argument. The objection I have in mind goes like this:

      1. Things cannot begin to exist (spring into existence) uncaused.
      2. Nothing could have caused the universe to begin to exist (because of the principle of material causation).
      3. Therefore, the universe never began to exist.

      This argument is valuable for anyone assessing arguments for / against a finite past. I’ll just note here that my arguments for a necessary foundation are compatible with (3).

      As for sustaining causes, you raise some interesting thoughts. I’ll offer just a couple ideas for your consideration. First, reducing things to atoms (or the most basic units of reality) has ramifications for the nature of persons. If atomism is true, then either there are no persons, no thoughts, and no beliefs, or all these things ARE (not merely made out of) atoms. I met a philosopher once who took the first horn and denied his own existence. If we take the second option, then adding (3) gives us the following strange result: you never began to exist. That’s a significant ramification to see, if it is true.

      In any case, perhaps what you are suggesting, at bottom, is that the most *fundamental* stuff — whatever its nature — cannot be created or destroyed. That’s a valuable proposal. In fact, I would agree with the general framework. We could theorize that states of matter are ultimately sustained by states of energy, which in turn is sustained by the most fundamental Layer of Reality; we could then set aside for further inquiry what the fundamental Layer of Reality is. This picture is consistent with, and perhaps can even make sense of, the conservation laws. And it sets the stage for further, cooperative, and productive inquiry into the nature of the most fundamental layer of reality.

      Your questions are good ones, and I’m grateful to you for setting a good tone for the beginning of this blog.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you immensely for taking time to respond. It is so greatly appreciated, especially from a philosopher of your caliber.

        I think one must ultimately arrive at some sort of fundamental level of reality, and it is likely necessary. One of my troubles has been seeing why matter itself cannot be necessary.

        I have also been thinking of some other ways (non-original, although I have given some of this a new touch) to derive some sort of necessary entity.

        I know this will be tangential, however it pertains directly to your mention in your last comment about the fundamental layer of reality and investigating its attributes and nature. So I will humbly ask that you read over the following argument and hopefully provide a little feedback. It is okay if you are too busy to do so… I completely understand, as you are a professional philosopher!

        It is based off of Ed Feser’s discussion of the PSR, however the argument I will present will not utilize the PSR. Feser writes:

        “[Russel thought] that we can explain at least some phenomena in terms of laws of nature, those laws in terms of more fundamental laws, and perhaps these in turn of some most fundamental level of laws. The most fundamental laws would, however, lack any explanation. That the world is governed by them would just be an unintelligible “brute fact”. But this is incoherent. Suppose I told you that the fact that a certain book has not fallen to the ground is explained by the fact that it is resting on a certain shelf, but that the fact that the shelf itself has not fallen to the ground has no explanation at all but is an unintelligible brute fact. Have I really explained the position of the book? It is hard to see how. For the shelf has in itself no tendency to stay aloft— it is, by hypothesis, just a brute fact that it does so. But if it has no such tendency, it cannot impart such a tendency to the book. The “ explanation” the shelf provides in such a case would be completely illusory. (Nor would it help to impute to the book some such tendency, if the having o f the tendency is itself just an unintelligible brute fact. The illusion will just have been relocated, not eliminated.) By the same token, it is no good to say: “ The operation of law of nature C is explained by the operation of law of nature B, and the operation o fB by the operation o f law o f nature A, but the operation of A has no explanation whatsoever and is just an unintelligible brute fact.” The appearance of having “ explained” C and B is completely illusory if A is a brute fact, because if there is neither anything about A itself that can explain A ’s own operation nor anything beyond A that can explain it, then A has nothing to impart to B or C that could possibly explain their operation. The notion of an explanatory nomological regress terminating in a brute fact is, when carefully examined, no more coherent than the notion of an effect being produced by an instrument that is not the instrument of anything. (A series of ever more fundamental “ laws of nature” is in this regard like a hierarchical causal series of the sort discussed in earlier chapters.)”

        This inspired me to write this:
        —–
        Genuine explanations exist.

        Genuine Explanations form explanatory chains.

        Therefore, explanatory chains exist.

        Explanatory chains either regress infinitely, or terminate.

        If explanatory chains regress infinitely, then genuine explanations do not exist.

        Therefore, explanatory chains do not regress infinitely.

        Therefore, explanatory chains terminate.

        If explanatory chains terminate, then they terminate either in a necessary entity or a brute fact.

        Therefore, explanatory chains terminate either in a necessary entity or a brute fact.

        If explanatory chains terminate in a brute fact, then genuine explanations do not exist.

        Therefore, explanatory chains do not terminate in a brute fact.

        Therefore, explanatory chains terminate in a necessary entity.

        Therefore, a necessary entity exists.
        —-

        Take, for example, the explanation for my current existence. Why do I exist? Clearly there is an explanation here. I exist because my mitochondria perform cellular respiration (among other things). And my mitochondria performing cellular respiration is explained in part by my blood’s deliverance of oxygen to the cell, which is explained in part by my lungs taking in oxygen. And of course that oxygen’s existence is explained in terms of the trees around us photosynthesizing, which they can only do insofar as that activity is explained by the cellular machinery found in the cells. So, the tree’s explanation for oxygen’s existence is derived from the tree’s cellular machinery, which has explanatory power only because of genetics and transcription and translation. Clearly, there exist genuine explanations, whose explanatory power only exists insofar as that explanatory power is derived from something else.

        We do not have a genuine explanation in an infinite regress of derived explanatory power precisely the same reason an infinite regress of derivative causal power (an essentially ordered causal series, to use Aquinas’ term) is impossible. All we ever do is “pass the explanatory buck” so to speak.

        And ending in a brute fact would require genuine explanatory power to be imparted to the next member immediate to the brute fact, but that’s precisely what a brute fact cannot do ex hypothesi.

        Someone may object: given brute fact as a background assumption, then we can explain other things as a sort of “conditional explanation”.

        But it’s hard to see how this could explain anything. Suppose all the chairs in my room is purple. Of course, we could explain this in terms of a law. Let’s suppose that the law states “all chairs in the room are purple”. But while the explanation in terms of this law would entail the explanandum, it wouldn’t be a GENUINE explanation. If I ask, “yes, but what explains this law?” and you answer that it is a mere brute fact, utterly inexplicable, then we haven’t actually explained the initial observation that the chairs found in my room are all purple. We have merely re-located the need for an explanation and slapped the term “law” onto it, not actually given some sort of causal or explanatory account of why the chairs are all purple. Now suppose you say, “well that law actually is explained! It is explained by a further law, namely, the law that ‘all furniture in this room is purple!’” But again, this doesn’t explain anything. Since the first law’s explanatory power is wholly derivative from the second, and since the second is utterly inexplicable and is a brute fact, we still haven’t explained why the chairs in my room are all purple. We have, yet again, merely relocated the need for an explanation and slapped the term “law” onto it. SO, this account of “conditional explanation” doesn’t amount to an explanation at all.

        I apologize that I have been so very long here, and I genuinely do not want to waste your time. I am just so excited that you are willing to engage in a thoughtful manner with me, and I really hope that you get the chance to respond to my thoughts here. I will thank you for your time, kindness, generosity, and willingness to help a soul (hopefully) find truth.

        Thanks, NI

        Liked by 1 person

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