Saturday, October 29, 2011

Rejecting the Causal Premise

The first premise of the kalam cosmological argument is “whatever begins to exist had a cause.” This premise is sometimes objected to in very sophisticated ways, and sometimes not as much. The particular objection I have in mind is the objection that says nothing really begins to exist. The idea is that everything just is different arrangements of matter and therefore nothing begins to exist. Rather, all we have are new formations of matter.

There are multiple objections that can be lodged against this view (e.g., the absurdities that “we” existed as matter, or that we don’t really exist at all). However, I have something else in mind to critique the view. My contention is that both of the main reasons for affirming this objection to the premise are fallacious.

The first main reason for affirming that nothing begins to exist is that some kind of reductionist-materialist-naturalist-physicalist (please forgive this clumsy wording) view of the world is true. But that is just to beg the question against the conclusion of the argument in its full form (e.g., it is to say “there is no God”). No one who does not already agree with the objector here will find this helpful.

The second main reason, if the first way of reasoning is rejected, is also fallacious. It assumes that any being is just identifiable with its particular collection of material atoms or parts. Not only does this seem bizarre, but it also seems particularly like the fallacy of division. The fallacy of division occurs when one attributes, illicitly, the truth of the whole to the truth of all of the parts. “The basketball team has been in existence for 75 years; therefore every member of the basketball team has been in existence for 75 years,” is one such example. So here, the objector assumes “you are made up of atoms; therefore each atom is you.” At best, “you” is an indexical term pointing to some kind of abstract object that we call a particular arrangement of matter. However, since we do not have any reason to think a being is just nothing more than a particular collection of atoms, we do not have any non-fallacious reason for denying the causal premise. It simply does not follow that because I am made up of atoms, each atom is in fact me. It is surely bizarre to think that every person who will ever exist is and has been out there in the universe (or, more properly, in the earth somewhere).
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  1. Hey Randy,

    A quick question that I have regarding this. I was actually thinking of Writing Dr. Craig about it,but maybe you know. Craig says that the causal premise 1 is consistent with saying that some "events" are uncaused; it just asserts that nothing that begins to exist is uncaused. My question is that the formation of new beings (for instance, you and me) is a series of events, right? It does not represent the coming-into-existence of new material. You and I coming into being (assuming physicalism, I guess) does seem to be a rearrangement of previously existing material rather than a production of new material. As such, could we not say that our coming into being, as an event, could be uncaused, since Craig does not commit himself to every event's being caused? If so, then it does seem that some things begin to exist uncaused. What do you think?

  2. Hi Daniel. I think that is a question you should still raise with Dr. Craig, but I'll try my best to address some of the issues within. I don't think any non-physicalist-reductive analysis would say that we are "new material," but rather a new being (hence, "whatever begins to exist"). To address the question directly, while it is true there may be some events that are uncaused (that is, the causal premise does not itself preclude these events from being uncaused), it does still in fact claim that every being that begins to exist had a cause. Hence, stringing them together as a series of events won't evade this, because the events' referents just are things beginning to exist. (note: this is also explained by the fact that although some events may be uncaused, it surely does not follow that all events are uncaused.)

    Now you hint at one way of escape: the materialist-physicalist may simply deny anything begins to exist whatsoever by stipulating that all a new being's existence entails is a new arrangement of pre-existing matter. But then the face the criticism above. Why think that "you" existed since the beginning of the universe? This also faces the criticism then that nothing really exists (since I most certainly was not around, but rather the matter was. But if all I am is an arrangement of matter, and I did not exist then, then I do not exist now.). Next, it seems the only reason to think this is because one already believes God does not exist.

    Do theists face a similar criticism? Not at all. For many, if not most, philosophers, think that there are particular essences or properties that things possess that they did not possess as individual bits of pre-existing material. This is held irrespective of one's views on theism. Anyway, I hope that wasn't too much rambling and it made sense!

  3. Randy,
    Thanks for the answer. I'm not sure that it really addresses the heart of my question, which is this: the KCA does not commit itself to the causal determinism of all events. But if new beings coming to exist happens at the tail end of a series of uncaused events, does it follow that the being came into existence uncaused? Perhaps Criag would say that it would not have come into existence at all were it not for the series of uncaused events which preceded it, and consequently its genesis has necessary if not sufficient conditions and does not truly represent an uncaused beginning? I don't know. Perhaps I'll take it up with him.

  4. Hi Daniel. Well certainly, if one stipulates as a part of a series of uncaused events, the event of a being coming into existence, then yes, there is something that comes into being which did not have a cause. But the only reason to suppose the scenario is possible is to suppose the principle is false in the first place--else we would just say the stipulation is impossible. The same reasons I affirm the causal premise are identical to the reasons I would deny the stipulation is possible.

  5. Hey Randy,

    I don't think that the criticisms that you provide against these objections are quite on the spot here, at least insofar as they support the attributions of question-begging and fallaciousness. These objections by a materialist (for example), I think, are best construed as undercutting defeaters, not rebutting defeaters, of the causal premise. Your responses to these undercutting defeaters of the causal premise are (or at least they appear to be) themselves undercutting defeaters of those defeaters, and to that extent they don't actually show these objections to be genuinely fallacious. If they were genuinely fallacious, then we would should have a set of genuine rebutting defeaters here, but I don't really see anything of that sort.

    To kind of reduce what I'm seeing here, we have person A claiming X, person B saying that he has a problem with X, then person A saying that he doesn't see why person B's purported problem with X is a problem. This is different from saying person B's problem *isn't* a problem, if that makes any sense. But it is person A's job to show that person B's problem isn't a problem, which requires rebuttal and not mere undercutting.

    If I'm right here, then the claim about fallaciousness and question-begging by such a materialist is itself hasty and fallacious (reminding me much of G.E. Moore's own ascription of the "naturalistic fallacy" to naturalists, apart from his OQA). We have to be careful about where the dialectical ball is in the metaphorical game and make sure that we're following where the burden is supposed to lie in each step in the dialectical field. Other than this, I enjoyed the post and the opportunity to think about this topic in particular.

    - Jake

  6. I'd love to hear Derek Parfit's take on this. My guess is that he would say we did begin to exist, but that our idea of self is all wrong. I think for that absurdity to work, we need a better idea of the self than we currently have (perhaps we'll never have a satisfactory one).

  7. Hello, Randy

    I am curious. If humans are not material beings, what else are we? If there is something more- something 'non-physical'-, then what, exactly, could that 'something' be? A soul? A mind? How can a 'non-physical' thing or substance (whatever) causally interact with a physical thing like a brain? How does this non-physical / physical interaction, if we can even coherently talk about, not violate fundamental conservation laws such as the conservation of momentum and energy?

  8. Hi Aaron, I will presume you meant "merely material beings," since I would agree we are material beings. But whether one posits a soul or mind, one does not have to provide an account of how the mechanism works, just that it does (remember that within this context the objection just assumes that all we are is material beings, and this in turn means nothing begins to exist, save the universe at best, and thus unless I have some reason to believe it, or already believe it, it doesn't work even as an undercutter [cf. Jake's concern about such undercutters]). I don't see conservation of energy being an argument against non-physical entities or states. I could see that working as an argument against non-physical entities creating new energy/matter within a closed system, but I don't see any non-physical accounts promoting or entailing that. That's my brief take, back to work for me! :)

  9. Hey Randy,

    Re: 'But whether one posits a soul or mind, one does not have to provide an account of how the mechanism works, just that it does.'

    E.g., unless one can explain how such things as 'souls' or 'minds' economize our models of human psychology and / or physiology and / or facilitate novel predictions, then, amongst other things, the posits are ad hoc and thus not explanatory; in fact, the posits would be instances of obscurum per obscurius, which obliges the question: What, exactly, are 'souls' or 'minds' such that these things can explain / predict anything? If one cannot provide a cogent answer, then what we have is an empty vocalization which is very much in need of explication.

    Think of the matter in other terms. Let us say someone rejects Newton's inverse square law of gravity and Einsteinian curved space-time and instead explains the observed orbital paths of the planets in terms of bubblebunk. If one were asked to give an account of bubblebunk, one can easily respond: 'Well, bubblebunk is that single, perfect entity / immaterial substance (whatever) which guides the planets in their elliptical orbits.' Now, should we not press for a better account, or should we resign ourselves to this ignorance?

    Re: 'I don't see conservation of energy being an argument against non-physical entities or states.'

    If there are such things as 'souls' or 'minds', and if they (1) are non-physical and (2) effect change in physical objects, then conservation laws are violated. E.g., the conservation of energy asserts that within an isolated system (e.g. the physical universe) the sum distribution of energy remains constant. So, any change in energy of a micro-physical system (e.g. your body) S1 entails a change in the distribution of micro-physical properties over space-time, i.e. a corresponding decreasing change in energy in some other micro-physical system S2, and vice versa.

    Hence, if a non-physical entity causes a change in the distribution of energy in S1, and it does given (2), then there is an * addition * of energy into S1 without a corresponding decrease in energy in S2. (Likewise for momentum conservation.) Thus, given immaterial 'souls' or 'minds', almost every action entails the violation of conservation laws.

  10. Randy,

    I apologize if my comments have been largely tangential to the present post. Thank you for providing the venue for the exchange.

  11. Hi Aaron, I absolutely am OK with your comments! I had taken a recent break to concentrate on work and life, and so this is what took so long.

    But on to the content! As to the claim of being ad hoc, I think we should know how this comes up in a discussion. It's not a matter of saying "there are such things as minds or immaterial souls, etc;" for the cosmological just is such an argument entailing that when it is fully realized. Rather, the objection is that such minds are incoherent (or at least are non-existent), so that appeals to describe exact functionality don't serve as defeaters for the concept.

    I see what you're saying in regards to the distribution of energy. But I don't think most Christians believe the soul creates and distributes energy from itself to the body. I don't think the soul has any physical properties. One may ask, "but how then does it supervene on the body?", and I would respond that it simply is the faculty of the will/mind (I do distinguish the two, but I think there is a connection). Now you may ask, "yes, but how does this work?" But again, we need not be able to explain how something works in order to know that it's not impossible, or even untrue. Finally, most of us intuitively believe we're more than just flesh; that minds are real (even many agnostics and skeptics are this way). Of course, they could be wrong. My point is simply that this is a wide intuition, and one I share. If one shares the intuition, I suspect not only will he have no problems accepting an immaterial mind, but it will take a very strong argument indeed to convince him there are no immaterial minds. If one does not share the intuition, he can only remain agnostic on the issue without some argument tipping the scales. Since the cosmological just is that sort of argument, one must ask: do I really have a stronger argument entailing the non-existence of minds than I do this one? An interesting question, to be sure.


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