Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Kalam, the Multiverse, and the Causal Principle

For a refresher, the Kalam cosmological argument (KCA) is as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist had a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.

Now most people do not deny (2) (although it is the case that assuredly many do). Instead they opt to deny (1). A particular way of doing so is to posit the multiverse. They reason, “Since the causal principle is based on induction of what we have seen in our universe, perhaps it is the case that there is a multiverse. Whether the causal principle holds in the multiverse, then, cannot be told--for we have not seen any other part of it than our own. Hence, we cannot claim the causal principle as true.” Now, aside from the fact that, all too often, this kind of move is done as a desperate ploy to avoid a First Cause as much as anything else, we may say something else about it. 

The main criticism I have is that it is simply not true that the causal principle is based on induction. It is certainly confirmed by our inductive experiences, but there are arguments to be had from the KCA supporting it. Namely, if the causal principle is false, then it remains unclear what, precisely, prevents just anything from popping into existence uncaused. In order to overcome the causal principle, then, someone must deal with this argument. 

It is sometimes counter-argued that this line of reasoning is a mistake; it need not be the case, they say, that if the causal principle in the KCA is false, just anything could pop into existence uncaused. The causal principle could still hold for the overwhelming majority of things. But this too is a mistake. For the argument is not, “if the causal principle is false, then everything can pop into existence uncaused.” Rather, the argument is, “if the causal principle is false, it’s unclear what prevents things from popping into being uncaused.” The distinction is crucial. We cannot claim it is some physical law, for that law, as a descriptor of the function of the universe, will describe some process of causation, which is ex hypothesi not what we want.[1] We know, after all, that birds come from eggs that are hatched, and that this is governed by physical processes. But why is it that a bird cannot just appear in my bedroom, uncaused? It would not be a normal bird, sure, but that certainly does not matter. We cannot offer some metaphysical truth, for then we have simply stated some other version of the causal principle (or, worse, an ad hoc version like “everything but the universe comes into existence by a cause”).

Now, if this argument that supports the causal principle stands (or any such argument), which I think it does, then the objector who claims the multiverse as backup simply is barking up the wrong tree. The multiverse will not avoid a causal principle unless good reason to reject the causal principle is presented on metaphysical grounds. However, in that case, it will be just such a metaphysical argument that is at work, and not the multiverse.
1 It is also worth noting that if some physical law could account for the restriction on such random happenings within the universe, it could not apply to the universe itself.


  1. Top o' the afternoon to you Randy,

    If I could play devil's advocate for a moment, what reason, apart from inductive confirmation, do we have to believe that effects require causes?

    Who's to say what we observe aren't actually uncaused events with the appearance of causation (Hume's "constant conjunction")?

    Would this render the question “if the causal principle is false, it’s unclear what prevents things from popping into being uncaused" moot?


    1. Hi Frank, I always appreciate it! :)

      Just to be explicit, technically the causal principle at work here is not "every effect has a cause," but "whatever begins to exist had a cause;" some view this as distinct. But no matter, for even if it is, we can just amend your question accordingly.

      To answer your question directly, the aforementioned argument of "if the causal principle is false, it’s unclear what prevents things from popping into being uncaused" works, and Hume's contention would not circumvent that. For even if it were the case that our induction did not confirm this (and instead, we simply had no idea one way or the other with respect to induction), notice the question still remains: what reason is there that prevents this? Lack of induction wouldn't subvert it; only if our induction was disconfirmatory (in a conclusive sense) ought we to modify our causal principle.

      Moreover, skepticism on this level would destroy the scientific enterprise. Here's a clearer way of putting it: imagine a man strolling up to the White House in Washington, D.C. He takes it all in, and proclaims, "it only appears as though the house has been built. The work crews and materials were here at the same time, and certainly appeared to build the house, but it's possible the house's being built was rather spontaneous, and not at all owing to the apparent cause." That man would be a candidate for the looney bin!

      What Hume would need to do is give us some reason that induction is not confirmatory; I suspect what Hume did was actually in response to the argument that induction proves or demonstrates the causal principle (in fairness to Hume), and he was responding that one hasn't quite risen to the level of logical proof.

  2. I think I see it now (and had actually thought of the question posed in the absence of experience before posting).

    If we say there's nothing that restricts things popping into being uncaused, then there would be things popping into being uncaused.

    But while we can pose the question apart from experience, isn't our experience the reason we would deny this?


    1. Well, I wouldn't say that there would be things popping into existence uncasued; rather, I would say it's a mystery why it doesn't seem to happen! So in that vein, I would not say it is our experience. We need not answer the question, or even have a method for asking it, in order for it to be valid. Now, we do take it as evidently true that tigers popping into existence in our living room, or just anything of that sort, does not happen. Even Hume takes this as *evidently* true. But it is not on this basis that we ask the question. The question presupposes that it doesn't happen, true, but it is compatible with being unsure: it simply asks what would prevent such a state of affairs from occurring? But then all of the same problems attend (even if Hume is right that we cannot use induction to confirm anything [or the Humean, as it were], it surely doesn't answer the question, nor does it make it an invalid one). And that's all we need to proceed with a defense of the argument. :)

  3. Gotcha! This was actually one of those arguments I hadn't really understood before so I thank thee very much, sir.

    RF misses you, Frank

    1. You're welcome! Funny you mention RF; I was just thinking of trying to go back. How is it? Are there a lot of trolls these days? That was part of the reason I left.

  4. Well since the new format was introduced reporting trollish behavior is much easier. There's also a rep system now so it's easier to tell whether you should take someone seriously (though there are exceptions do the anonymous element).

    Do check it out though! I'd like to see how your idea in this post would be received :D


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