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Nothing from nothing

by Greg Krehbiel on 21 February 2012

Various versions of (and confusions about) the cosmological argument have come up here and there recently, so I thought I would opine on the topic for a bit.

Very broadly, there are two versions of the “first cause” argument. The more common argument we hear today is the “who knocked over the first domino” version. IOW, way back in the recesses of time, somebody had to start things going. The idea that the universe began with the Big Bang is often cited as a fact in favor of this argument. IOW, the universe had a beginning, so what caused the beginning?

It’s an interesting question, but it is not the classical “first cause” argument, which has to do with the origin of causes right here and now. I’ll explain that further in a minute.

The time-based argument is analogous to a series of dominos. One domino falls, then another falls, then another falls, etc., so you wonder why the first one fell.

In a modern setting, we might ask “who caused the Big Bang?” But a problem with this version of the argument is there’s no clear reason why there had to be a first domino, or why there wasn’t some other cause before the Big Bang — either in the form of pre-existing “natural law,” or with an oscillating universe, or whatever.

An unending temporal sequence is kinda vaguely uncomfortable, but there’s nothing inherently illogical about it.

However, there is a kind of illogic going on in popular representations of this kind of “first cause.” One example is when physicists say (or someone reports them to have said) they’ve come up with a scheme where the universe could have begun “from nothing.”

This is nonsense. They don’t really mean “nothing.” They may mean “no physical things,” but they certainly don’t mean “nothing.” They rely on mathematics, for example, and rules that govern the way things interact. That’s not “nothing.”

You can’t start with nothing and get something.

By contrast, the classical “first cause” argument is a very different thing. It’s analogous to a musician playing an instrument. It’s not that the musician plays and then there is music. The musician is causing the music as it happens. If the musician stops playing, the music stops.

In this case we’re not tracing causes back in time, we’re tracing them back logically. What causes the sound to come from the flute? The flutist blowing on the mouthpiece. And what causes the flutist to blow on the mouthpiece? The compression of his diaphragm. And what causes the compression of his diaphragm? The state of his brain. And what causes the state of his brain? … And so on.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but the point is that you have a series of causes all going on at the same time. If the flutist stops blowing, the music stops. But if you trace these causes back — not in time, but causally — you get to the electro-chemical impulses in the brain, and then you wonder what causes chemicals to work that way, and then you wonder why the laws of physics work the way they do, and on and on. It’s a different sort of argument, and it doesn’t depend on Big Bangs or first dominos or any of that.

A time-based sequence could conceivably have no beginning. But the argument from the “first cause” is that the other kind of sequence (I can’t think of a better phrase for it than a “causal sequence”) has to have a first element in the series.

So the “first cause” argument is not about some being who wound up the universe 15 billion years ago. It’s not about how the universe may have come from pre-existing natural law (or not). It’s about what’s causing things to happen right now.

I personally don’t find it a very compelling argument for the simple reason that I don’t feel qualified to be all that certain about “causes.” But it bothers me when the argument is brutally misrepresented.

[Okay, I should clarify here re: "brutality" that it bothers me when people who should know better brutally misrepresent it. Like when editors for newspapers, magazines, books, etc., don't even go to Wikipedia to make sure they've got the basic idea.]

-- 2012-02-21  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 7

  1. RootCzar
    21 February 2012 @ 11:32 pm

    Ouch! Did I ‘brutally misrepresent’ with my 1 sentence mentioning ‘Prime Mover?’ Goodness, I won’t do THAT again in here!


    As I sought to clarify in the other post, I was referring to Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” … from his Physics/Metaphysics works. He established qualities of it being eternal, intelligent and incorporeal; a ‘final cause’, not so much an ‘effecient cause.’ God, perhaps …

  2. Anne Krehbiel Anne
    22 February 2012 @ 12:09 am

    I believe that the argument is that God is Causality himself. That he is the embodiment of those things that Aquinas uses to argue for his existence. That because there are causes and causation and such there is and therefore must be a force of “causality.” In other words, something that causes itself and everything is caused by it (that word is starting to sound weird) and that that thing is God. Same with motion etc….

    I don’t really know enough to say more than that without brutalizing it, but I’m pretty sure that’s the conclusion of the argument

  3. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    22 February 2012 @ 7:01 am

    Root, I don’t mind when your average guy doesn’t quite get it exactly right. We all do that. What bugs me is when I see an article in a newspaper, or, worse, something in a book (calling Richard Dawkins) that shows they didn’t even try to get it right.

    Anne — yes that is another way of expressing the idea. It’s a good argument, so far as it goes, but my concern is that we really don’t know about such things.

  4. RootCzar
    22 February 2012 @ 8:19 am

    Which Dawkins text are you referring to, Greg?

  5. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    22 February 2012 @ 8:38 am

    The God Delusion.

  6. RootCzar
    22 February 2012 @ 9:25 am

    Reading it now… I’ll be on watch! :-)

  7. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    22 February 2012 @ 9:29 am

    It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember him misrepresenting the issue rather badly.

    You might want to read edward feser’s review of the argument. Feser is a little more snarky than I like, but he knows his stuff and points out several of dawkins’ more glaring mistakes.