Does every beginning have a cause?

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Joe's Question


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.

My Answer

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

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Material Causation

Professor Leon's principle of material causation actually 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 Leon 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.


In summary, when investigating the causal order, here are three things to consider:

1. Is any beginning relevantly different from any other?
2. Why don't new chunks of reality ever appear from nowhere?
3. What is the simplest hypothesis that accounts for your observations?

My own reflection on these questions leads me to an unrestricted principle: nothing begins without a cause.

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