Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Actually, Quantum Mechanics does undermine the Kalam

I had a reader send me this article over at the Strange Notions blog with a request that I put a comment in given the work I’ve done providing a counter argument to the Kalam.

I find that the article brings up some good points on the theistic side to address objections from quantum mechanics, but it leaves out key points that would count most strongly against the Kalam.

First, there isn’t a direct difference laid out between efficient causation and material causation, the difference is effectively discussed, but it’s not made clear.

What we have in quantum mechanics is what appears to be an effect without an efficient cause. One can argue that there are interpretations of QM that will provide us with efficient causes for these effects, but the standard view currently is that these effects lack an efficient cause.

Given that the Kalam wants to argue that the universe has an efficient, but not a material cause, this is a fairly significant point that shouldn’t be understated.

What Trent rightfully points out is that even if these QM events lack an efficient cause, it’s not “something coming from nothing”, which he calls the main intuitive support for Premise 1. What this is pointing out is that we don’t have something coming beginning to exist without a material cause.

Combine this with the common interpretations of QM, and we find intuitive and evidential support for the idea that we can have things begin to exist with an “efficient and material cause” or “just a material cause”, but never any cases where we have just an efficient cause. This is again a very strong point against the Kalam, since it supports the idea that “something material has always existed”.

That line of thought brings us into premise two of the Kalam, which isn’t really at issue here, so I won’t say much more than there is absolutely no evidence that all of material reality was preceded by a state of “absolute nothingness” in cosmology or philosophy. The most we could say is "we don't know what happened before the first Planck second in the Big Bang".

But let’s get back to this issue of “something can’t come from nothing” since it’s another point where I think counts very strongly against the theist.

The idea that “something can’t come from nothing” is typically supported by the idea that “we don’t see things just popping into existence from nothing”. The QM objection that Trent is addressing here tries to challenge this notion, which he rebuffs by pointing out that “the quantum vacuum is not nothing”.

However in doing this, Trent undermines the only support he has for the premise that “something can’t come from nothing”. How does one know “something can’t come from nothing”? Trent cannot appeal to the common experience we have of things not just popping into existence, since he’s rightly pointed out that when we DO see things popping into existence from “seemingly nothing”, it’s not really the “nothing” he’s talking about in the context of the Kalam.

Let’s pretend that “something could come from nothing”, this notion is no longer problematic or at odds with our common experience, because we have absolutely no experience with the kind of “nothing” in question. This all boils down to how one defines “nothing”, and the definition required by proponents of the Kalam gives us a version of “nothing” that we have absolutely no experience with that we have very good reasons for doubting that a state of this kind of “nothing” could exist in the first place (the First Law of Thermodynamics says hi).

When it comes to cosmological arguments, atheists are generally left with the idea that “something material has always existed” or “something actually can come from nothing”. While I personally hold to the former, the apologist answer to the QM objection shows that the latter could very well be a live option simply because “something coming from nothing” doesn’t contradict any of our common experience.


  1. Hi CA, I liked your reply to Trent over at SN. We argued out many of these issues months ago there, but those are scattered out over many threads. I don't answer them, there, anymore for reasons I have explained here. However you might be interested in a piece I wrote after doing all that arguing: Understanding "Forcing" Arguments.

    Best regards,


    1. Thanks!

      I wasn't aware of the site till I got the email about this article yesterday. I do appreciate your posts, I probably won't be getting too involved over there just for time considerations, but I really want to "get the word out" in terms of the actual flaws in popular apologetic arguments and this was an easy one to hit.

      Your article on the Forcing Arguments is really good BTW.

  2. This whole issue of "nothing" shouldn't be an issue at all.
    Nothing is simply the absence of anything. No-thing, no-existent. Arguing that something can arise from the absence of something is obviously self-contradictory & therefore an impossibility. This clearly supports the eternalist position & destroys both the 2nd premise of the kalam & theism (and deism at that). In order to be consistent, the theist must then retreat to pantheism (or pandeism) or panentheism (or panendeism). Since the 4 aforementioned philosophies posit a) the primacy of consciousness metaphysics b) immaterialism (dualism, idealism) & c) non-reductionist ontology; all of which are self-contradictory & incoherent, the strong/gnostic atheist position wins by default.
    People who're interested in this discussion should really just stop wasting their time in attempting to defend & justify the dishonest & false semantics/fuck up of Lawrence Krauss' "nothing". All things/existents necessarily form from pre-existing material (be it causally or acausally) - once you aknowledge this the whole "HUR DUR ARBITRARILY DEFINE THE QUANTUM VACUUM AS NOTHING EVEN THOUGH IT'S SOMETHING SO WE CAN PRETEND HUR DUR SOMETHING FROM NOTHING THEREFORE STFU THEISTS WHO IRONICALLY POSIT THAT GOD CREATED EXISTENCE EX NIHILO DUR HURRRR" *should* be discarded. I think the reason so-called skeptics attempt to defend Krauss in this discussion is because they don't want "let their side down" or are just as philosophically inept at he is. (And i say "so-called skeptics" because their skepticism seems to only apply/extend to opponents of *their* position, rather than their own/individuals sympathetic to their own).

    1. My point is that this "nothing" that is "the absence of anything" has never been shown to exist, and we have no experience of what that would be. We literally can't ever get a state of that to observe, since there would seemingly always be the quantum vacuum.

      Your second point is one I make a few times in my "Something vs. Nothing" video, even Christians won't agree that there was truly a state of "nothing" as you define it - since their god always exists. So the Kalam boils down to the claim that "Nothing Material existed".

      As far as the defense of "other kinds of nothing", I prefer to be upfront about what we mean. The concept of "nothing" is a lot like the concept of "certainty", we never really have it to the ultimate degree.

      The idea is that the version of "nothing" that Krauss and co. use is the closest we can find anywhere in the universe to "nothing", and we know that a Space-Time of all things could come out of that.

      In terms of the Kalam, it's important to point this issue out since the entirety of premise 1 boils down to some grand "a priori truth" that has no basis in observation. It's extremely important to point out the nuances involved here since it's talking about how things we've never even remotely or indirectly observed is supposed to behave.

    2. >We literally can't ever get a state of that to observe
      >"the absence of anything" has never been shown to exist, and we have no experience of what that would be
      Nor can "it" exist & nor can we experience "it", since by definition there is literally no thing/existent present for "it" to exist as/be experienced.
      The concept of "nothingness" is a direct violation of the law of identity. "Nothingness" is completely devoid of any identity/attributes/properties/things/existents.

      >The idea is that the version of "nothing" that Krauss and co. use is the closest we can find anywhere in the universe to "nothing"
      What?! There literally cannot be any "closest thing to nothing" because again nothing is not a "thing", it isn't anything. The moment you identify a "thing"/existent as "no-thing" you've contradicted yourself. That's the point! The concept of nothingness is an impossibility. There cannot "be" a "nothing" - being denotes existence, and in order to exist, you have to exist *as something*. Thing/existent = identity. A thing/existent with no identity is not a thing/existent to begin with.

      You (and even Krauss) concedes that the vacuum is not nothing. So it's pointless to call something you've identified/know as/is something "nothing" just to turn around and say "HUR DUR BUT IT'S NOT REALLY NOTHING".
      The whole idea of calling the vacuum "nothing" is basically a desperate atheistic ploy to refute a theist - correctly asserting - that ex nihilo creation/something from nothing is an impossibility.
      "We'll just knowingly contradict ourselves by arbitrarily defining something from which pre-existing material forms from as nothing so we can pretend that HUR DUR THEREFORE SOMETHING FROM NOTHING WHICH IS SOMETHING WHICH WE'RE JUST CONVENIENTLY CALLING NOTHING IN A FAILED ATTEMPT TO REFUTE THE THEISTS CORRECT OBJECTION". This is the point i eluded to above - it's a desperate dishonest linguistic word-game. A complete non-sequiter. And it's a shame when intelligent atheists/skeptics such as yourself utilize it for the sake of attempting to defend Krauss' philosophical ineptitude.

      >In terms of the Kalam, it's important to point this issue out since the entirety of premise 1 boils down to some grand "a priori truth"
      In the context of ex nihilo creation, i'd agree it is an a priori truth. In the context causation - existents forming from pre-existing material with or without an antecedent cause; i'm currently agnostic on whether or not the notion of an existent forming from pre-existing material devoid of an antecedent cause is a contradiction or not, but since p1 states "begins to exist", p1 is false, since nothing truly begins to exist (ex nihilo), the issue then becomes a matter of causation & temporal beginings. However, this isn't a threat to the atheist position, since matter/energy is eternal - whether at a fundamental level (quantum) things do behave in an objectively irreducibly "random" fashion is a different (and interesting) discussion all-togethor.

    3. > The concept of "nothing" is a lot like the concept of "certainty", we never really have it to the ultimate degree.

      This is false. The two are completely distinct; certainty is a thing, "nothing" is not.
      We can never have "nothingness" because there is literally no "thing" present to have in the first place. So searching for *something*
      else to arbitrarily label as "nothing" is necessarily a self-refuting exercise in futility. Under this framework, you could literally label anything you want as "nothing" and you will always be wrong. Whether it be at the smallest quantum-planck length
      or the larger-macroscopic-relativistic level, is an irrelevance, you're always talking about *something*/an existent *thing*, at whatever scale/level.

      And regarding certainty, it is possible to be absolutely certain regarding at least one thing - among many others; existence. Existence, in whatever form, is ontologically necessary & therefore something you can be epistemically certain of beyond a reasonable doubt.
      For obvious reasons, really - anyone/anything which ever attempts to deny the primacy of existence must necessarily exist to do so, they're contradicting themselves.

      The primacy of existence, the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction & the law of excluded middle are all self-justifying axioms (any attempt to negate them assumes them and/or results in self-contradiction). Those are 4 things/principles we can be absolutely certain of. The falsity of ontological & epistemic nihilism, ex nihilo creation, etc, are then corollaries from those 4 principles.

    4. You seem to be confusing a delimited area where there is “an absence of anything” and the concept that there was ever a state where there was no reality (material or otherwise) that was “an absence of anything”.

      When I’m talking about “nothing” here I’m talking about our lack of ability to even get the first kind, like to take a delimited region of space and have “absolutely nothing” within that region. This is at least what I think the majority of people would assume “nothing” is.

      Conversely when it comes to the second kind of nothing, this is exactly the kind of thing I talked about in my Something Vs. Nothing video – and here I can agree with you. I particularly like this approach the more I think about it, and I think this is a good response to premise one of the Kalam: to point out that in the argument, only the theist needs to argue something can come from nothing. As an atheist I can provisionally assent to the idea that “something can’t come from nothing” whereas the theist can’t.

      My main point here is that when it comes to justifying premise 1, the theist is not able to appeal to any common experience we have, they’re left with an a priori assertion. The reality of the situation is that common experience points to support the atheist side – that something material has always existed.

      In terms of certainty, the analogy I’m making is that stating there’s “absolute certainty” is much like stating there’s “absolute nothing”. You can stomp your feet about “existence being necessary” but that’s just another axiom that you get from the basic assumptions of the laws of logic. I can agree with you in principle that I think that’s true, but I wouldn’t claim it’s a solution to the Munchhausen trilemma. At some point you’re making an assumption of contradiction/self-justification to get off the ground.

      I agree with your assumption, but I prefer we be upfront about it being what it is.

      All that said, just because the “absolute” versions of certainty or nothing are things that are likely impossible does not mean that we can’t use the words or concepts to describe states of affairs. As long as we’re being up front about what we’re doing I don’t see much of a problem, especially since we can both agree that the concept of “absolute nothing” is absurd or impossible even if you’re a theist (ie. god always exists).

  3. Hello "Counter" John.

    I believe it is important to precise what you mean by "nothing" in this context.

    Do you mean quantum vacuum or philosophical nothingness?

    Do you believe that an universe with both matters and physical laws having beautiful mathematic structures can pop into existence from NOTHINGNESS lacking both matter AND laws of any kind?

    It seems to me that if Hawking's or Lawrence Krauss theory turned out to be true, this would show that our reality stem from a kind of platonic realm.

    I personally believe that the Kalam is a failure because nobody has been ever able to prove that an endless succesion of universes giving birth to one another is an implausible idea.

    I want to emphasize again I really appreciate your respectful, intellectually honest and insightful "anti-apologetic" and it is a real pity that you don't have time for posting more frequently.

    I'm looking forward to learning your thoughts on my remark.

    Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    1. I was hoping I was clear.

      My personal view is that something "material" has always existed. The point on "nothing" is that if we're talking about the "absolute nothing" or "absence of anything", then we really have no experience with that at all, and we have no idea what it would be like.

      I'm not sure you quite understand the theories of Krauss/etc since they're talking about our space-time coming out of a quantum vacuum, which is the closest to the concept of "nothing" that we can find in reality. This wouldn't imply we came out of a platonic realm, it just means the "metaphysical ground to all existence" is some form of quantum energy.

      Thanks again for the kind words. I've had to go through some stuff work wise that ate a lot of my time. I'm hoping to move forward with some projects I've had in the wings for a while now.

    2. Hello Counter, I've just discovered your response, thanks!

      Actually I am well aware that the theory of Krauss is nothing more than the universe having come from something material called the quantum vacuum.

      But the problem is that he has been shouting around: "science has shown that something can come from nothing!" altough he has only shown that something material can come from something else which is equally material.

      That said I am not sure that he can avoid Platonism. Because the quantum vacuum governed by laws seems to me more akin to information than to partticles.
      Actually it is much more fundamental than particles.

      But frankly speaking, who of us can know or even estimate the plausibility this is the ultimate reality?

      Could there not be that in two hundred years our increase in knowledge will be as great as that during the last two thousand years?

      In the end I am an Agnostic Christian.

      Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    3. It shows that we don't necessarily need a space-time in order for a space-time to arise. I must admit that I am sympathetic to the complaint about going around saying "Something comes from nothing", though at the same time I have sympathy with defining "nothing" in terms of things we actually have experience with.

      In the end I don't see it mattering much. The arguments and evidence weigh in heavily against theistic arguments that claim a god is necessary for our universe to come about.

      There is one thing I would like to say in reference to your comments on Platonism. You claim that "the quantum vacuum governed by laws seems to me more akin to information than to particles."

      But this isn't anything more than special pleading to insist that this is "information" or implies Platonism. The laws of quantum mechanics are merely descriptors of the behavior of the actual material stuff. Simply put they're our best way of describing something that exists, but at it's base there must exist something material.

      This kind of view does the exact opposite of enforcing Platonism, it rejects the idea entirely.

      You can appeal to the "we can never really know what is the ultimate basis of reality", but we absolutely CAN know what's more plausible by looking at what we observe around us. From this, it would lend extraordinary weight to the idea that at it's base reality is constituted out of material and not anything else.

    4. Hello Counter,

      how can we (plausibely) know that there aren't countless paralell universes governed by laws we cannot comprehend and containing lots of phenomenons and beings we cannot understand?
      Actually this is a view Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchen are or were very sympathetic to.
      If you reject this, how can you objectively determine how MANY percents of everything which exists we do know?

      Even if one grants the fact that everything can be traced back to matter in OUR universe, this is a far cry from saying that there cannot be other universes or worlds lying on radically different principles.
      Just stating it is extremely unlikely would be like an ancient Greek who woud assert that he knows beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no such things as a Kangoroo.

      Friendly greetings.

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    5. Lothar,

      You're confusing possibility with plausibility.

      "Plausibility" is always in reference to what we have access to, otherwise there's no difference between "plausible" and "possible".

      I'm not at all denying that "for all we know" that a universe could come from "nothing" or that a god exists. This doesn't change the fact that given everything we know, it seems very plausible that there is no god, especially not the god of Christian theism.

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  5. Okay, let's proceed step by step and leave aside the question of God's existence.

    Let us consider three propositions:

    1) it is very plausible that the human brain/mind is capable of understanding EVERYTHING which exists
    2) it is very likely that there exist things in this or other universes/realms that the human mind CANNOT grasp
    3) it is NOT IMPLAUSIBLE that there exist things in this or other universes/realms that the human mind CANNOT grasp

    Albert Einstein and many pioneers of Quantum Physic held 2) to be the case.

    I will be much more modest and assert, along Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchen and Sam harris the truth of 3).
    You obviously disagree, but on what grounds?

    Cheers, Lothar's son.

    P.S: theists aren't the only ones who confound possibilities with plausibilities. Examining the most amazing UFO cases has convinced me that Skeptics fall into that temptation very often too.

  6. Help is at hand! See