Monday, August 22, 2016

Sean Carroll, Catholicism, & Unfalsifiable Metaphysics

We interrupt your regularly scheduled quiet time on the Counter Apologist Blog to bring you an actual post!

Lately I've been doing some thinking about apologetic arguments, and that leads me to thinking about metaphysical arguments in general.  Part of this post is to help me document some ideas I’ve had about fundamental issues regarding metaphysical arguments. 

Much of this is triggered by reading posts by Catholic apologists and theologians.  Catholics are unique in that they tend to be Thomists, and so ascribe to a kind of Aristotelian metaphysics that was endorsed by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas is the official philosopher of the Catholic Church, and much of their theology is based on his work. 

If the name Aquinas rings some bells, it’s because he’s the guy who has the “Five Ways” or rather five arguments that supposedly prove the existence of a god.  One of the most famous of these arguments is one for a “prime mover” or an “unmoved mover”.

The argument itself isn’t really important per-se, it’s actually air tight in terms of premises following to their conclusions.  The issue is the Aristotelian metaphysics it assumes and is based on.  Suffice it to say, if you’re using the kind of neo-Aristotelian metaphysics favored by modern day Thomists, the conclusion readily follows.

What atheists disagree with in terms of the Thomists is the metaphysics they assume.

The problem with metaphysical assumptions, especially ones that try to get to the base of fundamental reality, is that proving or disproving them is either trivially easy or impossible.  The trivial ones are easy to disprove because they assume something we can show not to be the case, and the others are so well crafted so as to be immune to disproof – though that also leaves these principles underdetermined.  We can’t actually prove or disprove these kinds of assumptions.

So it was this tweet by one of my favorite contemporary atheists, Sean Carroll, discussing an objection to his book “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself”.

The objection comes from a writer/apologist named Brandon Vogt who writes at

In the book, it appears (I’ve not yet read the book) that Sean directly goes after the Aristotelian metaphysical assumption that “Everything in motion must be moved by something” and as Brandon helpfully clarifies, by motion he means any change whatsoever. 

Sean points out that the conservation of momentum casts doubt on that assumption, using the example of “objects on frictionless surfaces moving at constant velocity do not need a cause to keep moving”.

Brandon counters that at best this shows we don’t need a sustaining cause to keep an object moving, it wouldn’t show we don’t need an initial cause to start said motion. 

Brandon continues to say that by failing to distinguish between types of causes, Sean misses the point of the argument, and so fails to refute it.

The more I think about it these underlying issues, the more I have to agree that Sean hasn’t, and in fact can’t, disprove Aristotle’s premise.  However at the same time I don’t believe Brandon or anyone else can establish the premise either.  

The assumption of the naturalist is that physical stuff that makes up our universe has always existed. Right now we think the most basic form of physical stuff is what is described by quantum mechanics (QM).  The idea we get from QM is that this “stuff” has and will always operate according to these QM laws.  There is no “cause” of it to have started, and it doesn’t require anything to sustain it either. It just exists and it does its thing.
The theist will disagree with that, but that’s our position. 

A Thomist says that all changes require some kind of cause, which is backed up by our intuitions and our everyday experience.  The problem comes from example that Carroll brings up, and from another famous example, that of radioactive decay.   Eventually radioactive elements will decay. It’s completely random, and as far as we can tell it simply happens. There’s no physical cause of it, not apparently anyway, and the best we can do is predict a range in which the decay will happen (this is the half-life of a radioactive element.

You might think this would disprove the Aristotelean metaphysic, but they will respond that just because our best theory doesn’t show that there is some kind of cause for the decay, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Perhaps there’s a better theory out there that will come about once we solve other problems in physics.  

The issue is that while it’s true we can’t definitively say there is “no cause”, it certainly appears as if there isn’t one give our best information and theories.  

So the key metaphysical principle at stake in the argument gets put in this kind of perpetual underdetermined status, never to be resolved. 

Study this stuff long enough and you’ll notice that this is a very common theme for nearly any major topic in metaphysics. Metaphysical principles are relegated to metaphysics, instead of just physics, because the principles themselves are so general and crafted in a way that they can’t in principle be proved or disproven. 

So in the end, atheists will point to things like the conservation of energy or what Sean refers to as the Quantum Eternity Theorem which says either time is infinite or it is not fundamental. Either way, looking at our best description of the physical stuff (ie. quantum mechanics) the physical stuff has “always existed”. 

A theist can counter even that evidence by saying, somewhat like Young Earth Creationists, that god still created the universe a finite time ago and made it look as if it has always existed, but there isn’t evidence of this. 

In the end, the theist holds to their metaphysical principle which is based on our intuitive “every day” experience of how the world works, and the atheist points to findings from science which undermines those intuitions and principles. 

The theist can say that our evidence doesn’t truly undermine their principles, but they can’t exactly prove that we must accept those principles either.  So round and round we go, with neither side able to prove the other wrong, because of the very nature of the question being asked.


  1. Because some things don't appear to operate under classical mechanics the way we now know them to operate under quantum mechanics, therefore there is no first cause or anything like causation? Wait what?

    Carroll, like Krause makes these ignorant statements that destroy the foundations of the very science he is trying to elevate. He is equivocating causation and not to cleverly either. If universes can come out of nothing then a scientist who is researching how independent variable x relates to dependent variable y can give various inferences based on the data but will always have the alternative causal inference that nothing caused it. Since nothing can cause universes why can't it explain any and everything in the same universe which is necessarily less complex?

    You are correct to point out that Carroll misses the causal point but QM doesn't touch the efficient cause in Aristotle's rubric.

    What Carroll doesn't tell his reader is that his version is on of a dozen inferences to the best explanation, and not the mainstream inference either. Since 1973 ellis and Hawking have shown that space and time began to exist and are therefore NOT infinite. Time runs directionally. There is no backward causation. Particles in superposition extrapolated to the large-scale Classical mechanical world is doing the heavy lifting.

    These missteps are done due to philosophy of science ignorance similar to the Young Earth Creationists you mentioned in your post. The reason we have the whole grand unified theory thing is that the large-scale universe DOESNT work based on the QM model.

    Here is another paper in the same vein.

    "Quantum correlations with no causal order" Ognyan Oreshkov, Fabio Costa, Caslav Brukner. Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms2076

    Read more at:

    For more on complex causality with George Ellis see:

    The theist isn't saying "The evidence doesn't truly undermine our principles," as you suggest. The theological position doesn't weigh in at all. The philosopher of any stripe is saying "Out of nothing nothing comes, still holds!" No space, no time, no matter, no energy produce no quantum vacuums! No laws of nature! No unstable fields!

    The theist has a causal explanation that arose 1000 years before Pythagorus and Parmenides developed their maxim later recorded by Lucretius as, "Ex nihilo nihil fit!"

    That is a spaceless, timeless, immaterial mind, that is personal, has limitless power and knowledge. Far from being ad hoc or circular (god of the gaps), it keeps getting better and better as an explanatory ultimate as our scientific knowledge progresses. So Sean doesn't do any damage to the class of cosmological arguments, but if taking seriously would destroy the entirety of science! Opps.

    1. If you believe that Sean Carroll is saying "universes come out of nothing" then you've not read or listened to Sean Carroll.

      Ellis and Hawking have not shown that "physical stuff" began to exist, at best it could show space-time began to exist, but they didn't actually show that either. I've covered this at length in my Countering the Kalam series which you can find on this site.

      No naturalist, not even Krauss, believes there was ever a state of "nothing" in the philosophical sense.