Thursday, October 31, 2019

Causation and creation ex nihilo

Happy Halloween, happy reformation day, and happy Melinda's birthday!

I was thinking about causation this morning because I recently had a formal type debate on the Kalam cosmological argument. Although the debate was formal in the sense of having character, round, and time restrictions, it happened over private messages, so I can't give you a link to it. But it doesn't matter. Causation wasn't an issue in the debate. It's just that causation is relevant to the KCA, and since I was thinking about the KCA, I got to thinking about causation this morning.

When WLC (and most people) formulate the KCA, they say something along the lines of, "Whatever begins to exist has a cause." The way it's worded leaves it open to whether we're talking about something beginning to exist ex materia or ex nihilo. This leaves the premise open to certain criticisms, like the spontaneity of radio active decay and virtual particles popping in and out of existence. Whenever I debate the KCA, I don't stick to WLC's formulation of it. Instead, I anticipate certain objections and formulate it in a way that either addresses them or avoids them.

One doesn't need to defend the broad claim that all things that begin to exist require causes because in the KCA, we are talking specifically about the universe beginning to exist ex nihilo. If we stick to defending that, then we don't even need to address things like radio active decay. The premise I typically defend is that it's impossible for something to spontaneously pop into being out of nothing with no cause or reason. That narrows the scope of what needs to be defended and avoids certain criticisms.

One of the criticism people bring against the first premise in the KCA is the fact that nobody has ever observed something coming into existence out of absolutely nothing. Since such an event has never been observed, neither has anybody been able to observe whether such an event typically has a cause or not. Without making such observations, we are not in a position to say that something coming into being ex nihilo requires a cause.

The primary weakness of this argument is the underlying assumption that the only way we could know whether creation ex nihilo requires a cause is through observation. This assumption is problematic for a few different reasons.

One reason is because it's questionable whether anybody ever observes causation at all. David Hume has a chapter on this subject in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He argues there that nobody actually observes causation. Rather, we just assume causation whenever we see things conjoined in certain ways in space and time.

I don't want to go into all of Hume's arguments, but consider this thought experiment. Imagine a situation in which a golf club strikes a golf ball, and the golf ball goes flying. But the reason for this series of events isn't that the golf club causes the golf ball to go flying. Rather, there's an invisible spirit that causes the golf ball to move whenever the golf club gets sufficiently close with the right speed. And suppose that's the case for everything in the physical world. Nothing causes anything else in the physical world. Instead, the invisible spirit causes everything to move. And the spirit does it in such a consistent way that there appear to be regularities to it. These regularities allow us to formulate laws and make predictions using formulas and math.

If that's even possible, then it raises the question of whether we're actually observing causation at all. All we're observing is objects moving. When we see a golf club swinging followed immediately by a golf ball flying, and when the timing and location are just right, we just assume that one thing causes the other. If we must be able to observe causation before we can know whether it has occurred, then we would never know that anything had a cause. That doesn't seem reasonable, so that's one reason to doubt the premise that the above criticism is based on.

Another reason is because it's one thing to observe when a cause happens, but it's another to observe when a cause does not happen. How could one ever know, merely from observation, that an event happened without a cause? Suppose we saw a golf ball just take off, but we didn't see any golf club hit it. Could we say it was an event without a cause? We may think it doesn't have a cause because we assume that if there had been one, we would've seen it. But it's always possible the cause eludes our perception. it's always possible when we observe events that there's a hidden cause.

Suppose we did observe something coming into existence out of nothing. How could one observe a cause in that situation? We might say it had no cause because we didn't see one, but that really isn't an adequate reason to think it didn't have a cause. It might have an invisible cause. Or suppose we saw somebody wiggle their nose, and as soon as they did, something popped into existence out of nothing. Even in that situation, we wouldn't be able to tell that the wiggling of the nose caused something to pop into existence out of nothing. So there's just no way to tell, merely by observing, whether something coming into existence out of nothing had a cause or not. And with that being the case, it's irrelevant whether anybody has ever observed something coming into existence out of nothing, whether with or without a cause.

If observation isn't how we would know whether something had a cause or not, then lack of observation is no reason to deny that we know whether something had a cause or not. Our knowledge of causation must come by some other way. I think it comes from a rational intuition. David Hume denied this, but I think he was mistaken.

If you accept quantum indeterminacy, then you'll believe there are quantum events without sufficient causes. Let's grant that for the sake of argument. At best, this would prove that it's possible for something to come to be without a sufficient cause. But it wouldn't show that it's possible for something to come into existence out of nothing. It wouldn't even show that it's possible for something to come to be without any cause at all.

In the case of spontaneous radioactive decay, there may not be sufficient conditions for a decay event, but there are necessary conditions. These necessary conditions include things like the ratio of protons to neutrons. That's why different isotopes have different half lives. The initial conditions of an atom give us a probability of a decay event, and if you get enough atoms of the same element with the same number of neutrons, that probability will average out into a half life for the whole collection. That means the probability is determined by the initial conditions, and that means the initial conditions are necessary for the decay event even if they aren't sufficient to determine the decay event. So even spontaneous quantum events have causes. They just aren't sufficient causes.

In the case of something coming into existence out of nothing, there isn't even a set of initial conditions. There's no "thing" that has properties which serve as necessary conditions or that can give us probabilities. So creation ex nihilo isn't remotely analogous to spontaneous quantum events.

One can merely reflect on creation ex nihilo and see, by a rational intuition, that it's impossible for it to happen with no cause or reason. Lucretius didn't even think it was possible with a cause or reason. I don't know why there are people who can't see this. I've never had the least bit of doubt about it. When you think about it carefully, it appears to be a metaphysically necessary truth. Since it's metaphysically necessary, looking at the physical world isn't how we come to know it. If we could only know it through looking at the physical world, it wouldn't be a necessary truth. It would be a contingent truth. It might be true in one universe but not another depending on the physical characteristic each universe happened to have. It's not a physical law at all because it doesn't merely describe how the physical world happens to be. It's a metaphysical law because it puts constraints on what can or can't happen in the physical world. It's a law that applies to all universes.

The lack of analogy between creation ex nihilo and spontaneous quantum events cuts both ways. Some people try to extrapolate from causes in the physical world to the cause of the physical world. They claim we have physical evidence that something can't spontaneously come from nothing in the fact that every event we observe always has a cause. This is an inductive argument for the principle that all events have causes or that all things that come into existence have causes. But the argument fails because the beginning of the universe is not sufficiently analogous to anything that happens in the universe. So even if we grant determinism in the universe, it wouldn't follow that the universe as a whole has a cause.

You have to be careful when you reason inductively. Imagine a situation in which an alien comes to earth, and for the first week he's here, the only birds he sees are crows, and all the crows he sees are black. But then he finds out, through a friend, that crows aren't the only birds. There's a whole slew of birds that he hasn't seen. Would he be justified in reasoning that because every bird he's seen up until now has been black, that all the other bird species are black as well? Probably not. He may be reasonable in thinking the next crow he sees is going to be black, but that isn't sufficiently analogous for him to think the first chicken he sees is going to be black. He might be justified in having a suspicion about it, but that's all.

In the same way, causal events in the physical world are not sufficiently analogous to the beginning of the physical world to extrapolate from one to the other.

And that's about all the thoughts I had on causation this morning.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Devil's advocate debates

Playing devil's advocate in a debate can be fun in a way that other debates aren't. In both cases, you can be in it for the gamesmanship of it, but if you're defending a view you actually hold, and especially if it's something that's important to you, you're probably going to feel a little anxiety over the possibility of failing. When you play devil's advocate, you can enjoy the gamesmanship of it without that anxiety. You still have a little anxiety because you want to win, but since there isn't anything at stake, they're more enjoyable.

But they have practical advantages, too. Most people primarily read material that reinforces what they already believe. When they anticipate opposition, they delve even further into it in hopes that they'll be prepared when the opposition comes. When we read opposing points of view, we often don't read them as carefully or as charitably. We kind of hop scotch through it, picking out little issues here and there that we can take issue with. That is not how you should read something if you really want to understand it.

Preparing for a devil's advocate debate changes all that. It forces you to put yourself into the other person's shoes, to see things how they see it. I have seen people play devil's advocate half-heartedly, of course, but if you're really trying to win the debate, then you'll try to come up with the best arguments you can. That forces you to read your opposition in the most charitable way, and it enables you to understand their point of view better. That's a good thing.

The more deeply you delve into a topic, the more flaws or snags will appear. For example, a professional physicist is more aware of the snags in general relativity than most others are because they've studied it in more depth. If you study Christian apologetics in any depth, and if you do it with a desire to arrive at the truth, then you will come up with objections to things on your own. Sometimes, you'll come up with better objections than the opposition typically does because the opposition will not understand the arguments as well as you do.

Playing devil's advocate allows you to test those objections. It's kind of like how, in science, you test a hypothesis by trying to prove that it's wrong. You put it up against situations in which it might be falsified. You may be able to come up with answers to your objections on your own, but testing it by trying to defend it in a debate allows you to see how well it holds up to the scrutiny of other people. And maybe those people will have something to say that you didn't think of.

You could just ask people how they would respond to an objection, but the temptation in that case is to accept whatever answer they give you , even if it's not a good answer, just because it gets you out of a problem area. But if you actually try to defend it in a debate, then you're going to force the other person to try to give better responses to it, and if they succeed, then you'll have better confidence in their answer.

Playing devil's advocate can also help in dealing with objections you come up with because in your effort to defend those objections, you'll be forced to delve more deeply into them, to think about them more carefully. In the process, you'll be able to see the flaws in them more clearly. Just as delving deeply into the side you agree with raises objections you might not have otherwise seen, so also does delving more deeply into the opposition reveal more objections you might not have otherwise seen. So you can actually find objections to your objections by trying to defend them rather than trying to dismiss them.

Somebody told me recently that they thought devil's advocate debates are dishonest. I don't think they're dishonest as long as you're upfront about the fact that you're playing devil's advocate. You may be concerned that playing devil's advocate might inadvertently change somebody's mind in a way that you don't want their mind to change. You don't want to accidentally cause somebody to deconvert from Christianity if you're a Christian. When I have devil's advocate debates, if I don't think the person I debated with did a good job, then I'll explain in the comment section or something why I don't think the arguments I gave in the debate work. That way anybody reading the debate will at least get to hear a refutation of them in case my opponent didn't refute them, or they didn't refute them the way I thought they should have.

So I'm all for devil's advocate debates. I've participated in many of them. They were fun and constructive for me.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Molinism: a problem and a possible solution

I sent William Lane Craig a question about Molinism a while back, and I was just thinking that the question could be made into an argument against Molinism.

Here's the issue. Molinism requires libertarian free will (LFW). According to LFW, there are no condition prior to and up to the moment of choice that are sufficient to determine what that choice will be. With that being the case, we should expect that if we were able to turn back time and put a person in the exact same situation they were in before, they might not make the same choice as they made the first time.

Libertarians acknowledge that antecedent conditions can have some influence over your behavior. So let's say that Jim meets Bob and has a desire to shake hands with him, but he has LFW, so his desire is not sufficient to determine that he will shake Bob's hand. And in the absence of any Frankfurt-type scenarios, Jim could choose otherwise. But his desire has some influence over his action, and the stronger the desire, the more probable that he will choose to shake hands with Bob. So let's say, hypothetically, that the desire is such that there's a 75% chance that Jim will shake hands with Bob and a 25% chance that he won't.

If that were the case, then we should expect that if we turned back time and played the scenario out many times, that 75% of the time, Jim would choose to shake Bob's hand, and 25% of the time, he would choose not to.

But this comes into conflict with Molinism. According to Molinism, there is a counter-factual describing what Jim would do if he were to meet Bob, and this counter-factual has a truth value prior to God creating the world containing Jim and Bob. Suppose the counter-factual is that if Jim meets Bob, then he will freely shake his hand. If that counter-factual is true, then shouldn't we expect that no matter how many times we turn back the clock, Jim will shake Bob's hand? If so, then that conflicts with the earlier stipulations about LFW and how that would play out in Jim's choices when he's put in the same situation multiple times.

There is a possible solution to this, though. If there is some possible world where time gets reversed multiple times, then surely there would be counterfactuals that applied each time it happened. For example, you might have one that says, "If Jim meets Bob the first time, then he will shake his hand, but if time gets reversed, and Jim has the decision to make a second time, then Jim will not shake his hand." And you could string that counterfactual out as many times as time gets reversed in that world. That would solve the problem.

But that does seem to have some bearing on what makes a counterfactual true, which is another thing to think about.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Demonstrable proof

Somebody said on a discussion forum today that what it would take for them to believe in God would be demonstrable proof. It got me to thinking.

In physics, there are theoretical physicists and experimental physicists. Theoretical physicists crunch numbers and manipulate equations and form hypotheses that hopefully make some prediction that is testable. Then an experimental physicist will design some experiment in which they can test the prediction. Once it is tested and the prediction is actually observed, then you have something like "demonstrable proof." An example of this is how the standard model of quantum mechanics predicted the existence of the Higgs Boson. It wasn't until the Higgs Boson was actually observed at CERN that we had demonstrable proof of its existence.

But before we had demonstrable proof of the Higgs Boson, we still have very good reason to believe it existed. The standard model already had a lot of experimental evidence backing it up, and it predicted the Higgs Boson. It seems to me that belief in the Higgs Boson was well justified even before we had demonstrable proof.

So when people say they need demonstrable proof of God, I take that to mean they want to see direct evidence of God. They want to see God himself or at least observe something that seems to be the direct effect of God, like writing in the sky or a voice from heaven or something.

What we have are philosophical arguments for God. These arguments predict the existence of God. That is, if the reasoning is sound, then we should expect there to be a God. So they are similar to hypotheses in physics that are backed up by reasons but for which we lack demonstrable proof. We'd like to verify them or falsify them by testing them, but there doesn't seem to be any way to test them unless God himself decides to make his presence known. We can't make him do that.

Hypotheses in physics and philosophical arguments for God have two things in common--they rely on previously existing evidence and some kind of reasoning from that evidence to the conclusion. For example, cosmological and teleological arguments rely both on observations in nature as well as reasoning from those observations. Even string theory, which a lot of people criticize because it's not testable (yet), is based on observation and reasoning. Some physicists think string theory is true because they think the observations and reasoning that lead to it are sound.

So is it ever reasonable to believe a hypothesis before it has been demonstrated to be true? Sure! Granted, we'd have greater warrant if we had demonstrable proof, but short of demonstrable proof, arguments can give us sufficient warrant for believing in God in the same way that arguments can give us sufficient warrant for believing a scientific hypothesis before they have been tested.

Think about it. There'd be no reason to bother testing a hypothesis unless you first had some initial reason to think it was true. Hypotheses that are worth testing aren't arbitrary. Some have greater warrant than others, too, depend on what evidence or line of reasoning that lead to them. Physicists were pretty sure the Higgs Boson existed before we ever had demonstrable proof. So whether we can be pretty sure God exists apart from God making his presence known in some demonstrable way depends on how good the philosophical arguments for his existence are. But they shouldn't be dismissed merely because we lack demonstrable proof or because they can't be tested.