The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Tag: classical apologetics

A simple explanation of the moral argument


Recently there has been some discussion here about the moral argument for theism, with a couple of correspondents announcing with great certainty (but unfortunately little else) that the argument is just terrible. I beg to differ. Today I appeared on an episode of the Unbelievable? radio show, hosted by Justin Brierley (actually we did two shows), and the other guest was atheist Arif Ahmed.

I’ll have some more things to say about the show another time (these discussions always leave one wishing that more had been said, or “I wish I had thought of this reply at the time!”, plus there are the inevitable structures of the radio show itself). For now, however, I just want to present the version of the moral argument that I used. What follows is the “prepared” version, as though I were giving a presentation on the argument – a very simple presentation, intended for a radio audience consisting of laypeople. Of course, in a discussion style radio show it wasn’t presented as one continuous explanation like this, and plenty of parts were left out. Time is short on such occasions, so not everything gets said. But you get to read it anyway 🙂 Here it is:

The cause of death: Arguments from silence – Quantum physics and the Cosmological argument


The kalam cosmological argument is the argument that since the universe began to exist, it must have had a cause. William Lane Craig is perhaps the most prolific defender of the argument – see here for a his presentation of the argument. I won’t go into all the details of the argument, because that’s not the point of this post. Simply stated, the argument starts with the general principle that whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence, it moves to the claim that the universe began to exist, and it concludes, deductively, that the universe must therefore have had a cause.

I just want to look at one very specific objection to the argument. Specifically, this objection denies the first premise of the argument (“whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence”) on the grounds of discoveries in quantum physics. The claim is made that scientists now know that quantum particles – some, at least, are continually “popping in and out of existence” ( a popular phrase to describe the phenomenon), and their doing so is not caused. Hence, it is just not true that “whatever begins to exist has a cause of it existence,” meaning that the kalam cosmological argument should be rejected as unsound.

Well, what of this? Is it true? I won’t pretend to be any sort of expert on quantum mechanics. Just Google the words “quantum,” “popping” and “existence” and you’ll find plenty of instances of this claim. What has been observed, as far as I can tell, is that things called “virtual particles” do suddenly appear and then disappear. But after that observation, conjecture on “what lies beneath” is pretty murky stuff – and as far as I can tell even those who are experts on such things accept as much. For example, precisely how would we determine whether or not the actions or appearance of a virtual particle were caused. The most honest answer I can detect out there is – who knows? They appear in a world where they are surrounded by matter and energy, and causes might be lurking anywhere.

It’s also not even clear-cut that these virtual particles really are literally popping into existence at all. Perhaps they’re just popping into a state where we can observe them. Philip Caputo (source), in his article entitled “Is There a Correct Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics?” says:

Quantum particles or expressions, exist in a so-called superposition until they are interacted with. They are aware of all these possibilities at once. This sounds familiar – if you think of yourself as being aware of many different possible life experiences that you could choose from at any given moment. Sometimes you randomly just choose to do something and at other times you plan something to experience, like a date or a movie or something. If some observer was watching you (and was the size of our galaxy) he/she might conclude that you were existing in a so-called superposition of all possible experiences until you randomly jumped into one. Of course we know that you simply choose that experience. Likewise on the quantum scale. Maybe these quantum particles are aware of their possible experiences, and simply choose which one to experience. To us they appear as just little points popping in and out of existence, similar to that of the galactic observer watching us. But we know that they are simply expressions of consciousness just like we are, who when forced to make a decision – make one. Sometimes they are favorable and at other times not so favorable.

So that’s reply #2 to the objection. The first was my comment about our ignorance of whether or not these events/objects really are uncaused. Now, the first response this invites (and the only response I intend to look at here) is that this might look, initially, like a “cause of the gaps” theory. I mean sure, as long as we don’t know whether they are caused by any particular thing, we can hypothesize until the cows come home. We can hypothesize that there are green geese on the far side of Alpha Centauri too – as long as we can’t observe what really is there.

But this objection fails for a couple of reasons. Firstly, remember that the initial objection I described was an objection to the claim that “whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.” The only way to counter this with evidence is to provide an example where there is no silence,  but in fact where we do know that no cause exists. So it simply won’t do to say “here’s an example that has no known cause, but for which we can’t establish whether or not there was any cause.” This would simply be to beg the question against the first premise of the cosmological argument.

Secondly – many thanks to “philosophicus rex” for using this counterexample – we don’t reason this way in everyday life. Just imagine, for example, if the coroner or the police reasoned this way. “We’ve just found the body of a 30-year-old man, and we can’t establish what the cause of death was. Now, let’s not appeal to any mysterious “cause of the gaps” here, we’re serious thinkers, so let’s conclude that therefore his death was uncaused.” This would be ludicrous in the face of a fairly well established principle that when 30 -year-old men die, there’s a cause of death!

The lesson: Silence does not overturn generally well established principles.

Glenn Peoples

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