In Defense of Causation.

by metacognizant

In Defense of Causation.

This blog will largely be a defense of the first premise of the kalam cosmological argument (KCA)—namely, everything that begins to exist has a cause. This blog entry will seek to (1) establish the truth of that causation is a metaphysical—rather than a physical—concept, and discuss the implications that this has, (2) argue that things begin to exist, and (3) establish the truth of the first premise of the KCA. The purpose behind this blog’s being written is in part to write a definitive response to the claim—growing in popularity—that nothing actually begins to exist: what occurs is matter and energy changing form. Therefore—the claim goes—even if we can know that the universe began to exist due to persuasive arguments against infinite time, we still have nothing to compare this beginning to, as the only thing that began to exist is the original matter and energy which has since been construed in various forms. Thus, we cannot establish that God exists even if we can prove that the universe began to exist—so the conclusion to the claim goes.

First, some definitions are in order. When I reference causation as a “physical concept,” I mean to include the ideas that causation is a tangible physical force, a human description of nature’s actions, or anything other than a metaphysical concept. When I reference causation as a “metaphysical concept,” I mean to include a strictly logical theory of causation, with roots over and above physical reality. Establishing causation as a metaphysical concept does not give any credence to a transcendental argument for the existence of God, as some eager theists might hope, since there are other options available to root this metaphysical concept in—options such as Platonism, for starters. It is not the purpose of this blog to pursue these alternatives further.

The nature of causation

If causation is simply a physical force or a natural law, then, prior to the big bang—given the standard cosmological model—, it did not exist. We therefore do not have a violation of any logical principle to say that the universe came into being uncaused from nothing, as there was no natural law to be violated. The most that the theist can assert if causation is truly a force of the physical is that, prima facie, it is absurd to hypothesize that the universe as a whole violated a law in its coming into being that it thereafter operated upon. However, this assertion does not go far, as there is no logical contradiction in this statement, and the universe is not a conscious entity to decide what natural laws it will or won’t operate upon. Given that causation is simply a natural law or physical force, then, the atheist’s aforementioned conclusion follows from the previous claims.

But is causation actually a physical concept? To argue that it is indeed lands one in hot water. On the one hand, we have philosophical objections to the idea that causation is a physical concept; on the other, scientific and physical objections themselves. Philosophical objections to the notion that causation is a physical concept are less severe than the scientific and physical objections. Nevertheless, they’re worth mentioning. Philosophically speaking, if causation is a physical concept then there are few forms of existence it can take. It must actually be a physical object itself, or simply our description of the workings of nature.

Given that causation affects all of what is our best guess at the fundamental parts of reality (quarks and the like), and those parts are, indeed, fundamental, causation is not a physical object, as it could not be more fundamental than the actual fundamental parts of reality. Some might object that causation works differently at the subatomic level, and this objection holds some water. However, it must be remembered that our observations are limited by the heisenberg uncertainty principle, and our observations may be as such simply due to our epistemic limitations. To quote the philosopher J.P. Moreland, “there are at least eight different empirically equivalent philosophical models of quantum reality, and it is irresponsible to make dogmatic claims about the ontology of the quantum level” (BCtNT, 289). Further, in quantum mechanics, causation does not cease entirely, and so it is still a force that affects all of physical reality, and therefore causation cannot be a physical entity.

If causation was just our description of the workings of nature, it would be a descriptive rather than prescriptive phenomenon. That is, it would not be inviolable—or necessarily occur. That causation would necessarily be descriptive rather than prescriptive is an analytic truth, given that causation would be a description of the workings of nature. If causation were simply our description of the workings of nature, it could not be a prescriptive phenomenon, as it would have no causal efficacy. In order for causation to be prescriptive—to have causal efficacy—it would have to take the form of either a fundamental physical object, which we have discussed, or a law of nature, but this would bring us to a metaphysical concept—as causation would take priority over and above all of nature.

It should be at once obvious that causality is prescriptive rather than descriptive. In the whole of recorded human history, we do not have any written examples of violations of cause and effect. As cause and effect is the norm, if it had been violated, we would expect written reports of the occurrence. However, if causality was simply descriptive, we should certainly expect fairly regular violations of cause and effect; there simply would be no reason for its continual regularity. To call causality descriptive ignores the recorded prescriptive nature of cause and effect.

Now, onto the scientific objections against causality as a physical concept. These objections cannot be put in better words than those of the professor I referenced in another entry of mine, who goes by the username yggdrasil. I will simply quote him:

In many conversations that I’ve observed, a typical objection to a KCA-style argument is to deny whatever is playing the role of the causal premise. The objection is that somehow we only understand causality as a physical concept, hence, it is nonsensical to apply causality outside the boundaries of space-time. My response to this is that it makes perfect sense to apply the metaphysical concept of causality outside the boundaries of space-time because causality itself is not a physical concept; intuitively, this is the reason why we’re comfortable with the idea that a nonphysical God can effect things on our physical surroundings.

We can know that causality is not a physical concept because it is not possible to give a physical (and/or mathematical) description of what it means for one thing to cause another, in spite of the many attempts of scientists and philosophers over the years.

In fact John Norton, a philosopher of science at the University of Pittsburgh, has recently discovered a splendid counterexample to the principle of causality (and determinism) in the setting of classical physics in what he calls The Dome. In the setting of The Dome a unit mass is initially at rest and perfectly balanced on top of a dome where the only force acting on it is gravity. However, classical physics says that after any given amount of time the unit mass can slide down the frictionless surface of The Dome along any given radial direction and without any apparent “cause” (and in violation of any principle of determinism). Here’s an image of Norton’s setup for The Dome:

If you don’t believe me and have a taste for checking the details of the physics you can follow Norton’s calculations in section 2.1 of his research paper. He also has a less formal presentation here (complete with animated gifs).

To my knowledge, The Dome is the best example of how the differential equations that makeup physics don’t amount to a principle of causality, which is evidence for the claim that causality is not a physical concept.

Does this refute the idea of causality en toto? No, and this will be explicated below.

Towards a metaphysical concept of causality

How, then, is one able to retain a concept of causality that does not succumb to the difficulties presented above? One may be tempted to abandon a principle of causality altogether and venture towards a Russellian solution. However, this option is simply not viable, as Robert Koons has argued persuasively (1996). The answer to the aforementioned question, then, is simple: anchor causality as a metaphysical concept. If one breaks from the notion that causality is rooted in the physical, the scientific difficulties presented above easily fade away. Strictly speaking, the cause of the rolling of the ball is the physical force of gravity. That one cannot account for the precise time that the ball rolls down The Dome by simply citing gravity is irrelevant if causality is not rooted in the physical; an exact physical description of a metaphysical concept is both absurd and unnecessary. Additionally, some philosophers argue that all causality is itself atemporal, though its effects are temporal (cited in Craig, 2001). Intuitively absurd as this may be, it demonstrates that aligning a metaphysical concept to temporality is not necessary to give a robust description of that concept. Approaching causality from a metaphysical perspective also obviously avoids the philosophical criticisms of causality as a physical concept.

Philosophically speaking, if causality is metaphysical, it can take a few forms. One would be divine conceptualism, where causality exists as a thought in the divine mind. Another is a Platonic law of nature. A third is as the sustaining action of God in the whole of reality. A fourth is that causality is our description of a part of the prescriptive True Reality (something like Brahma). I will not go into critiques of any of these options or explicate which I favor and why. I simply want to point out that a metaphysical concept of causality is theologically and philosophically neutral; atheist and theist, monist and dualist alike can embrace a metaphysical concept of causality. All of the aforementioned forms would be prescriptive over nature, as well.

Alexander Pruss has developed a detailed metaphysical causal principle. I will refer readers to his article ( While the entire article is easily worth a read, control+F down to, “3.1. From local to non-local CPs,” to read his articulation of his causal principle (CP, as he calls it). For readers who wish to disregard extra reading, a causal principle he reaches through modal logic is “What can have a cause, does.” I urge readers to read the actual article. For purposes of this blog, though, I’ll take his causal principle and work it backwards. If everything that can have a cause does, what cannot have a cause? The question can also be framed, “What can never be an effect?” Only two things cannot have causes: things that do not exist, and things that do not come into existence. That these cannot have causes should be self-evident. It is a tautology that what does not exist cannot have a cause. Likewise, if a thing does not have a temporal, causal, or logical precedent, it cannot have a cause. Therefore, if only these things cannot have causes, it follows—since what can have a cause, does—that whatever begins to exist has a cause—which is the first premise of the kalam.

But do things begin to exist?

The principle objection that this blog is meant to address is that nothing ever begins to exist—save for at the beginning of the universe—what actually occurs is matter/energy rearranging. This objection will now be addressed.

If causality is metaphysical, and if it can be shown that—metaphysically—things do begin to exist, then the fact that the things that begin to exist are based upon the same matter/energy as has existed since the beginning of the universe is irrelevant. This should be self-evident. But for clarification, this is because a metaphysical principle does not discriminate between physical aspects; if things metaphysically begin to exist, then a metaphysical causal principle has authority over it, regardless of what makes it up. Metaphysically, then, do things begin to exist? I’ll quote another forum member, midasvuik,

1. Nothing comes into being. [Assumption]
2. Energy/matter has existed since the beginning of the universe. [First Law of Thermodynamics]
3. William Lane Craig is composed of energy/matter. [Empirical truth]
4. William Lane Craig is conscious, intelligent, etc. [Empirical truth]
5. The energy/matter which composes William Lane Craig is not conscious, not intelligent, etc. [Empirical truth]
6. Leibniz’s Law of Indiscernibles. [Arguably a self-evident truth; in any case is supported empirically as well]
7. Therefore, the energy/matter which composes William Lane Craig is not William Lane Craig. [By 3, 4, 5, and 6]
8. The properties of consciousness, intelligence, etc. of William Lane Craig came into being a finite time ago in the past. [Empirical truth]
9. Therefore, William Lane Craig could not have existed prior to the coming into being of his properties of consciousness, intelligence, etc. (I say this because it is possible that Craig may have not “existed” in that he may have been lacking certain properties such as humanness, mortality, cognizance, etc. at the time any of these properties may have arisen. Moreover, having these properties does not guarantee someone being WLC; they are only necessary properties, not sufficient ones. Nonetheless, this really does not matter because either way WLC came into being, as I will show in the next premise.)
10. William Lane Craig exists. [Empirical truth]
11. Therefore, William Lane came into being a finite time ago in the past.
12. x begins to exist at t iff x comes into being at t. [Definition of “beginning to exist”]
13. Therefore, William Lane Craig began to exist.
14. Therefore, the assumption (1) is false.

…[M]ost of the premises are uncontroversial. 2, 3, 4, 8, 10, and 12 are (hopefully) uncontroversial. To deny (5) would seem to endorse some kind of panpsychism, which I think is clearly false. I think it is foolish to deny (6); only someone desperately wanting to avoid the argument’s conclusion would bother to deny something as obviously true as Leibniz’s Law

That William Lane Craig is composed of the same matter/energy as has existed before him is irrelevant; his coming into existence is a new metaphysical occurrence. Additionally, the metaphysical causal principle that governed Craig’s coming into existence is the same as the one that governs the rest of physical reality—including physical reality’s coming into existence. Therefore, if all that I’ve explicated is correct, we can know that premise (1) of the kalam (everything that begins to exist has a cause) holds both in everyday experience and even in extreme cases, such as the beginning of the universe. (1) is a metaphysical causal principle that is strictly logical, and with roots over and above physical reality and precedence over all of that physical reality.

For my cited sources, check my bibliography blog that will be added shortly.