Why a Quantum-Mechanical Universe Still Requires a Cause

One of the recurring points of controversy in Christian-atheist debates these days is the idea of causality in science. For many centuries Christians were able to affirm as an accepted premise that if the universe has not existed forever, for example, then it must have been caused by something external to it. There was no viable third option. Today that basic disjunctive premise has been presumed falsified with the advent of quantum mechanics, specifically in arguments to an atheist cosmology from the quantum notion that particles can "pop into existence" uncaused.[1]
Of course quantum mechanics has long been known for its many weird if not seemingly irrational aspects: indeterminacy, wave-particle duality, entanglement, and so forth. And it could be said that there would be no history of science without some deeply counterintuitive realities – or at least, that history would not be nearly as interesting as it actually is. But the popular interpretation of q.m. as a scientific confirmation of uncaused physical entities ("virtual particles") would, if valid, undermine the very meaning and methodology of science itself.
Now it may be that virtual particles violate the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) locally and temporarily, and from what I understand of all this (very little), such appears to be the case. If virtual particles are somehow materialized and then annihilated within the probabilistic constraints of the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle, then I suppose neither science logic would have a problem with that. Local and temporary violations of the second law (increasing entropy) likewise happen all the time.

From what I can tell, however, the atheistic argument from non-causality goes far beyond local and temporary, and proceeds somewhat like this:
1. Virtual particles come into existence uncaused.
2. Virtual particles are physical objects.
3. Physical objects come into existence uncaused. (from 1 & 2)
4. The observable universe is a physical object.
5. The observable universe has come into existence uncaused. (from 3 & 4) [2]

It seems to me that the main problem with such an argument, were someone to make it explicit, is that it suffers from a category mistake resulting from an undistributed minor term in premise 2. This may explain why the argument is rarely made explicit (I for one haven't seen it formalized anyway). Physical objects at the macro level, let alone at the scale of the universe itself, do not generally appear to be uncaused, even if some teensy-weensy virtual particles do.
A greater problem here is that permitting certain inexplicably uncaused entities redefines science. Clearly if we reserve the right to assert that some things just happen without explanation, then at that point we forfeit the claim that the natural universe is scientifically explicable. But of course the claim that God is not scientifically explicable is one of the most common reasons, if not the most common reason, that atheists cite for rejecting theism in the first place. Evidently some atheists are trying to have their science and eat it, too.  

[1] See for example Mark Vuletic, "Creation Ex Nihilo – without God," Secular Web (1997, 2011), http://infidels.org/library/modern/mark_vuletic/vacuum.html.
[2] Lest I be accused of constructing straw men, I am not saying that this is definitively "the atheist's argument." I am merely trying to piece together the logical implications of the statements I've heard from atheists regarding quantum mechanics and the origin of the universe.



Qm particles are nit something from nothing, ?Virtual particles come from pre existing particle sand then break apart again this what they mean by uncased, or coming from noting, They are ceasing to exist because they go back to vacuum flux.
Don McIntosh said…
That's a good point, Joe. Too bad those sorts of disclaimers don't find their way into the popular literature more often. My personal view is that quantum fluctuations and other quantum phenomena are purposefully built into the creation by God, to permit uncertainty (prevent determinism) and thereby preserve a measure of ongoing creaturely freedom.
Jason Pratt said…
Yep, there has to be not only a vacuum but zero point energy. Zero point energy, whatever it may be, DEFINITELY isn't nothing; and a vacuum requires the relative existence of something else or even multiple somethings. The universe cannot come into existence from the behavior of a vacuum flux if there isn't even a vacuum first!

Don McIntosh said…
That's another good point Jason. When physicists like Krauss say the universe came to be from "nothing," they evidently mean the closest thing to pure nothingness that can be postulated for a physical state. But of course a physical state is...something.
Gary said…
This is a very involved subject that I (nor you, as you state in your post) know much about. However, as with all subjects in which we ourselves are not experts, we can check to see what experts in the field say, in this instance, what experts in the field of cosmology say. And if one does this, you will find that although the overwhelming majority of scientists believe in the Big Bang (that the universe had a beginning), they do not believe that this event necessitates the existence of a Creator. Probably the preeminent scientist on this subject, Stephen Hawkings, (and many others) do not deny the existence of a Creator...but neither do they believe that the evidence demands one.

Christians are welcome to advance evidence that they believe supports the notion that the universe must have been created by an intelligent Creator, but the current scientific consensus is that a Creator is unnecessary to explain the current evidence.

This issue is unsettled. It is best that both sides just admit that, and continue to pursue more evidence.

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