Premise one of the kalam cosmological argument (KCA) states that everything which begins to exist has a cause.  It goes on to reason that since the universe began to exist, it too requires a cause.  Given the properties required of such a cause, the KCA is a powerful argument for a personal creator God.  

To avoid the conclusion of the argument many new atheist-types take exception with the causal principle embodied in premise 1.  Quantum physics, they say, has shown that there can be effects without causes.  And if quantum events do not need causes, then perhaps the universe doesn’t either.  

A perfect example of using quantum mechanics to discredit the universality of the causal principle is George Mason University physicist, Robert Oerter: 

[O]ver the last hundred years, physicists have discovered systems that change from one state to another without any apparent physical “trigger.”  These systems are described by quantum mechanics. 

The simplest such system is the hydrogen atom. It’s just an electron bound to a proton. Two particles – that’s about as simple as you can get. According to QM, the electron can occupy one of a discrete set of energy levels. The electron can be excited to a higher energy level by absorbing a photon… 

When the electron drops from a higher energy level to a lower level, it emits a photon: a quantum of light… 

Quantum mechanics describes this process beautifully, but it only predicts the average time the electron will stay in the higher energy level. It doesn’t give any clue as to the specific time the electron will drop to the lower level. More precisely, the transition rate (the probability of a transition per unit time) is constant: it doesn’t matter how long it has been since the atom was excited, the transition rate stays the same…

When you first encounter this, you can’t quite wrap your brain around it. Surely there must be some internal mechanism, some kind of clock, that ticks along and finally “goes off,” causing the transition! 

But no such mechanism has ever been found. QM has had an unexcelled record of accurate predictions, without any need for such a mechanism…

Despite the fact that science could never, in principle, demonstrate that something is uncaused, what are we to make of this claim?  Edward Feser responds to Oerter by noting that

[N]one of this is even a prima facie counterexample to the principle of causality.  From:

1. QM describes the transition of the electron without making reference to a cause. 

it simply does not follow that: 

2. QM shows that the transition of the electron has no cause. 

Such an inference would be no better than: 

3. Kepler’s laws describe the orbits of the planets without making reference to any cause of those orbits, so 

4. Kepler’s laws show that the orbits of the planets have no cause.

Even if for some reason you think that the orbits have no cause, Kepler’s laws give you no reason to doubt that they have one.  And even if you think the transition of the electron has no cause, QM gives you no reason to doubt that it does.[1]

Quntum mechanics merely describe what takes place at the quantum level.  It makes no reference to causes, but that does not imply that there are no causal entities involved.

Feser hypothesizes that perhaps Oerter understands the law of causality to refer to some sort of deterministic cause, and since quantum mechanics are supposedly indeterministic (a disputed interpretation), the law of causality could not apply.  Feser notes that “[t]he principle of causality doesn’t require that.  It requires only that a potency be actualized by something already actual; whether that something, whatever it is, actualizes potencies according some sort of pattern –deterministic or otherwise — is another matter altogether.”

The fact of the matter is that quantum mechanics has not identified causeless effects or invalidated the causal principle.  For any event to occur it must first have the potential to occur, and then have that potential actualized.  If that potential is actualized, it “must be actualized by something already actual,”[2] and that something is what we identify as the cause.


[1]Edward Feser, “Oerter on Universals and Causality”; available from http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/05/oerter-on-universals-and-causality.html; Internet; accessed 21 May 2012.[2]Edward Feser, “Oerter contra the principle of causality”; available from http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/05/oerter-contra-principle-of-causality.html; Internet; accessed 21 May 2012.

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