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Laws of cause and explanation
Principles of causality like ‘nothing comes from nothing’ or principles of explanation like ‘everything has an explanation for its existence’ seem foundational to understanding the world.1 However, they are also often used as premises in Philosophical arguments for God. As such, many skeptics doubt or deny them. How can we make a case for them?
Dan C. writes:
First, may I just say, You guys are heroes!!
May I ask for your help with something that has stumped me? I’ve been studying Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teachings about the Aseity of God, and the laws of logic, and things of that sort. And I enjoy discussing the things of God with naturalists in YouTube comments for different videos. I’ve recently run into a problem that I cannot get past. I’ve been mistakenly referring to the law of cause and effect and the law of inertia as “laws of logic” and that they are absolutes that transcend our universe. Under the video title “Debate: Does God Exist? | Matt Dillahunty vs Michael Egnor”, the person I’ve been discussing with made this reply to me:
“How did you demonstrate cause and effect apply to outside of our local universe? You do know that law of identity, law of non-contradiction, and law of excluded middle are the laws of logic right? Cause and effect may not apply outside our universe. Law of inertia is physics which we know applies to our universe but how did you demonstrate it applies to outside of our universe?”
I’m stumped. Naturalists are now denying that we can appeal to the laws of logic for how the universe came into being because, “before the singularity” we don’t know if the laws of logic even apply. But I’ve been meaning more than just The Law of Identity; 2. The Law of Contradiction; 3. The Law of Exclusion or of Excluded Middle; and, 4. The Law of Reason and Consequent, or of Sufficient Reason. In fact, the only one I have any kind of a reasonable understanding of is the law of contradiction.
How do I demonstrate cause and effect and the law of inertia, and things such as this apply outside of the cosmos?
Respectfully, and so grateful to you!
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for writing in.
Technically, your interlocutor is right: there are only three classical ‘laws of logic’: the Law of Identity (A =A), the Law of Non-Contradiction (not (A and not-A), and the Law of the Excluded Middle (either A or not-A). However, modern logical systems have more laws than these.
The ‘law of inertia’ is Newton’s First Law of Motion, and is merely a matter of physics. There’s no guarantee it holds outside of this universe. As for the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) and the Law of Cause and Effect (which I understand to be ‘nothing comes from nothing’), atheists will often contest both of them, especially their applicability outside the universe. Nonetheless, it might be said that they are laws of thought; denying them renders reality inexplicable. But they are more metaphysical principles than the first three, which apply directly to the nature of truth and falsehood.
It’s pretty natural and normal for all five to appear self-evident to us. However, many atheists understand that the PSR and the causal principle (CP) plausibly lead to a foundation for reality that looks suspiciously like God. It’s not surprising, then, that they will often object to them both. So, how can we argue for them?
For the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), I like this consideration from philosopher Alexander Pruss, in his entry on the Leibnizian Cosmological argument in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology:
Starting with the observation that once we admit that some contingent states of affairs have no explanations, a completely new skeptical scenario becomes possible: no demon is deceiving you, but your perceptual states are occurring for no reason at all, with no prior causes.
Moreover, objective probabilities are tied to laws of nature or objective tendencies, and so if an objective probability attaches to some contingent fact, then that situation can be given an explanation in terms of laws of nature or objective tendencies. Hence, if the PSR is false of some contingent fact, no objective probability attaches to the fact.
Thus, we cannot even say that violations of the PSR are improbable if the PSR is false. Consequently, someone who does not affirm the PSR cannot say that Koons’ skeptical scenario is objectively improbable. It may be taken to follow from this that if the PSR were false or maybe even not known a priori, we would not know any empirical truths. But we do know empirical truths. Hence, the PSR is true, and maybe even known a priori.2
Basically, if some contingent states of affairs have no explanation, we can’t rule out the possibility or plausibility of our sense perceptions occurring for no reason at all with no prior causes. As such, we wouldn’t know any empirical facts. But we do. Therefore, at least weak versions of the PSR (e.g. all contingent states of affairs have explanations) are true. For more on the principle of explanation, see Contingency argument: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Note also that this argument isn’t limited to our universe. It’s about contingent states of affairs per se. So, if the universe’s existence is contingent, then it has an explanation.
We can run a similar sort of argument for the causal principle (Simultaneous causation and the beginning of time):
If [something could come from nothing], then anything could come from nothing, not just time or universes. Balls, angels, ducks, unicorns, and Sherlock Holmes could all just pop into being without cause. Even worse, saying that causes are not always needed ruins the potential for any explanatory discipline, including science. After all, how could we justify trying to explain anything if anything could pop into being inexplicably?
What’s important to note here, though, is that in both cases these arguments apply to all of reality.
See In the beginning God created—or was it a quantum fluctuation? for another approach to justifying the causal principle.
Creation Ministries International
References and notes
- These are families of principles; there are different versions. No causal principle includes God (since He is the foundation of reality, and thus uncaused, independent, and self-existent), but some explanatory principles include God. For instance, the first premise of William Lane Craig’s contingency argument for God contains an explanatory principle that includes God: “Everything has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.” (Craig, W.L., On Guard, David, C. Cook, Colorado Springs, CO, p. 56, 2010.) The element “in the necessity of its own nature” was designed to include God, since the explanation for God’s existence is his own natural necessity. Return to text.
- Pruss, A.R., The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument; in: Craig, W.L. and Moreland, J.P., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Blackwell Publishing, UK, Kindle Locations 1021–1030, 2009. Return to text.