Intuition, Causality, and Quantum Physics

Jun 19, 2011 2 Comments by

One of the most popular arguments for the existence of a creator, is that the universe could not have happened of its own accord. The universe required some simpler, enduring object to create it. This is one of the favourites of our enemy William Lane Craig.

It is perhaps one of the stronger arguments, simply because it relies on only two pieces of information. Firstly that the law of causality is always held, and second that the universe is incredibly complex, and such a complex object could not spark its own existence.

On the logic front, there are several approaches one can take to hack away at the statement. The foremost being that if the law of causality is always upheld, then why does the creator not need a creator? Unfortunately this argument can be side-stepped, because one could define a creator as an object so simple that it is capable of existing without an instance of creation.

We must also remember during our deliberations, that a creator is different from a god. In order to avoid endless creators, we’ve already had to define a god as being a simple object. Not to mention that the only requirement of a creator is that it is something capable of causing a universe to begin. There are no further requirements. In order to turn our creator into a god, we’d have to define many more properties, none of which could be tested philosophically or scientifically.

The astute physicists who saw the title and were pulled in will have noted that time itself was formed along with space at the beginning of the universe, the big bang. Therefore it would be incorrect to talk about “before” the big bang, as before is a relative description involving time. If there is no time, there is no “before”. But we’re well aware that what we mean to say is something like “in the state of existence that is not encompassed by the universe”.

This timeless existence does have a profound effect on our causality argument however. Cause and effect is a human perspective of the world. As humans, we live in the universe and watch time pass by. We are used to seeing the cause, then the effect. However, if we compress this down into a timeless existence, surely cause and effect must come at the same time, or rather, the cause would exist just as much as the effect would exist. In which case, the law of causality may be broken. Did the cause cause the effect, or did the effect cause the cause? Otherwise irreversible processes may suddenly become reversible.

What does this mean for our creator character. Well our creator would have to be locked in a tight embrace with the universe. Perhaps the creator is not merely the initiator of the universe, but is permanently required for the universe to continue existing. Or is the creator continually creating universes? Or is the one creator fixated on the one moment of creation at the beginning of our universe? Suddenly the problem becomes a lot more difficult.

On to another problem now. Think about a computer. Let’s say we run a simulation on this computer that, in real time, calculates the positions, velocities, accelerations, and knows all the properties of all the atoms in a tennis ball as it travels through the air. Real physics isn’t done like this. In the scientific world approximations are made, and one would treat the ball as a single object, and not billions upon billions of atoms all glued together. But let’s say that a mad physicist decides to simulate every single atom in a tennis ball. How big would the computer need to be?

For each particle in the tennis ball, there would be several properties: position, velocity, acceleration, mass, charge, and more. The computer would have to store to value of each of these properties in one bit of memory. Now for the sake of argument let’s say we have a perfect computer, which can calculate the answers to equations instantly, and each bit of memory only takes up one atom. For each atom of the tennis ball, we require at least five atoms in the computer. So you can see that in total, the computer would have to be bigger (and realistically more complex) than the tennis ball.

Now let us extend this idea to the universe. If each particle in the universe required several particles in a computer, the computer will be bigger than the universe itself (hence we could never truly predict the future, as the computer would never be big enough). What we’ve looked at so far also included no processing power, so the computer could only know the state of the universe, but not calculate it.

This analogy is a demonstration (but by no means a proof) of the idea that creators are often more complex than their creations. What our computer simulated was nothing short of the Matrix: the virtual reality world invented by the Wachowski Brothers. Yet we defined our creator as something sufficiently simple as to not need creating. We haven’t disproved a creator, but we’ve certainly thrown up more obstacles in the way of anyone trying to prove one.

Now we turn to the other piece of initial information to the causality argument: that the universe is complex. Is it? We only know the universe to be complex on the human level. Human beings are best adapted to thinking about where the best place to gather food is, and how to build a shelter. The concepts involved in quantum mechanics are always going to be strange to us. But whether that means they are objectively complex is another matter. We are not experts at making universes, our universe might actually be incredibly simple.

The simple creator argument is powerful because logic alone cannot defeat it, logic can only subdue it. This is again because logic works to help us live on planet earth.

The more passionate atheists among readers will have noted of course, even if someone manages to prove a creator, that doesn’t mean they’ve proved the existence of a god. A god has properties such as omnibenevolence and takes a personal interest in people’s everyday lives. Proving these properties is, as yet, impossible. So to take the creator argument and spin religion off it is unjustifiable.

So where does the quantum mechanics come into all of this I hear you ask? Well so far we’ve worked only in thought experiments on how to deal with the law of causality. But it is at this time that the astute physicists shout at the computer screen again. The universe we live in, on a fundamental level is probabilistic.

There is a simple example of this that we could take. If we have a block of radioactive uranium, we can say how active the block is now, and how active it will be in some many years time, provided we know the half-life of uranium. But if we move down to the atomic level, and watch a single atom and wait for it to decay, we face a problem. We would have no idea when the atom would decay and emit its radiation. There’s a good probability that it will decay before the first half-life is over, but it may not. In fact, there’s no way of knowing when that atom will decay, ever.  That one atom could remain undecayed until the end of the universe. It’s very unlikely, but it could.

So you might say “Ah, but the atom is made up of smaller particles, and by watching those, we can know when the atom will decay.”. I’m afraid not. The explanation for this squats in a higher level of quantum mechanics, which I will leave to the reader to look into. Ultimately, the nothing within the atom causes it to decay. It is probabilistic. At some point the atom will decay, but when it does so is entirely and truly random.

In fact, the whole of quantum mechanics works on this probabilistic principle. If we try to measure the position of a particle with great precision, we will only get a probability of it being in a certain location. There is nothing which causes it to be in that position.

All of this spells bad news for our law of causality. It is not strictly obeyed on the quantum level. What does this show us? Causality is even more so a human perspective of the universe. Our intuition tells us to apply it to all aspects of logic, including the beginning of the universe. But as quantum mechanics has shown us for a hundred years now, we should not rely on our intuition, as it is usually wrong.

Looking back now, our causality argument for a creator seems rather simplistic. We haven’t disproved it, but then, as atheists, we never disprove all of religion in the first place. But many religious speakers will try to suggest that either they have proved the existence of a creator, or that their argument is undeniable. Well here’s news for them: it is deniable!

Physics and Cosmology, Questions and Answers, Sciences

About the author

I am the founder of Atheism Network.

2 Responses to “Intuition, Causality, and Quantum Physics”

  1. Julia Metcalfe says:

    I have only recently spent any time on this aspect so do not in any way consider myself to be an expert on this. However I worked with two A level students as they came to their second year on exploring this idea.
    As I understand it the slit experiment is fundamental in the fact that it requires an observer to change its actions and as such the observer could be the element some people would regard as God.
    I could spend more time on this but could be shouted down straight away on this but respect other people’s opinion on the topic.

  2. Kenneth Hudson says:

    The problem appears only if we assume that universe BEGAN with the big-bang. We can always start by assuming that “the universe always existed in one state or another” and big bang is basically an event when the pure vaccum energy (simple) universe transited into material (complex) universe.