Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Finding a Good Cause

I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice. – Albert Einstein

I find the human race’s reluctance to accept concepts such as randomness and chaos quite fascinating. I suppose, if one believes in a supreme deity, there can, by definition, be no such thing as randomness and chaos. Everything is planned, if not precisely predetermined. This is also true if, as an atheist, one believes in absolute determinism: what happens at this instant is simply the inevitable outcome of prior events. I suppose the idea of cause and effect is so deeply ingrained in us that we find the concept of an uncaused cause difficult to conceive (although that is precisely what theists do all the time!). Kant considered causality to be one of the a priori categories. It is one of the givens of reason, prior to any actual experience of causality. I guess you could say it is hardwired into the process of thinking and perceiving. As human beings, we cannot but think in terms of causality. Biologically speaking, this hard-wiring in the brain has evolved as a useful, indeed, necessary way to deal with the world around us. By and large we can depend on a cause to produce a particular effect. If it doesn’t, this is because there are other causes at work which we did not detect, or did not take into account.

On the one hand, we can see this as one of the grounds for skepticism concerning supernatural phenomena, particularly such things as miracles. We doubt claims that a miracle has occurred – a miracle denoting some break in the chain of cause and effect – claiming, instead, that we have simply not yet detected the actual cause(s). On the other hand, this can also be grounds for accepting the possibility of supernatural interventions. It could be argued that our reluctance to accept non-causality is simply due to the fact that we are unable to break out of this a priori category. For me, this latter argument does not carry much weight. In fact, supernatural thinking itself does not break out of this way of thinking. It simply posits an invisible, unknowable, unmeasurable cause. Only God himself is truly uncaused.

Quantum theory (and this is what Einstein is referring to in the opening quote) at the very least rewrites our concept of causality. Concepts such as “backward causality” begin to emerge: an effect “causes” the cause, rather than the other way around. Or maybe they cause each other. The concept of “self-causality” is perhaps not so very farfetched. Yes, it is all very weird, and I am probably misinterpreting it anyway. In reality, it is probably much weirder. Does this leave a new “gap” into which God can squeeze? Possibly. But it may also make the concept of God redundant again. Perhaps “self-causality” and even “un-caused-ness” are not, after all, exclusive properties of the divine; they may be basic properties of humble matter.

If it is possible to believe that any one “being”, such as God, can be uncaused or self-caused, why is it such a stretch to believe that an entire universe can be uncaused or self-caused?  In any case, if the concept of causality is just a constraint placed upon our way of thinking, a fundamental a priori from which we cannot possibly free ourselves, this whole discussion is probably a complete waste of time (“time” being another a priori category).


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