Newsflash! Some things happen by chance!

Some time after reading the heptillionth claim that causal axioms are invalidated by Quantum Mechanics, I was suddenly struck by the fact that the claim is a refutation of a position no one believes. Take the last exchange between Drs. Oerter and Feser, where Oerter is trying to refute the causal axiom of the First Way:

[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 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…

This is a nifty refutation of Einstein or David Bohm (at least so long as neither decided to raise too many questions) but it is baffling that anyone would take it as a refutation of St. Thomas or Aristotle. For that matter, it’s strange to assume that even Einstein – or even the most doctrinaire determinist like Laplace – would assume that there was a cause for absolutely everything. For example, Laplace would certainly posit causes for why Jupiter was at perihelion and for why I ate a tangerine, but he need not posit any third coordinating cause that links the two together. The mind can consider any number of events as one, and thereby make them one event, but to do so does not require that there be any connecting cause. There is an infinite amount of events that have no cause at all: just look around the room and ask yourself why the first two things you see are the way they are at the same time

(looking)

I got “my son is watching a kid’s cartoon and the end table is brown”. But what is the cause of cartoon-watching-in-a-room-with-brown-tables? Who can doubt it is a contingent reality? But all contingent beings are caused by another! Therefore etc. QED.

Nonsense.   There is no cause of chance events, at least not in the sense of chance spoken of here, i.e. the unum per accidens. That said, we can certainly learn some things about the accidental through laws of probability. Someone out there has doubtless figured out the probability that my end table is brown, and some TV executive has almost certainly figured out the probability that my son would be watching cartoons. We could manipulate these probabilities any number of ways, and predict the probability that they would occur in other places. Casino owners, insurance companies, weather forecasters, mortgage lenders and any number of professions deal with these accidental unities all the time even though there is no causal unity underneath the facts one is interested in. One can speak of laws of probability and even make predictions from them without positing any causal mechanism (deterministic or otherwise) that explains the realities one is speaking of. This is hardly surprising: people tend to forget that the whole reason we switched to giving accounts in terms of Laws is because we became skeptical of our ability to find causes. Seen from this angle, laws of probability might count as better examples of laws of nature.

IOW, if all “Quantum weirdness” comes to is that some events happen by chance and we can have no more than a probabilistic understanding of them, then it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. There is literally an infinite amount of things outside of the Quantum realm that happen in the same way.  So Oerter wants to be amazed that there is no physical trigger to explain the emission of a photon? Big deal. There is no physical trigger that explains… (looking around) why I finished this post while my daughter’s picture of a flower hung under the clock.

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43 Comments

  1. Ian said,

    February 5, 2013 at 1:14 am

    Interesting post – some disconnected thoughts:

    It seems much of the discussion happening is caused by the trap people fall into when they take words like causality as more than merely descriptive conveniences. Things like causality can easily be given far more “concreteness” than is warranted when causality is really just a nice convenient description of an apparent time-based relation between some other arbitrarily labelled things.

    By my understanding QM simply doesn’t need an underlying causal mechanism in order to describe what we see accurately (and describe is all it does). However this isn’t really anything special – Newton’s laws also needed no underlying causality to make sense either.

    There is no particular reason why a specific causal event has to have a unique outcome, and more significantly there seems to be no way to even begin to control any test of this assumption.

    We also have to be careful to fall into the trap of arguing that just because causality is not overly concrete that things which require a lack of causality are now easily permitted – we don’t know anything close to enough to make that rather large leap.

    It does seem the mathematics of probability do produce more useful descriptive models than more linear approaches but I am not sure we can read much into that.

    • February 5, 2013 at 9:35 am

      It seems much of the discussion happening is caused by the trap people fall into when they take words like causality as more than merely descriptive conveniences. Things like causality can easily be given far more “concreteness” than is warranted when causality is really just a nice convenient description of an apparent time-based relation between some other arbitrarily labelled things.

      I think we need to restrict the domain where this is true: logical causality is not merely probabilistic, mathematics demands a higher standard of proof than probability, and even Hume, who is hard to one-up on skepticism about causes, writes at great length about real causes. When we read his Treatise as a whole, it’s clear Hume is working from an unspoken assumption that causality requires understanding a thing from the inside, and he only denies causality when he thinks our only access to something is extrinsic and phenomenal. This suggests that one development/ critique of Hume’s thought about causes would be to see that he overlooked the analogies we can make from our own interior experience to exterior experience. Modern developmental psychology has done some good work in showing how this sort of analogy from ourselves is crucial to learning, and to identifying the relevant factors in a particular operation, i.e. the reasons and causes at work in operations. David Lewis also does a good job pointing out that the Humian critique overlooks the importance of counterfactuals in determining causality.

      It does, however, seem to be a feature of what we call “science” or “the scientific outlook” that we want to find the sort of causes that are particularly well hidden and hard to tease out, and which therefore are only reached in a provisional way (my father, for example, has been working in the massive, longstanding physicians heath study – which is the paradigm case of applying scientific method, but which has still spent decades trying to come to a definite conclusion about whether vitamins cause heath). The ancients and Medievals had more of an interest in general questions that are more abstract and easier to tackle a priori, but we want knowledge that is more concrete and which more empowers us to control things. This takes us closer to the realm where truth is fact. That said, to claim that we haven’t discovered real causes in this realm is a hard road to hoe: “cause” is not a metaphor when we say smoking causes cancer or histamine cases allergic symptoms; nor does it indicate a mere probability when we say “dropping the bomb on Hiroshima caused death” or “that dog hates people because I beat it every day”. So describing the exact domain in which we never quite get causes is difficult to do.

      By my understanding QM simply doesn’t need an underlying causal mechanism in order to describe what we see accurately (and describe is all it does). However this isn’t really anything special – Newton’s laws also needed no underlying causality to make sense either.

      Right: people tend to forget that “laws” are substitutes for “causes”. Newton was heavily criticized in his own day for giving no cause of gravity and contenting himself with an algebraic description.

      more later…

      • Ian said,

        February 6, 2013 at 1:18 am

        Well said. My point on causality is that it isn’t anything more than a label for correlating patterns that seem closely attached to each other, and by extension allow for if A then B should follow type predictions. That makes them tremendously useful in a practical sense including learning to deal with the world around us, but takes us nowhere in a quest for what the relationship actually is. Sometimes we find intermediary relationships split an A –> B relationship into an A –> C –> B relationship, or sometimes we realise A is actually made up of D, E and F such that {D,E,F} –> B but the same superficiality is present no matter how deep we seem to go.

        I quite like the idea that laws are substitutes for causes – although that does imply there are some things for which we have established non-law based causes. I am not sure that is true.

  2. c emerson said,

    February 5, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Thanks for making such detailed efforts, and thanks also for the links you posted on Ed Feser’s blog. I have been following Ed Feser and Robert Oerter, but I’m glad to have found your blogs (and other blogs through your blog roll). Thanks again.

  3. FZ said,

    February 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Is Oerter talking about spontaneous emission? Assuming that he is talking about the emission of a photon that occurs when an electron that is in an excited state “falls” to a lower energy state or a ground state: IIRC, the “fall” is not uncaused, because it depends on vacuum/quantum fluctuations. So one can say that it is random, but I’m not sure that one can say that it is uncaused. And as the post details, I don’t think random/chance causes are fatal to causal principles.

  4. Jy said,

    February 7, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    Let’s not forget that there are four causes. Concerning Oerter’s claim, at the very least, he would have to say that no photon could ever be emitted without another particle to emit it. So the physicist is committed at least to material causes.

    I might even be inclined to chalk up certain QM events to purely chance events (like my table being brown when my kid is watching a cartoon), although the existence of a mathematical framework to assign them probabilities from first principles leads me to think otherwise. As was said, where ever you have a law you have a described regularity which isn’t likely happening causelessly.

    It’s also hard for me to imagine that just because it is possible to give a theory which describes QM events in a probabilistic way that any efficient cause is ruled out entirely (or at all!). Many different theories can fit a certain number of finite facts, after all; I don’t think we can claim we know all the facts.

    Thanks for bringing up how Newton failed to give a cause for gravitational interactions…now if I could get other physicists to notice as well…

    • c emerson said,

      February 7, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      I appreciate the above remarks. One of the things I am trying to puzzle over is whether there is a real distinction between a series of mechanistically caused events and a “sustaining cause” … i.e., some ‘thing’ that accounts for all such events. To be more explicit, is a physical ‘force’ such as Newton’s gravity a ‘thing’ separate and outside of the series of events, or is it just a way of describing the series of events?

      Of course, more than one ‘force’ might be needed to fully describe the mechanics of the series of events, but my point remains the same: do these ‘forces’ have an existence in the Universe separate from the events that we observe?

      If I’m not mistaken, Aquinas, as explained by Feser, distinguishes these two situations by distinguishing between causal series per accidens and causal series per se – and Feser posted a link to one of his lectures where I believe he describes causal series per se in terms of a “sustaining causal” – would gravity constitute a type of “sustaining cause” = “force” or is “sustaining cause” distinct from “force”. Just thinking out loud here.

      Btw, Oerter has a new thread started on “Contingency” if interested, which seems relevant to this thread.

  5. RFlaum said,

    February 9, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    I think you’re conflating two separate things here. There’s “random” in the sense that we lack the knowledge or intelligence to predict something, and then there’s “random” in the sense that no conceivable amount of knowledge would allow someone to predict it. If I play a roulette wheel, the result is “random” in that I can’t predict where the ball will land, but theoretically if one knew enough about the starting state of the table and its environs, and if one had superhuman intelligence, one could work it out. Or to take your example, if I were to work out the probability that you have a brown table, I’d be dealing with my ignorance of your taste in furnishings, not addressing an unanswerable question. It seems quite likely to me that your son’s watching TV and the color of your table do have the same physical cause if you go back far enough (by which I mean no more than a few decades), it’s just that no human being is smart or knowledgeable enough to trace out the chain of causation.

    • February 10, 2013 at 8:45 am

      Even your superhuman intelligence need not establish a causal connection between two coincidental events, even if it can perfectly foresee them. Coincidences and mere correlations (even those happening by a totally foreseeable correlation) do not become causally related just because a superhuman intelligence see they’ll happen. This is tautological: when superhuman intelligences know coincidences (and their attendant probabilities that can be manipulated in countless ways) they know coincidences.

      It seems quite likely to me that your son’s watching TV and the color of your table do have the same physical cause if you go back far enough (by which I mean no more than a few decades), it’s just that no human being is smart or knowledgeable enough to trace out the chain of causation

      But then you’re agreeing with what I say, namely “if there is a cause, then it is not a mere coincidence”.

      if I were to work out the probability that you have a brown table, I’d be dealing with my ignorance of your taste in furnishings, not addressing an unanswerable question

      Exactly. Laws and probabilities do not give causes. We have known this since Newton. The part about “ignorance” has been known since Aristotle. This got mentioned in the second to last paragraph. But again, you’re agreeing.

      If you are saying that there is no analogue to this “ignorance” in nature, and that absolutely everything that happens has a per se connection to any other thing that happens, then, among other things, you seem to be defending quackery: for if no two events in the universe lack causal connection, then there is a causal relation between head size and criminal tendencies (phrenology) and the motions of the stars and the particular actions of my life asserted by astrology.

      • February 10, 2013 at 9:06 am

        On last point: if all you’re doing is objecting to the examples given of causeless phenomena, then I don’t have much to say. Every example assumes a connection to the thing it is an example for. I think most people hearing the example would say “yeah, that’s a mere random correlation” or, even that a random correlation would be that sort of thing.

      • RFlaum said,

        February 11, 2013 at 3:05 pm

        No, my point is that there is ignorance in nature, but only on the quantum level. “Randomness”, as the term is used in quantum physics, is entirely different from “randomness” as the term is used in any other context.

        Again, I think you’re confusing “no cause” with “no obvious cause”. To take your example: do I believe in phrenology? Of course not. But that’s not because the shape of the head is unrelated to the personality, it’s because the relation between them is far too complex for human beings to understand.

        Let’s take an example where there definitely is an understandable correlation between skull shape and criminal tendencies. Certain sorts of brain damage can cause psychopathy. If someone sustained a head injury that caused such brain damage, it might also leave detectable marks on the skull (in fact, it’s unlikely that physical injury would cause damage to the amygdala, but just go with it). The key factor here is that the common cause is simple and easy to perceive. In most cases, the cause will be much subtler and we can’t work it out. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

        Quantum randomness is different. It truly is causeless, and cannot be predicted even with perfect knowledge and intelligence.

        Or to put it another way: if we went back in time to when you bought your table, created an exact duplicate of you as you existed at that time, and put it in the same circumstances as you were in when you bought the table, it would behave exactly as you did. If we did something similar with a uranium atom, the duplicate would decay at a different time from the original.

      • February 11, 2013 at 5:01 pm

        Okay, I get what you’re arguing. That’s something far better than what I thought you were arguing. But I still disagree.

        I think you’re confusing “no cause” with “no obvious cause”.

        And I think you’re confusing the human ignorance that makes luck possible with all randomness and chance. Ignorance makes luck and “games of chance” like roulette possible, and our ignorance of what causes that might be at work makes probability theory necessary; but this ignorance is nothing other than an inability to anticipate all possible outcomes, to dominate our environment, to ensure that things will not frustrate our action, etc. and every natural thing labors under exactly the same limitations. A natural action does not have the godlike power to escape from an analogue to what befalls us because of ignorance. Its limitations might not proceed from ignorance, but it is limited all the same; and this is just as true of fire and falling stones as electrons and photons.

        True, Einstein gives us a view of nature were everything is set in advance with perfect determination, and everything would play out exactly as it did play out. QM says this is not so. But rather than taking this as the final word, and saying that the purely anthopocentric division between the micro and macro level is what makes the ontological division of determinism and chance, I take both theories as approximations of a unified theory that will find a harmony between absolute determination and total randomness.

      • Jy said,

        February 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm

        “Quantum randomness is different. It truly is causeless, and cannot be predicted even with perfect knowledge and intelligence.”

        QM events are truly causeless?
        How did you learn this? I suppose either from the mathematical theory or some experimental data.
        But what data could you point to that might imply that an event is uncaused?
        Did the math tell you? Because the mathematical scheme is probabilistic? The fact that something is describable now by a probabilistic scheme in no way precludes us from finding a more deterministic scheme later. Even so, nothing prevents causes from causing a probability distribution.
        At any rate, since you have to at minimum have an atom before it can emit a photon…there has to be at least material causes! In general: Each QM event arises from a QM system in a particular state, each with its own probability set for the possible outcomes. If the state doesn’t accommodate that event, the event doesn’t happen. So at least we have identified the material causes at work, even if we can’t yet identify the efficient causes at work.

      • February 11, 2013 at 5:31 pm

        It would follow if from Einstien’s theory, which is purely deterministic in the way he describes in that counterfactual: every event is space-time is invariant and set for all time.

      • RFlaum said,

        February 12, 2013 at 2:41 am

        “But rather than taking this as the final word, and saying that the purely anthopocentric division between the micro and macro level is what makes the ontological division of determinism and chance, I take both theories as approximations of a unified theory that will find a harmony between absolute determination and total randomness.”

        Oh, sure. And there certainly are cases where a random quantum event has an obvious macro effect, even in the short term. My point, though, was that Aristotle was ignorant of this. His scheme does not allow for such a thing — in his scheme, randomness from lack of knowledge is the only randomness. Now, that doesn’t mean the scheme is totally useless, or even mostly useless — for the vast majority of events, we can usefully talk about efficient causes — but it does mean that there is a class of events that do not have efficient causes.

        “The fact that something is describable now by a probabilistic scheme in no way precludes us from finding a more deterministic scheme later.”

        In this particular case, it does. John Stewart Bell showed that it it is literally impossible to create a deterministic scheme that can account for quantum randomness. (There is a loophole; his proof assumes that the speed of light cannot be exceeded. If this assumption turns out to be false, the argument falls apart)

        “It would follow if from Einstien’s theory, which is purely deterministic in the way he describes in that counterfactual: every event is space-time is invariant and set for all time.”
        Not quite. Einstein personally believed that, but it’s possible to accept his theories without accepting that interpretation. I think you’re misunderstanding what “invariant” means in the context of GR. It’s too late at night for me to launch into a full description here (and anyway, though my degree is in physics, it’s only a BA so it’s not like I’m a real physicist), but just remember that in GR, “invariant” is a noun, not an adjective.

      • RFlaum said,

        February 12, 2013 at 3:26 am

        “At any rate, since you have to at minimum have an atom before it can emit a photon…there has to be at least material causes! In general: Each QM event arises from a QM system in a particular state, each with its own probability set for the possible outcomes. If the state doesn’t accommodate that event, the event doesn’t happen.”

        Indeed, but there are some events that are possible in any quantum state. Vacuum fluctuations, for instance, are just a consequence of energy-time uncertainty. For A to be a cause of B, it has to be the case that if there weren’t A, then there wouldn’t be B. Since there is no situation in which vacuum fluctuations don’t happen, they can’t be caused (unless you consider the laws of physics themselves causes).

      • Jy said,

        February 12, 2013 at 2:25 pm

        ” Vacuum fluctuations, for instance, are just a consequence of energy-time uncertainty. ”

        One might even say caused by energy-time uncertainty…. ;)

        Which is of course short hand for referring to a property of the matter at hand…which leads us back to material causes. And I suppose efficient causes since nothing can create itself and whatever moves is moved by another…

        And don’t you still need a vacuum for their to be vacuum fluctuations? ;)

        Also, Bell’s theorem depends also on the assumed locality of hidden variables. But regardless, probability is in no way an obstacle to there being causes.

        Sorry if its seems like I’m being pedantic. I just really dislike physics being used in the way you are using it.

      • RFlaum said,

        February 13, 2013 at 10:19 pm

        “One might even say caused by energy-time uncertainty…”
        Well, I thought of that, but I’m not sure if the laws of physics can really be called “causes” in this sense; if they are causes, then literally everything that happens (barring supernatural events) is caused by them.

        “And I suppose efficient causes since nothing can create itself and whatever moves is moved by another…”
        No, see, that’s my point. The claim “whatever moves is moved by another” is a posteriori. It’s a reasonable conclusion to draw when you look at the world, but it doesn’t have to be true — and, I would argue, there are certain circumstances in which it’s not quite true.

        “And don’t you still need a vacuum for their to be vacuum fluctuations?”
        No. Vacuum fluctuations happen literally everywhere. (You do have to have a “somewhere” for them to happen, of course. So we do need space to exist).

        “Also, Bell’s theorem depends also on the assumed locality of hidden variables.”
        Different way of saying the same thing — “locality” in this context means no FTL communication.

  6. FZ said,

    February 11, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    “Quantum randomness is different. It truly is causeless, and cannot be predicted even with perfect knowledge and intelligence.”

    “Or to put it another way: if we went back in time to when you bought your table, created an exact duplicate of you as you existed at that time, and put it in the same circumstances as you were in when you bought the table, it would behave exactly as you did.”

    And how do you know this?

    • FZ said,

      February 11, 2013 at 5:11 pm

      Also, do you agree or disagree with the comment I posted a little while back? “IIRC, the “fall” is not uncaused, because it depends on vacuum/quantum fluctuations. So one can say that it is random, but I’m not sure that one can say that it is uncaused.”

    • RFlaum said,

      February 12, 2013 at 2:50 am

      “And how do you know this?”

      By “this”, do you refer to my first statement or my second? If the first, I know it from Bell’s Theorem. If the second, I have to admit that you’re right, I don’t know it. The functioning of the brain is not sufficiently well-understood, so it’s possible that there is some quantum randomness in the brain. Personally I’m inclined to think there isn’t, but I’m no neuroscientist. (I also have to admit a personal bias here, in that I don’t want to believe that human behavior is random.)

      As for vacuum fluctuations: those were in fact the main thing I was thinking of as an example of an “uncaused” event. They certainly have no physical cause, because there is no situation in which they will not occur. I suppose you could say that they were caused by the laws of physics, but I don’t think the laws of physics constitute a “cause” in the Artistotelian sense.

  7. FZ said,

    February 11, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    This is somewhat off-topic, but what’s the big deal with quantum non-locality? I don’t understand why some consider actions at a distance to be “spooky,” perhaps someone can elaborate. I really don’t see the problem with two masses, or two particles, exercising some force or interaction over long distances. Did everyone forget Gravity? According to the law of universal gravitation, two masses, no matter how far apart, will exert some attractive force upon one another. It’s just another disposition/power of matter/energy.

    • RFlaum said,

      February 12, 2013 at 2:53 am

      “Non-locality”, as used in this context, means that the actions have effects that would be faster than the speed of light. Gravity doesn’t work like that — it propagates at the speed of light (this has never been experimentally confirmed AFAIK, but that’s what GR predicts). Non-locality would mean that causality would no longer function as we understand it — effects could precede causes, that sort of thing.

      • c emerson said,

        February 12, 2013 at 12:22 pm

        @RFlaum,
        I agree with this post, as to the current understanding (within GR) that gravity is ‘local’ and therefore a change in a gravitational field is not felt or expressed instanteously across a distance.

  8. c emerson said,

    February 11, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    I’ve been trying to follow this interesting thread (while getting ready to travel). Not sure of the protocol here, but I wanted to repeat a comment I put in in reply to a Mr Green on Feser’s blog here. [Posted by c emerson to Edward Feser at February 9, 2013 at 3:32 PM]. The relevant part cites to Bell’s Theorem. Hope it adds something here.

    Mr Green said: > (decaying uranium will never produce, say, an elephant or an Ipod)

    While I am reluctant to ever say ‘never’, I think this a great example. The meaning of cause in QM and the meaning of cause in metaphysics need to be constantly clarified. Within the reasonable limits of scientific certainty, I fully agree that decaying uranium will not produce an elephant or an iPod, provided we also grasp that the current scientific understanding (by way of QM) is that “the laws of physics are not deterministic but probabilistic’” See Oerter’s The Theory of Almost Everything [2006: 83]; also see Nick Herbert’s discussion of Bell’s Theorem in Quantum Reality, Beyond the New Physics [1985: Bell's Theorem, at 50-2; Bell's Theorem and hydrogen proxy waves, at 120-6].

    While I am not an expert, I believe it is a fair representation to say that in one of its forms, Bell’s Theorem says that “no physical theory of local hidden variables can ever reproduce all of the predictions of quantum mechanics.” This is as reported in Wikipedia’s article on Bell’s Theorem. But as Herbert explains, the theorem also maintains (demonstrates scientifically) that “any model of reality – whether ordinary or contextual – must be non-local … or in other words, “must be connected by influences which do not respect the optical speed limit. If Bell’s Theorem is valid, we live in a superluminal reality.” [Herbert, 1985: 52]. That is, reality involves some sort of interconnectedness that operates faster than the speed of light (which is what is meant by non-local). I do not know with certainty if this is true or not, but it does suggest we proceed cautiously with ruling all notions of causation in or out. As Mr Green has pointed out by way of his example, events are governed by some set of restrictions, even if they are probabilistic, and are not deterministic in the way we have formerly been accustomed to thinking about them.

  9. c emerson said,

    February 11, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    My quick followup to my own post is that I do think modern physicists say that particles can and do appear without any causal connection to other particles or atoms (I believe this is what is meant in Bell’s Theorem that it is NOT a question of our being unable to detect the causal connection – ie there are NO Einstein type of hidden variables) – BUT I also think modern physicists adhere to the notion that there are some kind of boundaries or constraints, in that elephants and iPods are not things that can just appear. Whew.

    • FZ said,

      February 12, 2013 at 10:17 am

      “My quick followup to my own post is that I do think modern physicists say that particles can and do appear without any causal connection to other particles or atoms”

      Are you referring to virtual particles? If so, I recommend reading this blogpost.

      http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/virtual-particles-what-are-they/

      Mr. Chastek, if you have the time, I think you should give it a look as well.

      • RFlaum said,

        February 13, 2013 at 10:38 pm

        That’s an interesting point. A true vacuum would be a stationary state, so uncertainty in energy would be 0. I hadn’t thought of that. I guess for there to be energy uncertainty, there’d have to be change in the observables, which means that there’d be at least two preexisting and overlapping stationary states. Should’ve checked my math. I’m going to have to think about this a bit, but that does seem to create a large hole in my argument.

  10. c emerson said,

    February 11, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    In other words, the quantum realm is not the same as the Newtonian or macro realm.

  11. c emerson said,

    February 11, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    @FZ
    > This is somewhat off-topic, but what’s the big deal with quantum non-locality? I don’t understand why some consider actions at a distance to be “spooky”.

    The confirmation of Bell’s non-locality came, I believe, in the paired particle experiment where the pair which has opposite spins is separated to a distance where flipping the spin of one is correlated with the other one also flipping. What is spooky is that communication between the two parts of the pair (if any communication actually took place) would have had to happen at faster than the speed of light. That is what is meant by superluminal or “non-local”.

    Check the Wikipedia article out here (I see the link failed to transfer above). Also here is a link to a Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy article on Bell’s Theorem and local realism.

  12. c emerson said,

    February 12, 2013 at 11:48 am

    @FZ,
    > Are you referring to virtual particles?

    Thanks for the link to Prof Strassler’s website. New to me and looks very good.

    Yes, I was referring to ‘virtual’ particles but also to any decay of an electron from a higher energy state to a lower one, and decays such as the uranium decay described in this thread.

    Some may say ‘virtual’ particles are not ‘real’, but I subscribe more to the view that field fluctuations are real at least so far as a ‘field fluctuation’ is an event; and if an event then it is by definition within the purview of A-T causal series [and therefore also within the purview of the act-potency dichotomy].

    But that is true of the particle decay scenarios which are perhaps easier to view as real events within those same A-T purview.

    The point is, are there any natural events that are truly uncaused, and not merely the subject of a causal mechanism hidden from our view (but nonetheless existing)?

    Bell’s Theorem says yes, but this is a ‘yes’ as to some quantum facts within our ‘mental construction’ of a ‘local’ reality. This does seem to leave the door open as to whether these quantum facts are caused or uncaused in the A-T metaphysical sense.

    [I am not just reaching here for some way to salvage the A-T metaphysics of act-potency. Just trying to understand what the semantics mean.] That’s why I like Mr_Green’s example that unpredictable (as to timing) of uranium decay does not mean unpredictable as to the material nature of the results. This ‘boundary’ or ‘constraint’ on the ‘system’ seems significant (IMO) for metaphysical purposes or debate.

    • c emerson said,

      February 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm

      To clarify one point: “To be within the purview of A-T” does not mean the event must conform to the A-T metaphysical principle. To the contrary, it means (to me) that the A-T metaphysical principle must be able to account for or explain the event (or else be modified or abandoned). That is why we need to carefully examine (both scientifically and metaphysically) what we mean by “uncaused”. Thoughts?

      • February 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

        That is why we need to carefully examine (both scientifically and metaphysically) what we mean by “uncaused”

        To brainstorm, here are some things that are understood as “uncaused” in one way or another.

        a.) Logical contradictions. There’s no cause of square circles.
        b.) The acts of insane persons.
        c.) God’s existence

        c1.) God’s choice to create
        c2.) God’s decision to grant grace to a soul.
        c3.) The procession of the persons in the Trinity.

        d.) Coincidences arising from ignorance (luck) or the indetermination in natural action (chance).
        e.) Existence (in all of its amplitude of meaning.) Any cause of this would have to exist, and so perform an act before it existed at all.
        f.) The first principles or elements of an explanation or science within the context of the explanatory scheme or science in which they occur. We can’t give Euclidean proofs for the truth of Euclid’s definitions. We can’t look for the causes of fundamental forces since to do so ceases to treat them as fundamental.

        f1.) Natural things as such, considered by a scientist.

        g.) A reason as opposed to a cause.

      • c emerson said,

        February 12, 2013 at 12:59 pm

        @James,
        > To brainstorm, here are some things that are understood as “uncaused” in one way or another.

        Nice list. Maybe we could also add numbers – although they may fit under your f).

        Despite any implications otherwise in what I have posted, I still agree with RFlaum that quantum field fluctuations and particle decays are “uncaused” at least in the A-T sense and at least until the Aristotelian description of “cause” is clarified or defended to include such phenomena.

        I don’t necessarily agree with b). In fact, the question of how any brain (healthy or unhealthy) makes its decisions seems to be an open question, as RFlaum also pointed out.

      • February 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm

        I still agree with RFlaum that quantum field fluctuations and particle decays are “uncaused” at least in the A-T sense and at least until the Aristotelian description of “cause” is clarified or defended to include such phenomena

        Okay, but there are lots of things that are uncaused. I can see why Einstein or Laplace would be bothered by this, but why should Aristotle or St. Thomas? To speak of just one of the many things they thought was uncaused, they explicitly taught that many things happen by chance and they (again, explicitly) said that there were chance events beyond events that happen by luck, that is, beyond those events that are random only because of the ignorance that an intelligent being has of the causes of things. IOW, they taught that there were things in nature that were unpredicable in principle, or, to be dramatic about it, there are events in the macro-natural world that God himself cannot know the outcomes of if he only knows their initial conditions – or even an infinite amount of initial conditions. (In fact, A-T says that all natural events are like this if we consider not the powers of the things but the actual exercise of these powers in second act. Nature, to them, had its necessity from the end, not the initial conditions.)

        But if A-T insists that some events are uncaused, then how in the world is it an objection to an A-T cosmological proof to say some events are uncaused? This is exactly the point I was making in the original post, and I don’t see what I would add to it, other than a brief note that explained that we can see chance in nature from the chance that arises from ignorance (as I said in my last response to RF).

        True, there is something odd about QM events, but including them in an A-T cosmology does not mean carving out a place for uncaused events.

        RFlaum says that only quantum events are uncaused. Whether he’s right or wrong, he’s directly contradicting A-T, which teaches that there are an infinite number of purely natural events in the “macro domain” that happen by chance: by which they meant real in-principle-unpredicable-from-initial-conditions chance. Just read Physics II 4-6 and St. Thomas’s commentaries on it.

      • c emerson said,

        February 12, 2013 at 7:02 pm

        Thanks for the A-T cites. I read the Aristotle one but not yet the ST one. I also reread most of the Oerter-Feser debate. After reading Aristotle, he concludes Physics II.6: “… since nothing which is incidental is prior to what is per se, it is clear that no incidental cause can be prior to a cause per se. Spontaneity and chance, therefore, are posterior to intelligence and nature. Hence, however true it may be that the heavens are due to spontaneity, it will still be true that intelligence and nature will be prior causes of this All and many things in it besides.”

        Now it seems to me that Aristotle may not have had something like QM’s version of ‘spontaneity’ in mind (I agree with RFlaum that QM’s notion of an uncaused event -along with Bell’s Theorem- is not the same idea, or concept, as that contained in your discussion of coincidental outcomes.) Without trying to put words into anyone’s mouth (including Aristotle), it seems to me that your examples are in concert with Aristotle’s notion of incidental outcomes related to intended events with incidental outcomes. Aristotle says earlier in Sec 6: “Thus an inanimate thing or a lower
        animal or a child cannot do anything by chance, because it is incapable of deliberate intention.” But Aristotle distinguishes spontaneity from chance when he then says: “The spontaneous on the other hand is found both in the lower animals and in many inanimate objects.” The problem, it seems to me, is the Aristotle’s examples (horse coming and tripod falling) are (perhaps) not like QM electron decays. Indeed, Aristotle identifies three factors for a “spontaneous event.” Factor (3) is that such events “have an external cause.”

        I believe one view of QM events (as opposed to theory) is that such / or some / QM events do not have such ‘external’ causes. But as a theist might argue, describing events that appear to have no external cause does not require the conclusion that there is no such cause (somewhere, such as perhaps outside of ‘local reality’). I take that, in fact, to be part of Feser’s argument in his exchange with Oerter.

        The question I am interested in, is whether Aristotle might argue that his explanation in Physics II. 6 would accommodate such QM events, or, if not, would his argument for an external cause per se require any adjustment. Peace.

      • February 12, 2013 at 8:33 pm

        The question I am interested in, is whether Aristotle might argue that his explanation in Physics II. 6 would accommodate such QM events, or, if not, would his argument for an external cause per se require any adjustment.

        Aristotle’s doctrine of chance makes it impossible in principle to necessarily predict actual results from initial conditions, and so it therefore does exactly the sort of work that we need to to do in giving a theoretical basis to QM, since the A-T doctrine of chance is utterly incompatible with the sort of causal determinism of Einstein and Bohm that is at loggerheads with Quantum Indeterminancy.

        Indeed, Aristotle identifies three factors for a “spontaneous event.” Factor (3) is that such events “have an external cause.”

        One kind of external cause of the accidental (though not the only kind) is simply the action of the mind linking together two things that are not linked together causally even if one follows after another with some probability.

        But here again, we should understand chance (spontaneity) by luck, say, the luck in a roulette game. There is no causal connection between my intention to put money on black 25 and the ball falling where it does, because my intention is clouded with ignorance of the relevant physical causes and so makes me participate in a mere probabilistic game of chance. Nevertheless, there are external conditions and causes that must be in place to allow the bet to take place. But there is a similar cloudiness and indeterminacy in the source of a natural action too, not from ignorance but from prime matter, and so at least some natural actions involve the natural thing playing a game of chance – which likewise requires external conditions and causes. These external conditions and causes might provide some structure for the random events without making them any less random.

      • c emerson said,

        February 13, 2013 at 1:15 am

        I located a PDF entitled Analysis of the First Way by Joseph M Magee at http://www.aquinasonline.com/Topics/firstway-analysis.pdf, which I hope substitutes well enough here for a copy of ST.

        Step II of Aquinas’ argument is:
        [I am assuming Magee is quoting ST - correct me if I'm wrong]

        “II. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another,
        …. a. for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act.
        …. b. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect,
        …. c. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself.
        …. d. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another.

        Magee adds this commentary: “Aquinas seems to be stating something obvious, but he is making two important points about every process of change:
        1. each one has a cause,
        2. the cause is something other than what is changing.” (p.1-3).

        Now assume temporarily that Quantum fluctuations and Quantum decays have no physical cause (Oerter’s physical trigger) or that whatever ’causes’ these quantum events is not “something other than what is changing” (using Magee’s expression). If this were the case, Step II of this version of Aquinas’ argument fails. Since God is arguably the only Uncaused Cause, it is essential that we know what both scientists and theists mean by “cause”, “physical trigger” (Oerter’s expression), “self-caused” or self-actualized” (my expressions), or “be both mover and moved” or “put in motion by another” (Aquinas’ words).

        I know none of this – is – new. My point is that since QM purports to describe events that operate or proceed – differently – than what I would call Newtonian or visible-world events, then it becomes necessary to see (a) if there is a relevant difference or (b) if Aristotle’s or Aquinas’ understanding of change subsumes or entails these types of Quantum changes or “motions”.

        Finally, (1) I realize that describing a system of changes without describing a cause (or locating a cause) is not the same as demonstrating that there is no cause. And (2) describing a system of changes that operates in an arguably different manner from, say, a roulette wheel or from a coincidental occurrence of two unrelated causal chains (cartoon-watching and brown table) is not the same thing as demonstrating that Aristotle’s understanding of chance or spontaneity fails to subsume or entail this new type of change.

        But I do think this frames the debate correctly, because if QM “change” is sufficiently different then the First Way has to be re-examined. Yes?

        [I will be gone for awhile and will check back to see if this thread continues]. Cheers.

      • February 13, 2013 at 10:29 am

        Magee adds this commentary: “Aquinas seems to be stating something obvious, but he is making two important points about every process of change:
        1. each one has a cause,
        2. the cause is something other than what is changing.”

        This does not apply to a change that happens by chance. Or, to be Scholastic about it, a process of change happening by chance does not have a per se cause within nature, just as something happening by luck does not have a per se cause within the mind of the lucky guy.

        If “every process of change” is taken to include “change” taken accidentally, then the First Way does not conclude. There is no impediment to making accidental causes infinite. In fact, if you want to speak accidentally,: you can make non-being become being and vice-versa, that is, you can make a process of change starting from the existence of non-being (!) and ending up at its contradictory; which would of course involve making a subsistent contradiction.

    • Jy said,

      February 12, 2013 at 4:12 pm

      I wonder if, from the perspective of the cosmological argument, how much sense there would be in saying that at least some QM events are “primi mobile”

  13. FZ said,

    February 12, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Are the four causes for things, events, or both?

    • c emerson said,

      February 12, 2013 at 1:05 pm

      @FZ,
      > Are the four causes for things, events, or both?

      Good question. To rephrase a bit, are the four A-T causes descriptive (in a manner analogous to the laws of physics) or are they themselves actions. I would like to see A-T answers too. Yup.

  14. Jy said,

    February 12, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    It occurs to me that the author should be flattered that his science posts generate so much interest…long live the Laval school…


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