Friday, September 21, 2012

Kalam as an inductive argument

This post continues "A few things wrong about the cosmological argument", a looong series about a few minor problems with the cosmological argument.

One of my favorite worst arguments ever comes from What the Bleep Do We Know!?, a movie which is about how you can use quantum mechanics to create your own reality, reduce crime, walk on water, etc.  Anyway, the argument goes as follows:

1. Only conscious things can be quantum observers.
2. Human cells are quantum observers.
3. Therefore, human cells are conscious things.

(Queue CG-animated human cells having parties.  No seriously, that's what happens in the movie.)

You gotta hand to it to them, they make a valid argument--the conclusion follows from the premises.  But the premises are bullshit.  It simply isn't true that only conscious things can be quantum observers.

But even if they didn't know that before, shouldn't the second premise have cast doubt on the first?  If I said a piece of paper is a quantum observer (this is true), does that mean you should conclude that the piece of paper is conscious?  Or should you go back to the drawing board, because it means that not every quantum observer need be conscious?

On the other hand, consider another argument in the same form:

1.  Particles can never travel faster than light.
2.  An OPERA experiment showed that neutrinos are traveling faster than the speed of light.
3. That experiment must have a flaw somewhere.

And of course, it turned out that there was indeed a loose cable somewhere which caused the experimental error.  But even before we knew that, most experts would have guessed that there was an experimental flaw based on the currently available evidence.

Why is the neutrino example different from the conscious human cell example?  In both cases, the second premise casts doubt on the first premise.

Here is a key point to understand about the neutrino argument: it appears to be a deductive argument, but it is actually an inductive argument.

We know that all the experiments we have done are most consistent with a General Relativity view of space-time (in which particles cannot carry information faster than light), and inconsistent with anything simpler than that.  But we cannot know that particles can never travel faster than light in any situation unless we actually check every situation, including the situation of the OPERA experiment.

In the case of quantum observers, there is no inductive argument that all quantum observers must be conscious.  Because that's not even close to being true.


The basic form of the Kalam cosmological argument is similar:

1. Everything that has a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

In my view, the second premise calls into question the first.  Because here we have an object, the universe, which does not have a cause we know of.  And so if we assume it has a beginning, maybe it is a counterexample to our supposed rule that things that begin have causes?  So we must ask, how do we know that everything that begins has a cause?  Is it because we've looked at a lot of things that have beginnings, and found that all of them have causes?  Or is there some other argument that doesn't refer to empirical observations?

Note that it is easy* to come up with alternate forms of the first premise which explain our observations just as well.  For example, "Every event has a cause."  "Every object in the universe has a cause."  "Everything that has existed for a finite amount of time has a cause."**  "If something exists at one point in time, something must have existed before that point in time." Some of these allow us to conclude that the universe has a cause, and some do not.

*By contrast, it takes a theoretical physicist to think up possible laws of physics which look like General Relativity in every experiment we've done with the single exception of the OPERA experiment.
**Under some views of the universe, it has existed for a finite amount of time, but does not have a beginning.

In the future, I will discuss a bit about causation, but for now I want to point out a more antiquated argument for god that appears in similar form.

1. Everything that is real must have a mind to observe it.
2. Things continue to be real even when no humans or other material beings are observing them.
3. Therefore, there is a non-material being to observe things.

This argument may seem a little silly, but it has some personal significance to me.  It's one of the classical arguments I was taught in my Catholic education (we were not necessarily taught to think it was a good argument).  It was around this time that I knew a deist who eventually persuaded me that Catholicism was wrong.  The deist used the above argument, roughly, though I didn't buy it.

Since then I have learned that hardly anyone uses this argument or takes it seriously.  I guess it was just that one deist I knew!  But far be it from me to use an argument from popularity.  You should decide for yourself whether the argument is any good, regardless of how popular or unpopular it is!

"A few things wrong about the cosmological argument"
1. Actual and potential infinities
2. Actual infinities in physics
3. What is real?
4. The "absurdity" of Hilbert's Hotel
5. Interlude: God is infinite
6. Forming Infinity, one by one
7. Uncertain beginnings
8. Entropy: The unsolved problem
9. Kalam as an inductive argument
10. Getting from First Cause to God