No, the Universe can't "Just Exist"

"If you think God just exists without a cause, why can't the Universe just exist without a cause?"

There are several different problems with this commonly heard response.

One is that it fails to be responsive to the nature of cosmological arguments.  As I've said before, any cosmological argument will explicitly state some property P of things which need a cause, and conclude to the existence of something without that property P.

A second issue is that in traditional Natural Theology, proponents of cosmological arguments don't usually think that God "just exists" in the sense that he's a brute fact who freakishly exists, randomly and for no particularly good reason.  Rather, God is a necessary being who has to exist, by the very nature of "God" and "existence".  In this viewpoint, although God is uncaused, there is still a very good reason for his existence!  (And according to traditional Natural Theology, anything which "just exists" in this strong sense, would need to have a bunch of other divine properties as well.)

Suppose you think that some things have a cause and some things don't.  Then it seems reasonable to think that whether or not a thing needs a cause depends on what kind of thing it is.

But as soon as you admit this, you are committed in principle to accepting some sort of cosmological reasoning, even if you don't think the proper conclusion is Theism.  If Type A things don't need a cause, but type B things do need a cause, then it seems to me that if you work out these principles in a sensible way, you're ultimately going to end up with a hierarchical picture of the world: in which the type B things depend in some way on the type A things to exist, but not vice versa.  This implies that the existence of type B things should testify in some way to the existence and nature of the type A things.  And that's a cosmological argument!

Can we avoid this kind of reasoning by saying that "The Universe just exists"?  (Thus putting the term "Universe" in the category of type A things, that don't require an explanation.)

In my opinion, that statement is fatally ambiguous, so that it simply can't be accepted as meaning anything definite, unless further clarification is given.  Even if Naturalism is true, the cosmological argument demands a more complicated response than that.

The problem I want to highlight here arises from a very simple, and I hope uncontroversial fact:

"The Universe" refers to a collection of multiple things.

Of course, there are lots of collections of diverse entities which the mind can consider — your uncle's stamp collection; the ecology of all living species in the planet Earth; the natural numbers; the United States of America; the Grand Canyon; a deck of playing cards; a nuclear family; the "set" consisting of my left Big Toe and the Washington Monument; etc. Some of these entities have a natural or artificial "unity" that makes them function in certain definite respects as a single entity.  Others, are just random collections of entities, which we can still name linguistically as a collection, if we have some reason to do so.

Now the Universe is a really, really big collection of things.  In fact it is defined to be the collection of everything — or more precisely, everything that exists in the particular way that physical things exist.

The caveat is important.  Some might prefer to define the "Universe" to consist of everything that exists in any way whatsoever.  But then even God would be part of the Universe (assuming he exists at all, he exists in some way, even if that way transcends the way any of us exist).  And that would mean that an atheist couldn't express their Atheism by saying "Only the Universe exists" (because saying that wouldn't exclude God), nor could a theist express their Theism by saying "God created the Universe" (because God didn't create God).

Since such an unrestricted definition of "Universe" would be annoying for both theists and atheists, I take it that it is bad form to define it that way.  "God" and the "Universe" are sufficiently different that they can't be reasonably regarded as belonging to the same category of entity.  (Indeed, in a Monotheistic worldview, God is so unique that he can't really be categorized into a common category with anything else.)

Someone might therefore reasonably propose the following definition:

The Universe is the collection of every entity that exists in space and time.

(Some Naturalists might quibble about whether this "spacetime" criterion is the best way to pick out the class of entities they believe in; others might welcome it.  Most of what I say below won't depend on that.  The most important thing here is that the Universe is a collection.  And that now, if you say "The Universe is the only thing that exists", you are making a substantive claim, that could be right or wrong.)

Now, supposing someone claims "The Universe just exists", my question for them is this: what does it mean for a collection to "just exist"?  I would like to argue, that in order for an assertion about a collection to be a meaningful statement, it has to be made clear how the assertion relates to the individual members of the collection.

For example, America is a collective noun referring to a political union which (in addition to being a government, and the territory in which that government has legal jurisdiction) is also a specific collection of individual humans: namely those with American citizenship.

So if a political commentator says "We need to prevent America from dying", there are multiple ways this statement about the collective might relate to individuals.  The political pundit might be afraid of any one of the following outcomes:

(A) that all individual Americans are about to die (e.g. from a nuclear war or meteor strike that leaves no survivors);

(B) that some particular subset of individual Americans are about to die (e.g. from Covid-19);

(C) not that any specific American is about to die, but that some property held in common by many American individuals (like the "American spirit" or "American project" or "American respect for the Bill of Rights) is about to perish (e.g. if the country were in danger of becoming a one-party totalitarian state).

(D) that the United States federal government (i.e. the union which stands for Americans collectively) will formally cease to be (e.g. if all 50 states were to secede simultaneously, or if the government disbanded after being conquered by another country).

Of course a patriot would regard all four of these interpretations as bad news, but they are logically distinct meanings, even if some of them might imply or lead to each other.  A pundit who confused these outcomes with each other, would be guilty of mushy thinking.

So now let's consider this mushy slogan:

"The Universe Just Exists"

What does it even mean?  It seems to me that the options are similar to the case of America dying.  If you endorse this slogan, do you mean:

A) Every single entity in the Universe (e.g. rocks, trees, cats, galaxies, etc.) just exists, without any cause.

This interpretation has the advantage that, if it were true, it would be very reasonable to summarize it with the slogan: "The Universe Just Exists".

But it is also manifestly absurd.  If we pick this option, then nothing has an explanation, nothing makes any sense, and nothing we do can make any difference to anything else.  And yes that would also mean that Science is impossible.

B) Some specific entity or entities just exists, without any cause.

OK, in that case you need to tell me which specific entities these are.  In other words, you have more work to do before you've succeeded in expressing an actual philosophical position.

Once you have found whatever thing(s) X you think `just exists', it seems to me it would be much clearer to state your position as "X just exists", not "the Universe just exists".  After all, on this hypothesis, the Universe contains many other things, which are not X's.

If you pick this option, it had better be plausible that your X is able to give rise to all of the non-X's, without any features left over which X is unable to explain.  (And it would be nice to have an account of which specific features of X, as compared to not-X's, make it reasonable to think they don't need a cause.)

C) No specific entity just exists without a cause, but something which these entities have in common just exists without a cause.

Again, you have more work to do here.  You need to tell me what specific common factor F you believe "just exists".  And whatever this thing is, since you've distinguished it from all the collected members of the class "Universe", it's unclear that your position will be best summarized by the phrase: "the Universe just exists".  You should say "F-ness just exists".

Of course, if you thought that F was a concrete entity existing in space and time, it seems you should have said "yes" to option B, rather than select this option.  To avoid (B), you are forced to pick one of the following 2 options:

1. the thing which "just exists" is not an entity at all, or
2. the thing which "just exists" is an entity that exists outside of spacetime

This puzzle is related to the fact that things which are held in common tend to be abstract qualities, e.g. both apples and fire engines can be red, so redness is an abstract quality rather than being a concrete entity.  If you are a Platonic or Aristotelian "Realist" who believes that abstract universals really exist in some transcendental or immanent way (a position I have some sympathy with), then maybe this is okay.  But if you are a hard-nosed Nominalist who doesn't like forms, then you might be in danger of implying this:

the factor F which "just exists" (and which explains everything else), doesn't actually exist at all in the way normal things do (except in a sort of purely conventional or descriptive way)

or shorter:

that which explains everything else by its existence, doesn't exist except in our minds

or more provocatively still:

that which exists most, exists least

which seems like a bit of a paradox!

Incidentally, if you think that the reason why the Universe doesn't need a cause is because of some infinite causal regress, then your position is probably best thought of as an example of position (C).   To give an example, an oak tree usually grows from an acorn dropped by a previous tree.  Darwin would say that trees evolved from simpler life forms, while Young Earth Creationists think the first oak tree was immediately produced by God without forebears.  But suppose, contrary to both of these views, that the Universe were infinitely old and that oak trees go back in time forever, in an infinite regress.  Then in this silly hypothetical, there would be a cause for why any particular oak tree exists, but it would seem there is no cause of why oaks as a species exist, nor is there a cause of why the arboreal nature which is common to all trees is instantiated in the world.

Yet the existence of oaks is still a rather peculiar and interesting fact, which we might like to have an explanation for.

If a Naturalist thinks that the most basic reality is the laws of physics (as I've previously suggested is the most plausible form of Naturalism), then this might also be regarded as a form of option (C).  Note however, that the laws of physics would transcend space and time (in the sense that they hold equally in all times and places) and on this view they would also seem to transcend the distinction between abstract reality and concrete reality (since they take the form of mathematical equations, but they also govern the universe).

D) No specific entity exists without a cause, but collectively they form a united whole which, considered in this collective identity, exists without a cause.

This option was supposed to be parallel to the "United States government" option for "America", but I confess I'm have some difficulty making much sense of it as applied to the subject "the Universe" and the predicate "just existing".

First of all, it is not clear whether the Universe, which is after all just about the broadest category there is, has any collective identity above and beyond the coexistence of the individual entities which exist within it.

If it does have some collective identity, it's hard to see how that collective identity doesn't depend on the individual parts to exist.  If you try to make a brick house, but you don't have any bricks, then you won't be able to build the house.  But if something depends on other things to exist, then it doesn't "just exist", now does it?

(Otherwise, if the identity of the Universe didn't depend on the parts in any way, such that it could exist even if none of its parts do, then maybe the thing you have in mind isn't a collection of entities at all, and you should have called it "God" instead of "Universe"?)

Of course if you just replace a few of the bricks from a house, you could still have something that might recognizably be considered the "same" house.  Just as individual Americans can die (in fact everyone who was alive at the founding has died, and been replaced by new generations) without the United States of America ceasing to exist.

But, if it is coherent to say that the USA of 1790 is the same as the USA of 2020 (or a counterfactual USA which lost the Civil War and had fewer states), then it must be true that there is some abstract feature, which is common to all of these versions of the USA, and which makes them the same.

Similarly, we could imagine the history of the universe turning out differently.  E.g. imagine an possible world W' in which the Solar System had never formed.  We can now ask, does W' count as the same "Universe" for purposes of the slogan, as the actual world W?

(To some extent this is an ambiguous question.  You can define "this Universe" however you like, and there may well be fuzzy boundaries about exactly when normal people would count a universe as the "same" or "different".  But the relevant question is this: is there any specific way to define "the Universe" that makes the slogan "the Universe just exists" true?)

If W and W' count as distinct Universes, then it is neither W nor W' which you are specifically asserting "just exists", but rather some common aspect which is the same for both W and W' — and that pushes us back into option (C), or maybe (B) if there are some spacetime entities which exist in all possible worlds.

If on the other hand, we interpret "Universe" in the slogan sufficiently narrowly that any changes to W would make it no longer count as the same universe — then in that case asserting that the Universe just exists, means asserting that W obtains as a brute fact, where W implies that every single thing in the universe is exactly the way it is.  But in that case it seems that the slogan implies (A), which is still absurd.


In conclusion, every single interpretation of "The Universe Just Exists" that I can think of seems to be either absurd, or else it uses the word "Universe" to refer to something far more restricted and definite than what it is normally taken to mean.

Thus, my message for Naturalists is simple:

1. The Universe can't "just exist"

2. So something else must exist without a cause

3. Come back when you think you know what it is,
and then we can have a real conversation about the
Cosmological Argument.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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57 Responses to No, the Universe can't "Just Exist"

  1. I appreciate this post as I appreciate the majority of your posts. Thank you and I hope you finish your earlier series.

    What I was hoping for you to address as I read this post, and what I feel that you didn't address, is Pantheism. This stands out because of history (notably Spinoza and Einstein) and because, at least in my experience, many physicists, at least when speaking in private, will express sympathies towards Pantheism while openly opposing Theism.


  2. Mr. C says:

    Apparently, you've raised this question before, but what are your thoughts considering the omnipotence paradox? There's a very nice rebuttal of it here ( and also, but it implies that God does not necessarily exist. Do you have any thoughts on it?

  3. Aron Wall says:

    All of these arguments are completely misguided, for several different reasons:

    1. This account of omnipotence as the ability to make any proposition true, is not how omnipotence was traditionally defined. For an account of the philosophical history, see here.

    2. Even on a more modern account, God's power should be defined to only extend to that which is intrinsically possible to be done. God causing a logical contradiction to obtain, is not intrinsically possible. Therefore, God's power does not extend to it.

    If we take modal logic seriously enough to use it to argue against God's attributes, we also need to take it seriously enough to include it in our ideas about what counts as "intrinsically possible". In particular, in S5 modal logic, all modal statements are themselves necessary; i.e. \Diamond P implies \boxempty \Diamond P and \boxempty P implies \boxempty \boxempty P. Hence, no being whatsoever has the power to make such modal statements true or false; it follows that this is not the sort of thing we ever mean when we talk about "power". For example, if I go to the store at noon, that act does not remove the fact that counterfactually it was possible for me to not have gone to store, and it is hard to see what it would even mean for me to have the power to remove that possibility. I can of course take actions which preclude me going to the store (like being somewhere else during the relevant time period, or promising that I won't go while being the sort of person who always keeps my promises), but that doesn't change anything about what I hypothetically could have done, had I not taken those actions.

    3. Logical possibility should also be distinguished from real possibility (also called 'metaphysical possibility'). The mere fact that we humans don't see a contradiction in a certain state of affairs, does not imply that it is really possible. There is no reason to believe the human mind is capable of perceiving every type of impossibility. Therefore, the fact that a statement is logically possible (i.e. that the human imagination does not detect a contradiction in it), does not imply that it belongs to the set of intrinsically possible outcomes.

    4. To quote from the first link:

    The problem, in other words, arises with the mistake, common among analytic philosophers today, of thinking that arguments and claims just spring out of nowhere and therefore don't need anything other than themselves in order to be understood properly. In actual fact, the interpretation of arguments and claims must be constrained by the reasons for putting them forward in the first place.

    Thus, if your reason for believing God is omnipotent is from philosophical theology, then you need to examine your reasons for thinking God is omnipotent, and doing this will guide you to seeing how to resolve these issues.

    And if your reason is from Scripture, then you need to see how the doctrine of omnipotence functions within the canon of Scripture, and let Scripture qualify your account of what omnipotence means.

  4. Mactoul says:

    Though you expressed hope that your definition of universe as a collection of things will not be controversial I would like to remark that the essence of the term universe is that it is one--it expresses a certain unity --that the said unity is far from obvious.
    Consider the currently trendy multiverse and the older idea of island worlds, later figured out to be part of our universe.
    I refer you to the writings of Fr Jaki.

    Again, your argument that there are things like rocks, planets etc have a cause that makes them to exist so the universe must also have a cause.
    But it can be argued that there are no such things -- they are just collections or heaps of actually existing things aka fundamental particles which are causeless.

  5. Mactoul says:

    Classical arguments proceed from premises that are undercut by modern physics (or some interpretations thereof). For instance, the substantial unity of things. Do you believe that living things possess substantial unity, are they substances in Aristotelian sense? Or do you call this view outdated and unscientific vitalism?

    In modern physics there are only quantum fields or fundamental particles which came into existence with Big Bang and thus do not require any further cause. Everything else is just accidental heaps of these fundamental particles and heaps do not require any cause.

  6. I think the meaning of "cause" relies on a context-dependent background framework of which things can be implicitly accepted. For example, "The paperclip moved because there was a magnet" may be a satisfactory explanation to someone who accepts that magnets works but wanted to know how objects were arranged around the paperclip, but it won't be satisfying to someone who wants to understand how/why magnets work. Discussions of the cosmological argument or the question of why there is something rather nothing are seeking out an "ultimate" cause, a cause in the empty background framework, a cause that does not presuppose anything else. I do not believe ultimate causes exist. This is unsatisfying, and if there were such an ultimate cause I would like to know but it, but I spend little time seeking it out and I do not accept arguments based on the assumption that an ultimate cause exists.

    To fit this in your classification, in terms of ultimate causes I believe A, that every individual object does not have an ultimate cause. This does not render science impossible. Science involves noticing patterns in the universe, building frameworks for these patterns, and explaining things within these frameworks. The universe does have patterns: Partly we know this from observation, and partly we believe this for things we haven't observed from extrapolating from what we have observed. So science has been possible up to now, and we believe it will continue to work in the future. Just as science is based on causes but does not require ultimate causes, our desire to affect our surroundings does not require the effects to be transcendent and independent of anything else but merely that we accept an ability to perform actions and incorporate it in our planning.

  7. Unrelated to my last comment, I want to question your own views about initial causes in light of other posts you made. How does your belief in free will affect your thoughts on the simplicity or unity of any first cause(s)? (I was sure you believed there is a singular and unified first cause, but I couldn't find a specific blog post that was a good reference.) Isn't each act of free, by definition, an uncaused cause? These aren't causes for an entity to come into existence, as this blog post is concerned with, but they are still causes for why they the world is the particular way it is. I don't mean why that Alice has the free will to go either left or right, which you presumably attribute to a dispensation from God, but, given that she has free will, why did she go left or why did she go right. Any sufficient cause other than "Alice chose this" is a denial of her free will. And yet, if no act of free will has a sufficient cause, that is a huge number of separate events that are necessary in explaining the way the everything is, rather than a single simple uncaused causer.

  8. Matt says:

    To me this was amazingly well written, so thanks for this.

  9. Aron Wall says:

    1. Thanks for your response. However, I'd like to push back on a few aspects.

    I don't think that cosmological arguments, as formulated by somebody like St. Thomas Aquinas, are based on "the asumption that an ultimate cause exists". The proposition that an ultimate cause exists is supposed to be the conclusion of the argument, not one of the premises. The premise is that ordinary sorts of causation exist (e.g. "the paperclip moved because of the magnet").

    Because of this, I think that the question "Why is there something rather than nothing" is a rather poor formulation of this sort of Cosmological Argument. A better question would be "Given that there is something (this premise comes from observation), and that this something does not seem to be fully intelligible on its own without inquiry into deeper causes (this premise comes from reason), what is the most rational account of the structure of existence?

    (You seem to admit that not believing that ultimate causes exist is "unsatisfying". Now in some situations, it may be irrational to allow your emotions to prejudice whether or not to accept the conclusion of an argument. But when the part of you that is unsatisfied is your reason, then surely it is almost by definition "rational" to take that into consideration? A "prejudice" in favor of the world being intelligible seems like a necessary prerequisite to do any reasoning at all.)

    In any case, this blog post was not about the convincingness of Cosmological Arguments per se. Rather it is about the convincingness of one particular reply to the CA, namely, "why can't the Universe be the thing that `just exists' the way Theists think God just exists?". Now, in Theism, God does not merely lack an ultimate cause, rather he lacks any sort of cause whatsoever. Therefore, to say that the Universe "just exists" would mean not merely that it lacks an ultimate cause, but that it lacks any cause.

    So if you want to understand what I'm saying, please re-read my blog post, and assume that whenever I say the word "cause" without an adjectival modifier, I mean what you mean by cause---that is, the ordinary sort of causation implied in a narrative like "the paperclip moved because of the magnet", rather than meaning an "ultimate cause". If you interpret my blog post in this way, I think you will agree that your position (which seems to be similar to that of Sean Carroll's) is not an example of (A), but would be more plausibly classified under something like (C): certain aspects of the universe have an intelligible explanation, while others do not.

    By the way, while I strongly disagree with Carroll's views on causation, he was not at all the target I was trying to refute in this blog post. Carroll is always very careful to explain in what domains he thinks concepts like causation and explanation play a role, and in which domains they don't apply. That is why I have said before that I think even Carroll implicitly accepts some form of the cosmological argument. The purpose of this blog post was to get people who reject the Cosmological Argument in a knee-jerk sort of way, to start actually engaging in some critical analysis about metaphysics (as Carroll does).

    2. I'm willing to agree that any act of free will is, in certain respects, a godlike power. Just as existence, knowledge, and beauty are also godlike attributes, whereby material entities reflect their Creator. The difference is, that we have these powers `from another' and in a limited degree, whereas God has them `in himself' and to an unlimited degree.

    I am not sure what tension with the rest of my views on "simplicity and unity of any first causes" you are referring to---perhaps you were thinking of this paragraph?:

    I said that explaining everything in terms of one thing is the best we can do. We might have to settle for less, such as a plurality (hopefully small) of unexplained fundamental principles. However, that would not only be more complicated, it would also raise questions about what is it that joins these (supposedly separate) principles together. We might therefore reasonably hope that the principles in question would at least have some type of internal unity, without being too dogmatic at this stage about what kind of unity we are looking for.

    which seems sufficiently wishy-washy that it would be hard to derive a direct contradiction... But let me discuss this a bit anyway.

    There are two types of unity one might worry about here. One is the plurality introduced by the fact that there are multiple creatures with free will that are distinct from their Creator. Here there is a real distinction, but only one of the entities (God) is fundamental, and it is only by means of his power that the the others are able to act, so I think the simplicity of ultimate causes is still thereby maintained.

    The second type of unity to consider is the internal unity of a single creature with free will. Since human actions are partially free, and partially conditioned by circumstances, it seems like the appropriate conclusion is that we can only be understood by a model that regards us as simultaneosuly composite in certain respects, yet unified in other respects. (Whereas God, who is entirely free and unconditioned, is perfectly simple and doesn't reduce to any kind of parts.)

    When I was at St. John's College, one of the tutors there said that he accepted an argument for immortality based on the premise that the human soul is simple (not composed of parts) and hence could not be created or destroyed by any process. I used to think this was a really dumb argument---even apart from brain research, isn't the human mind pretty obviously composite from a phenomenological perspective, since e.g. we have lots of different sense data and thoughts, which coexist and even compete with each other?

    And yet, this very fact that we can be aware of multiple things at the same time, does seem to imply a certain sort of unity. At least some of our properties (e.g. conscious experiences) are holistic properties that cannot be fully reduced to the behavior of our parts (I presume that individual neurons lack conscious exprience). In the case of a human being the degree of unity that we experience is extremely weak (e.g. we change with time, have fallible memories, competing drives, and can only be simultaneously aware of a few things at once). But I am not sure that Materialism is compatible with there existing any degree of unity in the mind at all, however weak. After all, the laws of field theory (to which Materialism seeks to reduce everything) seem to be completely local; that is, they can can be expressed in terms of differential equations, which make assertions only about what takes place in arbitrarily small neighborhoods of individual points. But the rules about which entities possesses consicous experience do not seem to be able to be formulated in this way!

    (Actually I still don't think this is a convincing argument for the immortality of the soul. But I do think it is an argument for taking seriously the concept of "soul" in the first place, so long as "soul" is understood in something closer to the Aristotelian sense, as the unifying "form" which allows us to talk about an animal's body acting as a single system; rather than in the Cartestian sense, as a totally distinct mental substance which has no a priori relationship with physical substances.)

  10. Aron Wall says:

    You don't seem to have read my post very carefully. I explicitly stated that it was not obvious that the universe has the requisite type of unity:

    First of all, it is not clear whether the Universe, which is after all just about the broadest category there is, has any collective identity above and beyond the coexistence of the individual entities which exist within it.

    (In the case where a Multiverse exists, for purposes of this post the word "Universe" should be taken to refer to the entire Multiverse.)

    I am broadly sympathetic with Aristotelian accounts of substantial unity. But the target audience of this post probably mostly isn't. In any case, everything you say only supports my thesis, which is that those Naturalists who believe that something "just exists" ought to be careful to state exactly which aspect of reality they are talking about.

    By the way, if by "fundamental particles" you mean things like electrons and photons, these certainly can be created and annhilated in the Standard Model of particle physics. (It is probably better to regard the field theory description as more fundamental, since in QFT there is no fully local description of what one means by a "particle", and there are also some exotic field theory processes which don't seem to have a good description using the language of particles.)

  11. Mactoul says:

    Your argument is that there are things in the universe that require a cause to exist and thus universe, being a collection of these things, requires a cause to exist.
    1. Universe is not just a collection of things but a unity (itself implied in the term Universe, other wise how could you write a wave function of the universe or a general relativity solution of the universe.
    2. That there are things in the universe--A person could simply deny that there are any things at all. All things you see, chairs, rocks etc are heaps of the fundamental entities. If electrons are not fundamental, perhaps strings are. And heaps do not require any cause.
    3. The strings etc do not require any cause to exist. They are self-existent and eternal. They may even pre-date Big Bang itself. Perhaps there is an infinity of Big Bangs.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    Nowhere in this post did I make the argument you attribute to me. You are reading in between the lines, and ignoring what I actually said.

    Here's a hint: if you think I am formulating a specific version of the cosmological argument for Theism in this blog post, you are mistaken. Rather, this is a more dialectical blog post, in which I am responding to a particular atheistic slogan which is intended as a rebuttal of the cosmological argument, and asking those who say it to clarify more precisely exactly what they mean by it (and suggesting multiple options for how to proceed).

    By the way, in string theory, individual strings can also be created or destroyed (by merging with each other, or splitting off from other strings). So in that respect, an individual string is no more self-existent and eternal than an individual electron is.

  13. Matt Ntiros says:

    Hi Aron,

    Great post! I enjoyed reading it. I have one question for you following one of your comments about the unity of the mind and the locality of field theory. I'm not exactly sure how these considerations translate to field theory from the non-relativistic context, but I know that there are a number of people out there (e.g. Tim Maudlin) who argue that EPR coupled with Bell's theorem leads to the conclusion that non-locality is a fundamental part of (at least non-relativistic) quantum mechanics on any viable interpretation, at least in the sense that outcomes of experiments can depend upon experiments carried out in a remote region of spacetime. What do you make of that contention, and if you agree, in what sense then is field theory completely local?

  14. Aron Wall says:

    It is certainly true that entangled quantum systems display correlations which cannot be accounted for in any local, classical field theory. Although to be clear this is only a matter of the outcomes being correlated---nothing about the setup of the first experiment (the part the experimenter actually has control over) can affect the odds of anything in a spacelike separated experiment.

    This is connected to a weaker form of locality which QFT's do satisfy: namely that spacelike separated observables always commute. This is way QFT's encode the causality principle, implying that no signal can be sent faster than light. Because of this, there is a sense in which even the laws of QFT can be expressed in a local form.

    Ideally I would end this comment by saying how the seeming nonlocality in QM might be related to the nonlocality of consciousness. But since nobody really understands QM, and nobody really understands consciousness either, I don't really know how to do that! Maybe there is no relation.

  15. Mactoul says:

    I am sorry to belabor the point which I haven't succeeded in conveying.
    The theist proofs in general depend upon presuppositions that modern physics undercuts.
    For instance, existence of things such as rocks and trees.
    By modern physics, there are no such things, only heaps of fundamental particles or states of quantum fields.

    Thus, it is odd for you to start with things such as rocks and trees because as a physicist you usually start with quantum fields as what exists.

    Isn't it a case of special pleading that you would regard ordinary things as existent as per classical theism and then deny the fundamental existence of these things as a physicist ?

  16. Aron Wall says:

    You seem to be treating "existence" and "fundamental existence" as if they were synonyms.

    Why should we do that? Can't something exist, without existing fundamentally?

    I certainly don't agree that anything that physicists do denies the mere existence of rocks and trees. If that were true, we would have to start over, because to say that trees exist, is nothing other than to assert that there are trees. And there certainly are trees (I see some outside my window right now).

    If you walk into an astophysics conference and say "stars don't exist" all the physicists there will think you are crazy. Physicists don't talk like that. That is the sort of stupid thing that philosophers say.

    Even on an Aristotelian metaphysics, a tree is a substance, and therefore "subsists". But other types of entities can exist without subsisting. For example, as relations or accidents. Or as accidental forms (like heaps). So I don't think you are using the word "existence" properly on an Aristotelian viewpoint either.

  17. Mactoul says:

    The accident so exist but don't require cause in the sense substances require cause. And that's the point I am trying to make.

    That your classical theist argument requires substances but modern physics reduces substances to accidents.
    This modern physics undercuts the classical arguments.
    And the classical argument is particularly odd coming from you since I had the impression that you hold the modern physics view in particularly strong form.

  18. Belfast says:

    I really do not see why the thrust/parry in Russell’s ‘just is’ argument has any relevance since the discovery of the cosmic microwave background.
    Am I wrong?

  19. Aron Wall says:

    The cosmic background radiation makes it clear that the Universe has not always existed in its present form. But a person who says today that the Universe "just exists" probably agrees with that aspect of Big Bang cosmology.

    If you think that scientific cosmology refutes this claim, you'll have to back this up with a specific argument (for example the kalam argument). It sounds like you think the argument is too obvious to even mention. But usually in philosophy, once you say explicitly the thing that seems too obvious to you to even mention, a lot of people will then say that they disagree with it...

    The viewpoint you were describing (that things composed of parts do not really exist) is called merelogical nihilism. It is a metaphysical thesis, not a physical one. To call it "the modern physics view" is a serious category error, since nothing done in modern physics requires one to endorse this view. Just look at the proponents that are listed in the wikipedia article! For example, Peter Unger, Cian Dorr, and Ross Cameron are all philosophers, not physicists.

    You seem to be arguing with an imaginary person whose beliefs have little relation to my own. Nowhere in my writings have I ever endorsed mereological nihilism, and I certainly don't believe it! Indeed, not only do I think that wholes really exist, I have explicitly argued that there exists at least one feature of certain wholes (consciousness) which cannot be logically deduced from the laws of physics.

    At one point I pushed back on certain of your arguments for biological vitalism; but just because I didn't endorse your specific arguments, doesn't automatically imply that I must necessarily must have the most extreme possible beliefs on the other side.

    Also, in Aristotelian metaphysics, surely accidents do usually require causes! For example, if a rock becomes hotter, or turns a different color, then normally we expect there to be a reason why that happened, even if the substance of the rock persists through the change.

  20. Miloš M. says:

    It is interesting to note that philosophers who endorse mereological nihilism (including Peter van Inwagen, in specific form) disagree validly on other issues. Unger, for example, accept dualism about mind and libertarianism about free will. Van Inwagen is materialist about human persons, theist and libertarian. And Dorr is physicalist. However, some philosopher believe that mereological principles have strenght of logical laws (see for example Philip Bricker).

  21. Matt Ntiros says:


    It might be worth taking a look at the literature in contemporary philosophy on grounding and fundamentality. At most, the existence of the fundamental entities of modern physical theories (e.g. fields or particles, depending on your ontology and interpretation of QFT) as genuine substances in composite objects would only serve to call into question the existence of such composite objects as fundamental (i.e. ungrounded) entities. Contemporary physics, even when granting the full blown priority of all parts to their respective wholes, is still completely consistent with the existence of composite entities whose existence is grounded in their parts. All that to say, it is no part of modern physics as such that only fundamental entities exist, nor that only fundamental entities are subject to causal principles. Indeed even if as you argue modern physics reduces what were formerly thought of as substances to accidents (I assume by this you mean that modern physics reduces composite objects to accidents such as a certain structure exemplified by fundamental entities?), as Aron pointed out, accidents on an Aristotelian view are just as subject to causal principles as substances. After all, on Aristotelianism, accidents are existing things, they are just things that exist by inhering in other things. Also, for what it's worth (and being pretty Aristotelian myself), I also don't see any reason why it is a necessary consequence of the truth of theories of modern physics that such theories explain all of the material world and that all of the properties and facts of the material world are in principle deducible from fundamental physics (e.g. consciousness as Aron pointed out). Anyway, just my two cents.

  22. Aron Wall says:

    Let me also note that many modern physics theories exhibit a phenomenon called duality, where there are two or more different descriptions of the theory, in which different entities are taken as "fundamental".

    For example, gauge theories are formulated in terms of gauge fields which are coupled to electrical charges (which appear as an example of "fundamental fields" in the action). But in some theories the gauge fields admit stable topologically twisted configurations called "solitons", for example in some cases they look like magnetic monopoles.

    For some highly symmetric QFT's, people have discovered an alternative description of the same physics, where the magnetic monopoles are instead regarded as fundamental, and the electric charges are regarded as composite particles made out of them.

    These dual theories lead to the exact same predictions for scattering processes, but take different entities as fundamental. If you think that these dual theories should be regarded as two equally valid descriptions of the same physics (which seems reasonable), then that problematizes the notion of "fundamental particle".

  23. Andrew says:

    Hi Aron,

    Just to clarify, can this alternative approach of taking the magnetic monopoles as fundamental be applied in QFTs that form part of the Standard Model (e.g. QED)? Or is it only a feature of toy models? Or some other option?

  24. Aron Wall says:

    Good question! A lot of the best examples are strong/weak coupling dualities, where the theory has a parameter \lambda, and for small values of \lambda one of the two descriptions is weakly interacting, whereas at large values of \lambda the other description is weakly interacting. This makes sense, because at weak coupling ($\lambda \ll 0$ for the first description) the Feynman diagram description of the theory is useful, and then you can clearly identify which particles are running around, but at strong couppling the Feynman diagram description breaks down, and you need some other methods for studying the theory. (If there is a weakly coupled dual description at large \lambda, then that means that there is a different Feynman expansion valid there, involving a different set of particles.)

    For this reason, a lot of the most celebrated dualities involve highly symmetric theories, in which powerful symmetry principles allow you to make statements even about strong coupling (and then you can check if it matches the weakly coupled description of some other theory).

    For example, almost all examples of AdS/CFT involve supersymmetry. Supersymmetry has never been discovered in Nature, and could well be false as a theory about the actual world. Nevertheless, if you take the theories in which we can do calculations as a guide to what might happen in the theories where it is harder to do calculations, then one might think that such dualities also exist for non-supersymmetric theories, they are just harder to discover.

    In the case of pure QED, there are no magentic monopoles because the theory is abelian (photons don't interact with themselves) and hence there is no way to make the required topological twist. Also, the coupling constant gets strong at tiny distances, and it is believed that, rather than a dual description emerging, the coupling constant actually goes to infinity at finite distance (a Landau pole) which would mean the theory is actually inconsistent. Fortunately, the universe does not involve pure QED, but there are other forces as well. If you incorporate QED into a grand unified theory (GUT), then there are ways to construct magnetic monopoles using the additional fields. (But I am somewhat skeptical of GUT's as there is little direct evidence for them, aside from the supposed meeting of the coupling constants at high energy.)

    QCD is a nonabelian gauge theory (gluons do interact with themselves) which gets strongly coupled at sufficiently low energies, resulting in confinement of quarks and gluons into protons and neutrons. It has been speculated that there might be a dual description, in which a certain dual magnetic symmetry group gets spontaneously broken, and in which the strings connecting quarks look like solitonic twists. But if this is true, the dual description would always be strongly coupled, so this proposal is very difficult to study.

  25. Mactoul says:

    Merelogical nihilism isn't ruled out by modern physics and then the question arises whether these classical theist arguments hold given merelogical nihilism.

  26. Matt says:

    I love reading through the comments!
    I've never even taken a single physics class, but since I've started studying "Apologetics" to get a better understanding of the subject on justification for belief in God anyhow.
    It has fascinates me to see the extent that those in the atheistic community do not choose to, or simply lack the understanding, to discern between "physics" and their favorite philosophy, or "science" and some philosophy they favor. This seems to be a systemic confusion within their community.
    It also seems to me most think "Science" is like all equal, as though they are all equal in obtaining epistemological justification, when that's not remotely the case.
    I'm not judging who and who isn't an atheist here, because I don't think anybody said that, just commenting in general on the subject. It's fascinating to read comments from people who understand the subject of physics! *Eating my popcorn* :)

  27. Aron,

    Your response to what I wrote was thorough, but I don't expect to be equally thorough responding back. In this comment, I will focus on responding to your defense of the cosmological argument. As you point out, your blog post is just about a particular response to the cosmological argument, but I think it's natural for it to prompt a more general discussion of the cosmological argument.

    The reason I pointed the context-dependence of the meaning of "cause" is to point out that we can't just rely on the everyday meaning of "cause" while following the cosmological argument. It's too ambiguous. So I gave one interpretation of "cause", and got the answer A. This is not to deny that by a different interpretation of "cause" I won't ever get a different answer. I'm not familiar with Sean Carroll's views here, but I imagine he would answer C based on different, also valid, interpretation of "cause" to this context.

    As for the claim that God "lacks any sort of cause whatsoever", this cannot be true, because then nobody can say that "God exists because of the cosmological argument." or "God exists because he is testified in the Bible by reliable witnesses." You might think this is just word-play, merely showing that the language of causality can be used in ways that are not actually about causes of entities. In fact, I think the "causality" involved in deriving God from an argument is very similar to the "causality" in explaining one law of nature in terms of other laws of nature. I was thinking about elaborating further on this and giving examples of how explanations of laws of nature can be bidirectional depending on what's presupposed. However, that is more relevant for the formulation of the cosmological argument involving explanations like the one you argued before.

    It does require some (somewhat arbitrary) philosophical judgement to separate causes from explanations in casual language in ordinary language. I propose a disambiguation of "ordinary causes" based on when it is appropriate to use the verb "cause", as well as the prototypical example "the paperclip moved because of the magnet". Indeed, "The cosmological argument causes God's existence." or "Electroweak theory causes Maxwell's equation" don't sound like good English. As far as I can tell, this is the same as physical causality between an earlier and a later event, although it may involve abstraction that could be considered non-physical like mental entities and social constructs like "inflation of the euro". Causation may presuppose laws of nature. Under this definition, I can answer B, all entities in the universe are caused by the Big Bang, as far as is known under current cosmology. Of course, this is very unsatisfying as an explanation of everything in the universe, as you've pointed out in the past, but it is not meant to be an explanation, merely the most antecedent cause within any ordinarily acceptable use of causation.

  28. As for me being unsatisfied with there not being an ultimate cause for anything, I agree with you that this feeling comes from my reason and it is rational for me to take it into consideration. What I take that to mean is that a theory that includes within it a specific reason why the universe is the way it is without any presuppositions on the universe would be more correct than a similar theory that doesn't include such a reason, I would be obligated to accept this theory if I were to encounter it. However, I don't believe there exists any theory of the former kind, and I haven't encountered any. I don't think it is reasonable to favor a theory that merely states the existence of a non-contingent explanation without providing any, like many theistic theories.

    By analogy, it is unsatisfying in a similar way that the results of quantum measurements are unpredictable. A theory that gave correct predictions to quantum measurements would clearly be an improvement to our understanding of the universe. However, accepting this does not obligate me to accept a theory like superdeterminism which states that quantum measurements are predictable without making any predictions for them.

  29. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    1. There is an important distinction between God (the source of all being) and Theism (the proposition that God exists). Sometimes people say "God" when they mean "Theism", but this is at best a metonymy, not a literal identification. Personally, I try to never conflate to these two terms, since the distinction is often important. For example, from time to time I have been known to defend Theism on this blog, but it would be quite presumptuous for me to say I was therefore defending God. God can take care of himself without my puny help, that's for sure!

    Thus, I'm going to flat out deny this proposition: "God exists because of the cosmological argument". God pre-exists the cosmological argument, and in no way depends on the CA for his existence.

    The correct statement is an epistemic one: "Belief in God is caused [in some individuals] by the CA." (Or perhaps, in a mode of causality more similar to ``formal causation'', the CA might be interpreted as a partial explanation of why it is rational to believe in God, though obviously this depends on to what extent the argument is actually valid.)

    Just as, dinosaurs were not caused to exist by paleontologists (they would have existed regardless of whether anyone dug up their bones) rather, paleontologists are the cause of why we know things about dinosaurs. Something can be evidence without being a cause. (Indeed, prototypical examples of evidence are effects of the things they point to, not causes.

    Now obviously, when we talk about physical causes, we aren't just talking about something epistemic. If a meteor makes a crater in a planet, the crater could indeed be evidence for the meteor if we know about it. But all of this could also happen in a distant galaxy far from human observation, and that wouldn't detract in the slightest from the meteor being the cause of the crater (or that it serves as its explanation in some objective, non-epistemic sense of the word "explanation").

    2. As you say, there are different notions of "cause", and also different philosophical beliefs about which sorts of causation actually exist in the world. In order for a CA to be supported, one has to think deeply and carefully about what types of causal concepts have proved to be indispensible in other parts of Science and Philosophy. In this sense the "roots" of the argument are potentially extremely broad: one has to take into account other subfields of philosophy besides the one you are working in. For example, lots of eliminationist arguments (There are no A's, but only B's!) seem very plausible if you take them in isolation, but you only need to find a single context in which the concept of A is indispensible, in order for this not to work.

    It is easy enough to propose a sufficiently skeptical or restricted notion of causation that the CA won't follow. Anyone can do that. The more difficult task is showing that such notions are at the same time sufficiently robust to do all whatever heavy lifting we expect from a good theory of causation, in all other contexts.

    3. Your second comment resonantes more with me a lot more than your first one. You are, of course, appealing to the principle of Bayesian reasoning that in order for a hypothesis H to be strongly confirmed by some observation O, it needs to predict O with higher likelihood than ~H does. As a result, it is difficult to strongly confirm hypotheses which make vague predictions (in the sense that they could explain a very large number of possible observations about equally well.)

    That is a fair point, but don't forget that Bayesian epistemology also allows for H to end up being more probable than ~H if the prior probability is much higher.

    Let me tentatively try to sketch out an example of a metaphysical principle which could rationally support such a large difference in prior probabilities. In order to try to illustrate the principle involved, I'm going to start with a much more extreme form of skepticism than Atheism, and try to explain why Solipsism should be assigned a low probability.

    Let R (realism) be the hypothesis that there exists an external physical world governed by simple scientific laws, which can be observed through sensation.

    Let S (solipsism) be the hypothesis that I have the exact same sensations, thoughts, etc. that I would have if R were true, but that in fact there is no external world and only I exist. The fact that these senations fall into patterns is just a brute fact.

    These two theories, as I have formulated them, make exactly the same predictions, so we cannot distinguish them by observation. (And while R, as I have stated it above, doesn't say what the laws actually are, for any more specific version R_n of Realism which specifies the actual laws of Nature, we can also imagine a correspondingly more specific form S_n of Solipsism, which says that the same sensory patterns predicted by R_n hold but as a brute fact.)

    What about Occam's razor? Well, S seems to postulate far fewer entities than R does, so there it has an advantage. If you prefer a criterion more like information complexity of the theory, it seems like a given S_n is at worst only slightly more complex than R_n, since once I have specified R_n, I only need to say a few extra words ("the sensory predictions of R_n hold as a brute fact") beyond the words needed to specify R_n. And if I wanted to program a computer to make predictions for what I see, obviously the length of the computer program would be identical, since the predictions are the same.

    Nevertheless, intuitively S is a much worse theory than R. Why is this?

    Well, for one thing, any given S_n seems to "cheat" by parasitically exploiting R_n to define its predictions, without actually allowing for any of the structure implied by R_n to exist. I would suggest that most of us have some heuristics which cause us to find hypotheses of this sort repugnant. For example, we might have a heuristic like:

    Do not accept complicated propositions as "brute facts" that are unmoored from actual existence claims, but rather strive to explain such facts by postulating the existence of actual structures / powers / entities underlying whatever patterns are observed.

    or perhaps:

    If some X's behave just "as if" a certain other entity Y exists, then we should normally* accept that a Y-like entity really does exist.

    [*I say normally, because there might be examples where some other set of entities Z provides an equally well-grounded, but more plausible explanation for the "as if Y" behavior. For example, a work of fiction is written "as if" the characters actually existed, but this pattern is better explained by the existence of an imaginative author. Or an evolved animal may act on instinct "as if" it were behaving intelligently.]

    Another illustrative example of this principle comes in Eq 28-2 and 28-3 of Feynman's Lectures in Physics, where he writes down a force law between two electrons as if the electromagnetic field had no independent reality, but was purely determined by the positions of the other electrons. In this formulation of physics, there is no need to solve the Maxwell equations. The price he pays for this, is that the force law is now nonlocal in time (it depends on the past) and space (there is action at a distance). This may or may not be convenient from the perspective of doing calculations, but as far as ontology is concerned, it seems obvious to me that the theory in which the electromagnetic field actually exists is the superior one.

  30. Mactoul says:

    Solipsism can be ruled out or refuted with the fundamental argument that any philosophic argument must be able to account for the medium by which it is communicated.

    This elegant principle is helpful in refuting plenty of pseudo-philosophical arguments.

  31. Aron Wall says:


    Merelogical nihilism isn't ruled out by modern physics and then the question arises whether these classical theist arguments hold given merelogical nihilism.

    I do think that merelogical nihilism is refuted by quite convincing metaphysical arguments. As for the question you raise, this presumably depends on: (1) what the MNist does still believe, and (2) which particular argument for classical theism one has in mind (there are many).

    Regarding solipsism, the more general point here is that to predict a certain outcome is not the same as to account for it. S, as I have stated it, does indeed predict the exact same things as R, but it doesn't properly account for any of them!

  32. Matt says:

    @Mactoul, Sorry to butt in, I'm just following this thread, and wanted you to explain further the statement "Solipsism can be ruled out or refuted with the fundamental argument that any philosophic argument must be able to account for the medium by which it is communicated."
    I don't get how that rules out S? That didn't make sense to me, so i probably didn't understand something.
    The idea behind S, is everything pertaining to external reality is an illusion, and only exists in my mind. Obviously, it seems the notion that you are communicating anything at all (thus implying there is actually some other person who exists), does not undermine S. Any semblance of some medium of communication, or that you're communicating at all, would only exist in the mind.
    Sorry, not trying to argue with you, I just want to fully understand the point you were making.
    Thanks if you have the time!

  33. Matt Ntiros says:


    Which version of the cosmological argument are you thinking would be refuted if MN were true? I myself think MN is clearly wrong, but even if it were true, I'm not sure how it would affect a cosmological argument. Cosmological arguments I'm aware of don't at all seem to rely on there existing objects with mereological complexity. Some rely on forms of metaphysical complexity like being composed of essence and existence, for example, but that is a different matter.

  34. James H says:

    “Apparently, you've raised this question before, but what are your thoughts considering the omnipotence paradox? There's a very nice rebuttal of it here ( and also, but it implies that God does not necessarily exist. Do you have any thoughts on it?”

    The stone paradox- one of the paradoxes referred to in the article-was originally presented in a theology magazine, and was never intended to be taken seriously.

    The problem with the stone paradox is this: God is, by definition, capable of doing anything that it is logically possible to do, and it is logically possible for Him to lift a stone of *any* weight. Hence, it is incoherent to posit a stone that is too heavy for him to lift. Another way of putting this is to say that the implicit premises of the argument are inconsistent. So our response to the stone paradox should be to point out there can be no such thing as a stone which is too heavy for God to lift, since He is capable of lifting a stone of any weight.

  35. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Aron Wall,
    I really enjoy your posts and coverage of topics and in particularly this one.

    As a naturalist I think, that you are correct and that by arguing for the law of physics as the basics and fundaments of nature or the universe your only choice is only truly option C).

    But I also like to argue here for a bit weaker version than that.

    C) No specific entity just exists without a cause, but energy which these entities have in common just exists without a cause.

    Energy E seems to me as the most common thing among all existing things and appears to cause all existing things without being caused by anything else given the relation by Einstein between energy E and matter m : E=mc^2 and the energy conservation law: E=const at all times if (a big IF) the considered physical system, where all existing things caused or uncaused are, can't exchange energy with another physical system.
    Not just the caused matter m in the closed physical system is explainable through the total energy E of the closed physical system, but also all the dynamics involving the inner of the closed physical system are explainable and basically caused by energy E :
    kinetic energy: movement and motion of the particles due to momentum p of the particles
    thermal energy: movement and motion of the particles due to temperature T of the closed physical system
    potential energy: interactions between particles through conservative forces F or potential fields V

    It seem to me, that the only objection to my weaker version of C) with energy E is the big IF, which entails the considered physical system to be closed for energy-exchanges.
    But other than that, this weaker version of C) with energy E appears to be very solid and at least appealing to me as a naturalist with the assumption of the closed for energy-exchanges physical system and with the assumption, that energy E can't be caused by anything else (or even destroyed by anything else).

    Best regards,
    Zsolt Nagy

  36. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your kind words about the post. I'm glad you appreciated it!

    There are some interesting metaphysical questions that could be asked about your proposal---for example, about the transitition from "energy" as a numerical quantity, to energy as some sort of substance which just exists without a cause (but still has the potential to be transformed in various ways?).

    But I'm not sure it's necessary to go there, considering that the physics is out of date.

    In Special Relativity, Energy is just momentum in the time direction, and time needs to be treated on the same footing as space. So if you think Energy is fundamental, Momentum should be as well.

    On the other hand, in General Relativity, there is no useful notion of conserved, nonzero energy in cosmology. See these posts for more explanation:

    Did the Universe Begin? IV: Quantum Eternity Theorem

    Did the Universe Begin? VII: More about Zero Energy

  37. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Aron,
    Thank you for your reply and thoughts on my proposition.

    I wouldn't say, that CP (classical physics), which has been used implicitly for my formulation of my proposal for C) with a touch from Einstein, is 'out of date'. But my formulation of my proposition for C) is a special case for small masses, small velocities, very small or negligible gravitation and very small or negligible quantum effects.

    CP is the limit of QM (quantum mechanics) for Planck's constant h going to zero (h\rightarrow 0). Also CP is the limit of GR for small or negligible gravitation and small masses and small velocities. So classical physics is a special case and not really a thing to be considered 'out of date'.

    Further not all but a lot of physical quantities, laws and relations from CP correspond to other physical quantities, laws and relations in other (or 'modern') physics.

    From GR the energy-momentum tensor T^{\alpha\beta} corresponds to energy E from CP and further the energy conservation law E=const or \frac{d}{dt}E=0} from CP corresponds to the vanishing divergence of energy-momentum tensor div\;T=0 with covariant derivatives from GR.

    From QM the Hamiltonian operator H correspond to the Hamiltonian H=H(q,p,t) from CP and further the energy conservation law H=E=const or \frac{d}{dt}H=\{H,H\}+\frac{\partial}{\partial t}H=\frac{d}{dt}E=0} from CP corresponds to the von Neumann equation for time evolution of the Hamoltonian operator \frac{d}{dt}H=\frac{i}{\hbar}|H,H|=0 from QM. Also the measurable energy values E are the eigenvalues of the Hamiltonian operator H.

    So all in all my given proposition for C) is a special case considering CP and could be generalized for QM or GR or maybe one day for QM with gravity.

    As for metaphysical applications I can't imagine a possible world, where I could have formed these thoughts and written this reply to you without taking energy from somewhere. Also I can't imagine a possible world, where perpetuum mobile of the first kind would be possible or where energy could be destroyed.

    Best regards,

    PS: My reply beforehand has bad latex errors. Sorry.

    [That's fine. I deleted the bad one.---AW]

  38. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Aron,
    I think, that the energy-momentum tensor T^{\alpha\beta} doesn't quite correspond to energy E at least not to the total energy E_{tottal}=E_{matter}+E_{kin}+E_{pot}, but it corresponds to E_{matter}+E_{kin}.
    On the other hand the Landau-Lifshitz pseudotensor t_{LL}^{\mu\nu}=-\frac{c^4}{8\pi G}(G^{\mu\nu}+\Lambda g^{\mu\nu})+\frac{c^4}{18\pi G(-g)}((-g)(g^{\mu\nu}g^{\alpha\beta}-g^{\mu\alpha}g^{\nu\beta}))_{,\alpha\beta}, gravitational energy-momentum tensor, corresponds to E_{pot}.
    So the combination of of the two tensors corresponds to the total energy E_{total} and its vanishing divergence corresponds somewhat to the energy conservation law \frac{d}{dt}E_{total}=0.

    Best regards,

  39. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comments. It's not often that I get the sort of commenters who need to use the latex feature to push back on what I say. But a few counter-reactions:

    1. My objection to your energy proposal had to do with classical relativity (SR and GR), not QM, so I'm not sure why you are bringing \hbar into this.


    But my formulation of my proposition for C) is a special case for small masses, small velocities, very small or negligible gravitation and very small or negligible quantum effects.

    That is fine for physics, but if you are going to talk about some quanity as being metaphysically fundamental, then it needs to be defined even apart from these approximations. (And yes, this is one reason why metaphysics is so difficult compared to physics.)

    (But even in the limit where velocities are small, momentum is also conserved, so I also don't see how this affects my point that momentum should be treated as equally fundamental to energy.)

    3. You are correct that it is possible to define an exactly conserved energy-momentum tensor if you use pseudotensors. But pseudotensors are called "pseduo" because they transform weirdly under a change of coordinates. For example, simply by doing a coordinate change to flat Minkowski spacetime, I could make it look like there is a nonzero pseduo energy tensor there.

    In my opinion, one of the philosophical lessons of GR is that anything which depends on coordinates should not be regarded as objectively real. Hence, this conserved energy density is not a promising candidate for an ontologically basic entity. Not only does it not "just exist", it doesn't even exist at all! (Except in a purely conventional way after we've picked a particular coodinate system.)


    As for metaphysical applications I can't imagine a possible world, where I could have formed these thoughts and written this reply to you without taking energy from somewhere. Also I can't imagine a possible world, where perpetuum mobile of the first kind would be possible or where energy could be destroyed.

    On the contrary, it is very easy to imagine such a world. For example, I don't have any difficulty imagining a ball coming to a stop when it hits a wall without bouncing back or heating up the wall. If there is a thermometer on the wall, I could even imagine the murcury level going down whenever the ball hits it. Why not?

    It is a fact that this never seems to happen in the physical world, but I don't think it is an a priori truth. It's something we learned by a combination of experiment and careful thought regarding the implications of Newtonian laws (which are themselves justified primarily by their utility in explaining observational data). Before St. Leibniz the modern concept of conserved energy did not exist in physics, so prior to the mid 1600's, conservation of energy didn't place any constraint on people's imaginings.

    Mathematically, another method to theoretically violate energy conservation, is to simply write down an action which is not time-translation invariant. Then Noether's theorem will not apply with respect to conservation of energy. Or you could simply reject the principle that the equations of motion should come from an action in the first place. Most random differential equations you might write down, won't respect conservation of energy or momentum.

  40. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Aron,
    In some points I agree with you and in others I can't say, that I agree.

    I agree with your explanation and conclusion, that the conserved pseudo energy-momentum density is not a promising candidate for an ontologically basic entity, which you suggested to "just exist".
    But I can't see the reason, why it can't simply exist. So according to you abstract physical entities like energy don't exist. Why not?
    For me if I can reasonably or rationally assign a value for an entity (in other words I can physically measure or observe it), then in my books the entity with its assigned value exists.
    For example in an inertial reference frame K an object has a measurable velocity v\neq 0. so in my books velocity is a measurable entity, which exists. Yes, there is a reference frame K', where the measured velocity v'=0 for the same object, but that doesn't mean at least for me, that velocity as a measurable entity doesn't exist. In my opinion this is still true for the conserved pseudo energy-momentum density. In some reference frames it has a non-zero value and in others has zero value, but that doesn't mean, that it doesn't exist.

    A simpler mathematical example would be this:
    Let be the following two functions be given f:\R\rightarrow\R with f(x)=x for all x\in\R and g:\R\rightarrow\R with g(x)=x^2+1 for all x\in\R.
    Obviously function f has one zero point at x=0 and function g has no zero points (at least not in \R).
    A lot of undergraduate students might think, that the function f has also no zero points, because the value of x is zero and zero is "nothing". But mathematically speaking value zero as a solution is not the same as having no solutions. In my opinion this is also true in physics: Value zero as a measurement of an entity is not the same as having no measurements at all for that entity.

    Further it appears to me, that in metaphysics the only things, that are not existing, are contradictions and paradoxes. I think, that we both can agree upon, that a married bachelor doesn't exist. Any other non-contradictory thing is at least possible. So according to you how does a physically measurable entity such as energy not exist in the metaphysical or in the ontological sense? I don't see any contradictions there. Maybe I just don't have enough insights of metaphysics and ontologics to see this as clearly as you do. Would you be so kind to give me something to read as a recommendation on that subject matter?

    Further I also don't have any difficulty imagining a ball coming to a stop when it hits a wall without bouncing back or heating up the wall, because then the kinetic energy of the ball has been "lost" into deformation of the ball and wall or because then the kinetic energy of the ball has been formed into thermal energy of the ball and wall. If there is a thermometer on the wall, I also could even imagine like you the mercury level going down whenever the ball hits it, because then it's possible, that some energy due to the motion and movement of the mercury atoms in the thermometer is transferred to the ball and wall. It's unlikely but still possible.
    What I can't imagine is an out of nothing suddenly appearing elephant between the ball and wall.
    I mean, that I can imagine a suddenly appearing elephant between the ball and the wall from a pair production of elephant and anti-elephant from a photon with enough energy for it, but I couldn't say truly, that this elephant comes from nothing.
    Note that with this I don't really want to ridicule your examples (maybe just a tiny bit).
    What I really wanted to show with this, that you didn't really addressed with these examples my concerns about the possibility of perpetuum mobile of the first kind (producing energy and therefore anything out of nothing) and the possibility of destroying energy (losing energy into nothing).
    In neither of your given examples with the ball, wall and thermometer is energy gained from nothing or lost into nothing.

    I also agree with you, that any statement about energy given by physics is an a priori truth in combination of experiment and careful thought regarding the implications of Newtonian laws (which are themselves justified primarily by their utility in explaining observational data). But I don't see bad reasons not to try to establish a physically measurable entity as an entity, that "just exists". Sure my reasons might be not sophisticated or even good enough reasons to do so. I think, that we both can agree upon this.
    But in general having insufficient reasons in order to do a thing is not equivalent to having bad reasons in order to do the same thing. Also in general having insufficient reasons in order to do a thing is not equivalent to having sufficient reasons in order to not do the same thing.

    So to summarize my last two horrible sentences I agree with you, that I didn't give you sufficient reasons to think, that the case is "energy just exists", or that it might be irrational to think today, that “energy just exists”. But I think, that you also didn’t give me sufficient reasons to think, that the case is not “energy just exists”. According to you how is it rational to think today, that the case is not “energy just exists” or that any other physically measurable entity couldn't “just exist”?
    Sure, I can also write down all sorts of physical differential equations, which violate the energy conservation law. Yet it still appears to me not worth it to write down a physical differential equation, that produces elephants out of nothing.

    Best regards,

  41. Aron Wall says:

    The energy-momentum pesudotensor depends on the choice of coordinate system. But there are no coordinate lines predefined by Nature, they are just human conventions. So they don't exist in themselves, but only as a social convention like the borders of a nation. Arbitrary conventions cannot be regarded as metaphysically ultimate.

    For me if I can reasonably or rationally assign a value for an entity (in other words I can physically measure or observe it), then in my books the entity with its assigned value exists.

    My point is that you can't reasonably or rationally assign a unique value to the energy-momentum pesudotensor. There are multiple values you can define, and it depends upon the convention. It's similar to how there is no measuremnt or observation you can do to determine that the zero point of longitude should pass through Greenwich, England. Rather, you pick this to be zero as an arbitrary convention, and then measure other longitudes relative to it.

    I also agree with you, that any statement about energy given by physics is an a priori truth in combination of experiment and careful thought regarding the implications of Newtonian laws (which are themselves justified primarily by their utility in explaining observational data).

    I hope this is a typo and you meant to say that energy conservation is NOT an a priori truth. Otherwise you are disagreeing with me, not agreeing with me.

    What I can't imagine is an out of nothing suddenly appearing elephant between the ball and wall.

    Well I can imagine that quite easily. Anything that could be done as a special effect in a movie, can be imagined.

    Superhero movies violate conservation of momentum all the time, and they are almost by definition imaginable (because anything you can show in a movie is by definition capable of being visualized.)

    Sure, I can also write down all sorts of physical differential equations, which violate the energy conservation law. Yet it still appears to me not worth it to write down a physical differential equation, that produces elephants out of nothing.

    No offense, but I think you are missing the point here. Suppose I made the (obviously correct) claim that it possible to imagine a pink elephant.

    If you said that in the real world all elephants are a different color, and that it wasn't "worth it" to you to visualize a pink elephant, that wouldn't change the fact that it is perfectly possible to imagine them, and that there is no logical contradiction in some elephants being pink.

    It seems you have internalized the principle of energy conservation so throughly, that you refuse to imagine the possibility of it being violated. But it's not like you were born with this knowledge. There is no inherent logical contradiction with energy conservation being violated.

    (Of course, the next crackpot who tries to sell you a perpetual motion machine is overwhelmingly likely to be deluded. But that doesn't mean it's logically impossible for him to be correct. It just means that claims of this type have been wrong so many times in a row, that severe skepticism is called for.)

  42. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Aaron,
    Thank you for your response and reply.

    I agree to, that there is no measurement or observation you can do to determine that the zero point of longitude should pass through Greenwich, England. Yet again that doesn't mean, that there are no measurable distinct positions on the surface of the planet earth.
    This is also true for the energy-momentum pseudotensor. Sure, the energy-momentum pseudotensor depends on the choice of coordinate system and further there are no coordinate lines predefined by Nature. But again that doesn't mean, that there is no measurable energy-momentum pseudotensor.
    On the one side you might be not hesitant to disregard it to be "metaphysically ultimate". On the other side I still think, that if the energy-momentum pseudotensor is not physically ultimate, then some other measurable entity might still be physically ultimate.

    Also you are right. It was a typo from me and I also think, that the energy conservation law is not an a priori truth. But it could be easily made into an a priori truth. We could postulate something similar, such that postulation entails that conservation law.
    Postulate of strictly conserved energy: Energy can be neither produced from or lost to nothingness. Then the energy conservation law follows from this postulate.
    Note that quantum information behaves actually in this kind of manner. Quantum information can be neither produced from or lost to nothingness. So why could we not consider quantum information as physically ultimate?

    Also I'm not missing your given point of some physical differential equations violating the energy conservation law. Further I also think, that pink elephants are as much possible as red herrings. But I'm not interested in those possibilities.
    I'm rather concerned with the possibility of a perpetual motion machine producing energy from nothing. If there would be a perpetual motion machine producing energy from nothing, then zero wouldn't equal zero anymore, because if there would be a perpetual motion machine producing energy from nothing, then one could make one apple, two apples, three apples,... out of no apples. How could then someone distinguish between existing and non-existing objects? Would there ever be an object with a “hole” in the universe? I think not.

    Best regards,

  43. Mactoul says:

    If I might inject myself in this debate, I think that energy is a quantity that is posited in physics as a book-keeping device. Why is kinetic energy 1/2 m v**2? Why is potential energy m*g*h?
    Energy is not a thing and the postulate of energy conservation is essentially the same as a book-keeping accountancy convenience.

  44. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Mactoul,
    here is a question fo you: If you burn a book, is it then gone for good?
    You might say yes, but the answer is actually physically speaking no.
    Yes, the content of the book might be gone for good, but the materials, which constituted the book itself, are still there in a different form. You see, burning is a chemical reaction - a physical prozess -, where different matter is reforming while acting and reacting with each other and also where matter and energy conservation still applies.
    So then how do you suggest to burn/destroy the energy conservation law as a "book-keeping accountancy convenience"? Just because you might want to dismiss it for "conveniences", it does not necessarily mean, that it is gone for good just like with a burned book.

    Best regards,

  45. Mactoul says:

    Physicists posit new forms of energy. For instance, electrostatic energy, magnetic energy, chemical energy, nuclear energy, energy of electromagnetic waves and so on.
    These forms of energy and their mathematical expressions are posited as book-keeping strictly speaking.

    Material things are material but energy as such is something posited in physics. Energy has no meaning outside of physical theories

  46. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Mactoul,
    Did you ever hear of Einstein's famous equation E=mc^2 ?
    What about the famous quote from Archimedes "Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth."?
    So give Archimedes our current knowledge of physics and enough energy, and he shall give you a whole universe back.

    Also if energy has no meaning outside of physical theories, then why do everybody pay so much for it? If energy would be that meaningless, then also energy shouldn't be that much worth.

    Best regards,

  47. Mactoul says:

    Energy is defined as capacity to do work.
    It is material things that actually do work and how much capacity a particular thing has in a certain situation-- this may be calculated in physics but the actual equations that does calculate ate a part of physics and doesn't exist outside physics.

  48. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Mactoul,
    I know all of it, what you are saying about energy regarding physics.
    But it appears to me, that you can't comprehend, what the implications are from it and what that all means to your own life.
    Let's make a thought experiment. In this thought experiment the sun doesn't have to disappear, but the sun must not provide any amount of energy for the earth. No radiation, no sunlight, no heat and no particles from the sun for the earth.
    In this thought experiment you will find very soon how generally essential energy is not just for your own life but also for all life.

    Best regards,

  49. Mactoul says:

    There is something material that is arriving on Earth from Sun i.e sunlight. The sunlight is assigned certain energy values that works in physics book-keeping.

    Plants absorb this material sunlight to grow. It is convenient to say that plants absorb solar energy but we must be clear. Plants do not absorb a number but something material.

  50. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Mactoul,
    Yes, plants do not absorb a number but something material and that material is another form of energy or its origin is energy.
    By the way energy is not defined as "capacity to do work", but physical work W is another form of energy: W=\int Fds=\int Pdt with physical power P.

    Matter with mass m from energy E_{matter}: m=\frac{E_{matter}}{c^2} with speed of light c.
    Motion and movement via momentum p from kinetic energy E_{kin}: p=\sqrt{2mE_{kin}}.
    Motion and movement via temperature T from thermal energy E_{therm}: T=\int\frac{dE_{therm}}{S} with Entropy S.
    Interactions between particles via conservative forces F from potential energy E_{pot}: F=-\nabla E_{pot}.

    Sure, for the distinguishing between different quantity of energy we use numbers, but in physics energy itself is more than just a "number". It is a physical measurable entity, that appears to be as the most common, which all other physical measurable entities possess.

    Best regards,

  51. Mactoul says:

    I know these formulae of physics --- as I said energy is something posited in physical theories. But what is energy outside of these formulae?

    How do you define energy?

  52. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Mactoul,
    As you see, energy is not and does not one thing, but can be in different forms and can do lots of things. You can define the different forms from energy from all those given equations.

    Kinetic energy E_{kin}: E_{kin}=\frac{p^2}{2m}\;\Rightarrow\; E_{kin}\propto p^2\;\vee\; p\propto\sqrt{E_{kin}}.
    This means, that with more kinetic energy E_{kin} the object has more momentum p, so that momentum p always indicates kinetic energy E_{kin} and so that kinetic energy E_{kin} is defined as the ratio between momentum p squared and two times the mass m in classical physics. Kinetic energy E_{kin} in this way is well defined, if momentum p and mass m are well defined.

    Thermal energy E_{therm}: E_{therm}=\int SdT\;\Rightarrow\; E_{therm}\propto T\;\vee\; T\propto E_{therm} for entropy S independent of temperature T.
    This means, that with more thermal energy E_{therm} the system has more temperature T, so that temperature T always indicates thermal energy E_{therm} and so that thermal energy E_{therm} is defined as entropy S times temperature T for entropy S independent of temperature T. For temperature T dependent entropy S thermal energy E_{therm} is defined as the temperature T integral over entropy S. Thermal energy E_{therm} in this way is well defined, if entropy S and temperature T are well defined.

    Potential energy E_{pot}: E_{pot}=k\cdot\varphi^2\;\Rightarrow\; E_{pot}\propto\varphi^2\;\vee\;\varphi\propto\sqrt{E_{pot}}.
    This means, that with more potential energy E_{pot} the vector field \varphi is more strong, so that vector field \varphi always indicates potential energy E_{pot} and so that potential energy E_{pot} is defined as some constant k times vector field \varphi squared (scalar product with itself) in classical physics. Potential energy E_{pot} in this way is well defined, if constante k and vecorfield \varphi are well defined. Note that conservative forces between objects F are proportional to this vector field \varphi: F\propto\varphi.

    Energy for mass and matter E_{matter}: E_{matter}=mc^2\;\Rightarrow\; E_{matter}\propto m\;\vee\; m\propto\sqrt{E_{matter}}.
    This means, that with more energy for mass and matter E_{matter} the object has more mass m, so that mass m always indicates energy for mass and matter E_{matter} and so that energy for mass and matter E_{matter} is defined as mass m times speed of light c squared. Energy for mass and matter E_{matter} in this way is well defined, if mass m and speed of light c are well defined.

    Further we generalize the energy conservation law to constitute, that energy regardless of its form or function can only be transformed or transferred into other forms and functions, but it can not be produced from nothing or destroyed and lost into nothing.

    You might still be unsatisfied with this definition of energy, but it pretty much explains everything, what we see*.

    *Note that, what we always see with our eyes are electromagnetic waves (light) of electromagnetic vector fields. So with our eyes what we always see is energy in a dynamical electromagnetic potential form.

    Best regards,

    PS: Sorry, last time I forgot a couple of $-signs.

  53. Mactoul says:

    So you have defined various forms of energies by their formulae. Precisely as I said, energy is just a term in physics. And how are these formulae arrived at?
    Why is KE=1/2 mv**2?

  54. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Mactoul,
    Let's suppose, that a physical object has no or zero initial kinetic energy E_{kin,initial}=0 and therefore no or zero initial velocity v_{initial}=0. Let's further suppose, that we get some energy E from somewhere (again nobody can produce energy out of nothing) and transform it into the object's kinetic energy.
    How is this done? Well, it's done with physical work W and force F of course:
    E=E_{kin,final}-E_{kin,initial}=E_{kin,final}=W=\int_{s_{initial}}^{s_{final}} Fds
    =\int_{s_{initial}}^{s_{final}} m\dot{v}ds=\int_{t_{initial}}^{t_{final}} m\dot{v}vdt
    So all in all we get: E_{kin,final}=\frac{1}{2}mv_{final}^2, if E_{kin,initial}=0.

    Best regards,

  55. Mactoul says:

    So you have derived the expression for KE assuming that energy is conserved.
    This is what I meant by saying that energy is book-keeping device.
    There isn't an independent expression of KE --it isn't like you have find that energy is conserved. You postulate that energy is conserved and then derive expression for some form of energy.

  56. Zsolt Nagy says:

    Hallo Mactoul,
    It's not much of an assumption, that energy is conserved, but rather an observation and description of reality. Besides that the purpose of postulations are to account for accurate description of reality. I'm still not quite sure, what you mean by "book-keeping device". I think, that my personal ID is more of a “book-keeping-device” than the observable and measurable entity energy by all physical processes.
    But you are right with your assumption, that I haven't "found" that energy is conserved philosophically, but I’ve found that energy is conserved empirically. I know about the problem of empirical induction. But in this case it's really easily solvable. Just give me a reasonable account for the proposition, that energy is not conserved or describe an observed physical phenomenon, where energy is produced out of nothing or destroyed and lost into nothing. Otherwise you're not going to convince me, that the proposition of conserved energy is not correct.

    Best regards,

  57. Aron Wall says:

    I originally wrote a response in this thread, but I've decided to promote it to a main post. Please see here:

    Saving Energy Conservation

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