One of these causes is not like the others: Getting behind the personal incredulity of ‘skeptics’
Walter offered the following reply: “To be fair I would say that the concept of a completely disembodied agent that is capable of creating matter/energy ex nihilo merely by the power of its mind is a little foreign to our every day life experience.”
I see many things that are problematic about Walter’s response. Let me note three of them.
First, when you are aiming to offer an explanation for effects that you do not usually seek to explain, it is not surprising that the cause will be in certain respects different as well. Here are some varied examples.
Quantum phenomena. As davidstarlingm observes, “quantum teleportation is a little foreign to our everyday experience, too.” Needless to say the quantum world is full of all sorts of strange effects attributed to even stranger causes.
Serial murder. Murder is a tragic aspect of society. But most of them are the result of perpetragors who are recognized as having a conscience. However, when murders over time begin to conform to a recognizable pattern, a new kind of explanation is called for, a psychopathic serial killer.
Migration. Every year monarch butterflies migrate from Canada to Mexico, and nobody has a clue how they do it. Whatever sensory abilities they have that guide them on this extraordinary trip are certainly out of the ordinary.
And with that we turn to an effect rarely discussed in our day to day lives: why does the universe exist? Is it any surprise that the cause to explain the effect of the universe’s coming to exist and the state of affairs of the universe’s existing will, in certain respects, be different from other causes of more commonly discussed effects?
Second, even if the proposed cause is inevitably different in certain respects from other more familiar causes, there is also more familiarity than Walter is recognizing. To begin with, there is the fact that agent causation is, as already observed, a familiar explanation for a broad range of events and states of affairs. But we can go further. Non-physical agent causes bringing about novel effects in matter is also very familiar. To take one example, consider the placebo effect. (To take a much lauded example, it has been reported recently that most anti-depressants work as placebos for most people.) In a placebo, the belief (a non-physical entity with semantic content) has a real physical effect on material reality. In other words, an agent’s mental belief brings about physical changes in their body. So there is actually a high degree of continuity between our familiarity with agent cause generally and agent cause in the case of the universe. And it is only an unfamiliar cause to the extent where the effect (the universe coming to exist; the universe’s existing) is one for which we do not typically seek an explanation.
Finally I come to my third point. If Walter’s statement is to have any force it will be because I have posited an explanation stranger than competing explanations. So what are the competing explanations for the universe’s existence? The two candidates, shorn of the dressiness, are an infinite series regress of event causes and an uncaused event.
To be fair, I would say that the concept of an infinite series regress of event causes and an uncaused event are a little foreign to our every day life experience.
This calls to mind my dirty pool water illustration which appears in “Naturalism and the ole’ swimmin’ hole“:
Picture yourself taking your kids to the community pool with your favorite yellow inner tube when your friend retorts: “Community pool? That’s disgusting! Do you know what they have in that water? Crap and pee and barf, all floating around in particles too small to see.”
Taken aback at this rather bold affront, you ask your friend: “So where are you taking your kids?”
Your friend smiles. “The old swimming hole” he says over his shoulder as he and the kids walk away.
The old swimming hole?! How hypocritical is that? Here this guy is obsessively concerned about every nasty particle in the community pool but he never bats an eye that he’s swimming in the bodily waste of uncountable numbers of forest creatures (and a few kids besides) and all of it untreated by even a single shot of chlorine.
To sum up, I don’t place much stock in Walter’s response. Agent causes affecting material reality are well known to us. The heightened incredulity that some people have toward this type of causal explanation of the universe’s existence over-against the alternatives is, so far as I can see, completely unjustified. Such incredulity is nothing more than a commentary on one’s personal psychology.