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TMA | KCA 13 | Virtual Particles

Welcome to Tuesday Morning Apologetics (TMA). Let’s talk about the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA):

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

So, I couldn’t move on from our discussion of the first premise without addressing one its most frequently presented challenges.

Virtual Particles

First of all, what are virtual particles? Very basically, virtual particles explain some of the interactions we observe between actual particles. They can also be called “intermediate particles”. We haven’t directly observed virtual particles but we know they exist (even if it’s only briefly) via mathematical proofs.

Some people believe virtual particles undermine the first premise because they think the virtual particles begin-to-be without a cause. And the reason why they think they arise without a cause is because of the spontaneous nature of virtual particles. The fact of quantum indeterminacy is claimed to indicate that things can happen without a cause. However, that belief only goes to show the problems with the modern notion of causation. As discussed in the four part “What Even Are Causes?” portion of this KCA series, the modern notion of causation is the view that Cause and Effect relations are a series of temporally ordered events. On this model, any event is supposed to be explained by the preceding event. That means that if we know the current event, then we will know what the next event will be. Because the next event is determined by the current event. And this belief has been pretty useful for helping us predict the future. The notion that, "if 'A' occurs, then 'B' will occur" is an extremely powerful tool. Especially if we can control when 'A' will occur. That kind of power gives us the ability control/predict of the future. And who wouldn’t want that?

There’s just one tiny problem…

Causes and effects are, in Hume’s words, “loose and separate,” with no “necessary connection” holding between them. As it turns out, we can’t actually prove that one event causes another event, even when we think we observed it. We can only infer that 'B' normally follows 'A' based on our observations. And the discovery of quantum indeterminacy provides evidence that Hume was right after all. Sometimes virtual particles begin-to-be and sometimes they don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any determining principle. It’s just the case that in the exact same conditions, sometimes virtual particles begin-to-be and sometimes they don’t.

Quantum indeterminacy isn’t limited to virtual particles either. Radioactive isotopes undergo radioactive decay and how long that takes is called a “half-life”. All the atoms in a chunk of Co-60 could undergo radioactive decay or they could remain Co-60 and there doesn’t seem to be any determining factor for why one atom of Co-60 undergoes decay and another refrains. So, there seems to be "no cause" for when the decay occurs.

And that is the source of all the problems surrounding the modern notion of causation. When we investigate causation the primary question isn’t, “when? the primary question is, “what? As mentioned in KCA 06, things are causes, not events. It’s simply wrongheaded to think of causation as a "series of temporally ordered events". Effects do not temporally follow causes, they are simultaneous with causes. If the Aristotelian notion of causation holds then we ought to find explanations for virtual particles. And, of course, we do.

1. The Laws of Nature describe the Efficient Cause of virtual particles.
2. Energy is the Material Cause.
3. What virtual particles are and their properties is the Formal Cause.
4. And how they behave (such as providing Columns Force or magnetic fields) is the Final Cause.

The question of “when does the effect occur” is not important to the Four Causes of Aristotle, because it's known to be simultaneous with the cause. Analyzing causes often helps us with making predictions, but that's a modern emphasis and is the reason for the modern confusion surrounding what "causes" even are.



  • Peskin, M.E., Schroeder, D.V. (1995). An Introduction to Quantum Field Theory (p. 80), Westview Press.

  • Feser, Edward. Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Beginner's Guides) (p. 28). Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition.

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