5.1: Need all Events have a Cause?
A comparison of the various conceivable hypotheses about the past
and future duration of matter requires discussion of the bearing of each on
the concept of causation. It is, in particular, desirable to consider what
views on this subject are in accordance, respectively, with the judgement of
common sense and with scientific thought. The former has, admittedly,
proved fallible time and time again. But one cannot blind oneself to its
potency in influencing opinion.
One of the judgements of common sense is that every event must have a
cause. It is a judgement that seems to be justified by everyday experience.
We observe that the tides are caused by the joint action of the moon's
presence in the sky and the earth's rotation; without this combination of
circumstances there would be no tides. Examples could be multiplied
indefinitely. There is obviously a sense in which many events have a cause.
The question is only whether we are right in assuming that all do.
One cannot avoid this rather awkward question by saying that it
depends on what one means by the word 'cause'. For the question is more
than verbal or formal. True, it is possible for different people to attach
different meanings to the notion of causation. But they all mean at least
that a given event, P, can only occur when there is a given circumstance or
combination of circumstances, Q. Even when there is doubt as to whether
P is the cause of Q or Q the cause of .P, some association between P and Q
is necessary for a causal relationship to occur. When one speaks of a
causal relationship between events one may argue about the meaning of
the word 'causal', but one implies at least that there is a relationship.
Such a relationship is observable when there is a conversion of something into something else. There is such a relationship between water and steam when the one is converted into the other; without the pre-existence
of the water there would be no steam. The same holds for other conversions; for that of hydrogen and oxygen into water; for that of the energy
bound chemically in coal into the energy manifest in the heat of the product of combustion; for the conversion of some of the inertial mass in a
radio-active nucleus into photons, which have no inertia and therefore travel with the velocity of light
For all such conversions, as indeed for any causal relationships, one
can say that what happens depends on what is or has just been. Common
sense demands that one shall be able to say this about any and every event.
Does any of the three hypotheses allow one to say it about the origin of
matter and energy?
The question does not arise for hypothesis (Al). To assume that the
whole material universe has existed for an infinite time is to deny an origin
entirely. However far back in the past one may choose to place a given
moment of time, it is always, according to (Al), a moment at which the
whole material universe was in existence and had been so for an infinite
time. By this hypothesis one can never define an event that could be called
an origin; one can never find a moment when something operated that
could be called the cause of the existence of the material universe.
5.2: Common Sense Cannot Accept the Notion of a Past Finite Existence
One runs into a difficulty when one tries to place the origin, or creation,
of the material universe at a finite time in the past. The difficulty arises, in
other words, when one abandons (Al). For it is easier to assume, in conformity with (Al), that things sometimes change but can never originate,
than to assume, in conformity with (A2), that once upon a time, and once
only, there was a true origin.
This explains, I think, the efforts that have been made to save (Al) by
supposing that the universe pulsates and that irreversible processes have
periodically operated in the reverse direction. Such a view implies that
there was a time, earlier than that to which the clocks of the irreversible
processes point, when there already was something. It is assumed that
some things were happening during that time, though we have no means of
knowing what they were. Common sense can accept this. But what none
of us can accept is, I believe, the notion of an infinite period of time before
the beginning of the material universe during which we are required to
think that there were no events and there was no activity. Philosophers,
following St. Augustine, point out that it is meaningless to speak of a
period of time in which nothing whatever happens.
So we find ourselves in a dilemma when we try to decide between (Al)
and (A2). Are we to believe that the present material universe began during
a finite period of past time without being the consequence of or related to
anything that existed then ? If so, we must defy common sense and regard
the origin as an uncaused event. Or are we to believe that there was already
something before the moment called the beginning, not perhaps enough to
be called a universe, but enough to act as the cause of the present universe ?
We cannot do so. If what we assume to have preceded the present universe
was changeless, eventless, inactive till the time of the origin, it might
not have existed. If it was changeful it does deserve the title universe,
whether it resembled our own or not. The time to which the clocks point
was then a moment of change and not one of origin and (Al) has to be
I have not mentioned any theological aspects of this dilemma, for to do
so would be to go outside the scope of this study. But it seems to me that
these are as difficult as the scientific ones and are, indeed, identical with
Unfortunately (A3) is as unacceptable to common sense as (A2). Both
these hypotheses permit some things to have a cause but deny that everything has one. (A2) denies it once, and once only, for the whole of the
matter and energy in the universe. (A3) denies it for the origin, as and when
it occurs, of every elementary component, This has to be appreciated with
uncompromising strictness. If the origin of a new elementary component
were only the conversion of something that existed already into that component, if new matter and energy were but the consequence of a combination of existing circumstances, there would be no continuous origin, only
continuous change. To believe this would be to support (Al) and not (A3).
A natural unwillingness to believe in the possibility of any uncaused
events may explain why most supporters of (A3) speak of continuous
'creation' instead of continuous 'origin'. It is possible that, in the absence
of a physical cause, they are thereby wishing to imply that there must
be a non-physical one. For the term 'creation' implies a creator and would
hardly be chosen by anyone who did not want to imply that. The term
'origin' on the other hand, which I used when I first put forward the hypothesis, was chosen so as to avoid this implication. I chose a term that neither
asserts nor denies the theological doctrine of Creation.
5.3: Common Sense Cannot Accept any of the Hypotheses
If common sense must reject both (A2) and (A3), that is, both the view
that there was a true origin during a finite past period of time and that there
is continuous origin all the time, it must also, I am afraid, reject the notion
that the whole of the matter and energy in the universe have existed for all
time. For the concept of infinity has no place in the judgement of common
sense. This is apparent from the colloquial meaning of the word 'infinity'.
When it is used by a layman it has for him simply the connotation of a very
long time; its mathematical significance eludes him.
This is important to the way the hypothesis of past infinite existence
(Al) is interpreted. The true interpretation is that the universe never
originated. For, as I have said already, however far back in time one may
place the supposed moment of origin, the universe had already existed for
an infinite time at that moment. A universe of infinite duration was as old
10" years ago as it is today, even when n is made as large as one likes. But to
the judgement of common sense the universe was 1011 years younger at that time.
The distinction between the two views of (Al) can be succinctly
expressed as follows. According to what I am calling the common sense
view) (Al) defines a universe that had an origin, though this was an infinite
(meaning very large) number of years ago. According to the correct view,
(Al) defines a universe that never had an origin.
My reason for pointing all this out is to show that in this instance the
appeal to the judgement of common sense gets us no further. It rejects (Al)
because this precludes a beginning and it rejects both (A2) and (A3)
because they postulate a beginning. Common sense would like a beginning
that is not really one; it asks for the impossible. This helps to explain the
impatience that many of us feel at discussion about the past and future
duration of matter. I have often felt it myself and can sympathize with those
who would prefer to avoid what must seem to be no more than metaphysical argument. If I am urging that this impatience be overcome it is
only because I have discovered that the discussion may lead to more fruit-
ful results than one might suppose. But this can appear only later.
5.4: Scientists can Accept (A3)
If difficulties in the notions of causality and infinity preclude common
sense from accepting any hypothesis about the past and future duration of
matter, they do not seem to prevent scientists from accepting at least (A3),
the hypothesis of continuous origin. For the kind of uncaused event that is
implied by this hypothesis has recently become familiar to them.
Radio-activity provides an example. When an atom of radium disintegrates it emits a pulse of short-wave radiation, loses some of its substance,
and turns, after a series of successive changes, into an atom of lead. What
triggers the process off? Where shall one look for its cause ? Shall it be in
external circumstances or in the internal structure of the atom?
If the cause were in external circumstances, the atom would disintegrate more readily when the circumstances favoured disintegration and less
readily when they did not. One would then find that a lump of radium
exhibited more or less radio-activity according to the circumstances in
which it was placed. But what one does find is that the activity is strictly
the same for a given mass of radium no matter what is done to it. The rate
of disintegration of atoms in a lump of one of the isotopes of radium is
always such that one half of the atoms will have undergone the process
after the passage of 1620 years. There are so many atoms in a sizeable lump
that, at this rate, the disintegrations do not seem to be intermittent but
One cannot reduce the rate by protecting the lump from any of the influences to which it is normally subjected and one cannot increase the rate
by submitting the lump to the most violent treatment, be it by mechanical,
thermal, electric or chemical means. So the cause of a disintegration cannot
be among any of the detected influences to which radium is ever subjected.
Those who object to the assumption that the disintegration of a radium
atom has no cause might prefer to assume an undetected influence. But as
the rate of radio-activity never changes, such an undetected influence would
have to be assumed also to be unchanging, whatever changes might occur
in its environment.
It could be suggested that the determining condition for disintegration
may not lie in the outside world but in the structure of the atomic nucleus.
Perhaps, it could be argued, there are certain specific differences between
the nuclei of atoms of radium, and these differences become manifest in
the time that elapses before the atom disintegrates. The hypothesis is that
some process within the nucleus is started at the beginning of its existence,
a process analogous to the winding up of the clock in a time bomb.
However, such a 'perhaps' would not meet the rule of economy of
hypotheses. It would be necessary to add to the hypothesis of an undetected
internal cause the further hypothesis that the causes of disintegration were
nicely correlated in such a way as to ensure a perfectly even rate of activity
for thousands of years. Such an addition is far from being a minimum
assumption. Here the minimum assumption is that any atom of radium
may disintegrate at any moment of time. If one adopts this minimum
assumption one can infer that a lump of radium must have a constant half-life. The prediction that one bases on this minimum assumption is confirmed by observation and experiment. It is for this reason that scientific
method precludes the complicated tangle of additional hypotheses that
alone can save the common sense view of causation.
In short, the hypothesis that there is no cause suffices by itself to explain the constant rate of radio-activity, while with the hypothesis that
there is a cause the constant rate takes a lot of explaining.
Physicists are well aware of all this and most of them have long ago
given up the hypothesis that every event must have a cause. But laymen are
often most disinclined to do so. They prefer to assemble a large collection
of 'perhapses' with the sole purpose of preventing it. So it becomes relevant
to look for the reason why belief in universal causation is held with such
I think the belief lies in our anthropomorphic habits of thought. We
are right in assuming causes for our own thoughts and actions. Among
them are our past experience, our needs and wishes, our emotional constitution. That laws of cause and effect operate in human affairs is a fact
that we observe at first hand. But we have difficulty in abstaining from the
habit of projecting notions gained by introspection on to the external
world. We cannot bear to think that the material universe can differ from
ourselves to the extent of including among its events some that are causeless.
Be that as it may it has to be recognized that our notions about causation are often both confused and emotional. Opinion is sharply divided
about the hypothesis that every event has a cause, and an attempt has been
made to reconcile the views of those who are for and against the hypothesis
by introducing the concept of statistical causation. It may prove a useful
concept; I am not qualified to judge. But it is not relevant here. It suffices
for an understanding of Symmetrical Impermanence that the causation or
lack of causation that applies to the origin and extinction of matter is of
the same kind as apphes to processes in atomic physics.
In the latter it is found that there is no reason why a given atom should
disintegrate at a given moment rather than any other atom. Similarly
Symmetrical Impermanence asserts that there is no reason why an elementary component of the material universe should originate at a given
moment in a place po rather than in another place pr, It also asserts that
there is no reason why a given elementary component Wo, should become
extinct at a given moment rather than another component Wv. To say that
this lack of reason for a particular event shows the event to be governed
by statistical laws rather than not governed by any laws seems to me to
mark a difference in words and not in concepts.
Nothing precise is yet known about the gross rates of origin and extinction. All that can be said at the moment is that one should not expect
them to be exactly equal; that would be too improbable. Further it would
be contrary to the Principle of Minimum Assumption. There is also an
obvious reason, based on observation, why one should expect the rate of
origins to exceed that of extinctions. If it were not so, there would be no
material universe to observe! The bare fact that there is one suffices, if
Symmetrical Impermanence be accepted, to prove that the average rate of
origins for the whole exceeds that of extinctions.
5.5: Symmetrical Impermanence is a Derived Hypothesis
It is important correctly to appreciate the status of the Hypothesis of
Symmetrical Impermanence. (Al) and (A2), as well as (Bl) and (B2), are
hypotheses in their own right. They are not inferred from anything more
basic. They stand alone. If any of these hypotheses is a true generalization,
it would have to be represented by an entry in what I have called the Cosmic
Statute Book. If the laws of physics require matter to last for all time, a
person who sought knowledge about the past and future duration of matter
would expect to find this stated in the Cosmic Statute Book. He would
expect the same, if the laws of the Universe had required all matter to come
into existence at a specific past time or if they had required it to last until
a specific future date. If a building might be completed at any future time,
the time factor need not be mentioned in the contract document; but when
the time to be taken has a limit the date has to be stated.
But (A3) and (B3) are not hypotheses in their own right. They are
implicit in the more basic hypothesis that I have called the Principle of
Minimum Assumption.1 If (A3) and (B3) are true generalizations, they a
not mentioned in the Cosmic Statute Book. If the laws of physics allow an
elementary component to originate at any time and to become extinct
any time, a clause to say so would be redundant. A person who consulted the Cosmic Statute Book and found no mention of the past and future
duration of matter in it would infer that the laws of physics prescribed
nothing; he would infer the combination of (A3) with (B3).
In other words, the Symmetrical Impermanence of Matter is a derived
hypothesis while all other combinations from the (A) and (B) lists are
basic hypotheses. This means that to test the Hypothesis of Symmetrical
Impermanence is to test the scope of the Cosmic Statute Book. The question is not what that metaphorical document would have to say about the
past and future duration of matter, but whether it would have anything
all to say on the subject.
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1 This assertion, obvious though it looks, may have to be abandoned if the theory
put forward in Appendix H proves true.