Atheists, especially those infatuated with science, these days increasingly seem to be arguing against causality. Their proof? Quantum physics. It is claimed that, at a subatomic level, “virtual particles” come into being out of nothing. The conclusion they draw from this is that not necessarily everything that is originated has a cause. Certain things can come into being without a cause. On this basis, some atheists avoid the question of the origin of the universe and either outright deny, or at least, are skeptical of the proposition that the origination of the universe should have a cause.

Theists, on the other hand, both Muslims and non-Muslims, sometimes go to great lengths to prove the validity of the causal principle, because it is one of the premises in their argument for the existence of a Creator. Some even go as far as discussing the different scientific explanations for the relevant subatomic phenomena in order to refute the atheist position.

In contrast to some of these detailed arguments put forward by theists these days in response to atheists, we see a far simpler and a far more frank and straightforward approach by Imam Ghazali (RH). In fact his answer to those who question causality is so simple that at first glance one might think that in this day and age of modern science Ghazali’s argument is just not going to cut it. But, in fact, there is a lot to learn from the response of this absolute giant in the history of Islamic scholarship. The Imam writes in his book Iqtisad fi’l i’tiqad (Divine Predicates and their Properties):

لكل حادث فلحدوثه سبب

“The origination of every originated/temporal thing has a cause.”

In this article I mean causality strictly in the above sense. That is, every originated thing needs a cause, not that every existent being needs a cause. Addressing anyone who might disagree with this premise, Imam Ghazali says:

“This premise must be admitted because it is primary and necessary evidence in the mind, such that, whoever hesitates [in accepting it] does so because it has not become clear to him what we mean by the term “temporal thing”and the term “cause”. Once he has understood the signification of those terms, his intellect will necessarily affirm that “every temporal thing has a cause.””

After explaining the terms, he concludes:

“In short, that nonexistent being which continues in nonexistence – its nonexistence will never be supplanted by existence so long as a deciding factor that renders existence over continuing nonexistence is not realized. Once the idea explained by these words is conceived in the understanding, the intellect is compelled to acknowledge its veracity.

“This is the explanation of that premise, which in reality is [just] to explain the terms “temporal thing” and “cause” not to establish the proof for the premise.” (emphasis added)

As is clear from the above, Ghazali does not even feel the need to prove this premise. He believes this to be self-evident and takes it to be a core component of thought. In being candid about the fact that he takes causality as a given, he demonstrates an intellectual honesty that is starkly lacking in many modern day scientists and science-lovers.

To illustrate this point let me recount an incident at an Islam and atheism debate/discussion that I attended at a university here in Melbourne. The atheist speaker, during his presentation, said something along the lines of “‘Metaphysics’ is the philosopher’s word to mislead scientists.”

After rejecting metaphysics as having anything to do with science, he, himself, then goes on to make metaphysical claims about the superiority of the “scientific” mode of knowledge. When asked during Q&A as to how he can scientifically prove the superiority of science itself over other modes of knowledge, he avoided the question by putting the onus back on the questioner to prove that there was a more, or at least equally reliable form of knowledge other than science.

So the default assumption on the part of the atheist speaker was the superiority of science – a premise that did not require “scientific” proof, which ultimately was in itself a metaphysical assumption! Essentially, a belief!

This reflects the sad reality that, while touting their knowledge as “objective”, many scientists today remain blind to the way their own value judgements and ideological commitments shape and influence their “scientific” inquiry. The reason for this lack of self-reflectiveness is a “fundamentalist” (albeit selectively so) belief in empiricism that takes it to its logical extreme. By empiricism I am referring to the epistemological claim that true knowledge of the world can solely be derived through sense-experience or observation.

However, as many philosophers of science have already pointed out, it is not possible for scientists to access reality with a completely blank mental slate and derive new knowledge/theories purely through empirical observation. There needs to be some level of theory, however low-level, that precedes observation, making any judgement on the observed reality possible.

For example, scientific practice presupposes ontological and epistemological realism i.e. the belief in the existence of an objective reality “out there” independent of our consciousness of it and that true knowledge of this reality is possible. You might be wondering why I am picking on scientists for holding these views. Aren’t they obvious facts? But that’s exactly my point! Scientists, like many of us laymen, hold these facts to be “obvious”! Facts that don’t need to be, nor can be, subjected to scientific inquiry. Facts, presupposition of which make science possible. Science also presumes a belief in the rules of logic and mathematics (and even causality, but I’ll park that for now as that’s what is under contention).

But why must theory precede observation? Because, as Karl Popper argues, generalisations depend on judgments of similarity. When scientists try to verify through observation the relationship between, say, phenomenon A and phenomenon B, they must first classify the events under observation as examples of A or B. This classification can only be possible if some level of theorising precedes observation allowing scientists to determine which characteristics of the events in question actually matter for their inquiry.

At a more fundamental level, thought itself is not possible solely through sense perception. For us to be able to think we need some previous information by which to interpret and explain sensory data. Sheikh Taqi ud-Din an-Nabhani gives the example below to illustrate this point:

“…if a book in the ancient Syriac language was given to someone who has no previous information about the Syriac language, and all his senses were made to fall on the book, by sight and touch, and this was repeated a million times, he still would not be able to understand a single word of the book unless he is given the relevant information about the Syriac language. Thereafter, he will start thinking and understanding.” (System of Islam)

Therefore, empirical observation alone does not produce knowledge without the use of some level of pre-existing conceptual categories. As we have seen above, Imam Ghazali is honest about the epistemic presuppositions that make his arguments possible. He considers causality to be ‘Ilm Daroori (necessary knowledge) known rationally, independent of empirical observation. But does that mean we now run into a stalemate? Are we now left with merely two opposing and irreconcilable views on causality such that there is no way of preferring one over the other? Not quite. There are some important points that can be made in this regard:

  1. Science works within broad theoretical frameworks, or paradigms. Thomas Kuhn defines paradigms as “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by members of a given [scientific] community.” These paradigms provide ways to come up with intelligible explanations for scientific puzzles. A paradigm only remains valid until it meets a new (and considerably significant) phenomenon that is not explainable from within its boundaries, at which point it is replaced by a new paradigm which can provide an intelligible explanation. This is what we call a “paradigm shift” and the history of science is riddled with paradigm shifts (quantum physics itself is an example of this).Therefore, scientific theories are merely “intelligible explanations” regardless of their truth value, and hardly is there a theory that perfectly matches all the facts it seeks to explain. It is possible for a theory to be wrong, yet intelligible, just as the most believable of lies are intelligible, yet untrue. This fundamental characteristic of science makes it incapable of making claims of absolute truth. The atheists’ doubting of causality, therefore, is itself based on dubious grounds.
  2. Experimental physics, including quantum physics, investigate phenomena beyond direct human experience. Quantum physicists do not actually “see” “virtual particles” popping in and out of existence, like we see a tree, for example. Rather, they rely on interpreting performances of machines and instruments, which are not direct sensory experiences of the phenomenon under “observation”. Interpretation of data collected through instruments presuppose theoretical entities such as wave, frequency, electric charge, electrical resistance, etc. It also presupposes that certain events involving these theoretical entities interact with scientific apparatuses causing predictable changes in them and that these interactions follow a regular pattern. And it also presupposes that these changes in the apparatuses, supposedly caused by a hypothesised event, can be reliably measured using arbitrary units such as volt, watt, joule, hertz etc. These theoretical entities and units only make sense within particular paradigms which are not absolute as mentioned above. This lands the atheist into a couple of problems. One is that causality is presumed in interpreting the data collected through devices and instruments of the events supposedly occurring at a “subatomic level”. Denying causality based on scientific interpretations predicated on causality is, therefore, a paradox. On the other hand, if the atheist finds causality dubious, the abstractions using theoretical entities and arbitrary units involved in scientific theorising is far more dubious and far-fetched to allow for rejection of causality on its basis.
  3. Lastly, even if we hold that “virtual particles” do actually pop into being out of nothing this does not pose the slightest problem for Muslims, at least not for Imam Ghazali and other Ash’ari theologians. According to them, every moment is a fresh creation because created things are constantly winking out of existence. The very substance of creation is nothingness (الأكوان مادةها العدم). The Creator, therefore, does not merely create things and then let them be. Rather the continued existence of anything requires that the Creator create them and maintain them in existence every single moment.

This view has radical repercussions on our understanding of the world. If everything is constantly being created in a fresh creation, then there is no inherent causal relation between any two temporal phenomena. The ultimate and the only cause of everything is the Creator. Any patterns of regularity observed between temporal phenomena are merely perceived regularities and it is possible for them to be otherwise. If you drop a lead ball, it falls down towards the earth. We attribute this to the gravitational pull of the earth. But according to the Ash’ari view the ball drops to the ground only because Allah makes it do so. And it is the Sunnah (roughly meaning custom/habit) of Allah to make bodies act this way. There is nothing inherent about bodies with mass that they will always experience gravitational pull towards each other. Therefore, if God so willed, the lead ball can actually even shoot upwards rather than fall downwards once you let it go off your hand.

In accordance with this understanding, the coming into existence of “virtual particles” out of nothing is not impossible. It is merely a break from what we habitually observe. It is not an evidence negating causality. Rather it is a reaffirmation of the fact that Allah is the ultimate cause of all originated things and events. “Virtual particles” coming into existence from nothing is a startling discovery for modern day scientists only because they are used to looking for causes inside the natural world. Once they are unable to find one, their most predominant “paradigms” fall into crisis. This was never the case with most Muslim theologians. Hence, if anything, Quantum physics reaffirms the omnipotence of Allah, not negates His existence.

In summary, according to Imam Ghazali causality is necessary knowledge, immediately known to the intellect without need of empirical evidence. Although science is often invoked to reject causality, science itself is based on not-so-scientific metaphysical assumptions, including causality, that make science possible. Experimental physics does not provide sufficient basis to reject causality. Neither do the findings of Quantum physics pose any real challenge to the Muslim understanding of causality because Muslims believe the Creator to be the ultimate cause of everything.