Radioactive decay and causation

It has, if by “self-causation”, the apologists mean “not requiring interaction with any other entity.”

So, for instance, when an alpha particle is emitted from a nucleus, there is not something else that causes it to escape the attractive power of the nuclear force. It just happens, because there is a probability that it will happen at any given time. By the same token, the universe can just “begin to exist”, without the need for a God or anything else to cause it to begin existing at that particular moment.

This is a basic aspect of modern physics that religious apologists often do not understand or deliberately ignore.

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We don’t even know if the universe came from nothing, or that it caused itself.

As an analogy, do you think cloud formation is an example of self causation?


Alpha decay is an event that takes place within the universe, against a background of fields, particles and laws. The beginning of the universe is an event which, by definition, has no background. But without a background and without laws, there can be no meaningful probabilities. Hence the example you cite is not a parallel case.

However, if it is true that laws of nature do not apply when “nothing” exists, then there is no law of conservation of mass/energy to prevent an entire universe coming from nothing, is there?

You are talking as if the only thing that’s real about the universe is the net quantity of mass/energy: if this is zero, you believe there is no problem. But what’s ultimately real, in quantum physics, are the fields themselves, each of which has its own distinct character or “nature,” with its own well-defined properties. In other words, quantum physics, like chemistry, is deeply essentialist. No essences, no probabilities, and hence, no likelihood of a universe.

If the statement “laws are incapable of acting” is sufficient to dismiss an argument in which the universe is proposed to come into being thru processes that do not involve a god, then it should also refute those arguments in favour of God that rely on scientific laws.

I agree with you that laws do not act. (And if God were merely an abstraction, as the laws of nature are, then God would not be capable of acting either.) The “law of causation” doesn’t do anything; neither does the law of conservation of mass/energy, which merely reflects an underlying symmetry in the cosmos, according to Noether’s First Theorem.


A lot of physicists are saying there is a background for the beginning of the universe, such as a quantum vacuum. The quantum vacuum would come with its own laws and fields.

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Yes, yes, of course. But if you are a betting man … you know that hunches can be CORRECT for NO logical reason. And hunches based on logic can still be completely wrong.

These things are as real to a betting man as the air we breath.

So your attempt to apply Ockham’s Razor to matters of faith, while noble, is really not the point. The vast majority of humans, congenitally defective (but not more than average), are Betting Men and Women … they think it would be odd not to take a wager on something like an intergalactic awareness… that some might call a Greater Power, or others would call a Transcending Mind, or others would simply call Jesus.

For the purposes of Geneal.Adam, the best question is really not about God - - because this site PRESUMES God exists. The Best Question (in relation to the title of this thread) is the following set of ideas:

  1. Does God plan every atomic decay of every molecule in the Universe?

  2. If God does not PLAN each atom’s decay, is he aware of when it will happen (even if there is no causal sequence that can be reproduced even by God)? [There is a common un-stated bias that God can’t foreknow something that is an unlawful event… that even God is surprised (or shall we say,
    mildly amused?) by such events.]

  3. Or, is he only aware of atomic decay sequences that are driven by lawful natural processes?

  4. As a footnote, there are those who argue that God can forecast all things in the Universe except Free Will-based decisions. I don’t embrace this view, but there are enough people who do that this should be acknowledged as part of this suite of metaphysical considerations!

TYPO CORRECTED: “KNOW logical” should have been “NO logical”


That seems like a manipulative kind of question.

A better analogy would be:
"Do you think the appearance of a quark in the vacuum of space is an example of self causation?"

Do not mistake a model for reality. There may be internal dynamics that give rise to this higher order physics. The @physicists can tell you what current understanding is, but I’m sure we have not ruled out a lower level cause beyond mere chance.


I don’t think it’s exactly like that. Nuclear stability balances the strong nuclear force that attracts nucleons (neutrons and protons) to other nucleons with electromagnetic forces that are repulsive between protons. Things like having an even number of protons and neutrons tend to make the nucleus more stable. Also the size of the nucleus because the strong nuclear force is more dependent on distance than the electromagnetic force. So which isotopes are radioactive and what their lifetimes are doesn’t seem to be necessarily random or without cause. Now, we don’t have an ability, that I know of, to determine which particular nucleus will decay at any given time, but that’s presumably because we can’t watch the internals of the nucleus.


I am not a physicist, but the thing that sticks out to me is the constant rate of decay (first order reaction). These types of rates are also seen in enzyme kinetics, and those reactions are governed by the chance of the enzyme and substrate coming into contact in solution (and other factors). If there is some sort of internal dynamics that gives rise to one nucleus decaying and another not decaying, then how does this give rise to a first order decay rate?

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Enzymes kinetics are normally only pseudo-1st order (like a slow ES -> P + E step) whereas nuclear decay is a true first order reaction (i.e., it doesn’t depend on a collision for a reaction to occur)


A dogmatic statement, and out of line with your earlier concession that modern physics makes certain conclusions intellectually possible, but doesn’t demand them. I liked your earlier, more cautious statement better. I’m a cautious kind of guy. :slight_smile:

As stated, this implies that “probability” is a cause of things. But probability isn’t a cause of anything; it’s merely a human estimation of the likelihood of certain things. So this would need rephrasing.


The assumption here seems to be that if something is not completely deterministic (in a clockwork sense) then it no longer has a cause. I think that is far from obvious. I think it makes more sense to say that our concept of causation has to be adapted to allow for probablistic events.

Assume that we accept that quantum mechanics is fundamentally random, so that I don’t know whether a spin-1/2 particle will be measured spin up or spin down. I make the measurement and measure it to be spin up. Does it make sense to say that the spin up measurement has no cause? Obviously my act of measurement caused it to collapse and result in getting measured spin up in some way. (And I think one doesn’t need to posit non-local hidden variables or some exotic interpretation of QM for this.)

Even if we have no explanation for why the measured value is up instead of down for this particular particle, it seems absurd to say that there is no cause whatsoever that resulted in the measurement. It’s similar to the situation where France won the World Cup in 2018, and no one could predict deterministically that in advance, so there is no cause for France winning the World Cup. Seems absurd!


No, a simple statement of fact describing current knowledge in physics.

@PdotdQ, your input would be useful here.

Then how would you describe it? We can say that radioactive decay is caused by unstable atomic nuclei, but what causes one nuclei of a specific isotope to suddenly decay and another not? What did the decaying nuclei have that the the other nuclei did not? When we have the same exact same cause and different effects, how do we link cause and effect?

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Which is not only not your academic field, but nowhere near your academic field, which is psychiatry.

Yet earlier you said that it was not something that physics had proved, but only something that physics made a possible conclusion. Your move from “it is possibly true” to “it is definitely true” is what I was referring to as “dogmatic.” But possibly you don’t remember your earlier statement, even though it was made only about 48 hours ago. Let me remind you, by quoting your words from the “Is It Correct to Say…” discussion which led to this one:

“Before you go committing more fallacies, please note that I am not claiming it is an established fact in science that things can come from nothing without a cause. Just that this is not inconsistent with everything we know about physics, and cannot be ruled out.”

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Not any betting man who hopes to turn a long-term profit. They’re going to need to base things on reasoned assessments of likelihoods of outcomes and available returns.

No I didn’t. Whether your constant misrepresentations of my statements is willful or the result of incomprehension on your part, they are not deserving of my engagement.


But not on everything, every minute of every day.

And since Metaphysics are free (like electrons in email)… the analogy to business is not a close one. Virtually EVERYTHING in business is measured in dollars and profits.

Even profits are notoriously incompetent to assure the human heart of happiness and fulfillment.

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Quantum physics is @dga471’s specialty, so I think we should listen to him. Here are my two cents: I don’t think radioactive alpha decay is self-caused, because:

Alpha decay is a tunneling problem: first you describe your particle by a wavefunction that is confined by a potential barrier. Given a general potential, the wavefunction can be solved completely in a deterministic way from the Schrödinger equation. If you solve for it with the potential barrier, you get that parts of it leaks out of the potential barrier. Look at this schematic from wikipedia:

The red line is the wavefunction and the rectangle is the potential barrier. Given that the shape of the wavefunction is caused by the potential barrier and the Schrödinger equation, it is hard to argue that it is self-caused.

Further problematic is the fact that this phenomenon is not constrained to quantum physics. There are many examples of classical waves (such as light, sound waves, etc) that can tunnel through potential barriers. So, if one wants to claim that the wavefunction tunneling through a potential barrier is self-caused in quantum physics, one has to also claim that (for example) water waves tunneling through a potential barrier is also self-caused.

So, at least at the level of wavefunctions, I don’t think that quantum tunneling is self-caused.

Now, there is another issue: Once one has a wavefunction, an observation collapses the wavefunction so that the particle now resides in a particular position (as opposed to being spread out over space). The probability of the particle being in a certain position is non-zero as long as the wavefunction is non-zero at that point. Because the wavefunction is non-zero outside of the barrier, sometimes an observation will find the particle to be outside of the barrier - this is how an alpha particle can escape the confines of a nucleus. Certainly this is not self-caused. Similar to what @dga471 said, obviously an observation caused the wavefunction to collapse. Note that “observations” does not necessarily means “observations by humans”.

This is also not taking into account the various meanings of “caused” in philosophy. For example, one can say that all of this is caused by the rules of physics, and therefore cannot be self-caused.