Does anything ever just happen?

Or is it all cause and effect. I admit I am not brainy enough to even think this one through so I will just ask the TM’s.

Unless you’re especially picky, then yes, things can just happen. If you jump out of a plane for example, you will fall down. Negative and positive electric charges will attract each other, and certain chemical and atomic processes are spontaneous as well. You can generalize this with thermodynamics, where anything that is favorable energitically will just happen (i.e. the arrow of time).

Hrm… this doesn’t have anything to do with those evolution vs. creationism threads in Great Debates, does it?

Excellent question. Unfortunately, it brings us into the worlds of physics and philosophy, the lines of which are often blurred.

The answer is of course, yes and no.

In standard Newtonian physics, everything is causal. The apple cannot fall unless a force (gravity) causes it to fall. Such basic cause-effect relationionships in life are so core in our understanding of the world, on both a grand scale (such a axiom was a core element of scientific thinking) and on a personal level. Our experience <i> tells </i> us that everything must have a cause. The desire to establish a cause for every effect has been the impetus for the creation of the two great paradigmatic forces in history, those being religion and science.

Thus we have a basic axiom of human understanding: all observable effects must have a cause. Then we get to quantum physics. Let’s think about a basic, observable quantum event: nuclear decay. If I only have a single atom of an element that will undergo nuclear decay, it is impossible to say when that atom will decay.

The half-life of an element is the amount of time it takes for one-half of the material to decay. However, decay is a quantifiably observable effect: If I have 1 mole of Uranium atoms and I let them decay for the length of one half life, I will be left with 1/2 mole of alpha particles, 1/2 mole of thorium atoms, and 1/2 mole of uranium atoms. However, what causes any one particular atom to decay is impossible to determine. There is no force acting on a particular uranium atom at a particular moment that causes it to emit an alpha particle. The environment has not changed; there is no cause, yet there is a measureable effect.

Thus, on the most basic level, physics is noncausal. We cannot say when something will happen, we can only say the probability that it will happen. We can say that at any point in time, a particular uranium atom is more likely to decay than at an earlier time, but we cannot say when it will happen. Einstein (who incidentally had only a passing understanding of nuclear physics) himself once flippantly stated “God does not play dice with the universe” Though indeed, it would appear that he does. On the most basic level, physical events are without cause.

It’s important to understand that it is not merely that the cause is indeterminate; i.e. that there is some unknown cause we have yet to find. Rather, there is no cause at all for these events. They merely happen.

Of course, all of this applies merely to events that occur on the sub-atomic scale. Erwin Schroedinger (of the Schroedinger Wave Equation fame) proposed a conundrum which exemplifies the problem of applying the principles of the noncausal world of quarks and leptons to the ordered clockwork macrophysical world we have come to know and love. It’s known as “Schroedinger’s Cat” and I’d love to share it if you have the time…

A fine example of things “just happening” is illustrated by black holes. It would appear that space is constantly generating pairs of particles and anti-particles, which spring into existence for no apparent reason and then annihilate themselves by crashing into each other. Once destroyed, it’s as if they were never there at all, as they only interacted with themselves, and the Universes’ account book remains balanced. I think these critters are called “virtual particles,” but I ain’t no rocket scientist.

However, the knife’s edge of a black hole’s event horizon can create the unique situation in which a pair of particles is spawned but one particle is sucked into the black hole. The other particle, a photon in this case, discovers its new lease on life and wanders off to find a radio telescope somewhere. We see it as an x-ray signature.

I have no idea how the universe writes that little anomaly off.

head falls forward then snaps up SNORT! Uh HUH? what… Im sorry… did you just say something? …wow…look, its a book!

Oh, God.
Are there no causality threads over in GD? (Aside from creationism debates…)
We’ve been getting to the science part here, but not much straight philosophy yet. How about the suggestion that cause and effect are just “apparent” to us, but one thing and the next (I open my hand, and the next thing that happens is that the ball I was holding falls to the ground) are only coincidentally related and we are drawing patterns from them because the same sort of thing always seems to happen?
Never mind. I’m not gonna’ get involved.

M.K. said:

Excellent! Any other non-causal entities?


The main thing one learns as he progresses down the road to understanding the world of the extremely small is that things happen more as a result of probabilty than anything else. The laws of nature are statistical, but the more outrageous results of this concept get canelled out at higher levels, just as you get closer to exactly 50% odds the more coins you toss. In theory, a brick could become spontaneously radioactive simply through odds, but the fields that exist inside the atoms push that event down to a near-zero probabilty. And with more dimensions to deal with at very low levels than we can readily predict things in yet, cause and effect becomes even more muddled.

I refuse to believe that there could possibly have been a reason to ask that questions – so there’s two.

There’s a thread on here about whether the numeric keypad on your calculator is upside down or whether the touch tone phone is. One of those is the third non caused occurence.

I’m guessing that of all the odd little things that anatomists and/or archeologists are sitting around looking for a purpose of. (such as “vestigial” organs and “anasazi line drawings”) that at least some must be ‘just because’. We’ll call those four through twelve. (I’m guessing eight things conservatively for no particular reason… that’s number thirte-- um. make that fourteen.)

Harry Truman’s middle name is number fifteen.

My choice of that was number 16, but now I’m taking credit for too many spontaneous actions. I shouldn’t allow myself to be so arbitrary.

aka (IIRC) Hawking Radiation.

A suspense account and some really dodgy bookkeeping that is going to cause trouble when the auditors arrive. :slight_smile:

Now, I have read about quantum physics as an interested layperson but am no expert. However the phrase above strikes me as dubious. I agree that we have no apparent mechanism for these events in sight, but then again, 100 years ago some of these situations themselves were undreamt of. To say categorically that there must be no cause because we haven’t found one or been able to postulate one seems very foolish. It’s tantamount to declaring “This is where the road to knowledge ends. Everybody off the bus.”

I’m in way over my head here, but didn’t the Big Bang “just happen?” It always seems to be explained that way. This incredibly dense speck of matter just blows up. Howcum?

I’d say that things just do happen. I took the O.P. in an entirely different way than many of my T.M. cohorts. Instead of a rigorous discussion on physics and such, I simply tried to think of something that just…happened. I love chaos theory, as much as I understand of it. For example. I was shopping. I tend to scurry all over the store, I try to do the aisles as the marketing people intended, but it never works out that way. I turn a corner, and my heart stops. There she is. A woman I had not seen in about 4 years. Flutter Flutter. Polite hug, delightful conversation, awkward yet warm/fuzzy departure.
WHY did that happen? The fact that I think in bizarre and non-linear ways when I shop, brought me face to face with her? My head was all ferschtummelled for an hour over it- totally random. What caused this? No physics, not math, no gravity laws. What brings us to the moment when we just miss a terrible head-on with someone? Why would I go to a certain store, in another city, and see someone from my hometown? I don’t know, but I do gain comfort in the knowledge that I don’t really control my surroundings. I happen to love that lack of control.


Cartooniverse wrote:

Just because you don’t walk up and down every aisle in the store in an orderly manner doesn’t mean that there is no reason behind the path you choose through the store. I assume that if you need eggs, that you walk to where the eggs are, and that you don’t determine your path through the store using a table of random digits.

However, this is beside the point. You ran into that woman because you were both in the same store at the same time. I presume that you were at the store because you needed to purchase something. I will assume that is the woman’s reason for being there as well. I’m sure you chose that store for a reason, as did she. Etcetera.

The bottom line is there was a reason you were there, and a reason she was there, and a reason for your path through the store and a reason for her path through the store, and those paths intersected. It didn’t just happen. It was the inevitable result of a great deal of choices made for whatever reason (but a reason none the less) by both parties.

Not an expert either, but according to the model, the BB is the only thing that “just happened”. But, since it starts time off, there is no opportunity for a “before” the Big Bang, so causation is a meaningless concept as it is time dependant. Since then, we have nothing in the macro universe that we can be sure “just happens” but a whole lot of things certainly seem to do so in the micro universe.

Sofa King said:

Two things here: First off, that is the mechanism for Hawking radiation, but we don’t see it. The radiation from a typical black hole is WAY too low frequency to be detectable by anything we currently have. What we actually do detect from black holes is from large amounts of normal (i.e., not virtual) matter falling in and rubbing together and heating up in the process. Also, you detect x-rays with an x-ray telescope, not a radio telescope, but I’m sure you knew that :wink:

As to atomic decays, you need to take the full Einstein quote to understand his take on it… “God is subtle, but not malicious. He sometimes deals the cards where they cannot be seen, but I refuse to believe that he would play dice with the world”. In other words, for all we know, there’s a miniature alarm clock inside of the nucleus, and when it goes off, the atom decays. It may be completely impossible for us to read that clock before then (the cards are dealt where they can’t be seen), but we can’t rule out the possibility.

But those cause-and-effect chains are so complex as to be unelucidable even a few links ahead. So many random and pseudorandom events affect how the path flows the path itself could well be called random, even though past cause-and-effect links can be uncovered. And, as Heisenberg pointed out, measuring a particle randomly changes the properties of said particle. A scientist can determine with arbitrary accuracy the speed and direction of a particle, but he randomly alters position. At higher levels, these effects are canceled out by statistical inertia present in all large systems. Yet it is those selfsame large systems that exhibit chaotic patterns, simply because so many interactions take place among the millions of constituant particles. Fluid dynamics is a prime example of this, especially as applied to weather predicting. We’ll never be accurate in our weather predictions more than five days ahead, because that’s how long it takes air to travel around the world. That fact has huge effects on the amount of interplay distant regions can have on local areas. So while weather is a cause-and-effect system, the causes have so many different effects, not all of them immediately visible, it can be called an essentially random system past a certain point.