If determinism is true, every event shall have a cause.

So, what is the cause of the first event (which is the first cause)?

Conflict (paradox):

1) every event shall have a cause -> First event/cause shall have a cause

2) first event shall be first (prior to all other events/causes) -> first event/cause shall not have a cause

It is known that self-reference is basis for some logical problems/paradoxes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-reference).

This conflict is also based on self-reference -> how can (the beginning of) determinism be explained by determinism (every event shall have a cause)? Self-reference, because determinism is "referring to" itself (its beginning)

The question is: is this reasoning correct? Is determinism actually logically flawed?

  • 2
    Your argument presupposes a first event. What justifies this presupposition?
    – E...
    Aug 4, 2019 at 18:40
  • 2
    Consider the integers ..., -4, -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, ... Each number has a direct predecessor yet there is no first element. If causality works that way, it would be perfectly consistent. Of course one could then ask, what cause the entire sequence to come into being? It's turtles all the way down.
    – user4894
    Aug 4, 2019 at 19:39
  • 1
    "If determinism is true, every event shall have a cause." If by event you include initial events, then I disagree with that premise. If the universe were analogous to a computer program running on a Turing Machine, I would call it deterministic. There's no logical reason why the universe can't be this way, but if it were, your definition simply wouldn't apply if it had an initial state. I'd still want to call such a thing deterministic, which means the problem I have is more with your definition than the actual things you're finding conflict with.
    – H Walters
    Aug 4, 2019 at 19:59
  • i agree with @Eliran and why think the first cause is an "event"?
    – user38026
    Aug 5, 2019 at 3:11
  • The problem with arguments like this one, the ontological argument for god or the Kalam cosmological argument, is that they apply common sense to situations where modern physics tells us for a fact that this common sense does not apply anymore. They might have had some traction up to the XIX century but relativity and quantum mechanics have since leveled the playground.
    – armand
    Jan 26, 2021 at 10:57

3 Answers 3


I'd say it is not so much logically-flawed as non-reductive or not fundamental, and for the reasons you give.

A fundamental theory cannot rest on a caused phenomenon or event. Hence an argument for Materialism is an ironic argument for a Divine Creator or miraculous origin.

For a solution one would have to examine the Perennial notion of a 'causeless cause'.


Modern determinism in the scientific sense is basically only about mathematical prediction--if the universe is deterministic, that means complete knowledge of the universe's physical state at an earlier time can be used to predict the physical state at a later time with perfect accuracy, no additional notions associated with philosophical ideas about "causation" are included.

Here is philosopher of science Timothy Maudlin talking about the subject:

As for causation, everyday causal locutions are highly context-sensitive and subject to pragmatic considerations. One does not want any foundational physical concepts to have these features, so at least everyday causal locutions cannot be translated cleanly into basic physical terms. Furthermore, physics gets on fine without mention of causation: dynamical law does all the work. So there is no need to admit some new irreducible notion of causation to make sense of physics. A deterministic physics might endorse a claim like “earlier global physical states cause later global physical states”, but that claim is of little use for everyday talk of causes.

Also note that because all the known fundamental laws of physics have the property of either time-symmetry or CPT-symmetry, it is equally possible to predict earlier states given complete knowledge of the universe's state at a later time. The various arrows of time we see (asymmetries between past and future) are thought by most physicists to all be due to the the universe being in a low-entropy state around the time of the Big Bang, for reasons that are not really understood. There is a good discussion of the arrow of time and its connection to low-entropy initial conditions in Brian Greene's book The Fabric of the Cosmos.

So if the philosophical notion of "causality" includes the notion that past events cause future ones but not vice versa, there is really nothing corresponding to this idea in modern physics.

This section of the SEP article on causality also mentions that Bertrand Russell endorsed a similar sort of eliminativism about causation in his 1913 paper "On the Notion of Cause" (included in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Volume 6 and also available online here). In that paper, Russell commented that "The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm", and that "In the motions of mutually gravitating bodies, there is nothing that can be called a cause, and nothing that can be called an effect; there is merely a formula."

Russell also commented on the issue of the time-symmetry of the laws of physics, saying:

The law makes no difference between past and future: the future "determines" the past in exactly the same sense in which the past "determines" the future. The word "determine", here, has a purely logical significance: a certain number of variables "determine" another variable if that other variable is a function of them.

There's also an interesting discussion of this paper in the chapter "What Russell Got Right" in the book Causation, Physics, and the Constitution of Reality: Russell's Republic Revisited, reviewed here (this book is more generally a good reference to check out for anyone interested in the question of whether the idea of 'cause' makes sense in light of modern science).

  • Maudlin is odd choice, he thinks everything happens in time. Time flows in one direction. “So I’m certainly not denying that there is this time-reversibility. But the time-reversibility doesn’t imply that there isn’t a direction of time. It just says that for every event that the laws of physics allow, there is a corresponding event in which various things have been reversed, velocities have been reversed and so on. But in both of these cases, you think of them as allowing a process that’s running forward in time.” Even with everything reversed, say CPT, that is still foreword in time.
    – J Kusin
    Jun 12, 2022 at 2:51
  • @JKusin - Yes, he does believe in the passage of time as he discusses here, though he also believes past and future things exist (he is not a presentist) and he doesn't think this requires any objective truth about simultaneity, which makes his view confusing to me. In any case, I just cited his comment about causality, which didn't mention the issue of time-symmetry.
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 12, 2022 at 6:22
  • There is also the issue that a physicists' view that the physical explanation for all measurable asymmetries in time, including remembering the past but not the future, is the thermodynamic arrow--if he accepts this, how can he be sure the "true" direction of time's passing matches up with the thermodynamic one? Does he think there's anything physically or metaphysically impossible about the hypothesis that there's a mismatch between the two, that our apparent memories of the past are actually memories of events that lie in the future according to the "true" direction of time?
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 12, 2022 at 6:32
  • He does address this by imagining a person's "time-reversed doppelganger" starting on p. 121, his response on p. 123 seems to appeal to the mystery of consciousness, suggesting that even if all the doppelganger's behavior would look just like a reversed version of one's own (including reversed versions of assertions about what events they regard as being the 'past' etc.), he doubts they would really be conscious (seeming to suggest they would be a kind of p-zombie).
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 12, 2022 at 6:34
  • My bad for responding to an old thread, thought it was the causation post from yesterday. I brought it up because your Maudlin quote stood out. I think he distinguishes everyday causal judgments, which are based on lawlike generalizations, and causes based on natural law or past lightcones. See p441-442 joelvelasco.net/teaching/5330(fall2013)/… Your quote might suggest he wants to eliminate cause altogether, but compared to other writings of his I don’t necessarily think so.
    – J Kusin
    Jun 12, 2022 at 12:12

Yes and no.

As a theoretical idea, a simplified model of reality, determinism is quite logical, a practical shortcut to make classical physics easier to understand and predict.

Believing that determinism is an accurate description of reality is logically flawed, very much so.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .