Nothing in particular

April 26, 2012

Photo by laslo

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?… Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?… The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now.


Valid Criticism

Victor Stenger is again talking about nothing. This time he’s defending Laurence Krauss’ new book, which claims to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” from the negative feedback it has received. Chief among the critics is David Albert, himself a theoretical physicist and credentialed philosopher of science, who wrote a scathing review of Krauss’ new book in the New York Times,

The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.

He goes on,

The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

Even Jerry Coyne, known for his antagonistic attitude towards religious belief, showed integrity, writing

Krauss defines “nothing” as a “quantum vacuum,” without giving us reasons why that would obviously have been the initial default state of the universe. Is that a sensible definition of “nothing”? If not, whence the quantum vacuum? And so on to more turtles. 

And so, to put it mildly, Krauss’ book came in for some intelligent criticism. To his enourmous credit, Victor Stenger seems to have taken that criticism on board, and attempted a reasonable reply.


Stenger’s Defence of Redefining ‘Nothing’

In his latest offering Stenger springs to the defence of Krauss writing,

Clearly, no academic consensus exists on how to define “nothing.” It may be impossible. To define “nothing” you have to give it some defining property, but, then, if it has a property it is not nothing! 

I have to agree with Stenger here. Things with properties are not nothing. The vacuum state has properties like spatial extent, temporal extent, a well defined energy, a frequency, phase and amplitude uncertainties, as well as being responsible for force measured in the lab between two metal plates. Some of these properties I commented on in my previous post. It is these properties make me think the vacuum state is clearly not nothing.

Stenger goes on to say,

The “nothing” that Krauss mainly talks about throughout the book is, in fact, precisely definable. It should perhaps be better termed as a “void,” which is what you get when you apply quantum theory to space-time itself. It’s about as nothing as nothing can be.

The “void” then, is not nothing. Why should “the void” exist rather than nothing? Why are there quantum fields rather than nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing?

We can play word games all we like. We could rename the word “nothing” to be “squiddle” if we liked, and the question would be just as urgent, just as pressing. As long as there are intelligent people seeking to live examined lives, we will be asking this question. Redefining words simply does not make the problem go away.


Photo by Sean Rogers 1 (flickr)


Criticism of theistic arguments

Stenger goes on to critisize arguments for God, saying

Why is there God rather than nothing? Once theologians assert that there is a God (as opposed to nothing), they can’t turn around and ask a cosmologist why there is a universe (as opposed to nothing). They claim God is a necessary entity. But then, why can’t a godless multiverse be a necessary entity?

Edward Feser replies

This simply ignores, without answering, the central arguments of the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic and broader Scholastic traditions, and indeed of modern Leibnizian rationalism — all of which put forward principled reasons why God alone, and not the material universe, can be a terminus of explanation.

He goes on to introduce some of those arguments. Considering he’s written books about them, you’d think he’d know. Philosophical atheist blog “Thy Kingdom Come (Undone)”, offers a similar criticism to Feser’s from a philosophical perspective:

Stenger would like to simply help himself to this “exists necessarily” clause because he thinks that’s precisely what theists do, but any cursory reading of the arguments would show you that necessary existence is not something you merely attach to an entity willy-nilly. It requires rigorous argumentation to get you there. The
theists have done their part attempting these demonstrations; no one (that I’m aware of) has done this for the multiverse. I should not claim it can’t be done, but I’d be very surprised to see it.

Feser also notes that

Stenger also errs in thinking that the proponents of classical philosophical theology suppose that nothing is the “default state” of things. Who ever said that? … The classical theist’s claim is not “There could have been nothing, but there isn’t, and the reason is theism”; it is rather “There could not have been nothing, and the reason is theism.”


The Fallacy of the Fallacy of Fine Tuning

However, the most telling recent criticism of Stenger has come not from the blogosphere, but from a paper on the physics preprint arxiv. Luke Barnes, young physicist, and one of the authors of the excellent blog “Letters to Nature” has written a fascinating paper clearly detailing problems in Stenger’s new book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning. Barnes is careful not to suggest that fine tuning would imply that God necessarily exists, and suggests possible naturalistic explanations (such as a multiverse) for the fine tuning that he argues is observed.

Given the, frankly, poor state of some emotive arguments for and against fine tuning, with both sides misrepresenting the other, and those of us genuinely concerned by the problem annoyed by the polemics, this paper is a breath of fresh air. Barnes offers a compelling arguments against Stenger’s dismissal, arguing that fine tuning is an empirical fact, and therefore requires a rational explanation.

To give one short example, Barnes incisively points out the difference in meaning between Stenger’s Point of View Invariance (PoVI) normally called covariance, and symmetries of a physical system. This essentially destroys (to my mind) Stenger’s claim that

Physicists have no choice in the matter, or else their models will be subjective, that is, will give uselessly different results for every different point of view.

Barnes begings by explaining, in a pedagogical manner, that any system described using a Lagrangian will be “point of view invariant”. He then graphically illustrates the difference between “point of view invariance” and different symmetries of nature which give rise to conservation laws. Such symmetries are certainly not immediately obvious, but have to established empirically.

The paper is full of similar clear arguments. For anyone interested in the discussion, this is certainly required reading.


Recently Richard Dawkins, speaking at the so-called ‘reason’ rally encouraged the crowd to ridicule Catholics. He said when someone claims to be Catholic that atheists should first not believe that they are, then Dawkins urges his followers to

Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!

Unfortunately this wasn’t a one off comment. Responding to an article about how to treat top scientists who are Christians, he wrote in favor “ridicule” and “contempt”. He says that atheists should ignore those with well thought out opinions, instead:

I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’€™t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

That’s a pretty major departure from reason. Using reason one seeks to encourage people to think about problems long and deeply. You engage the strongest arguments, not the weakest. You don’t push your beliefs (or lack of them) by social stigma- such you behaving anti-socially towards them, ridiculing and laughing at people in public and urging others to follow your lead. These are the tactics of a bully, not of a scientist.

Dawkins continues,

You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it. We have scathingly witty spokesmen of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Who have the faith-heads got, by comparison? Ann Coulter is about as good as it gets. We can’t lose!

He rationalizes antisocial behavior by suggesting that it will be effective. Despite the fact that Dawkins wouldn’t like people to behave the same way towards himself, he thinks he says atheists are better at ridiculing others. I have no doubt he’s right and public mockery is a very effective way of getting someone to take a badly considered position. So why shouldn’t everyone follow Dawkins advice?

Jesus taught the exact opposite. He said,

In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Confucius said,

Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.

Across the world, from East to West, people recognize treating others in a way which you wouldn’t like is wrong. Dawkins urges us to treat others in a way which he himself would not like to be treated. The reason people shouldn’t behave like Ann Coulter or Richard Dawkins, is not because it is ineffective. It is because it is wrong.

For Christians, Jesus goes further. Even for people who might be considered our enemies, Jesus says we should love them,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

So should we, whether we’re Christian or atheist, act like Richard Dawkins and Ann Coulter, WBC or David Silverman? No. Instead, 1 Peter gives a good way to disagree – to disagree with reason and respect

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

Recently Cardinal Pell debated Richard Dawkins. What frustrates me about Dawkins is not that he makes good arguments (in my humble opinion, he doesn’t), but that many of his ‘arguments’ consist of telling people the wrong information, and then attacking that. Consider what he said in his opening remark about Christianity,

It’s a horrible idea that God, this paragon of wisdom and knowledge, power, couldn’t think of a better way to forgive us our since sins than to come down to Earth in his alter ego as his son and have himself hideously tortured and executed so that he could forgive himself.

No. Just no.

  • According to Christianity God forgives us, not himself. Jesus is sinless, and obviously doesn’t need forgiveness for that.
  • Jesus is not the Father’s alter-ego, or split personality. What Dawkins is arguing against here is not Christian belief, but is called modalism or Sabellianism and has long been rejected as heresy.

Now obviously Dawkins mangles Christian belief as a political ploy. I doubt he really doesn’t understand what Christianity teaches. And that’s what frustrates me. To me these arguments sound like a politician who doesn’t care about the issues, but just wants to misrepresent the other side no matter what.

For anyone who is seriously struggling with why God saved us the way he did, can I humbly suggest Athenasius On the Incarnation. It’s worth the read.

Physicist, and author of “God the Failed Hypothesis”, Victor Stenger, suggests that quantum mechanics is the reason why there is something rather than nothing. I would like to explain some of the reasons why his reasoning is not convincing to me.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Everyone of us who wants to live an examined life asks themselves this question at some point. For theists, that the universe exists makes good sense. But take away God, and I’m totally unsure why the universe should exist at all. I don’t know why the beautiful physics of this universe should take place. Why not nothing? Nothing at all – with no properties, no physics, no nothing. Why doesn’t the universe (along with us in it) simply not exist?

I have seen many unsatisfying responses by atheists to this question. Here, for example Peter Atkins arguing that the universe itself is actually “nothing”.

Things with properties, such as you and I, the earth, atoms and electrons, photons, electric and magnetic fields, sticky tape and the woman next door are not nothing. Peter Atkins reasoning fails. He is equivocating. He’s redefining “nothing” in a way which is convenient for himself, but has a different meaning to the question. For anyone genuinely searching for an answer, that is incredibly unsatisfying (if not dishonest) way to answer the question.

Victor Stenger’s redefinition of nothing

Victor Stenger redefines what is meant by “nothing”. Instead of meaning…. well nothing, he redefines it as the vacuum state of a quantum field. He writes,

This suggests a more precise definition of nothing…

After which he treats the words “nothing” and “vacuum state” as synonymous. Immediately he runs into exactly the same problem as Peter Atkins. This isn’t what people are asking when they ask why there is something rather than nothing. The question is not why we’re not in the vacuum state, but why there’s a quantum field (or indeed, anything at all) in the first place.

To plug the growing gap (and seemingly obvious equivocation) between the question and his answer Victor Stenger assures his readers that the vacuum state is, in fact, the same as nothing. He says,

Nothing [the vacuum state] is a state that is the simplest of all conceivable states. It has no mass, no energy, no space, no time, no spin, no bosons, no fermions—nothing.

A vaccuum state doesn’t have no energy

In his attempt to defend his definition, Stenger appears claim the vacuum state has no energy. That’s simply wrong, and I can only assume he made a typo. He rightly tells his readers the exact opposite only a few short paragraphs before,

Stepping down the ladder you find that the bottom rung corresponding to a field of zero photons is not zero energy but rather E/2.

So energy is one property which vacuum state does have. Quantum fields (of a particular frequency) do have a ground state whose energy is

\frac{1}{2} \hbar \omega

A particular mode also has a corresponding frequency related to the energy by the above equations. Having parameters to describe both its energy and frequency, it is hard to see how a vacuum state is the same as “nothing”.

Phase and amplitude

There are other important properties of the vacuum state which Stenger conveniently doesn’t mention. Let me explain.

Quantum mechanics only makes predictions about the probabilities of measurements (such as whether a photon is or isn’t detected at a dector). We describe the possible outcomes of an experiment with the wavefunction. Born’s rule says that the amplitude squared of the wavefunction gives the probability of a given outcome, and so quantum mechanics just tells us a set of probabilities for outcomes of different experiments. This uncertainty manifests itself in funny ways. Famously Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says that if you know position of a particle, its momentum will be less certain and vice-versa. There are many similar relationships in quantum mechanics (in fact for any non-commuting variables there’s a similar expression). The equivalent for light is the amplitude (how bright the light is) and the phase (where the dips and peaks are). You can’t measure both the amplitude and phase of light at the same time.

Even for field in the vacuum state, it has these uncertainties. We can manipulate these probability distributions, but we always have to obey the uncertainty principle. For a particle it’s possible to become more certain about where a particle is, but only at the of becoming less certain we can be about its momentum. Similarly, in quantum optics, the more certain we are about light’s amplitude, the less certain we are about its phase. These are properties even of the vacuum state, and properties which can and have been manipulated in the lab.

These can even be and have been manipulated in experiment. The top trace here, is from a vacuum state, and the third is from a phase squeezed vacuum state. That is, we have good knowledge of where the peaks and troughs are, but not how so much information about how big they are.

A vacuum state measurable consequences

There’s a strange effect which relies on the vacuum state which you might have heard of. If two objects are near each other, they attract each other. They do so because of the standing waves which are set up between them. It turns out that if they move together they actually lower the total energy. And so, there’s an attractive force (because, like a ball rolling down a hill, two ships will try to move together to reduce their potential energy).

The is true of quantum mechanics, and has been observed. Two objects near each other set up standing waves between them, and feel an attractive force. This effect is known as Casimir effect. This effect occurs precisely because there are standing waves between the two objects. If these didn’t exist, there would be no force. In other words, if, instead of a standing wave, there was nothing between the objects, you’d expect no force. But in reality, you do measure a force in the lab, precisely because the field described by the vacuum state is not nothing.

Why Stenger’s answer isn’t satisfying

Stenger has redefined the word “nothing” to suit his answer, but in a way which makes a mockery of both the question, and of the science. The vacuum state (of a particular quantum field) is a particular quantum state, it has properties, such as an energy, a corresponding frequency. It also has uncertainties in both amplitude and phase quadratures which can be measured and manipulated in experiment. The vacuum state plays a fundamental role in the Casimir force between two objects. Stenger’s redefinition makes two very different beasts the same thing. Like Atkins, it is convenient for Stenger to redefine words to suit his cause. But when he does that, he answers a question nobody is asking.

That is why I find Victor Stenger’s answer to why there is something rather than nothing so unsatisfying.

As always comments are welcome and criticism is encouraged!

Assuming this isn’t a hoax, Debunking Christianity guest blogger, Darrin Rasberry has returned to Christianity. In a post on his own blog, he explains why. I can identify. Forgive me if I quote too much, because the whole post is worth reading.

After fifteen years away from Christianity, most of which was spent as an atheist with an active, busy intent on destroying the faith, I returned to a church (with a real intention of going for worship) last Sunday. Although I know I may struggle with doubt for the rest of my life, my life as an atheist is over.

Briefly, I grew tired of the lack of explanation for: the existence of the universe, moral values and duties, objective human worth, consciousness and will, and many other topics.

As I fought so desperately to come up with refutations of these arguments – even going out of my way to personally meet many of their originators, defenders, and opponents – I realized that I could not answer them no matter how many long nights I spent hitting the books. The months of study rolled on to years, and eventually I found an increasing comfort around my God-believing enemies and a growing discontent and even anger at my atheist friends’ inability to kill off these fleas in debate and in writing, an anger that gave birth to my first feeling of separateness from skepticism after reading comments related to a definitively refuted version of the Christ Myth theory, the idea that Jesus Christ never even existed as a person at all. Line after line after line of people hating Christianity and laughing at its "lie," when solid scholarship refuting their idea was ignored completely. It showed that the motive of bashing and hating Christianity for some skeptics wasn’t based in reason and "free thinking" at all, although it would be unfair to lump many of my more intellectually rigorous and mentally cool skeptic friends in this way.

This is all the evangelism you’ll get from me (unless you ask after I’ve had too much Guinness) and I do hope it’s quite enough to motivate you to study the evidence for God’s existence yourself and to read the Bible without the predetermined idea of tearing it apart. Come over to the dark side; we have tea and cookies.

The atheist propaganda

This Youtube video says he’s being not sensational, but that there’s a scientific study which says that:

Religion can and does cause literal brain damage, and that that damage can be difficult if not impossible to repair if not addressed early in life.

It has copied and pasted into the atheist blogosphere here, here, here, and on an agnostic blog here. Sadly, whoever is repeating this didn’t bother to read or understand the study.

The scientific study

In contrast to the atheist blogosphere, the actual scientific article is quite interesting. The study was conducted by the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University Medical Center. They took older patients (58 years old and older) and performed fMRI brain scans. From these they were able to image part of the brain, and determine the size of the hippocampus. For those of us who aren’t biologists, the hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for memory. As people get older one thing that can happen (but doesn’t necessarily always happen) is that the hippocampus shrinks, and memory is impaired.

The study looked at the rate of decline (atrophy) of the hippocampus as a person aged. They did this by taking more than one scan of each person’s brain (on average the scans were taken around 4 years apart). Then they considered if religion had any effect on the brain’s rate of decline.

So what were the results of the study? I’m going to give the “b” values from their regression analysis, for left and right sides of the brain. Basically the higher a “b” value, the less brain rot. The more negative, the more rot. All the numbers are all in comparison with mainstream protestants, who would get a value of b=0.0.

The best group, on a par with the mainstream protestants, were those with “other” religious beliefs, such as Eastern Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim people (b=0.06,-0.05). Catholics fared okay (b=-0.12, -0.22). “Born again” protestants were split into two groups: those who were recently born again (b=-0.05, -0.21), and those who had been born again for some time (b=-0.15,-0.15). Finally, there were those who claimed to have a Life Changing Religious Experience (LCRE). These too were split into two. Those who claimed to have recently had the experience did well (b=-0.01,-0.15) and those who claimed it was a long time ago did badly (b=-0.45,-0.38). This was the only religious group to perform worse than those of no religion (b=-0.28,-0.20).

The authors of the study suggest that perhaps being part of religious minority (such as atheists or those who have had a significant life changing experience) could causes long term stress – and this type of stress might lead to degradation of the brain.


So does religion give you brain damage? No. The study considers natural decline of the brain during aging. It shows that the brains of mainstream protestants, born again Christians, Catholics and those of “other” religious belief all experienced slower decline in comparison with those of no religion.

Yesterday I was told, if God exists he must have evolved. The “proof” that God must have evolved went something like this:

1) We evolved
2) We are intelligent
3) Therefore intelligence can only form due to evolution
4) If God is intelligent he must have evolved.

(3) doesn’t seem to logically follow. It’s that little word ‘only’ which seems all wrong. Pointing out a specific example doesn’t make a general rule.

I mention this, because although it seems like faulty reasoning to me, after Dawkins it is a popular thing for atheists to repeat. Maybe some of my atheist commenters would like to point out what I’m missing.

The only real response I was given by the guy offering the proof was that I am “too stupid to be an atheist”.