February 21, 2014
There are several arguments atheists offer, which they really shouldn’t. Recently, listening to the “Unbelievable” podcast, the atheist guest, Matt Dillahunty gave some requirements for what makes an explanation,
We explain things in terms of other things that we understand. We begin with the simple things which we understand to explain the more complex things.
He went on to say offering explanations in terms of things we didn’t fully understand to be “literally magic”, “has no explanatory power” and “tells us nothing at all”. The clear implication being, because we don’t understand everything about God, then God could not be offered as an explanation of anything.
I am a physicist. I spend my time modelling the way future quantum computers would work. Listening to Matt Dillahunty talk, I could not help see that his requirements for a valid explanation would not only rule out God (as he wanted) but also rule out quantum mechanics.
Matt Dillahunty demands that any explanation be in terms of simpler things we understand. Yet, we famously don’t understand everything about quantum mechanics. As Feynman put it,
I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.
Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get “down the drain”, into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.
We certainly don’t know everything about the quantum mechanics. For example, we don’t even know if there is an actual wave which really exists in space, or if it’s a convenient mathematical trick. There are several different interpretations of quantum mechanics, each different, and each voraciously defended by their proponents. By Matt Dellahunty’s criteria this means quantum mechanics can’t be used as an explanation.
But, just because we don’t understand everything about quantum mechanics is not a reason to reject quantum mechanics an explanation, it is a reason to ask more questions. In both science and theology, that is exactly what we do.
Imagine for one second, we accepted what Matt had to say. Explanations are only accepted if they were in terms of something simpler we already understand. If we just keep asking “why?”, “why?”, “why?”, then eventually (considering we can go on asking “why?” forever) we’ll come to something necessary (which seems like an argument for God to me) or we’d admit we couldn’t give a simpler explanation we fully understood. That happens to any chain of reasoning at all. Matt’s criteria now says to belittle that explanation and say it is literally magic. Obviously we don’t just reach that point when asking about God, but, if we are honest we reach it in all of science and mathematics. It seems like an obviously bunk criteria to use.
It got even more baffling, because Matt Dellahunty went on to say that explanations which leave open questions halt inquiry. If we say
“I’m going to stick this proposed explanation in here…” it tells us nothing at all. It is a way of halting investigation and inquiry about the subject.
Which seemed to me to get everything the absolute wrong way around. Someone who admits, yes, “I don’t everything, I don’t know how God did this or that” they are often motivated to find out how he did it (such as Planck, a Lutheran Christian who first introduced quantum mechanics). If someone has question they don’t know the answer to questions about a God, like “What is God like?”, “What can I know about him?”, “How can I know him?”, it is not a reason to reject God as an explanation, but a reason to seek the answers. Open questions are an invitation to investigate further.
The same is true in science. If we come across an open question, we don’t pack up and declare that, sorry, quantum mechanics has no explanatory power. Open questions about our explanations are great, and an invitation to investigate further.
I don’t even pretend to understand what Matt was thinking. It seems so obviously wrong. It is the person who takes his attitude: that everything has to be perfectly explained in terms of things we understand who leaves no room for open questions, who halts the investigation. They declare exactly what he did: We don’t know everything about God, therefore God cannot be a valid explanation. At which point the enquiry stops.
January 31, 2013
What happened to me
There’s lots of different arguments for God. For me personally though, it was considering what beliefs had to say about me, myself, which had the most impact. It became apparent to me, for example that ideas of free will and the idea of “choosing” to have meaning – an existentialist response to nihilism were basically impossible on a strict materialist view of the universe.
I am not sure this will make a great deductive argument, but I’ll try to put it in one.
(1) We have free will.
(2) Free will is incompatible with strict philosophical naturalism which only admits stochastic events or determinism.
(3) Therefore strict philosophical naturalism is untrue.
Of course people can (and often do) go the other way and reject the idea of having free will, and I’d be fine with that. Personally I have no idea if we have free will or not. But if, like me, you get out of the argument by rejecting (1) then it makes no sense to then talk in ways, or to answer other ways which require real choice. And I have to say, going against free will seems to go against our every experience.
The free will theorem
But it isn’t just for your own free will that makes things tricky. Things get even weirder when you consider an interesting gem, based on the Kochen-Specker theorem. I’m thinking of the free will theorem introduced by Conway and Kochen. That provided people accept they have “free will”, and standard physics, then it follows that the type of same “free will” also lies behind even elementary particles.
From an atheistic perspective saying there’s a free will behind particles seems absurd. Perhaps chance, might be acceptable, but then on what basis are you saying what lies behind a person is a will, and what lies behind the particles is not?
Again, personally, I have no dog in this fight one way or the other. But that’s just because these days I’m a theist. I’m happy either with free will (when I’d be some variant of Molinism) or without it (when some variant of Calvinism might be the go). But I have never seen a good way to square it with philosophical naturalism… which we commonly call atheism. Like so many times I found that view has consequences. It isn’t compatible with any number of things, and force people to take all sorts of different beliefs. But atheism doesn’t offer any evidence, and so we’re left making massive calls about the nature of ourselves, even the nature of what lies behind elementary particles, and to do that based on nothing. For me, many years ago, thinking about these issues that was incredibly constraining. To think, maybe, just maybe, God exists was one of the most liberating thoughts that I ever had.
September 27, 2012
If I think of things as a Christian, rather than if I was atheist, the world makes more sense. None of these are proofs of God, and I’m not saying they are. But when I consider the world thinking God exists, rather than if he doesn’t, many things fall neatly into place.
1. Scientific Laws
I’m a physicist. It’s obvious to me when I look around that the way the universe runs is rationally intelligible, consistent. For example, we have beautiful results like Noether’s theorem which explains how symmetries plus Lagrangian dynamics give rise to conserved quantities. And it turns out our universe has a surprising amount of symmetry, and does appear to run according to this rationally understable law. Almost 400 years ago, before much of the scientific revolution, Kepler, waxed lyrical that if we were serious in thinking God existed we would expect to find such laws. I agree. If God exists, we should expect that “science works”. That science works makes more sense as a Christian than an atheist.
2. Personal Experience
It’s common for people to say they’ve had a direct experience of God. I’ve experienced a very similar thing. The experience comes by praying or reading the Bible. It is the most unbelievable feeling, and hard to describe. Something like your insides jumping around for joy, but clear and pure. Others describe it as a burning in your chest. I’m not saying that everyone has this, or even that it’s specific to Christians, but to me – being the incredibly geeky science person that I am it was a massive surprise. My own personal experience makes more sense as a Christian than an atheist.
3. Jesus Christ
Specifically history around Jesus. Atheists often seem to look it that if they can find a single thing wrong with the Bible then they’ve disproved Christianity. I look at it the other way around. If there’s a single case of God acting, anywhere, anytime then atheism can’t be right. So I went looking for places where I expected God might act. The obvious one was Jesus resurrection. I’ve written, just a little about 1 Corinthians 15 and obviously there’s much more to say here, but it fits a lot better if you simply allow that perhaps, just perhaps God has acted. The historical evidence makes more sense to me as a Christian than an atheist.
4. There’s something rather than nothing
This is one that makes absolutely no sense to me on atheism at all. When I think about it from an atheist perspective, I feel like something is seriously wrong. I don’t see any reason why anything should exist at all – the whole of existence seems absurd. I’m following people like Krauss and Stenger and their attempts to answer it from an atheistic perspective. But the thing is, I get the idea when I look at their arguments I get the feeling that they warp words, rather than provide a genuine answer. In contrast, Christianity seems very freeing – there’s no need to force science into answering gaps in my philosophy – I can let the science speak for itself. That there’s something rather than nothing makes more sense to me as a Christian than an atheist.
5. Atheist Apologists
I have spent, literally, years of my life reading atheists including the “new” atheists. In fact, one thing that really started to get me taking God seriously was one atheist argument that, instead of even consider God might exist, posit that every possible universe which could possibly exist mathematically, actually did. While I agree that this might solve some problems for atheists (like fine tuning for example), I struggled to see how anyone could find that a more likely than the much simpler belief in God. It was, essentially, an argument so bad that shook my belief that having no God was simpler or more straightforward than thinking God existed.
One thing that has happened in the last ten years is that arguments have moved from the facts to a social one. Half of Dawkins book, most of Hitchens book, and most of Harris book weren’t about God at all. They were just out to rubbish religion, and to belittle religious people. Somewhat ironically, being a Christian and seeing people as fallen, I’m not opposed to the idea religious people (like everyone else) have done things wrong. But resorting to mud throwing and ridicule as opposed to reason doesn’t make me think there’s some good argument against God which I haven’t thought of, it makes me think there isn’t one. Atheist apologetics makes more sense to me as a Christian than an atheist.
6. God’s promise to Abraham
One of the things that has constantly amazed me is that we know anything about Abraham’s God at all. His God forms the basis of the three great monotheistic religions, with over half the world’s population counted as his followers. But think about it at Abraham’s time, or even worse in Babylonian captivity. There were far greater empires, and far more powerful people. There’s no reason to think, from an atheist point of view, that belief in this tiny, ancient, impotent (if you’re an atheist, insert your usual derogatory terms about goat herders here) God from a tiny tribe would grow and come to dominate the world. Yet it did. From an atheist point of view it seems one massive coincidence after another, but from a Christian point of view it makes good sense, God promised it to Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham makes more sense to me as a Christian than an atheist.
One thing that strikes me is that if there’s nothing but cold physical laws and (perhaps) chance then it’s incredibly difficult to allow for anything like free will, purpose or meaning. When you think about the processes and what is controlling them it’s not even in ultimate control of our own thoughts. There’s no purpose. There’s no meaning. Not only in some universe wide sense, but its also very difficult to establish our own life. I, honestly, do not understand how people can escape nihilism from an atheist point of view. I recently went to ask atheists on Omegle. Two were honest enough, and said that they didn’t know if there was meaning or not. One said there was no meaning in life, no free will, and everything is totally deterministic so there’s no choices, but it didn’t matter because they ignored it. Another atheist said that, despite not being able to give a good reason to think we could make any real choices, or have anything like a free will said you could “choose” to have meaning. Now these waters run deep, and I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but in my own life, Ecclesiastes provided the response to nihilism. Meaning and purpose make sense to me from a Christian point of view, but none if I think God doesn’t exist.
The moral argument is not an argument I’d normally offer. But without any particular goal, meaning or purpose in life (especially without free will) it seems incredibly hard to establish morality logically. Note that I’m not saying atheists are necessarily bad people (at all), I’m simply saying how things fit together logically. That said, I’ve recently been shocked at some of the moral calls I’ve seen coming out of atheists, things like Dawkins interview with Singer, his comments on the sexual objectification of women or the eery experience of having murder justified to me by an atheist. And that in turn has made me realize just how hard it is to argue with someone who logically thinks, based on atheist arguments, that morality is illusory. You can’t reason with them that killing babies, or even other people is wrong, because they reject the whole concept of right and wrong. You can’t tell them humans, and women in particular, have a particular value, because on atheism they don’t. They simply reject the idea people are loved by God, or made in God’s image. But on the other hand, it’s absolutely clear to me that these things are immoral in reality. If your assumptions leads you to absurd moral conclusions surely it’s better to reject your assumptions than accept the absurd. Morality makes far more sense to me as a Christian than as an atheist.
9. Fine Tuning
It seems obvious the universe is fine tuned – if not for life, then at least to be an interesting area of dynamics. It’s often commented that if we changed the physical constants even slightly, the universe would either be too inert, or too chaotic for any interesting dynamics at all. For people interested, I recommend getting hold of Paul Davies’ books and see an excellent physicist, rather than an apologist talk about it. Fine tuning is something which makes good sense from a Christian point of view, but there’s no particular reason to expect it (or even that life would exist at all) from an atheist one.
10. The value of people
Many atheists agree that humans have value, in fact we’d call them humanists. I find, especially when I’m spending time doing charity work that humanists often share similar goals to Christians. But whereas a Christian can logically ground that belief in reality, many humanists don’t seem to have a particular reason why valuing humans and human life should be justified. Instead, it seems like an axiom you just have to accept. Note, that I’m not saying atheists who think like this are immoral. The opposite. I think they’re moral, but they just I don’t find the grounding for what they believe satisfying. Consider what is said in this real discussion between a Christian and an atheist. On Christianity it’s clear that God (and specifically God’s love) gives everyone of us, Christian or not, great value. And it gives us that value regardless of if we’re disabled, burdens on society, female or male, rich, poor, black or white. This isn’t a call based in abstract ideals, but based in reality. That people have value, completely apart from their economic value, is something that makes logical sense to me as a Christian, but not if I think about it as an atheist.
July 19, 2012
Young earth creationism (YEC), in my humble opinion, is both wrong and dangerous to Christianity. I’m writing this, because of a recent conversation with a knowledgeable man, who is also a young earth creationist. Yes. We politely disagreed on whether evolution is true or not. To win the debate, he started to claim that young earth creationism was central to the gospel.
Whether or not you think young earth creationism is true, I hope you’ll agree with this is a very dangerous way to argue. The gospel is that Jesus Christ died for our sins, to restore our relationship to God. It is salvation through faith alone in God which saves us. So equating the gospel with YEC views is simply wrong.
But equating Christianity with opposition to evolution is not just wrong, it’s dangerous. If you equate being anti-evolution with being Christian, what happens when you discover there’s good reason to believe evolution is true? All of a sudden you’re convinced there’s good reason to not believe the gospel.
I won’t harp on about Christianity being compatible with evolution. There’s websites dedicated to pointing that, and they do it in a much more eloquent way that I could. I’m also partial to a series of podcasts by Thomas Hopko, which discuss it in an intelligent way. In addition there’s also several books, such as those by Francis Collins or by Karl Giberson.
What I did want to do is respond to a couple of YEC/intelligent design arguments, which I don’t think any thinking Christian should offer. The first is this
New information can never be created
This argument is, quite frankly, obviously bunk. Information increases all the time.
Since Shannon in the 1950’s we’ve known how to measure information. We measure it as entropy. Entropy measures average the number of bits (say, on your harddrive) which would need to be used to store something (be that a message or the state of a physical system).
Imagine you have a very boring, predictable message you want to store on the hard drive.
You don’t need many bits to do that. You can just store on the hard drive: “The message is always 0 one million times” and you’re done. It uses almost no space on your hard drive.
On the other hand if the signal is really random, you need lots of bits to store it. Imagine a million random zeros or ones:
If there’s no pattern all, then the best you can do is to just record the values which are sent. If the signal is something in between, then you use a program like “zip” to compress it. You’ll find the more ordered the message is, the smaller the zip file. The less ordered it is, the larger the file. Entropy is like a measure of how large the file would be with the perfect zip program.
The same concept applies to physical systems. Think of a simple physical system, which could be in one of several different states. If it is very disordered, you need more bits to store it. If it’s not disordered you need fewer bits. Entropy is what we use to measure that. If something is more disordered, it needs more bits to store it, and so has higher entropy. If something is more ordered, and needs fewer bits to store it, and so has less entropy.
So now it’s obvious the argument information never increases is just wrong. If you drop an egg on the floor, becomes more disordered. In physics, we’d say the entropy has increased. And you now know that just means the information needed to describe it has increased.
Information (or entropy) increases all the time. In any closed system it will increase. It’s such an important that we’ve made it into a physical law, the second law of thermodynamics.
So simply saying information is never “created” is simply wrong.
Specified information never increases
The next thing my YEC friend did was tell me specified complexity never increases. I’ve read and listened to enough intelligent design literature and exponents to have some idea where they’re coming from. The idea seems to be that any information which is created is always useless, and can’t have a role in producing something useful, like an eye.
Well, again, I have to simply disagree. Natural selection provides an obvious way for specified complexity to increase. We’ve already agreed (I hope) that information does increase. The question is whether that information can be useful for anything.
Before people get all annoyed – “natural selection” is not atheism. It does not imply atheism. It’s something very simple, which I hope we can all agree happens, and happens a lot.
Natural selection is simply the idea that weaker animals are more likely to die out. They’re less likely to have lots of healthy children, and if they pass on the gene that makes them weak to their children, they’re even less likely to have grandchildren. Think about it. Which is more likely to have lots of surviving children – a healthy animal or a sick one? Obviously the healthy one. That’s all there is to it. No atheism. No magic.
The simple idea is that animals which are fitter, better suited to their environment, able to run faster and further are the ones that get the chicks. They’re the ones which have lots of kids. They’re the ones that (at least on average) don’t die early. It’s not atheism, it’s just common sense.
So how does natural selection help? Well, let’s say you have an animal which has a gene for better sight. Well then that gene helps them see both predators and prey better. It helps them survive, and (on average) they have more offspring than one which has worse sight. Their children have better sight, and because they survive better, over time there’s more and more animals with good sight. Specified complexity is naturally selected for because it helps animals survive.
So we (I hope) agree new information can come into existence, and specified information can come into existence because specified information helps animals survive.
That evolution has never been observed
Finally, my YEC friend repeatedly said that what I was saying was impossible, and had never been observed in the real world. At the time I didn’t know what to say, and just pointed out that bacteria in hospitals build up resistance to drugs, and that plants we grow are very different now to their wild versions a few thousand years ago.
Next time this comes up I will be able to give better examples. Among the many excellent essays on biologos were two by Dennis Venema. He describes his path from intelligent design to evolution, and how he thought about it as a Christian. But he also gives examples of “specified complexity” coming about due to evolution which you can read here.
One example he gives is of the Long Term Evolutionary Experiment (LTEE). It started in 1988, with twelve identical strand of e-coli. E-coli (apparently) is a simple bacteria and it reproduces by simply dividing, which produces two clones of itself. That’s important, because the only changes which occur to their genetic make-up are through mutations. There’s no way you could claim “it was already there”.
As Venema describes:
Each day, each of the twelve cultures grow in 10ml of liquid medium with glucose as the limiting resource. In this medium, the bacteria compete to replicate for about seven generations and then stop dividing once the food runs out. After 24 hours, 1/10th of a ml of each culture is transferred to 9.9 ml of fresh food, and the cycle repeats itself. Every so often, the remaining 9.9 ml of leftover bacterial culture is frozen down to preserve a sample of the population at that point in time – with the proper treatment, bacteria can survive for decades in suspended animation.
So basically, grow ecoli every day for years and see how 12 different strands of it change. All twelve strands quickly adapted to their petri-dish environment (and in fact they evolved in a similar way):
All 12 populations improved quickly early on, then more slowly as the generations ticked by. Despite substantial fitness gains compared to the common ancestor, the performance of the evolved lines relative to each other hardly diverged. As we looked for other changes—and the “we” grew as outstanding students and collaborators put their brains and hands to work on this experiment—the generations flew by. We observed changes in the size and shape of the bacterial cells, in their food preferences, and in their genes. Although the lineages certainly diverged in many details, I was struck by the parallel trajectories of their evolution, with similar changes in so many phenotypic traits and even gene sequences that we examined.
And it just continued on like this. I’m sure at this point all the intelligent design people are with me. It’s just “micro-evolution”, right? The same thing for month after month, year after year. But then one day, something new happened! Lenski (a scientist who was involved in the project) writes,
Although glucose is the only sugar in their environment, another source of energy, a compound called citrate, was also there all along as part of an old microbiological recipe. One of the defining features of E. coli as a species is that it can’t grow on citrate because it’s unable to transport citrate into the cell. For 15 years, billions of mutations were tested in every population, but none produced a cell that could exploit this opening. It was as though the bacteria ate dinner and went straight to bed, without realizing a dessert was there waiting for them.
But in 2003, a mutant tasted the forbidden fruit. And it was good, very good.
Amazing! Totally new specified information. They were able to go back to the frozen samples and see exactly which gene mutations led to the ecoli being able to eat citrate. The gene that allows it actually mutated long before it was actually used. The first e-coli able to eat citrate did so very badly, but they got better very quickly. And finally, there’s essentially two strands left. One strand eats both citrate and glucose, the other just gets very good at eating glucose:
Despite the “takeover”, a fraction of the population unable to use citrate persists as a minority. These cells eke out a living by being “glucose specialists” – they are better at using up glucose rapidly and then going into stasis before the slightly slower citrate-eaters catch up.
And that, it seems to me, is an example of specified complexity evolving.
So why aren’t I into all this intelligent design stuff? Well it’s simply because the arguments they put forward are wrong. They’re wrong about the arguments they make about evolution. But perhaps more importantly, they’re wrong about why we’re saved. We’re not saved through believing in evolution or not. We’re saved through faith in Jesus Christ.
April 20, 2012
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.
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.
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.
April 18, 2012
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.
March 5, 2012
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
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!