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!

Sons of Korah

December 12, 2011

The Band

The band “Sons of Korah” have released their new album, Wait. I’m not generally a massive Christian music fan, my favourite bands are REM and Coldplay. In comparison some explicitly Christian music can seem like a cheap imitation. But this is a band who aren’t imitating the secular world. They don’t sing “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs – they sing the Psalms.

Sons of Korah are a band from the industrial town of Gelong, near Melbourne, Australia. They specialize in singing the Psalms, with lyrics almost exactly what you read in your Bible. The new album includes Psalms 19, 96, 77, 27, and Psalm 91. For me listening to the Psalms, I feel like these guys actually worship the same God that I do, not some media hyped invention.

The Bible

So who were the Sons of Korah in the Bible? Korah and his sons were originally gatekeepers of the LORD’s tent,

Shallum son of Kore, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah, and his fellow gatekeepers from his family (the Korahites) were responsible for guarding the thresholds of the tent just as their ancestors had been responsible for guarding the entrance to the dwelling of the LORD.

However, Korah himself went bad. Numbers 16 records that Korah and a group of 250 men rebelled against Moses,

Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”

Korah commits treason against Moses, God’s appointed leader of the Israelites.

When Korah had gathered all his followers in opposition to them at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the glory of the LORD appeared to the entire assembly.

The judgement is harsh for those who rebelled.

The ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions…At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, “The earth is going to swallow us too!” And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.

But as Numbers 26:10-11 records, although Korah and his supporters died, his sons did not,

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them along with Korah, whose followers died when the fire devoured the 250 men. And they served as a warning sign. The line of Korah, however, did not die out.

By David’s time Korah’s line have become the musicians. The whole ancestry is traced in 1 Chronicles 6:31-39

These are the men David put in charge of the music in the house of the LORD after the ark came to rest there. They ministered with music before the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, until Solomon built the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem. They performed their duties according to the regulations laid down for them.

 Here are the men who served, together with their sons:

From the Kohathites:
Heman, the musician,
the son of Joel, the son of Samuel,

the son of Tahath, the son of Assir,
the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah,
the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath,
the son of Levi, the son of Israel;

Amazingly it seems, even Samuel was descended from Korah. But more important, the people in this line were the musicians. Heman wrote Psalm 88. Psalms 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 84, 85, 87 and 88 are all said to be composed by the sons of Korah.

The Music

Don’t take my word for it, have a listen.

Who wrote 1 Corinthians?

December 3, 2011

1 Corinthians was written by Paul. Recently I wrote about 1 Corinthians 15, and regular commenter and all around good guy, Mr Z, asked me why I thought 1 Corinthians was written by Paul. I am no Bible expert, but after going to have a look, here are some of my reasons:

The text says it was written by Paul

The letter begins by identifying the authors as Paul and Sosthenes. 1 Corinthians 1:1-3 says,

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The book ends, again identifying the author as Paul. 1 Corinthians 16:21 says,

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand.

Paul refers to himself in the letter

Paul talks about himself, and what he did in Corinth in the letter. For example, 1 Corinthians 3:4-6 says,

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.

There is a very similar passage in 1 Corinthians 1:12-13.

Acts 18 says Paul helped found the church in Corinth

Acts 18 describes Paul going to Corinth,

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

The whole chapter is worth a read.

Early authors say it was written by Paul

Clement of Rome also wrote a letter to Corinth, in around 96 AD, which we can still read today. This is the first authentic Christian writing we have outside the New Testamant. In it, he refers to Paul’s earlier letters. In chapter 47 he says,

Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.

It is not only Clement who suggests it was written by Paul, but also many other early writers.

Another example is the Muratorian fragment which I wrote about the other day. It says,

As for the Epistles of Paul, they themselves make clear to those desiring to understand, which ones [they are], from what place, or for what reason they were sent. First of all, to the Corinthians, prohibiting their heretical schisms; next, to the Galatians, against circumcision; then to the Romans he wrote at length, explaining the order (or, plan) of the Scriptures, and also that Christ is their principle (or, main theme).

According to Bible.org, Paul’s writings are also referenced by Clement of Rome, Polycarp, The Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Eusebius, Jerome and Augustine.

It is similar to other writings by Paul

1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans and Philemon all have a very similar style so its seems natural that they also had the same author.

Most places I found say that all the experts say 1 Corinthians was written by Paul, and that the authorship is virtually undisputed. If there’s any reason to think he didn’t write it, I’d be happy to hear it.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Athenagoras on Christians

November 24, 2011

I’m been reading Athenagoras’ "A Plea for the Christians" in my free time. It’s excellent. Athenagoras, who lived in around 133-190, is writing in defense of Christians who are under the hammer. Apparently at the time, even being called a Christian was enough to get you punished. He rejects the unfounded charges of cannibalism, atheism and sexual immorality. Among other things:

  • He gives rational arguments for accepting Christianity, and rejecting paganism.
  • He repeatedly espouses the trinity as basic Christian doctrine, even though the Nicene council would only convene some 200 years later.

But perhaps my favourite passage so far is the description he gives of Christians:

But among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves.

Duncan at Alethian Worldview wrote an article about why there is nothing that could convince him (short of God miraculously appearing to him) to believe in God. Read the whole thing here. He compares belief to God to belief that the sun can set in the north. It’s clearly trying to liken Christian belief to the absurd.

However, there is a pretty basic flaw in the post: The sun can and does set in the north in certain parts of the world. If you are in Antartica in the autumn, you will see the sun set in the north. It is a surprising fact, but it is however true: If you were to stand on the South pole, every direction is North. The sun will only rise and sets there once a year, and this year it set on March 23 at 2.50pm. It only happens once a year, but it does happen!

It’s interesting to think that you can see the sun rise and set in any compass direction you like. If you stand on the South pole and take one step backwards, and the sun set is now directly to your South. If you step right, it is now to the West. If you step left, the sunset is to the East!

After this the the script is a little ironic:

“What are you looking for? What would it take to convince you that God was real?”

“I dunno. What would it take to convince you that the sun sets in the north?”

“The sun sets in the west.”

“So your mind is made up? There’s nothing I could say that would convince you that it sets in the north?”

“Of course not.”

“Suppose I told you a really convincing story about the sun setting in the north?”

“It wouldn’t be a true story.”

“How do you know?”

“Because the sun sets in the west.”

“If God actually showed up in real life, that would be a much more astonishing event than the sun setting in the north. And if He loves me enough to die for me, then He ought to be willing and able to show up in the real world where I can see Him. Unless and until He starts behaving like a real, loving God, I have no reason to believe He exists.”

“The thing is, though, He actually did show up in real life.”

“So men say. I’ve heard that story too, and I know that a lot of people think it’s a convincing story. But like you said, he sun sets in the west, not in the north. No matter how convincing the story is, if we don’t see it happening in real life, it’s not a true story. …”

But this is just a simple slip up. A mistake. Of course if we go to Duncan and tell him that he’s made a simple error, he’ll listen to us, right? Wrong. The whole point of the story is that there is no evidence that could convince him he’s wrong. Even there are people who have been to Antartica and seen the sun setting in the north, he will tell us that they must be lying. The whole point of the dialogue is because Duncan is trying to convince us that his way of weighing the evidence is the right way to do it. In reality all he demonstrates is that his method can lead him to reject the truth.

Croquet at South Pole, April 2005

So where did Duncan’s argument go wrong? Duncan’s polemic actually illustrates some of the frustrations I have talking with atheists.

Circular Argument

When you realize the sun actually does set in the north sometimes, the dialogue illustrates the exact opposite to what is intended:

“Suppose I told you a really convincing story about the sun setting in the north?”

“It wouldn’t be a true story.”

“How do you know?”

“Because the sun always sets in the west.”

In fact Duncan is just offering a circular argument. He’s wrongly convinced the sun never sets in the north. But instead of listen to reason or anything evidence which might cause him to rethink, he even rejects the evidence which contradicts his point of view. Even if people have been to Antartica (or the Artic) and seen it for themselves he won’t listen. Consider a similar conversation about Jesus,

“Suppose I gave you the historical evidence about Jesus?”

“It wouldn’t be a true.”

“How do you know?”

“Because God can’t show up on earth or I would have seen him.”

Both conversations are flawed for exactly the same reason.

Rejection of alternative explanations

There’s more than one explanation for the sun setting where it does.

(1) The sun always sets in the West or

(2) The Earth is spinning on its a tilted axis, as it orbits the sun.

Both explanations fit with what TW has seen. So why does TW only consider (1)? My guess is that he didn’t really give it a lot of thought before writing the article and made a simple slip up. Every time he sees the sun set in the west, he considers that (1) is a little bit more likely, and every other explanation less likely – so much so that presumably he thinks anyone is stupid who disagrees.

But it is worth thinking about: there’s several different explanations compatible with the evidence. Each time he sees the sun set in the west, we should consider not only (1) more likely, but every theory which is compatible with the evidence more likely (and every theory not compatible with it less likely).

This, again, has an analogue in atheist-Christian discussions. Many atheists regard "science works" as some sort of point in favour of atheism. But of course, Christians too expect that science should work. If you look through the history of science you’ll find countless Christians who do that- to the point where (in Europe at least) it was Christians who set up the observatories and universities. From a Christian point of view, the success of science is rationally justified: there is a logical and consistent God who is the creator and sustainer of the universe, and so there’s good reason to expect that we should find ordered laws in the universe.

Flawed Analogy

The last reason why I find his point of view unconvincing, is nothing to do with the fact his reasoning leads to false conclusions. It is that the analogy between the sun setting in the west and atheism just doesn’t exist. If I ask atheists for positive evidence which suggests God doesn’t exist, they normally tell me that atheism doesn’t need to provide evidence. So whereas Duncan’s suggesting there’s countless observations which suggest the sun always sets in the west there aren’t the same countless observations which suggest that there is no God. The reason for being able to reject views which are contradictory to the sun setting is that there’s overwhelming positive experimental evidence in favour of the proposition. There just isn’t the same evidence in favour of atheism. And so the whole piece is based on a bad analogy.

Conclusion

Duncan’s reasoning has led him to reject things which are actually true. If his reasoning leads to the wrong conclusion about sunsets, isn’t it also possible that it has led him to the wrong conclusion about God?