Neil Shenvi: can quantum fluctuations make something appear out of nothing?

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

New article from Dr. Neil Shenvi.

Author bio:

As it says on the main page, my name is Neil Shenvi; I am currently a research scientist with Prof. Weitao Yang at Duke University in the Department of Chemistry. I was born in Santa Cruz, California, but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I attended Princeton University as an undergraduate where I worked on high-dimensional function approximation with Professor Herschel Rabitz. I became a Christian in Berkeley, CA where I did my PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at UC – Berkeley with Professor Birgitta Whaley. The subject of my PhD dissertation was quantum computation, including topics in quantum random walks, cavity quantum electrodynamics, spin physics, and the N-representability problem. From 2005-2010, I worked as a postdoctoral associate with Prof. John Tully at Yale where I did research into nonadiabatic dynamics, electron transfer, and surface science.

Here is the introduction to the new article:

Many modern Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig or John Lennox present the origin of the universe in the finite past as evidence that God exists. In response, many modern atheists have sought to undermine such arguments by claiming that the existence of God is not required to account for the universe’s origin, usually by appealing to various scientific models of the universe’s origin. Because my expertise is in theoretical chemistry and quantum physics rather than in cosmology, I don’t have the background to evaluate the scientific plausibility of these cosmological models as alternatives to traditional Big Bang cosmology (nor -I expect- do most atheists!) However, I am qualified to address a claim that I frequently see advanced on the internet as a purportedly knock-down response to the claims of theists: the idea that ‘quantum fluctuations’ in some vague and unspecified sense explain the universe’s origin. In this essay, I’ll briefly explain what quantum fluctuations are and why they should not be invoked to explain the origin of the material universe out of nothing.

My argument is straighforward:

  • P1. If a ‘quantum fluctuation’ occurs, then it can be described by a wavefunction
  • P2. Wavefunctions describe ‘something’, not ‘nothing’
  • C. Therefore, if a ‘quantum fluctuation’ occurs, then it is ‘something’ not ‘nothing’

If this argument is correct, then atheists should not argue that ‘quantum fluctuations’ show that ‘something’ can come from ‘nothing’ because quantum fluctuations assume the existence of ‘something’ not ‘nothing’.

Quantum mechanics is a pretty mysterious area for me, but it’s Neil’s specialty.

Here is his argument in brief:

  • P1. If a ‘quantum fluctuation’ occurs, then it can be described by a wavefunction
  • P2. Wavefunctions describe ‘something’, not ‘nothing’
  • C. Therefore, if a ‘quantum fluctuation’ occurs, then it is ‘something’ not ‘nothing’

He writes:

Regardless of how we view the ontological status of wavefunctions, there is little question that they somehow describe something that actually exists. To say it another way, it seems extremely strange to insist that this particular wavefunction describes something which does not exist! When we make use of wavefunctions in experimental physics, they never refer to ‘nothing’; they always refer to ‘something.’ Even the ‘quantum vacuum’, which people sometimes confuse with ‘nothing’, actually refers to an entity with real properties, the most obvious of which is a zero-point energy that has measurable effects on experiments. To posit a wavefunction which describes ‘nothing’ is therefore to posit a wavefunction which is unlike any wavefunction we’ve ever encountered.

So, you can’t get something from nothing by appealing to quantum mechanics after all.

Now, I’ll just add to his article based on something he mentioned – the quantum vacuum. A further requirement of cosmologies that have our universe come into being as a result of a quantum fluctuation is that there exists a quantum vacuum outside our universe that provides the environment for the quantum fluctuation that creates the universe. And of course, this quantum vacuum is not nothing. Alexander Vilenkin explains:

And of course, we have no direct evidence of that quantum vacuum that must exist outside of our universe. If it exists, then it’s outside our universe – outside of our ability to investigate it. The only argument for its existence is that naturalists need it to be there in order to undermine the cosmological argument.

Here’s William Lane Craig talking about quantum vacuum models of the universe:

William Lane Craig has an article that he published a while back which lists problems with naturalistic cosmologies.

I hope that’s enough for everyone to respond to the speculation that QM can cause a beginning of the universe out of nothing.

Previously, I’ve featured Neil’s defense of objective morality, his lecture on science and religion, his lecture on the resurrection of Jesus, and his introduction to quantum mechanics, all of which were really popular. These are easy to understand, but substantive, too.

2 thoughts on “Neil Shenvi: can quantum fluctuations make something appear out of nothing?”

  1. Thanks for posting this, WK – it came across my desk right when I was debating this point! Really good stuff which confirmed the line of attack I was on.

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