Tag Archives: Neil Shenvi

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

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity 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.

Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? A response to Bart Ehrman

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Dr. Neil Shenvi comments on Bart Ehrman’s hypothesis that Jesus was a “failed apocalyptic prophet”.

Here is the outline page, and the outline points:

  1. Great swaths of agreement
  2. Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
  3. Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
  4. Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
  5. Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?

We’ve talked about 1 and 2 before, so let’s look at #3.

Here’s the problem:

In this section, I want to consider a third major point of divergence between Ehrman and evangelicals: the issue of Jesus’ status as an apocalyptic prophet. Christians throughout history have agreed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in the sense that he preached about God’s coming judgment and urged people to repent, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Where Christians disagree with Ehrman is over the issue of timing: did Jesus believe and in fact predict that the Final Judgment of the world by the Son of Man would occur within the lifetime of his followers? This difference is important because if Jesus did predict that the end of the world would occur within a generation of his death, this would obviously call into question his claim to be divine.

Ehrman thinks that Jesus was making apocalyptic predictions about events that would occur within a generation of his death. He also thinks that Jesus is talking about the end of the world, rather than using apocalyptic language to refer to some other calamity. So, if Jesus is predicting the end of the world sometime soon after his death and that never happened, then he cannot be God stepping into history. He made a big mistake about something important. So how do we explain Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies?

Well, most scholars agree that Jesus’ predictions of destruction in Mark 13 (and echoed in Matt 24 and Luke 21) predate the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and Neil thinks that he was referring to that event, and not the end of the world and final judgment.

Shenvi has 3 arguments for his view, let’s look at just one:

First, notice that Jesus’ use in [Mark 13] v. 29-30 of the phrases “these things… all these things” is a deliberate echo of Peter’s question in v. 4 about when “these things” will happen and when “all these things” will be fulfilled (the underlying Greek phrases are also identical). But in v. 4, Peter was asking about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had just predicted in v. 2. While Peter may have had the end of the world also in mind, the text in Mark makes no mention of that fact. Thus, whatever other material Jesus introduced in the Olivet Discourse, his (or Mark’s) repetition of those two particular Greek phrases in his prophecy about ‘this generation’ (v. 30) seems to indicate that his prediction is to be primarily understood as a response to Peter’s question.

As for the ‘cosmic’ predictions in v. 29-30, connecting an imminent, temporal judgment on a single nation with the final judgment on the entire world was a common device in the Old Testament. For example, the book of Zephaniah alternates between oracles of judgment against Judah and its neighbors, which were predicted for the near-future, with prophesies of God’s final judgment and restoration, which would occur at an unspecified future time. Similar motifs can be found in books like Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. At this point, it is unimportant whether we see the prophesies in these books as genuine predictions (the evangelical view) or as retrospective explanations of events which had already occurred (a common non-evangelical view). What matters is that, by Jesus’ time, it was understood that temporal judgments could foreshadow a future final judgment. So in transitioning immediately from the impending destruction of Jerusalem to the final judgment, Jesus was repeating a theme which had existed in the Old Testament prophets for centuries.

[…]Third, Jesus does not actually predict in this passage that the Son of Man will return within ‘this generation.’ This observation was astonishing to me, but it’s fairly clear in the text. Look again at the two key verses: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:19-30). What Jesus predicts in v. 30 is that “all these things” will take place within “this generation.” Ehrman’s contention is that “all these things” include the coming of the Son of Man as described in v. 26-27. But look again at v. 29. When the disciples see “these things” taking place it will mean that the Son of Man is “near, at the very gates.” In fact, it is nonsensical to say that “these things” include the Son of Man arriving to judge the world. If that were true, then v. 29 would mean “when you see [the Son of man arriving to judge the world], you know that [the Son of Man] is near.” As I’ve argued, it’s far more plausible to see ‘these things’ as referring solely to destruction of Jerusalem. When the disciples see ‘these things’ [the events preceding the destruction of Jerusalem], then they will know that the Son of Man is near, even at the door.

He responds to several objections to his argument and concludes so:

The three independent arguments I’ve given here support the idea that Jesus did not intend to predict the end of the world within one generation in the Olivet Discourse. In my opinion, a better reading is that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem within the next generation and saw this destruction as a foreshadowing of a final judgment which would occur at an unspecified time “after that tribulation” (v 24).

If this is an objection that you’ve heard before, you can do two things. Read the post, and then bookmark it for later. When the question comes up next time, you’ll be ready, because Dr. Shenvi has done the work for you.

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.

Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? A response to Bart Ehrman

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Here is the outline page, and the outline points:

  1. Great swaths of agreement
  2. Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
  3. Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
  4. Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
  5. Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?

We’ve talked about 1 and 2 before, so let’s look at #3.

Here’s the problem:

In this section, I want to consider a third major point of divergence between Ehrman and evangelicals: the issue of Jesus’ status as an apocalyptic prophet. Christians throughout history have agreed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in the sense that he preached about God’s coming judgment and urged people to repent, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Where Christians disagree with Ehrman is over the issue of timing: did Jesus believe and in fact predict that the Final Judgment of the world by the Son of Man would occur within the lifetime of his followers? This difference is important because if Jesus did predict that the end of the world would occur within a generation of his death, this would obviously call into question his claim to be divine.

Ehrman thinks that Jesus was making apocalyptic predictions about events that would occur within a generation of his death. He also thinks that Jesus is talking about the end of the world, rather than using apocalyptic language to refer to some other calamity. So, if Jesus is predicting the end of the world sometime soon after his death and that never happened, then he cannot be God stepping into history. He made a big mistake about something important. So how do we explain Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies?

Well, most scholars agree that Jesus’ predictions of destruction in Mark 13 (and echoed in Matt 24 and Luke 21) predate the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and Neil thinks that he was referring to that event, and not the end of the world and final judgment.

Shenvi has 3 arguments for his view, let’s look at just one:

First, notice that Jesus’ use in [Mark 13] v. 29-30 of the phrases “these things… all these things” is a deliberate echo of Peter’s question in v. 4 about when “these things” will happen and when “all these things” will be fulfilled (the underlying Greek phrases are also identical). But in v. 4, Peter was asking about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had just predicted in v. 2. While Peter may have had the end of the world also in mind, the text in Mark makes no mention of that fact. Thus, whatever other material Jesus introduced in the Olivet Discourse, his (or Mark’s) repetition of those two particular Greek phrases in his prophecy about ‘this generation’ (v. 30) seems to indicate that his prediction is to be primarily understood as a response to Peter’s question.

As for the ‘cosmic’ predictions in v. 29-30, connecting an imminent, temporal judgment on a single nation with the final judgment on the entire world was a common device in the Old Testament. For example, the book of Zephaniah alternates between oracles of judgment against Judah and its neighbors, which were predicted for the near-future, with prophesies of God’s final judgment and restoration, which would occur at an unspecified future time. Similar motifs can be found in books like Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. At this point, it is unimportant whether we see the prophesies in these books as genuine predictions (the evangelical view) or as retrospective explanations of events which had already occurred (a common non-evangelical view). What matters is that, by Jesus’ time, it was understood that temporal judgments could foreshadow a future final judgment. So in transitioning immediately from the impending destruction of Jerusalem to the final judgment, Jesus was repeating a theme which had existed in the Old Testament prophets for centuries.

[…]Third, Jesus does not actually predict in this passage that the Son of Man will return within ‘this generation.’ This observation was astonishing to me, but it’s fairly clear in the text. Look again at the two key verses: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:19-30). What Jesus predicts in v. 30 is that “all these things” will take place within “this generation.” Ehrman’s contention is that “all these things” include the coming of the Son of Man as described in v. 26-27. But look again at v. 29. When the disciples see “these things” taking place it will mean that the Son of Man is “near, at the very gates.” In fact, it is nonsensical to say that “these things” include the Son of Man arriving to judge the world. If that were true, then v. 29 would mean “when you see [the Son of man arriving to judge the world], you know that [the Son of Man] is near.” As I’ve argued, it’s far more plausible to see ‘these things’ as referring solely to destruction of Jerusalem. When the disciples see ‘these things’ [the events preceding the destruction of Jerusalem], then they will know that the Son of Man is near, even at the door.

He responds to several objections to his argument and concludes so:

The three independent arguments I’ve given here support the idea that Jesus did not intend to predict the end of the world within one generation in the Olivet Discourse. In my opinion, a better reading is that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem within the next generation and saw this destruction as a foreshadowing of a final judgment which would occur at an unspecified time “after that tribulation” (v 24).

If this is an objection that you’ve heard before, you can do two things. Read the post, and then bookmark it for later. When the question comes up next time, you’ll be ready, because Dr. Shenvi has done the work for you.

UPDATE: Jason Engwer has a post about this that goes into even more detail at Triablogue.

Neil Shenvi lectures on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data

The lecture was given to the Intervarsity group at Duke University.

Speaker 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’s the lecture:

The MP3 file of the lecture is here for those who prefer audio.

For those who don’t have the bandwidth to watch or listen to the lecture, here’s a paper that has similar information that Neil wrote.

Excerpt:

The earliest followers of Jesus were emphatic about the centrality of the Resurrection to the gospel, the core message of Christianity.  To those in the city of Corinth who were questioning the necessity and perhaps even the factuality of the Resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote: ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1. Cor. 15:17).  The reason for this connection is clear if we understand the gospel itself.  The gospel of Jesus does not say: “Here are the rules; if you obey them, God will bless you.  Otherwise, God will curse you.”  Rather the gospel says: “You have broken God’s rules and deserve God’s curse.  But Jesus was crucified for your sins and raised to life as a declaration that payment was made in full.  You can now be accepted by God not on the basis of what you have done but on the basis of what Jesus has done for you.”  Without the Resurrection, says Paul, Christians would have no assurance that they are accepted by God or that Jesus has truly paid their debt in full.  Consequently, the factuality of the Resurrection is of utmost importance to Christians.

[…]Before we can examine the evidence, we must first assess the reliability of the New Testament documents since these provide us with the most accurate information we have about the life and ministry of Jesus.  One of the easiest ways to discount the historicity of the Resurrection and of Christianity in general is to claim that the records we have of Jesus’ life are legendary rather than historical.  The main problem with such claims is that they run counter to a massive amount of evidence that we have for the general historical reliability of the New Testament.

[…]Modern critical scholars –such as the participants of the widely known Jesus Seminar- assume that only a small fraction of the New Testament is historical and that the majority of the material is either fictional or only loosely based on historical facts.  To determine what material is historical, they use three major criteria 1) the criterion of multiple attestation 2) the criterion of embarrassment 3) the criterion of dissimilarity.  If a saying or action recorded in the New Testament gospels meets one or more of these criteria, it is considered more likely –though by no means certain- that this material is historical.  Obviously, as an evangelical Christian, I believe that there are serious flaws in the assumptions made by these scholars.  But as we will see below, the Resurrection accounts meet all three of these major criteria of historicity.

[…]Lastly, I think it is very important to consider what alternative, naturalistic explanations have been put forward to explain the Resurrection.  As I mentioned before, many skeptics assume that there must be some plausible, naturalistic explanation for the Resurrection without ever considering the evidence.

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