Quantum Fluctuations

All those quantums. (What? We haven't had a good sized picture in days...)

In A Universe from Nothing?, Jake Hebert (yes, him again) opens: “Explaining the origin of the universe is an enormous challenge for those seeking to deny their Creator: How could a universe come from nothing?”

His article consists of a botched attempt to refute claims that virtual particles could be the underlying cause of the big bang, which is apparently put forward by Lawrence Krauss in A Universe from Nothing (which has been mentioned a few times over the last year or so), and by Stephen Hawking elsewhere.

Hebert says:

They appeal to the well-known phenomena of “virtual particle” creation and annihilation. The spontaneous (but short-lived) appearance of subatomic particles from a vacuum is called a quantum fluctuation. These subatomic particles appear and then disappear over such short time intervals that they cannot be directly observed. However, the effects of these virtual particles can be detected; they are, for instance, responsible for a very subtle effect on the spectrum of the hydrogen atom called the “Lamb shift.” The short lifetimes of these virtual particles are governed by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP), which says that a short-lived state cannot have a well-defined energy.

There you go. Given that he is conceding that they do indeed take place – and apparently that they are spontaneous, i.e. have no cause, which means that they avoid the whole first cause problem that keeps being raised by creationists – what’s his beef?

The HUP places a limit on the time that a quantum fluctuation can persist. The greater the energy of the fluctuation, the shorter the time that it may last. It is for this reason that virtual particles appear and then disappear after very short intervals.

Krauss and other evolutionary physicists argue that the universe itself is the result of such a quantum fluctuation. However, the HUP itself presents an apparent difficulty for this claim. One would intuitively expect the energy content of the entire universe to be enormous. Hence, even if one were to argue that the universe did “pop” into existence via a quantum fluctuation, the energy content of the universe would be so large that the corresponding time would be vanishingly small, and the newly born universe would then immediately vanish. It is, therefore, difficult to see how our enormous universe could have resulted from such a fluctuation.

While he might “intuitively expect” that the energy content of the universe would be “enormous,” that doesn’t mean that it is. After all,

Evolutionary physicists argue, however, that if the total energy content of the universe were exactly zero, then a universe resulting from such a fluctuation could persist indefinitely without violating the HUP. This is admittedly a clever argument. Have the “new atheists” found a genuinely convincing way to explain our universe’s existence apart from God?

Obviously, Hebert thinks otherwise:

Not really. The argument hinges on the claim that the total energy of the universe is exactly zero, and this claim is based squarely on Big Bang assumptions. Stephen Hawking writes:

The idea of inflation could also explain why there is so much matter in the universe….The answer is that, in quantum theory, particles can be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle pairs. But that just raises the question of where the energy came from. The answer is that the total energy of the universe is exactly zero.

This from A Brief History of Time, a book that I have never read but happen to have (so I probably will read it soon). I found the quote on page 143 of my copy – on Hebert’s it is apparently on page 133.

The cunning Dr Hebert has cut of Hawking before he can explain how he really knows that the total energy content of the universe is zero, allowing Hebert to claim that “Despite Hawking’s blithe assertion, no human being can possibly know the precise energy content of the entire universe.” The stuff in the ellipses is genuinely unnecessary for us, but the quote continues:

The matter in the universe is made up of positive energy. However, the matter is all attracting itself by gravity. Two pieces of matter that are close to each other have less energy than the same two particles a long way apart, because you have to expend energy to separate them against the gravitational force that is pulling them together. Thus, in a sense, the gravitational field has negative energy. In a case where the universe is approximately uniform in space, one can show that this negative gravitational energy exactly cancels the positive energy represented by the matter. So the total energy of the universe is zero.

Now, twice zero is also zero. Thus the universe can double the amount of positive energy and also double the negative gravitational energy without violation of the conservation of energy. […And so on, to the effect that while this doesn’t normally happen it does take place under inflationary conditions, with a justification as to why that is.]

As you might be able to tell, this is a powerful idea which rather ruins most of the creationist attempts to call the big bang impossible. The explanation also leaves Hebert’s response high and dry, which continues after the ‘blithe assertion’ line:

In order to verify the claim that the total energy content of the universe is exactly zero, one would have to account for all the forms of energy in the universe (gravitational potential energy, the relativistic energies of all particles, etc.), add them together, and then verify that the sum really isexactly zero. Despite Hawking’s intelligence and credentials, he is hardly omniscient.

So the claim of a “zero energy” universe is based, not on direct measurements, but upon an interpretation of the data through the filter of the Big Bang model. As hinted in the above quote, the claim comes from inflation theory, which states that the universe underwent a short, accelerated period of expansion shortly after the Big Bang. But “inflation” is an ad hoc idea that was attached to the original Big Bang model in order to solve a number of serious (and even fatal) difficulties. Hawking, Krauss, and others are making the claim of a zero energy universe because it is an expected consequence of inflation theory. However, for someone who does not have an a priori commitment to the Big Bang (and inflation theory), it is not at all clear that the universe’s total energy would be exactly zero. In fact, it seems extremely unlikely.

No, it is instead a consequence of a situation where “where the universe is approximately uniform in space” – something that does not in any way rely on big bang assumptions.You can see why this refutation is “botched.”

Hebert moves in the direction of the ‘where did physical laws come from’ idea we saw from Vardiman just before:

Moreover, when virtual particles momentarily appear within a vacuum, they are appearing in a space that already exists. Because space itself is part of our universe, the spontaneous creation of a universe requires space itself to somehow pop into existence.

The question there is, ‘is space itself part of the package’? I’d say ‘yes.’

In his recent book, Krauss spends very little time addressing this key point. Most of the book consists of a defense of the Big Bang, anecdotal stories, and criticisms of creationists. It is only near the end of the book that he actually seriously addresses this key issue (how space itself could be created from nothing), but he spends very little time on it, despite the fact that the book is over 200 pages long. He argues that quantum gravity (a theory that merges quantum mechanics and general relativity) could allow space itself to pop into existence. One obvious problem with this claim is that a workable theory of quantum gravity does not yet exist.

Oh no! I’m not sure that this actually prevents Krauss’ explanation, because I haven’t read his book to know exactly how much Hebert is misrepresenting its contents and claims.

Moreover, the general claim that the laws of physics could have created our universe suffers from a number of serious logical difficulties. Our understanding of the laws of physics is based on observation. For instance, our knowledge of the laws of conservation of momentum and energy come from observations made from literally thousands of experiments. No one has ever observed a universe “popping” into existence. This means that any laws of physics that would allow (even in principle) a universe to pop into existence are completely outside our experience. The laws of physics, as we know them, simply are not applicable here. Rather, the spontaneous creation of a universe would require higher “meta” or “hyper” laws of physics that might or might not be anything like the laws of physics that we know.

Hebert is shooting himself in the foot. Watch:

But this raises another problem. Since such hypothetical meta or hyper laws of physics are completely outside our experience, why do atheistic physicists naively assume that rules like the HUP would even apply when describing the universe’s creation? They freely speculate about other (unobservable) universes in an alleged “multiverse” that can have laws of physics radically different from our own. Since the HUP is known to be valid only within or inside our universe, it is not at all clear why they would assume that the HUP would even apply when discussing our universe’s creation. Perhaps the HUP is indeed part of these hyper laws of physics, but one could just as easily argue that it is not. One can engage in all kinds of speculation here, but such speculation is not science.

In other words, according to him we need not consider the laws of our universe when discussing its origins, which means that all of the creationist claims that the big bang was impossible are entirely without merit.* Think about it.

Oh, and Hebert saying that “such speculation is not science” is irrelevant, because nobody is seriously arguing his bollocks about “hyper laws of physics.”

His article continues, talking again, as I said, about how the laws of physics must have come from somewhere (I dispute that it’s even possible to have a universe without laws, but it’s getting late and I’m sure this will come up again soon), and then talks a bit about how“chemical evolution” is impossible, again missing the point.

*Not that they weren’t already.

5 thoughts on “Quantum Fluctuations

  1. Even accepting that Hebert’s physical analysis was accurate, it still runs-up against the problem of the fact that he’s trying to argue in favour of Biblical creationism by arguing against modern cosmology. Even if there had to be a “Prime Mover,” there’s no reason to assume that this Mover had to be a person, much less the Christian god. As seems par for the course for creationists these days, he is setting-up a false dilemma, and then using strawman arguments in a vain attempt to discredit the non-biblical alternative.

    • I must say I like Seth Shostak’s “it could be that this universe is merely the science fair project of a kid in another universe,” though I’m open for a better example.

  2. Here’s what really gets me:

    ““Explaining the origin of the universe is an enormous challenge for those seeking to deny their Creator:…”

    Oh yeah, nobody who looks at the empirical evidence would ever get the idea that there may not exist any uncaused, immaterial consciously cognitive supernatural creator God unless they were “seeking to deny their creator.”

    Can you say “presuppositionally poison the well?” I knew that you could! (Apologies to Mr. Rogers.)

    Yes, when one (like Jake Hebert) is him- or her-self presuppositionally biased, all one has to do to thrill one’s adoring audience is to accuse or imply that the opposing viewpoint is not objectively arrived-at.

    And also:

    “…How could a universe come from nothing?”

    Well, yes, that is the question. Christian theists say that an immaterial, consciously cognitive supernatural creator God has always existed uncaused who “miraculously” created the universe from nothing.

    Did you catch that? Theists, saying the universe came (miraculously) “from NOTHING!” And THEN they have the brass to say that scientists preposterously propose that the universe…wait for it…came from NOTHING!

    Can you say “Almighty irony?” Or “spaghetti logic?” Again, I knew that you could.

    Clearly, the “nothing” of theists and philosophers [0+0=0] is not the same thing as the “nothing” (or “void” or physical “vacuum”) of empirical scientists [1+(-1)=0]. Scientists MAY or may NOT be right, and a(n asserted) uncaused, immaterial, consciously cognitive supernatural creator God MAY or may NOT exist, but one will not find a resolution to these issues by plumbing or bottom-feeding the shallows of YEC logic.

    (Apologies to George Will.)

    My presupposition is that there MAY or may NOT exist a supernatural creator God, and I seek neither to “deny my creator” (if indeed I have a creator) nor to “embrace my creator” (if indeed I have a creator), but rather and honestly simply to FIRST discover/learn WHETHER or not I actually HAVE an existential creator. Thus far I have not found hide nor hair (objectively or experientially personally subjectively) of any supernatural creator God, and so presently I do not believe any such exists. But I’ll keep seeking to learn which is the case.

    • And I think we all DO have presuppositions. The thing is, if we all DO have presuppositions, then for one of us (a YEC, f’instance) to complain of another (me, a godless Old-Earth Evolutionist) that, “well, HE has a presupposition” is to say NOTHING IMPORTANT (since we all have one).

      UNLESS of course one’s presupposition itself takes a biasing a priori position and holds fast no matter what evidence next comes down the pike.

      Here’s MY lifelong presupposition respecting the question of whether any uncaused immaterial consciously cognitive supernatural creator God exists and has always existed:

      Such a being [an uncaused immaterial consciously cognitive supernatural creator God who has ALWAYS existed and created the universe ex nihilo] MAY or may NOT exist.

      That’s it, that is the ONLY presupposition I (for one) have respecting the existence of any immaterial, consciously cognitive supernatural creator God who has always existed uncaused.

      Presently I do NOT BELIEVE any such God actually exists (on grounds of an utter absence of any OBJECTIVE or personal purely-SUBJECTIVE-of-my-OWN evidence which crucially supports the claim that such a God exists); but I do not rule out the possibility that such a God exists (because I recognize that an absence of evidence is not the same thing as definitive evidence of universal absence) about whom I simply presently have no objective or subjective-of-my-own knowledge, and my ONLY presupposition on the matter does NOT bias me one way or the other.

      Once I can get a religionist who is in dialogue with me to understand that my actual presupposition respecting [alleged] God is existentially preeminently neutral and does not bias my present lack of belief, normally he or she will simply change the subject — but occasionally one will fluster-up and find the temerity to accuse me of lying; it is simply fascinating how cherished religious notions render folks so colossally arrogant as to claim to know more about another person than that other person knows about his own self!


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