Monday, April 27, 2009

Something from Nothing?

Creationists tend to lump evolution, abiogenesis and cosmological questions relating to the origin of the universe into one topic which they call evolution.

Technically, neither the origin of the universe nor the origin of life is part of evolutionary theory. Creationists also tend to get evolution and atheism confused.

It’s not unusual to see a Creationist who is claiming to attack evolution but who is really attacking atheism or to see a Creationist who is claiming to attack atheism but who is really attacking evolution.

When all else has failed, Creationists fall back on what they believe is the ultimate argument. With a sneer of contempt they pout “how do you get something from nothing?”

Damn good question. I’m glad you brought that up. So, how do you get “something from nothing?”

Well, first of all one has to define “nothing.” The colloquial “nothing,” such as there is “nothing” in that box isn’t at all accurate. In fact there are usually lots and lots of things in a so-called box containing “nothing” including air, microbes, dust and heaven knows what else.

So clearly “nothing” must mean something other than the colloquial “nothing.” Perhaps it means a vacuum such as the so-called vacuum of space. Of course space isn’t really a vacuum it’s simply very, very sparse. There is very little matter separated by fairly large distances.

Ok, let’s define “nothing” as a “true vacuum,” a steady state condition of no matter and no energy whatsoever.

Such a definition makes sense in a classical universe governed by the classical laws of Physics. Unfortunately it makes absolutely no sense in a quantum universe. The reason it makes no sense is that in a quantum universe quantum fluctuations are constantly creating and annihilating particles of matter and anti-matter.

Yup, you guessed it, in a quantum universe something comes from nothing all the time.

The “something” doesn’t last very long. Generally not more than a Planck Time which is 10^-43 seconds which is like a REALLY, REALLY short time. Since the particles created by quantum fluctuations don’t last long they’re called “virtual particles.” This isn’t just “fun with mathematics.” The effect of these particles has been observed and their existence pretty much confirmed.

Oh yeah, that’s right, I forgot to mention that we live in a quantum universe, governed by quantum mechanics, and not the classical universe that our senses tell us we live it. So “something,” sub-atomic particles, are being created from “nothing” all around us all the time.

“Once our minds accept the mutability of matter and the new idea of the vacuum, we can speculate on the origin of the biggest thing we know - the universe. Maybe the universe itself sprang into existence out of nothingness - a gigantic vacuum fluctuation which we know today as the big bang. Remarkably, the laws of modern physics allow for this possibility.” - Heinz Pagels

All that it appears it would have taken to get the universe started way back when is a quantum fluctuation where the particles last a teeny, tiny bit longer than Planck Time. This would initiate what is called “inflation” and the creation of microscopic black holes from which all of the matter in the universe could have come as positive energy but precisely offset by the negative energy of gravity.

In other words, as crazy as it sounds, the universe may in fact be a big nothing. It may consist of zero energy but divided into positive energy (matter) and negative energy (gravity) parts.

Yes, it’s enough to make your head explode but Quantum Mechanics is far and away the most insanely counter-intuitive thing around. Niels Bohr said “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.”

If you’re saying to yourself “that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” congratulations, you’re on the way to understanding the universe we live it.

Do I buy the quantum fluctuation speculation explanation or any of the half dozen or so other origin of the universe hypotheses? Not really, but they’re at least as reasonable as the idea that an all-powerful Sky Daddy created the universe using magic. Besides, prior to Planck Time, prior to 10^-43 seconds, no one really knows what went on. It's all pure speculation. At least today it is. As for tomorrow, perhaps not. That's the beauty of science, it continues to try and move forward as opposed religion, which tends toward stagnation because "GOD DID IT."

But here’s the way I figure it. Religion has at one time or another declared every natural phenomenon to be the act of a god or gods. Lightening, thunder, earthquakes, pestilence, floods were all preached to be the result of some god’s wrath.

Religion has been WRONG about every single claim. As science has peeled the onion of nature, all of these divine acts have been explained as very non-magical, natural events. All that’s left to religion is the claim that creation itself was a divine act. Given religion’s track record, I’d say it’s a pretty sure bet its wrong about that too.


J.L. Hinman said...

It doesn't make sense to calim that QM is something form nothing when you already admit that "nothing" isn't really nothing.

If the conclusion that the whole of the string of contingencies is contingent is the fallacy of composition, then why isn't the conclusion that the whole fo the Vacuum flux is "nothing" also the fallacy of composition?

In other words the theist says "everything in nature is contignent" the atheist says "ah but the Infinite causal regress is not contingent, just becuase the parts are contingent doesn't mean the whole is contingent." But why doesn't the same logic apply to the vacuum flux? Just because the individual partical relative other particles is coming out of "nothing" it still has the vacuum flux as whole that is a prior condition so it's not coming out of nothing at all. It's coming out a framework that includes something.

Alencon said...

A fair point. Except that at the Quantum Level, it really is nothing.

While space is not a true vacumn and what we perceive as empty actually contains lots of stuff, the space between sub-atomic particles really is "empty."

Therefore the appearance of a new particle really is something out of nothing at least with respect to our universe.

Some have speculated that these virtual particles are attmepting to leak, as it were, from some other universe. It which case our universe may simply represent leakage from some universe that tore a big hole in whatever seperates universes.

Of course, then the question becomes, where did that universe come from?

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