In which we examine a curious claim about quantum mechanics and the creation of the universe.
[How can Christians respond to the] claim that almost every atheist is clinging to right now, namely that quantum mechanics proves something can come from nothing?
JH is referring to the common atheist tactic of explaining how the universe could be created ex nihilo without a cause (aka a Creator) by invoking a phenomenon in quantum mechanics known as virtual particle production.
Virtual particle production refers to particles suddenly popping into existence from the vacuum of space. For those of us used to the decidedly Newtonian appearance of the world, this seems very strange, but it’s a real phenomenon in the quantum mechanical world. Atheists like to invoke it when arguing about who or what caused the universe: the claim is, these particles are uncaused and come from nothing, therefore it’s possible for things like universes to pop into existence uncaused and from nothing, therefore God is superfluous. The problem with this claim is that virtual particles are neither uncaused nor do they come from nothing. Let’s examine the latter claim first.
If you were able to look at the universe at the quantum mechanical level, you’d notice it was a very jittery place, with virtual particles fluctuating into and out of existence. In order for these virtual particles to fluctuate into existence, they must “borrow” energy from the vacuum energy, which is the background energy of space. This is because, according to Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, matter and energy are two sides of the same coin. If you want to make matter, you use energy (the reverse is also true, which is how nuclear fusion works). Even though we’re accustomed to thinking of a vacuum as nothing, in this case it is definitely something. The vacuum energy of space is something, so right away this tells us that virtual particles don’t come from nothing.
But there’s another problem — these particles don’t exist for very long. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle — which tells us that we can’t simultaneously know the precise amount of energy and the precise duration of time for an event — allows virtual particles to borrow energy from the vacuum energy provided they return that energy in a very short amount of time. Here’s the key: the more energy they borrow, the more quickly they must return it.
Let’s look at a practical example using a particle called a meson with a mass about 1/10th that of a proton. (Protons reside in the nucleus of an atom, and have a mass of about 2 x10-27 kg.) For a meson to pop into existence, it could only borrow the required energy for about 10-23 second. Written out in decimal form, that’s 0.00000000000000000000001 second. Remember, the more energy a particle borrows, the more quickly it has to return it. A conservative estimate for the number of protons in the observable universe is 1080 (which I am not going to write out in decimal form), which means that for a “virtual universe” to fluctuate into existence, it would exist for an extraordinarily short amount of time — just 10-103 second, which is far shorter than the 14 billion years we’ve measured for the age of the universe.
Now let’s examine the claim that virtual particles pop into existence uncaused. That’s just false. As theoretical physicist Matt Strassler explains on his wonderful blog, virtual particles are disturbances in space caused by the presence of other particles in that space. They’re not even really particles, which is why they’re called “virtual particles.” The upshot is, if certain conditions must exist in order for something to happen, then that something is not uncaused.
- When atheists invoke quantum mechanics to try to explain how the universe could be created from nothing naturalistically, they are abusing the notion of nothing.
- Virtual particles borrow energy from the background energy of space, therefore they do not come from nothing.
- For something to fluctuate into existence, the more massive it is, the briefer its lifetime. According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the observable universe could only exist for 10-103 second, far shorter than the 14 billion years we measure.
- Virtual particles are caused by the presence of other particles, therefore they are not uncaused.
- There is no physical evidence of anything in the universe ever coming into existence uncaused and from nothing.