Essay

Universe, Multiverse, and God

By June 9, 2015 8 Comments
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Last week I spent a few days at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena to sit in on a small conference of scholars who were presenting their findings on nine projects investigating the theme of randomness and divine providence. It was a heady couple of days filled with the permutations of game theory, computer simulations for the development of complex structures, and theological ponderings on how we can still perceive God to be active in a quantum cosmos that we now know contains a lot of built-in randomness and indeterminate events. Most of the upper level (and a good bit of the lower level!) math went right past me, and some of the papers were founded on better biblical concepts of God than others. Still, I enjoyed the conference immensely.
One topic that came up (though it was not a primary focus) was the subject of the multiverse. Increasingly in some circles of physics it has been theorized that our observable universe is just one of untold numbers of other universes. We have no empirical access to these other universes, mind you, and few are certain we will ever have anything that counts as empirical evidence for their existence. Even so, we are told, the mathematical equations that predict the existence of (two, twenty, a trillion) other whole universes are elegant even as this theory helps to solve some other problems that nettle physicists.
I will set aside the curious spectacle of lots of “Just the facts, Ma’am” scientists taking it more or less on faith that unseen whole universes exist. I have been known to make the joke that compared to believing in possibly millions of other universes, belief in the resurrection does not look so daunting after all. (And then I am swiftly told by some that there is no comparison between believing in the multiverse and believing in the resurrection because there is some math on the side of the multiverse so . . .) But I don’t want to argue the relative merits of how much mathematical elegance may or may not pertain to multiverse theory but want to focus instead on that other, perhaps more primary, motivation: positing a multiverse solves other nettlesome problems.
What problems? Mostly just one: science has determined that our present universe seems to be fine-tuned to yield life (and even more specifically, it seems fine-tuned to yield us). As even the non-religious scientist Freeman Dyson has (now famously) said, when you look at all the evidence, the universe seems to have known we were coming. As it turns out, there was a small array of physical factors that in the first moments after the Big Bang had to go exactly right or else this universe would either have been sterile of all carbon-based lifeforms such as ourselves or it might have yielded some kind of life but not intelligent life. The degrees to which this all had to go just right are also infinitesimally small: when scientists trot out the parameters, you start to see numbers that start with a zero and then move quite a few spaces into the decimal range.
This is the so-called “anthropic principle,” the idea that the universe is so finely tuned to yield human beings (and other carbon-based intelligent life) that it looks like someone was tinkering with the works (as some other scientists have phrased it) to make it come out exactly the way it did. Humans are no accident. The anthropic principle has been seized on by many Christian believers as corroborating evidence (though not a proof) that there is a Creator God who superintended the development of the universe in order to make human life (and for all we know other similarly intelligent forms of extraterrestrial life) possible.
And just THAT is the conundrum lots of scientists want to get out from underneath. How does the multiverse help? Well, if there were millions or trillions of other universes that began in a similar Big Bang fashion to our own universe, then sooner or later the odds would have to kick in that you’d get a universe that would lead to carbon-based life. Maybe 99.9% of all the other universes out there are sterile of our kind of life but we just happen to be in the 0.1% universe that turned out this way. I mean, throw a fistful of dice long enough and sooner or later you’ll throw in such a way that every single die will turn up on the side with six dots. It won’t happen often but sooner or later the odds will kick in. (Or you can use Al Plantinga’s analogy of a poker game in the Wild West in which one player always gets all four aces plus the wild card. Somewhere in a multiverse you might get a universe where same person always gets all the aces and the wild card but . . . you do have the sneaking suspicion that the multiverse argument would not cut it with your other six-gun-toting opponents!)
There is more mathematics and other factors that go into all this than I can comprehend, and I do know of some sincerely devout Christians who think that it would just be so like God to create a multiverse (the Bible does depict God as a lover of rich, full, abundant life popping out all over, after all) and who think this while still maintaining a belief that God did fine-tune our universe to yield human life. Still, I find this to be a scientific ad hoc in many ways and one that shows how those who want to deny the existence of any God anywhere will say and do almost anything to deny evidence that might even vaguely corroborate God’s existence.
According to an Op-Ed piece in the June 7 New York Times, at least some scientists believe we will never achieve anything that counts as traditional forms of evidence for the multiverse. One can never know for sure, of course, but it’s possible that the existence of other universes will remain in the “things unseen” category even for science. Of course, if this could ever be empirically proven to be true, Christians will be able to incorporate it into a theology of creation that is superintended by a God who loves rich diversity of life.
In the meanwhile, though, the anthropic principle remains one of the most startling finds in recent physics and is—to the minds of many of us—lovely evidence for the likelihood of a loving Creator God. Yet I continue to see fellow Christians who seem eager to jump on the multiverse bandwagon even despite the obvious fact that many of the people cheering for this theory are doing so precisely to undercut any possible theological claims for the nature of our present universe. That’s the part I don’t understand.
Look, as Christians we should want to know the truth as far as we are able to know it about the nature of this universe or even about whole lots of other universes in case they really exist. Meanwhile, though, science has revealed some gloriously intriguing features to this universe and before we too quickly try to deny the implications of all that through a theory that seems improbable and quite possibly untestable/unprovable, maybe we should spend more time reveling in the anthropic principle and all that it may tell us about God, creation, and their relation.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

8 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Scott, this was great. (I saw that piece in the Times too.) Very well articulated here. Thanks a lot.

  • The thing is, as far fetched as it may be to have happened once, that it happened once is evidence enough that it could happen again. And if there are a trillion other universes
    , why the heck not?

  • Wow. This piece expanded m tiny piece of the universe. Thanks!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Right, Paul Janssen, but the point is that it is impossible to demonstrate or verify. All kinds of “why not’s” can be imagined. One or all of them may be true. One issue, as pointed out by the NY Times piece, is when science claims to be science and yet makes claims on the basis of, only, elegant extrapolations. For something to stand as science, by all accounts, there must be verifialbilty of some sort. Otherwise, as the article points out, you’ve to nothing but beautiful Ptolmaic epicycles. The other issue is, that like the Ptolmaic epicycles, the multiverse theory breaks Occam’s Razor. To explain a problem by positing an unknown, especially an unknowable unknown. New Testament scholars do it all the time (the Q hypothesis), but heretofore astrophysicists are supposed to have been better logicians than that.

  • Anthony says:

    Good post, I have similar thoughts on the multiverse theory, and the evidence for it is really really lacking from the things I’ve read. It seems like it is only a worthwhile theory to explain things if you don’t believe in God. Even then though, how did the multiverse come into existence without a God to create it?

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    A couple of random thoughts (sorry, I had to say that) on your post and the comments …

    The NY Times op-ed piece poses the correct question: “Do physicists [I would say “scientists”] need empirical evidence to confirm their theories?” The answer in my opinion is yes. Any useful (valid?) scientific theory must satisfy two conditions, summarizing what we know and predicting what we do not know. Both of these conditions require observations of some kind. Observing the Higgs boson is a triumph of physics because it was predicted by theory. In the absence of data (observations), we enter the realm of “metaphsyics”.

    Occam’s Razor is a logical or rhetorical “principle”, not a law. It is largely irrelevant to science because the best scientific theory is the one that makes the best predictions, not the simplist one. Epicycles were not discarded because of Occam’s Razor, they were discarded because they are imcompatible with a theory that understands gravitational attraction as a function of the mass of objects and describes a system in the natural coordinate of the center of mass of the system.

    Exploring the idea of a multiverse is not equivalent to arguing against the existence of God. A scientist looking at the fine tuning of our universe can legitimately ask whether there are ways of explaining this highly improbable (based on our current understanding) set of values of physical constants. One possible explanation is a multiverse. If that explanation leads to a theory that can be empirically tested (the “Higgs boson” of the multiverse), then it becomes a scientific theory subject to testing and falsification. If the multiverse explanation leads to the statement that there is no way of knowing if other universes exist, then accepting the multiverse explanation becomes a matter of faith, not science. One may take the fine tuning of the universe as an argument for the existence of God, but one cannot prove the existence of God from the fine tuning argument because their may be reasons for the fine tuning that we do not as yet know. Ergo, if I choose to argue for a multiverse (which I do not, by the way), that choice in no way indicates anything about my belief in God.

    I took a quick look at the topics that I could find in the randomness discussion and was dismayed that I could find no consideration of the role of randomness in the prediction of complex weather and climate systems. There is a rich literature on the role of “chaos” in weather and climate that is germane to this topic.

    All in all, however, it is good to know that this discussion is happening.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks to everyone who left some comments–a few more comments than usual (when “usual” = zero) is always fun. For Tom Ackerman, appreciate your comments and I think I agree with them all. Yes, the anthropic principle is not a proof, but can be part of a plausible apologetic defense. And also yes, just arguing for a multiverse is by no means tantamount to arguing against God’s existence (which is why I made sure to include the fact that many sincere Christians who firmly believe in God also think the multiverse may be true). I was merely noting that some scientists who argue for this are clearly doing so as a way to do an end run on some of the possible theological implications of the anthropic principle. I don’t have time to research this, but I know that the first times I ever encountered multiverse theory was not from scientists who had proof but from Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins types who cast this as a possible way around a fine-tuned universe that had implications they cared for not one whit. I am not saying multiverse sprang from philosophers casting about vis-a-vis scientists with proof but if the former has any historical traction, it would tell us a lot. In any event, thanks for your comments–much appreciated!

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