Well, that’s not quite accurate. But it does seem, according to an article in Discover, that in their efforts to avoid the “God hypothesis,” physicists are seriously considering the adoption of another faith-based model, called the multiverse. The idea is intriguing, and it is based on the growing acceptance of the concept of the “anthropic principle,” the idea that the physical properties of our universe are finely tuned in order to accommodate life. Author Tim Folger explains:
[E]verything…bears witness to an extraordinary fact about the universe: Its basic properties are uncannily suited for life. Tweak the laws of physics in just about any way and—in this universe, anyway—life as we know it would not exist.
Consider just two possible changes. Atoms consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons. If those protons were just 0.2 percent more massive than they actually are, they would be unstable and would decay into simpler particles. Atoms wouldn’t exist; neither would we. If gravity were slightly more powerful, the consequences would be nearly as grave. A beefed-up gravitational force would compress stars more tightly, making them smaller, hotter, and denser. Rather than surviving for billions of years, stars would burn through their fuel in a few million years, sputtering out long before life had a chance to evolve. There are many such examples of the universe’s life-friendly properties—so many, in fact, that physicists can’t dismiss them all as mere accidents.
Folger gives other examples as well, and in fact there are a host of such “coincidences.” I especially liked what two physicists said about “dark energy,” the mysterious, unseen energy that seems to be driving the accelerating expansion of the universe:
“If [dark energy] had been any bigger, there would have been enough repulsion from it to overwhelm the gravity that drew the galaxies together, drew the stars together, and drew Earth together,” Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind says. “It’s one of the greatest mysteries in physics. All we know is that if it were much bigger we wouldn’t be here to ask about it.”
Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas, agrees. “This is the one fine-tuning that seems to be extreme, far beyond what you could imagine just having to accept as a mere accident,” he says.
Now, the problem with the anthropic principle is that it seems to demand what cosmologist Bernard Carr refers to as a “fine-tuner”–an intelligence that sets the physical constants of the universe up in such a way as to permit the existence of life. The alternative is the “multiverse,” the existence of an infinite number of universes, each of which has its own unique set of physical constants. It’s basically the old saw about monkeys and typewriters–if you set an infinite number of monkeys working randomly pressing keys on an infinite number of typewriters, eventually one of them will reproduce Hamlet. The theory is that through a process called “eternal chaotic inflation,” regions of the cosmos are constantly “budding off” and forming new universes that are physically different from the progenitor. If this happens enough over the course of countless years, eventually one of more universes will be formed that have the physical properties that will be congenial to life.
There’s a lot more in the article about string theory and related esoterica, but one physicist quoted by Folger seems to put his finger on the biggest problem with this idea (other than the matter of proof, which I’ll get to in a minute):
“If you allow yourself to hypothesize an almost unlimited portfolio of different worlds, you can explain anything,” says John Polkinghorne, formerly a theoretical particle physicist at Cambridge University and, for the past 26 years, an ordained Anglican priest. If a theory allows anything to be possible, it explains nothing; a theory of anything is not the same as a theory of everything, he adds.
In other words, this seems to be a way of having one’s cake and eating it, too. It sounds like a way to explain the anthropic nature of our universe, while preserving the entirely random nature of the cosmos by saying, “well, with enough time, it had to happen this way somewhere!” The problem, of course, is that it is entirely undemonstrable–there is no way to test it, certainly no way to repeat it, and no way to disprove it, either. If all the other universes have different physical properties than ours, they are by definition impervious to our observations or experiments, which of necessity must be based on the physical properties of this universe. Folger mentions such ideas that scientists have come up with to provide indirect evidence, based on string theory (which to date has itself proved undemonstrable), but each, to this layman’s eye, seems to have the problem of unproven assusmptions–they only work as evidence of other universes if one assumes the existence of them.
It’s a fascinating subject, as a matter for scientific speculation, but the most interesting thing about it to me is the religious aspect (which is taken up in the last part of the article). In order to avoid concluding that intelligent design theorists may be on to something, scientists have come up with something that is far more esoteric, far less comprehensible, but every bit as unscientific as they claim intelligent design to be. Bernard Carr puts it succinctly when he says:
On the other hand, if there is no multiverse, where does that leave physicists? “If there is only one universe,” Carr says, “you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”
The thing is, if you don’t want God, apparently what you’re left with is non-theistic religion, albeit with an abstruse scientific patina.