April 13, 2003


A Brief History of the Multiverse: This idea of multiple universes, or multiple realities, has been around for centuries. The scientific justification for it, however, is new. (PAUL DAVIES, 4/12/03, NY Times)
How seriously can we take this explanation for the friendliness of nature? Not very, I think. For a start, how is the existence of the other universes to be tested? To be sure, all cosmologists accept that there are some regions of the universe that lie beyond the reach of our telescopes, but somewhere on the slippery slope between that and the idea that there are an infinite number of universes, credibility reaches a limit. As one slips down that slope, more and more must be accepted on faith, and less and less is open to scientific verification.

Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.

At the same time, the multiverse theory also explains too much. Appealing to everything in general to explain something in particular is really no explanation at all. To a scientist, it is just as unsatisfying as simply declaring, "God made it that way!"

Problems also crop up in the small print. Among the myriad universes similar to ours will be some in which technological civilizations advance to the point of being able to simulate consciousness. Eventually, entire virtual worlds will be created inside computers, their conscious inhabitants unaware that they are the simulated products of somebody else's technology. For every original world, there will be a stupendous number of available virtual worlds--some of which would even include machines simulating virtual worlds of their own, and so on ad infinitum.

Taking the multiverse theory at face value, therefore, means accepting that virtual worlds are more numerous than "real" ones. There is no reason to expect our world--the one in which you are reading this right now--to be real as opposed to a simulation. And the simulated inhabitants of a virtual world stand in the same relationship to the simulating system as human beings stand in relation to the traditional Creator.

Far from doing away with a transcendent Creator, the multiverse theory actually injects that very concept at almost every level of its logical structure. Gods and worlds, creators and creatures, lie embedded in each other, forming an infinite regress in unbounded space.

This reductio ad absurdum of the multiverse theory reveals what a very slippery slope it is indeed. Since Copernicus, our view of the universe has enlarged by a factor of a billion billion. The cosmic vista stretches one hundred billion trillion miles in all directions--that's a 1 with 23 zeros. Now we are being urged to accept that even this vast region is just a minuscule fragment of the whole.

But caution is strongly advised. The history of science rarely repeats itself. Maybe there is some restricted form of multiverse, but if the concept is pushed too far, then the rationally ordered (and apparently real) world we perceive gets gobbled up in an infinitely complex charade, with the truth lying forever beyond our ken.

It is, of course, impossible to believe in infinity and still believe that our universe contains all of reality. The universe, after all, had to have come from somewhere--something precedes the Big Bang. And once you grasp this you perceive how profoundly little even our most audacious science can actually explain. This must be galling to those whose hubris has led them to believe that Man can know all of Creation's secrets, and it must be particularly bothersome that it brings them up against a "creator", even if just some kind of incident from which our universe develops, who/that is quite beyond the limits of our capacity to know or explain. How appalling that at the ends of reason we are left with nought but faith. But then again, we begin from faith, because one of the other great unknowables, besides how we got here, is whether we really are here.
Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2003 11:42 PM

It's worse than even you think for us

materialists. We are not even left with faith.

What is, is. It's difficult enough to figure out

the parts we can put our hands on without

fretting over insoluble problems.

When Emerson was leaving to visit Carlyle,

Margaret Fuller asked him to convey a message:

"Tell Mr. Carlyle that I accept the Universe!"

she said, no doubt with that kind of breathlessness

that in New England serves the function that

romance serves in the South.

Anyhow, Emerson did deliver the message.

Carlyle's response was, "She does, does she?

By God! She'd better!"

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 14, 2003 1:01 AM


Surely you don't deny your own existence, except for purposes of cocktail chatter.

Posted by: oj at April 14, 2003 1:19 AM


I think you set up a bit of a straw man here. And once you grasp this you perceive how profoundly little even our most audacious science can actually explain. This must be galling to those whose hubris has led them to believe that Man can know all of Creation's secrets.

I think you would have to look long and hard to find a materialist/scientist/atheist (choose any) who thinks science is explanatory. Science provides descriptions.
At some level, those descriptions combine to provide explanations, but you don't have to peel very many layers off the onion to get to "dunno:" How fast is an object traveling after one second when dropped in a vacuum on Earth? 32 ft/sec. Why? because that is the acceleration due to gravity. What is gravity? A property that defines mass. Why does mass have gravity? Dunno.

Nor does any science believe everything, or even most things, are knowable. Even some seemingly simple things aren't. Set four masses in motion. Since that is a Markovian system (knowing masses and vectors at any moment in time is sufficient to know their state at any time in the future), then we can calculate that future state right? Wrong. Not only does the calculation start becoming computationally prohibitive at the four body level, it is impossible to measure those initial vectors exactly in the first place. (Uncertainty principle...)

You are right, we materialists run head on to the creation problem. But your Creator is my creation problem one step removed--not solved. What created your creator?

Posted by: Regards, Jeff Guinn at April 14, 2003 7:52 AM


Read the essay. His specific complaint is that: "As one slips down that slope, more and more must be accepted on faith, and less and less is open to scientific verification."

Posted by: oj at April 14, 2003 8:16 AM

Harry & OJ - What are you doing posting at 1:00 AM?!

Jeff -

Yes, perhaps many scientists/materialists would aver descriptions versus understanding, but this is precisely where people like Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend would point out that scientists actually act
like they are trying to achieve understanding and make value judgments, despite their (the scientists) protestations to the contrary. As far as 'who created the Creator', both materialists and idealists simply resort to stopping the infinite regress at different points.

I like Davies' essays. An actual infinity (of universes) presents many logical absurdities. For example, in some of those universes, there exists a benevolent, omnipotent God that parallels the Biblical God in every respect...now, how do you know we are *not* in one of those universes?

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at April 14, 2003 9:08 AM

I can't begin to pretend to understand the math, but I have made an effort to understand quantum physics at the descriptive level. The multiverse theory started as an attempt to resolve the ambiguity inherent in Schrodinger's cat thought experiment. Personally, I'm not bothered by the ambiguity and Occam would cut against inventing an infinite number of universes to decide whether a theoretical cat is alive or dead.

Nonetheless, the multiverse having been postulated, it turns out that quantum math can't rule it out (a statement that I must take on faith). Here are some other possibilities that quantum math can't rule out: if there were a big crunch, time would run backwards while the universe collapsed; at the moment of the big crunch, an infinite amount of computing capacity would be created in which everyone who ever lived would be recreated virtually and would seem, from their point of view, to live forever. This is fertile ground for science fiction, but the fact that it can't be ruled out doesn't prevent me from disbelieving it.

Now, of course, it looks like there's not going to be a big crunch. The most recent measurements indicate that not only is the universe expanding, but that the speed of the expansion is increasing. This is attributed to dark matter (and scientists think G-d is a lame explanation). This finding is a small but palpable hit to the anti-creationists. As both creationists and anti-creationists have always understood, uniqueness weighs in favor of creation. It is now more likely that this universe is unique in space-time. I expect we will see a lot more attention paid to the multiverse by those who want to argue that we're nothing special.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 14, 2003 9:14 AM


Harry's in HI. I have a problem.

Posted by: oj at April 14, 2003 10:00 AM

And for a rebuttal of sorts to Prof. Davies, here is a Scientific American article:


Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at April 14, 2003 10:00 AM

Occam's razor requires you to minimize the number of *axioms*. An infinite number of universes is only one axiom. In fact, since the multiverse permits us to interpret QM without additional arbitrary assumptions (like collapsing wavefunctions), it is favored by Occam.

Davies claims that the multiverse leads to most universes having creators. But actually it is the assumption that reality can be simulated. Consider: Multiverse, but no simulated realities; at most one creator. One real universe, N simulated realities; up to N+1 creators.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at April 14, 2003 11:59 AM

Occam's razor means different things to different people - usually meaning that the simplest explanation is first in line to be tested
. We are back to the original problem. The minimal number of axioms is also not necessarily the 'simplest'.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at April 14, 2003 12:28 PM

I don't particularly mind the concept of infinite parallel universes.

It would be nice if universes existed where I was a world-class athlete or where disco had never happened.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at April 14, 2003 12:54 PM

In English, Occam's Razor is usually rendered: "One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything."

I was making a very, very small joke about explaining whether a theoretical cat was dead or alive by populating an infinite number of equally theoretical universes.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 14, 2003 12:55 PM

Ali --

I find it to be a lot like a five year old who, suddenly realizing that it wasn't inevitable that his mother would meet his father, starts to wonder who, in that case, would have been his father.

In the multiverse, there would be an infinite number of universes where "I" am rich beyond measure, and an infinite number of universes where "my" misery knows no bounds -- and probably some overlap. There would be an infinite number where I don't exist and an infinite number in which Halle Barre has just learned that I'm the last man on Earth.

But here I am, nonetheless, and here I will stay. Everything else is just fantasy.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 14, 2003 1:03 PM

So reason, with which many sought to banish faith, is found to be but a paltry subset of faith and Man is brought low. Ironic, eh?

This sounds to me like another straw man. Reason yields that small, growing, but never likely to be large subset of things that can be regarded as factual. Everything else is a belief, about which nothing factual can be said. What we need is a wall of separation between facts and beliefs.

Which jihadis, evangalicals, Jehovahs Witnesses etc should keep in mind.

Posted by: Regards, Jeff Guinn at April 14, 2003 2:44 PM

Even though it won't be shown at the Hall of Fame, there's a funny moment in Bull Durham when Costner asks Sarandon why people always think they are reincarnations of famous people and not schmo's.

Posted by: oj at April 14, 2003 2:45 PM

Heinz Pagels satisfied, to my limits, the

questions about running time or universes

backwards by simply observing that while

any subatomic particle actions can be

reversed (think of Feynmann diagrams),

the likelihood that the same series of

reactions that occurred will be exactly

reversed becomes vanishingly small on

the order of nanoseconds. Thus, time does

have an arrow.

That does not take care of the logical

argument of an infinity of infinities, but it

sure takes it out of human competence.

A guy at Caltech once wrote a book called

"Mathematics: Queen of the Sciences," in

which he cautioned against confusing

mathematical systems for reality.

This happens because, so often, experimental

discoveries turn out to be describable

in terms of theorems that mathematicians

invented perhaps generations earlier with

no idea that there was a material analogue.

This leads to Pythagoreanism of an

extreme kind. But there is no reason to

suppose that just because a theorem can

be written (and proven, given axioms),

it exists somehow.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 14, 2003 5:52 PM

Harry -- "[H]uman competence"? I didn't know you recognized any other kind.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 14, 2003 6:02 PM

I have not encountered any other kind. The

people who did insisted, with its help, for

over a thousand years that the Earth stands

immobile with respect to the Sun and the

other stars.

If you don't like science, you are welcome to

look elsewhere for instruction, but prudence

suggests not looking to people who have an

unrelieved history of being wrong about

material things.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 14, 2003 10:04 PM

Get the big picture right and such details tend to work themselves out.

Posted by: oj at April 14, 2003 11:22 PM

I love science. I just recognize that, as you noted, it is only a model of reality, not reality itself. In that vein, an Earth-centric universe is a pretty decent model for a pre-industrial, agrarian civilization. Most of the problems existed beyond the limits of the available instrumentation and the Greeks worked out an elaborate system of concentric spheres that explained most of the visible problems. Think of aether as the dark matter of its time.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 15, 2003 9:19 AM

And the heliocentric universe was described by a churchman:


Posted by: oj at April 15, 2003 1:59 PM

Trembling for his life.

Orrin, in "Dialogue of the Two World Systems," Galileo

said exactly that -- that the structure of the

celestial objects was the grandest and biggest

picture of the natural world.

In the introduction, no less.

So they put him in jail.

You are exactly right, though. If you get the

big picture, you've got something. The

Christian church has never in its whole history

made a statement about the natural world

that anybody outside the Flat Earth Society

believes today.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 16, 2003 12:24 AM