One God or Many Universes?

December 17, 2008

Should we feel forced to choose? Are there only two options, a supernatural power or many universes besides our own? Sure, either hypothesis might explain why we humans are in this universe. These two alternatives have gotten lots of attention lately. However,   Amanda Gefter in New Scientist magazine wonders if we are being offered only a trap. I tend to agree, and here’s why. If you do feel forced to pick one of the above, you are probably intuitively applying the “Principle of Sufficient Reason.” That’s a fancy designer label for a commoner’s sensical notion that anything that happens must have been caused by something else. Nothing just pops into existence, or abruptly changes course, for no reason at all, right? So, why did our universe pop into existence? If God did it, then we’re in a universe designed for us, or at least the universe we deserve. If the multiverse did it, then we’re in a lucky universe among many others, so our form of life just took advantage of local random conditions. Two intriguing choices, one big temptation. But don’t give in!

Our minds are built to seek explanations. Yet seeking explanations is one thing; arbitrarily selecting one explanation is quite another. The first is reasonable, the second is not. Hasty application of the Principle of Sufficient Reason can easily lead to irrationality. Let’s say that you find supernaturalism highly improbable or outright nonsensical. Are you now compelled to say, “Ah, then, of course it must be multiverse instead!” Scientists don’t operate this way. That’s because they also rely on that other great common sense rule we might call the “Principle of Insufficient Reason.” That rule goes, If you don’t have enough good reason to accept something as true, then just be skeptical towards it instead. These two great rules are quite compatible. Together they just remind us that we must boldly seek explanations, but we must cautiously believe them. This two-step dance is the sound rhythm of intelligent thinking.

Where there is insufficient evidence, simply be skeptical and patient. We’ll have to get used to patience anyways. On the God side, a believer wouldn’t be too impressed for long with a multiverse, since kindergarten theology prompts the question, But why the multiverse rather than nothing at all? On the other side, an atheist similarly wants to ask who made God. You see how the Principle of Sufficient Reason keeps the mind in motion. Both sides then have to argue about which, God or a multiverse, could be more entitled to status as “That Which Necessarily Must Exist.” But going to that level leaves rational intelligence far behind. Lessons learned? If you are religious, don’t think your God can stop reasonable scientific inquiry into whatever lies before/behind/around our universe. If you aren’t religious, don’t think throwing the multiverse theory at believers will help matters. At best, science’s ability to propose and test speculative hypotheses just means that no one is ever forced into choosing God. But that’s the whole skeptical point I’m trying to make here. Out here at the very edges of human knowledge, caution is wisdom indeed.



#1 Teamonger on Wednesday December 17, 2008 at 4:27pm

Personally, I (cautiously!) find the multiverse idea works for me.  Not simply as a way to stay agnostic about “God”, but also philosophically.

Throughout human history, the most consistent error of cosmology has been underestimating multiples, and the general scale of things.  We once thought there was only one continent, that was wrong.  Then we thought, only one world; one solar system; one galaxy; all turned out to be wrong.  So, why only one universe?

That being said, I don’t really like the term “multiverse”.  To my mind, the universe is, by definition, everthing that exists.  I prefer to think in terms of multi-bangs.  We happen to live in a bang which has physical laws that allow for our existence.  Other bangs (in other times/places?) may not be so amenable to our particular form of life.

Now, will someone please find a way to test my hypothesis?

#2 michael cardus (Guest) on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 6:33am

With the multiverse or single universe idea I feel that the idea of a single universe seems somewhat selfish. Selfish that we as humans feel that we are all that is there. That the planet we created just for us, and developed for us to exist.
A multi-verse has an option of creation not just being for “us” selfish self-centered species of humans.
The multi-verse leaves open in-determinism while I feel that the single universe sticks up with a deterministic perception.
I agree what are the other options? Muliple dimensions, single universe w/ out god.

#3 Clabber Grrl (Guest) on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 9:33am

The multiverse is a scientific hypothesis. The deity is not. They have nothing to do with each other.

#4 Teamonger on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 3:00pm

Clabber, the multiverse (or multi-bang) idea is seen to provide one answer to the so-called anthropomorphic argument for the existenc of God.  In that sense, they have something to do with each other.

#5 Clabber Grrl (Guest) on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 3:02pm


No they don’t, because one is testable and the other isn’t.

#6 Teamonger on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 3:09pm

You know of a way to test the multiverse idea?  Please enlighten me!   But I only meant the ideas are related in terms of human discussion, which is why John Shook wrote his piece.

#7 Clabber Grrl (Guest) on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 3:14pm


Also, I think you mean the “anthropic principle”, not the “anthorpomorphic argument”.

The “problem” of finely-tuned constants is just an emotional discomfort with the results of science *so far*. It has nothing to do with reality or with the validity of any scientific theories.

The multiverse was not proposed as an answer to this emotional discomfort, it was proposed as an answer to certain technical problems in quantum mechanics. The fact that people see it as some kind of anodyne to the pseudo-problem of first causes is irrelevant to its actual significance.

#8 Clabber Grrl (Guest) on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 3:57pm

Testability of multiverse theories:

#9 Teamonger on Thursday December 18, 2008 at 7:21pm

Well said.  I’ve seen both terms used; “anthropic principle” refering to the general ... er… principle, while the argument is a specific attempt by theists to apply the principle.

Thanks for the link.  String theory is way over my head; I simply like the multiple theory on philosophical grounds.  Interesting that the symposium was sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.