Fine-Tuning & The Multiverse: Three Features of the Discussion
Antony Flew, the notorious atheist who, in 2004, who sent shock waves through the world of philosophy by announcing he had changed his mind and now believed in God, asks us to imagine entering a hotel room on our next vacation. It is an interesting exercise, the way he works it out. Imagine, as you walk in, you find the CD player on the bedside table is playing music from your favourite band. The picture over the bed is the same one you have hanging over your fireplace at home. The room is scented with your favourite fragrance. Even the minibar is stocked with your favourite beverages, cookies, candy, and the brand of bottled water you prefer. The books on the desk are written by a few of your favourite authors, and even the hygiene products in the bathroom are the ones you use at home.1
I’m not sure about you but I would find all of this either warmly comforting or slightly unnerving. I might wonder how the hotel staff gathered so much detailed information about my preferences and tastes. I would likely be impressed at their attention to detail. At some point the question of what all of this was costing me would also probably run through my mind. One thing is for sure, however; the more I looked around the room, the less I would be inclined to think it was all a coincidence. As Flew himself puts it, I would probably “be inclined to believe someone knew [I] was coming.”2
This is Flew’s way of introducing one of the arguments that caused him to change his mind. His hotel story is analogous to our universe in a number of important ways. It’s called the Fine-Tuning argument and it relies on what is referred to as the anthropic principle, namely that the laws of nature and cosmic constants that govern the way our universe operates seem to have been put in place with great precision and detail in such a way that our universe is conducive to the emergence and sustenance of life. Indeed, to quote the eminent Princeton physicist, Freeman Dyson,
The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming.3
Some scientists and philosophers have compared it to a biosphere one might find on a distant planet where almost everything about its basic structure is balanced on a razor’s edge making life possible. I’m referring to phenomena such as the fundamental laws and parameters of physics and the initial distribution of matter and energy. Quoting Freeman Dyson again,
There are many lucky accidents in physics. Without such accidents, water could not exist as liquid, chains of carbon atoms could not form complex organic molecules, and hydrogen atoms could not form breakable bridges between molecules.4
Fine-tuning is increasingly accepted
There are three features of this Fine-Tuning argument I would like to highlight in this short blog. The first is that the notion of fine-tuning, is less and less a matter of debate among the scientific community and is increasingly accepted by that community as an accurate description of our universe. Scientists such as Brian Green, Leonard Susskind, Andrei Linde, Alex Vilenkin, Alan Guth, David Harrison, Lee Smolin, Lisa Randall, Raman Sundrum, Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, Martin Rees, John Leslie, and John Barrow, are key names who have published and lectured widely on it but many others, including the most eminent scientists today, accept the notion of the fine-tuning of our universe. So whether or not you or I feel qualified to argue the case for fine-tuning, the fact is, this notion is increasingly accepted not as the conclusion of an argument or discussion, but rather, the starting point.
Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor of Physics, Stanford University, one of the pioneers of String theory, author of The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, tells why. He speaks freely about this in his writings and interviews and points out that the laws of physics and cosmology, of how the universe evolved, are very special in a way that is unexpected, a way that seems to be very conducive to our own existence. These laws could have been different, he emphasizes. We could imagine a world that did not have electrons in it; nothing would be wrong with that in basic mathematical theory of physics but if the electron were not there, then there would be no atoms, no chemistry, no biology, and of course, no people here to ask the question.
Gravity, says Susskind, could be stronger; it is very weak. If we were to compare in an atom the gravitational force between the electrons and protons compared to the electrical force, the gravitational force is completely negligible. Why, he asks, is gravity so much weaker than the other forces? We don’t know, he responds, but we do know that if it were even a tiny bit stronger, stars would burn out too quickly for life to evolve. Instead of stars and galaxies, we would have black holes and we can’t live in those, except in Science fiction. Furthermore, the universe would most likely expand or contract too rapidly.
The bottom line, says Susskind, is that everything seems to be almost on a knife-edge. If you were to change the laws of physics even a little bit, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist. Other examples are these: the electric charge of the electron, the mass of different particles, and the temperature of this universe (it is currently at a narrow range making it possible for liquid water to exist).
How many of these cosmic constants are finely tuned in this way? A couple dozen, Susskind answers, give or take a few, and there is debate about how sharp the knife edge is for various constants. For some, changing it by 10%, 20%, or 30% would make life as we know it impossible.
In Susskind’s mind, the one that is most fascinating, that is really on a knife-edge, such a knife-edge in fact that if it were to be changed by the tiniest tiniest bit, we would not be here, is what is called the Cosmological Constant (CC).
What is the CC? It is a kind of anti-gravity, a repulsive force. Physicists, through their equations, believed CC should be there, he says; in other words, they had every theoretical (not experimental) reason to believe the world should have this kind of anti-gravity. However, if CC actually existed at the levels they thought it should, it would cause everything to separate at an enormous rate (repulsion). What we’ve found as we’ve learned more about this force, however, is that this force is actually so infinitesimally small, it is only felt on the largest possible scales in the universe. It takes an enormously large space, volume, and time for the CC to actually create any repulsion.
Why is this so? Again, he notes, it is not because the mathematical equations tell us it must be this small. Quite the contrary, it is this tiny because whoever or whatever made the universe made it with an incredibly small CC. It is 10-power of 123. He adds with a twinkle, “Nobody really knows why.”
What we do know, he asserts, is that if it were very much stronger, it would have blasted apart the galaxies, prevented stars from forming. Galaxies, stars, and planets formed because gravity pulled them together in the very early universe. This counteracting anti-gravity could have prevented that; it would have prevented our existence. Scientists have never understood why it is so small. Fine-tuning is a clear fact; undeniable.5
It’s either God or the Multiverse
How does one explain these fascinating pheonemona? This leads me to the second feature I would like to highlight, namely that there are really only two explanations seriously considered by the scientific and philosophical community today: It’s either God or the Multiverse.
While some suggest the whole series of events happened by chance, as Antony Flew discovered, virtually no major scientist today is willing to argue that the fine-tuning we now realize exists “was purely a result of chance factors at work in a single universe.”6 And for good reason. People in the scientific community realize what they would have to accept to embrace this option and virtually none are willing to do so. Even Leonard Susskind, himself no Christian, raises this as a possible explanation and then simply shakes his head with the words, “Chance, I don’t think so,” before moving on to other serious contenders.
Interestingly many people, religious or nonreligious, are willing to admit that the God explanation succeeds philosophically. That is to say, it does provide an adequate explanation for the fine-tuning. The argument goes like this:
Fine-tuning (i.e., design) requires a Fine-tuner (designer)
The universe exhibits fine-tuning (i.e., design)
Therefore, the universe requires a Fine-tuner (i.e., designer).
This argument simply involves invoking a divine Mind standing behind the fine-tuning which is ultimately accountable for bringing it about. It’s what Christians, Jews, and Muslims have believed for a long time. As Flew discovered, if you would rather reject this view, then there is really only one other game in town, namely the idea of a Multiverse.
While there are a number of variations of the multiverse notion, the basic hypothesis is that there could be (remember there is no actual evidence for the multiverse, it is purely speculative) many universes, possibly billions or even trillions, each with different laws and physical constants. Our universe is simply one of this ensemble of universes and it just so happens to have laws and physical constants that are conducive to the emergence and sustenance of life, consciousness, and intelligence. According to multiverse proponents, given a large enough number of universes and variables within them, it is not surprising that one of them should be like our own.
Inadequacy of the Multiverse
While the Multiverse certainly has its defenders and anyone can read their blogs, books, or lectures to see how they give their defenses, comments by both Anthony Flew and English physicist, Paul Davies, a professor at Arizona State University who is also affiliated with the Institute for Quantum Studies at Chapman University in California, have caused me to question its adequacy in a new way.
Speaking of the Multiverse’s explanatory power, or the lack of it, Davies asserts that the multiverse, as a speculative theory, could explain not only the fine-tuning of the universe but anything at all. While this may sound like a point in favour of the multiverse, it is not. In fact, as Flew puts it, “this is not an explanation at all.”7 Davies adds, “Like a blunderbuss, it explains everything and nothing.”8 It is, rather, an unfalsifiable claim which nothing could ever refute, and therefore it makes a poor explanation for anything. It is a vacuous claim.
In the words of Flew, it is a desperate alternative with very little chance of being persuasive. He adds that if one universe requires an explanation, multiple universes require a much bigger explanation: the problem is increased by the factor of whatever the total number of universes is.9
In a very interesting analogy, he compares the multiverse theory to the explanation given by those who are willing to hold that the earth is very young even in the face of clear and opposing evidence from cosmologists and astrophysicists. Their strategy is simply to set aside all contrary evidence, no matter how clear or convincing, by speculating, or should I say, asserting that the world, and everything in it, including our rusty automobiles, worn-out shoes, mature friendships, planets in motion, even our memories, all came into existence five minutes ago, with the appearance of age built-in.
This, of course, says Flew, cannot be refuted. It, too, explains everything and nothing and is equally vacuous. He came to believe that its explanatory power is on the same level as that of the multiverse. It, too, is equally speculative and lacking in positive evidence for its existence, and it, too, explains everything and nothing. As Davies puts it, “A true scientific explanation is like a single well-aimed bullet. The idea of a multiverse replaces the rationally ordered real world with an infinitely complex charade and makes the whole idea of ‘explanation’ meaningless.10
In the end, if the multiverse explanation is equally speculative, resting on no scientific evidence base, and is comparable to the ‘Young-things-created-looking-old’ explanation given above, then it begins to appear increasingly inadequate.
Let us not forget that there is other evidence pointing to God whether one looks to the deep innate sense of morality and justice within the human psyche which points to a cosmic moral mind behind the universe, or to the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth who, according to our best historical records, himself, claimed to stand and speak in the place of God. Indeed, he was crucified for blasphemy by those who heard him directly.
Maybe the eminent English philosopher and theologian, Richard Swinburne, was correct when he said, “It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally unconnected) universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job.”11
There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. New York: Harper One, p. 114 ↩
Flew, 114 ↩
Freeman J. Dyson, Disturbing the Universe. New York: Harper & Row, 1979, p. 250 ↩
Disturbing the Universe, p. 251 ↩
Flew, p.115 ↩
Flew, p. 118 ↩
“Universes Galore: Where Will It All End?” http://aca.mq.edu.au/ PaulDavies/publications/chapters/Universesgalore.pdf. ↩
Flew, p. 137 ↩
“Universes Galore: Where Will It All End?” http://aca.mq.edu.au/Paul Davies/publications/chapters/Universesgalore.pdf ↩
Richard Swinburne, “Design Defended,” Think, Spring 2004: 17 ↩