Article — From the December 2011 issue

The Accidental Universe

Science’s crisis of faith

( 3 of 6 )

While challenging the Platonic dream of theoretical physicists, the multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are required for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine­tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it. Actually, the word anthropic, from the Greek for “man,” is a misnomer: if these fundamental parameters were much different from what they are, it is not only human beings who would not exist. No life of any kind would exist.

If such conclusions are correct, the great question, of course, is why these fundamental parameters happen to lie within the range needed for life. Does the universe care about life? Intelligent design is one answer. Indeed, a fair number of theologians, philosophers, and even some scientists have used fine-tuning and the anthropic principle as evidence of the existence of God. For example, at the 2011 Christian Scholars’ Conference at Pepperdine University, Francis Collins, a leading geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, said, “To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability…. [Y]ou have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles.”

Intelligent design, however, is an answer to fine-tuning that does not appeal to most scientists. The multiverse offers another explanation. If there are countless different universes with different properties—for example, some with nuclear forces much stronger than in our universe and some with nuclear forces much weaker—then some of those universes will allow the emergence of life and some will not. Some of those universes will be dead, lifeless hulks of matter and energy, and others will permit the emergence of cells, plants and animals, minds. From the huge range of possible universes predicted by the theories, the fraction of universes with life is undoubtedly small. But that doesn’t matter. We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.

The explanation is similar to the explanation of why we happen to live on a planet that has so many nice things for our comfortable existence: oxygen, water, a temperature between the freezing and boiling points of water, and so on. Is this happy coincidence just good luck, or an act of Providence, or what? No, it is simply that we could not live on planets without such properties. Many other planets exist that are not so hospitable to life, such as Uranus, where the temperature is –371 degrees Fahrenheit, and Venus, where it rains sulfuric acid.

The multiverse offers an explanation to the fine-tuning conundrum that does not require the presence of a Designer. As Steven Weinberg says: “Over many centuries science has weakened the hold of religion, not by disproving the existence of God but by invalidating arguments for God based on what we observe in the natural world. The multiverse idea offers an explanation of why we find ourselves in a universe favorable to life that does not rely on the benevolence of a creator, and so if correct will leave still less support for religion.”

Some physicists remain skeptical of the anthropic principle and the reliance on multiple universes to explain the values of the fundamental parameters of physics. Others, such as Weinberg and Guth, have reluctantly accepted the anthropic principle and the multiverse idea as together providing the best possible explanation for the observed facts.

If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here. The situation could be likened to a school of intelligent fish who one day began wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then, a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves. Maybe there are, they suggest, many other worlds, some of them completely dry, and everything in between.

is a physicist and novelist who teaches at MIT. His novel <em>Mr g: A Novel About the Creation</em> was published in January 2012 by Pantheon.

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  • WintersGale

    I find it interesting even as art follows the societal philosophy of a generation (or at times generations), what this author is articulating is that science is doing the same. Currently we are in the philosophical age of post-modernism (many think we are beginning to move out and into another phase philosophy). Post-modernism postulates there is no truth, that truth is subjective to the individual. If there is no truth then it follows there are no absolutes. (No absolutes is a self-defeating logic since the statement is itself an absolute.) The author unwittingly has told us that science is following the premise established in post-modernist thought. You’ll find that artist do the same, take a look at modern art and see how they have painted,… “there are not absolutes.”

  • Boris D.

    There is no “scientific” reason to be an atheist. As the evolutionary theory continues to fall apart, and our technology allows us to see that the “fine-tuning” on earth is too complex to be a mere accident, atheistic explantions become more and more ridiculous.
    They used to say it was extra-terestrials, but that begs the question, “Who created them?”
    Now this?? An infinite number of universes, of which there can never be any proof? Puh-leeze.
    Is the idea of a God that abhorrent to them that they grasping at these straws?
    Scientists scoff at the belief in a creator because of the blind faith it requires. They label people who believe in the Divine as toothless, ignorant Bible thumpers. Now their “theory” requires just as much, nay MORE, faith.

    P.S. Eat that, Bill Nye :)~

    • Jose Hawkins

      For me, a God, gods or no god and whether or not there is an after life isn’t abhorrent, but rather the nature of religion, especially the judeo/christan interpretation. For some reason, people love to compare apples and oranges as if they are the same. No, I’m fine with the existence of God, gods or no god so long as we treat each other, all life and this planet decently.

  • slorimer

    Near the beginning the author says;

    The underlying hope and belief of this enterprise has always been that these basic principles are so restrictive that only one, self-consistent universe is possible

    And later;

    Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water.

    I wonder if these hopes are attributed by the author. It would seem hubristic and contrary to the idea of science to have a preferred answer in mind before we inquire. I imagine a scientist would be more excited to find something that contradicts what they expect than something that supports a preconceived idea.

    As Douglas Adams said;

    There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

  • Terry A Davis

    secrecies shrink transgression father eased stuff Please
    rescue infants rise troublesome mortified direction fabric
    CONSEQUENTIAL heavier rockstar Language god wittingly
    vote A deemed drive mould tookest Death bared weigh winding
    drowsiness partners returned supplied supporting govemed
    influences Carthaginian corrupt Wills tcosa10

  • Bg_Rdish

    Physics, even in its theoretical variety, has heretofore been a science. Armchair theorists can conceive a multitude of different ‘worlds’, but empiricism is still the ultimate arbiter between competing theoretical constructs. Now, if I understand the author correctly, he’s reporting that theoretical physicists are currently positing theories that don’t adhere to the traditional notion of causation and are immune to empirical falsification. If that’s the case, then theoretical physicists are no longer working in the realm of empirical science. They’ve transitioned from Platonism with respect to merely physical laws to full-fledged philosophy.

  • Hugh Beaumont

    We’re told that we are here by chance,
    There was no morning glory,
    But give me endless time and space,
    And I’ll pitch any story.

  • Rickard

    Thank you for the fair and even-handed representation of religious people and ID thinkers, it is really comforting. If more people took this fair approach (on both sides), maybe we could all get along much better and stop treating each other like dirt. This article has made me very happy.

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