This SMH article by Australian physicist/philosopher Paul Davies was published about 3 weeks ago. I intended to blog about it then but didn’t get around to it. It deals with the fascinating subject of the possibility of multiple parallel universes (or multiverses), which I assume emerges from the mind-blowingly complex M Theory, which I gather is an even more refined version of String Theory. Both theories are apparently extremely mathematically elegant and potentially viable “theories of everything”, but currently scientifically
unverifiable unfalsifiable. (Science can never “verify” an idea as such, it can only test propositions and treat them as true if not yet proven false. The longer a proposition subsists, the more tests it survives, and the more things it therefore appears to explain, the more likely it is to be true).
Even more fascinatingly, Davies’ article reports recent speculation by physicists about the possibility of multiple (perhaps even an infinite number of) Matrix-style simulated universes created by almost unimaginably superior intelligent beings from somewhere else:
The one they have come up with is multiple universes, or “the multiverse”. This theory says that what we have been calling “the universe” is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is an infinitesimal fragment of a much grander and more elaborate system in which our cosmic region, vast though it is, represents but a single bubble of space amid a countless number of other bubbles, or pocket universes. …
It’s a pretty neat idea, and very popular with scientists. But it carries a bizarre implication. Because the total number of pocket universes is unlimited, there are bound to be at least some that are not only inhabited, but populated by advanced civilisations – technological communities with enough computer power to create artificial consciousness. Indeed, some computer scientists think our technology may be on the verge of achieving thinking machines.
It is but a small step from creating artificial minds in a machine, to simulating entire virtual worlds for the simulated beings to inhabit. This scenario has become familiar since it was popularised in The Matrix movies.
Now some scientists are suggesting it should be taken seriously. “We may be a simulation … creations of some supreme, or super-being,” muses Britain’s astronomer royal, Sir Martin Rees, a staunch advocate of the multiverse theory. He wonders whether the entire physical universe might be an exercise in virtual reality, so that “we’re in the matrix rather than the physics itself“.
Is there any justification for believing this wacky idea? You bet, says Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, who even has a website devoted to the topic. “Because their computers are so powerful, they could run a great many simulations,” he writes in The Philosophical Quarterly.
So if there exist civilisations with cosmic simulating ability, then the fake universes they create would rapidly proliferate to outnumber the real ones. After all, virtual reality is a lot cheaper than the real thing. So by simple statistics, a random observer like you or me is most probably a simulated being in a fake world. And viewed from inside the matrix, we could never tell the difference.
However, Davies seems to ignore the origin of these speculations in perfectly respectable M Theory, and instead argues that they’ve been generated by determinedly atheistic physicists and philosophers to counter speculations by other physicists (including Davies himself and the late Fred Hoyle) that the universe appears to have been intelligently designed (i.e. that there’s a God of some sort):
The late British astronomer Fred Hoyle was so struck by the coincidence that the nuclear force possessed just the right strength to make beings like Fred Hoyle, he proclaimed the universe to be “a put-up job”. Since this sounds a bit too much like divine providence, cosmologists have been scrambling to find a scientific answer to the conundrum of cosmic bio-friendliness.
Now, the “argument from design” (or teleological argument) has been around for an awfully long time as an attempted proof of the existence of God. It goes back at least to philosopher David Hume. However, in most respects it’s been fairly comprehensively debunked. There’s even a web page with links to large numbers of academic and other articles devoted to demolishing the “argument from design”. The late Stephen Jay Gould loved rabbitting on in his books about how the astonishing diversity and complexity of life on earth proved nothing about the existence of God, because it could be fully explained by Darwinian natural selection given the vast amounts of time the earth has existed. The application of Occam’s Razor then requires us to discount God.
Some people have argued that you can find God in the Big Bang that apparently created our universe. What pre-existed the Big Bang and who or what made it happen? However, even Davies himself (in his excellent Templeton Prize Address) accepts that you can’t find God in the Big Bang:
Many people want to find God in the creation of the universe, in the big bang that started it all off. They imagine a Superbeing who deliberates for all eternity, then presses a metaphysical button and produces a huge explosion. I believe this image is entirely misconceived. Einstein showed us that space and time are part of the physical universe, not a pre-existing arena in which the universe happens. Cosmologists are convinced that the big bang was the coming-into-being, not just of matter and energy, but of space and time as well. Time itself began with the big bang. If this sounds baffling, it is by no means new. Already in the fifth century St. Augustine proclaimed that “the world was made with time, not in time.” According to James Hartle and Stephen Hawking, this coming-into-being of the universe need not be a supernatural process, but could occur entirely naturally, in accordance with the laws of quantum physics, which permit the occurrence of genuinely spontaneous events.
Davies’ “argument from design” instead relies on the remarkable complexity and contingency of the detailed laws of physics that allowed the universe to develop and become progressively more organised and complex after the initial Big Bang:
The origin of the universe, however, is hardly the end of the story. The evidence suggests that in its primordial phase the universe was in a highly simple, almost featureless state: perhaps a uniform soup of subatomic particles, or even just expanding empty space. All the richness and diversity of matter and energy we observe today has emerged since the beginning in a long and complicated sequence of self- organizing physical processes. The laws of physics not only permit a universe to originate spontaneously, but they encourage it to organize and complexify itself to the point where conscious beings emerge who can look back on the great cosmic drama and reflect on what it all means.
Now you may think I have written God entirely out of the picture. Who needs a God when the laws of physics can do such a splendid job? But we are bound to return to that burning question: Where do the laws of physics come from? And why those laws rather than some other set? Most especially: Why a set of laws that drives the searing, featureless gases coughed out of the big bang toward life and consciousness and intelligence and cultural activities such as religion, art, mathematics, and science?
If there is a meaning or purpose to existence, as I believe there is, we are wrong to dwell too much on the originating event. The big bang is sometimes referred to as “the creation,” but in truth nature has never ceased to be creative. This ongoing creativity, which manifests itself in the spontaneous emergence of novelty and complexity, and organization of physical systems, is permitted through, or guided by, the underlying mathematical laws that scientists are so busy discovering. …
You might be tempted to suppose that any old rag-bag of laws would produce a complex universe of some sort, with attendant inhabitants convinced of their own specialness. Not so. It turns out that randomly selected laws lead almost inevitably either to unrelieved chaos or boring and uneventful simplicity. Our own universe is poised exquisitely between these unpalatable alternatives, offering a potent mix of freedom and discipline, a sort of restrained creativity. The laws do not tie down physical systems so rigidly that they can accomplish little, but neither are they a recipe for cosmic anarchy. Instead, they encourage matter and energy to develop along pathways of evolution that lead to novel variety-what Freeman Dyson has called the principle of maximum diversity: that in some sense we live in the most interesting possible universe.
Scientists have recently identified a regime dubbed “the edge of chaos,” a description that certainly characterizes living organisms, where innovation and novelty combine with coherence and cooperation. The edge of chaos seems to imply the sort of lawful freedom I have just described. Mathematical studies suggest that to engineer such a state of affairs requires laws of a very special form. If we could twiddle a knob and change the existing laws, even very slightly, the chances are that the universe as we know it would fall apart, descending into chaos. Certainly the existence of life as we know it, and even of less elaborate systems such as stable stars, would be threatened by just the tiniest change in the strengths of the fundamental forces. The laws that characterize our actual universe, as opposed to an infinite number of alternative possible universes, seem almost contrived-fine-tuned, some commentators have claimed-so that life and consciousness may emerge. To quote Dyson again: it is almost as if “the universe knew we were coming.” I cannot prove to you that this is design, but whatever it is it is certainly very clever.
So you see, this is where the multiverse and Matrix-simulation theories are introduced to negate any suggestion of God/intelligent design, as Davies explains:
The vast majority of these other universes will not have the necessary fine-tuned coincidences needed for life to emerge; they are sterile and so go unseen. Only in Goldilocks universes like ours where things have fallen out just right, purely by accident, will sentient beings arise to be amazed at how ingeniously bio-friendly their universe is.
If there are lots and lots of parallel universes, then the fact that our particular one is so astonishingly “bio-friendly” is a mere coincidence and says nothing about the existence of God. The fact that we perceive a “bio-friendly” universe would be tritely true by definition: only in that sort of universe could we have arisen, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of other universes where we couldn’t and didn’t!
Moreover, you don’t even necessarily need to posit mutiple universes to establish that Davies’ ideas, fascinating though they are, don’t positively prove the existence of God. As Victor J. Stenger argues:
Every shuffle of a deck of cards leads to a 52-card sequence that has low a priori probability, but has unit probability once the cards are all on the table. Similarly, the “fine-tuning” of the constants of physics, said to be so unlikely, could very well have been random; we just happen to be in the universe that turned up in that particular deal of the cards.
Note that my thesis does not require more than one universe to exist, although some cosmological theories propose this. Even if ours is the only universe, and that universe happened by chance, we have no basis to conclude that a universe without some form of life was so unlikely as to have required a miracle.
But I can’t help thinking that Occam’s Razor starts to operate in favour of the existence of a God if the only way you can debunk him is with multiverses, Matrix-style simulations or even arguments like that of Stenger. It could be just chance, but …
Davies even points out in another article that the Matrix-style simulation multiverse speculations are just another (and in many ways quite primitive) version of theism anyway:
But the denizens of a simulated virtual world stand in the same ontological relationship to the intelligent system that designed and created their world as human beings stand in relation to the traditional designer/creator Deity (a fact not lost on science fiction writers from Olaf Stapledon onwards). The creator of the virtual worlds is a transcendent designer with the power to create or destroy simulated universes at will, alter the circumstances within them, devise laws, perform miracles, etc. Taken to its logical extreme, then, the multiverse explanation is a convincing argument for the existence of (a rather old-fashioned form of) God! This is certainly ironical, since it was partly to do away with such a God that the multiverse was originally invoked.
I conclude that the multiverse is ontologically equivalent to na¯ve deism. Of course, many people would regard my argument as a reductio ad absurdum of the multiverse concept, rather than as a justification of deism or theism, with God now in the guise, not of a Grand Architect, but of a Grand Software Engineer. My point is that to follow the multiverse theory to its logical extreme means effectively abandoning the notion of a rationally-ordered real world altogether in favour of a infinitely complex charade, where the very notion of ‘explanation’ is meaningless.
Ultimately, I suspect that we will always be unable to prove or disprove the existence of God (however defined). I have to confess I’ve always been personally inclined towards belief. Moreover, although my heritage is Christian and Catholic (and I even still go to Mass occasionally despite being alienated by many of the teachings of the current Pope, not to mention the Church’s chronic failure to act decisively against pedophile priests), I’m quite attracted by Davies’ version of God rather than (at least the more naive versions of) the christian God. For a start, it doesn’t require us to suspend rationality and believe in a God who created a phenomenally complex and lawful natural order, and now proceeds to meddle in it capriciously but infrequently, sometimes merely to perform cheap party tricks like walking on water or conjuring a seafood meal for big mobs of people:
So where is God in this story? Not especially in the big bang that starts the universe off, nor meddling fitfully in the physical processes that generate life and consciousness. I would rather that nature can take care of itself. The idea of a God who is just another force or agency at work in nature, moving atoms here and there in competition with physical forces, is profoundly uninspiring. To me, the true miracle of nature is to be found in the ingenious and unswerving lawfulness of the cosmos, a lawfulness that permits complex order to emerge from chaos, life to emerge from inanimate matter, and consciousness to emerge from life, without the need for the occasional supernatural prod; a lawfulness that produces beings who not only ask great questions of existence, but who, through science and other methods of enquiry, are even beginning to find answers.
Believing in a non-interventionist God (as I think I do) who intended us to live and make our own way in perpetual contingent hazard coincides far more readily with actual experience. It also solves the Problem of Evil: why would a benevolent God who intervenes to perform unnatural miracles fail to do so to save the innocent from slaughter? (Incidentally, one might ask a similar question at the moment of the US and UN in relation to the Darfur region of Sudan). I suppose it could be to punish the sons for the sins of their fathers, but I really can’t imagine how anyone could believe in, let alone worship, a vindictive bastard God like that, even if he does move in mysterious ways beyond our comprehension.
There is a certain elegance and beauty about Davies’ scientific/theological speculations:
Where do we human beings fit into this great cosmic scheme? Can we gaze out into the cosmos, as did our remote ancestors, and declare: “God made all this for us”? I think not. Are we then but an accident of nature, the freakish outcome of blind and purposeless forces, incidental by- product of a mindless, mechanistic universe? I reject that, too. The emergence of life and consciousness, I maintain, are written into the laws of the universe in a very basic way. True, the actual physical form and general mental make-up of Homo sapiens contain many accidental features of no particular significance. If the universe were rerun a second time, there would be no solar system, no Earth, and no people. But the emergence of life and consciousness somewhere and somewhen in the cosmos is, I believe, assured by the underlying laws of nature. The origin of life and consciousness were not interventionist miracles, but nor were they stupendously improbable accidents. They were, I believe, part of the natural outworking of the laws of nature, and as such our existence as conscious enquiring beings springs ultimately from the bedrock of physical existence-those ingenious, felicitous laws. That is the sense in which I wrote in The Mind of God: “We are truly meant to be here.” I mean “we” in the sense of conscious beings, not Homo sapiens specifically. Thus although we are not at the center of the universe, human existence does have a powerful wider significance. Whatever the universe as a whole may be about, the scientific evidence suggests that we, in some limited yet ultimately still profound way, are an integral part of its purpose.
But it seems to me that it goes rather further than passively marvelling about the fact that “we are truly meant to be here.” If “God” isn’t going to intervene in the world to save us from the hazard of operation of the lawful natural order “He” created, and if individual egoistic consciousness doesn’t survive death (which Davies at least implies), then we have no choice but to behave in precisely the same way as atheistic rational humanism advocates. This world is all there is for us humans. In that situation, Davies’ argument that “God” set up a universal system whose laws favour elaboration, complexity and elegance in diversity impels us in the direction of constructive co-operative endeavour; playful competition; democratic tolerance and “civility”; giving thanks for this endlessly astonishing world in which we live; doing everything we can to preserve and respect it; and pursuing happiness on this earth and not in some paradise after death. Those values and aspirations are “God’s” plan, not the Jihadic slaughter of infidels or any other form of fundamentalist narrow-minded religious nonsense.
Here endeth the Sunday sermon, brethren.