The title of Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s newest book is both enlightening and baroque and is worth reproducing in full:
Worlds without end: the many lives of the multiverse…in which are discussed pre-, early-, and postmodern multiple-worlds cosmologies; the sundry arguments for and against them; the striking peculiarities of their adherents and detractors; the shifting boundaries of science, philosophy and religion; and the stubbornly persistent question of whether creation has been “designed.”
Such is this impressive and graceful book in nuce, and so let us use the full title to crack this book open.
The lives of the multiverse. As Rubenstein notes in her Introduction, the multiverse, a term coined by William James, has become mainstream. To cite only a few examples, the multiverse has been depicted in television shows such as Community and Family Guy, presented in popular science books like Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality or Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, and even used a backdrop as in Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves’ Young Adult trilogy InterWorld. One may have even run across the meme of the ‘Darkest Timeline’, or suspect that one is currently within it. Yet long before twentieth-century cosmology, quantum mechanics, or string theory all came to propose in their own ways different multiverses, and even longer before its adaptations in entertainment, the provocative and startling idea of multiple or parallel universes has had a long pedigree.
The pre-, early-, and postmodern multiple-world cosmologies. Most of Rubenstein’s book is dedicated to tracing the proposals of (and reactions to) the multiverse, or a multiple-world cosmology, within western cosmology, philosophy, and theology, and Rubenstein shows herself to be an able and agreeable guide. The reader is led through the kosmoi of Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle’s de caelo and Metaphysics, the ancient Atomists, the Stoics, and Augustine and Origen make brief appearances as well (Chapter 1). We read about Thomas Aquinas’ cosmology and the stunning and radical cosmotheological visions of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno (Chapter 3). Despite the premature demise of the wayward Dominican Bruno, the seventeenth century witnessed a blossoming of interest in other worlds which was somewhat tempered by Kepler, Descartes, and Newton. Nevertheless even Newton’s more occasional and wilder suggestions and the early Kant’s Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens continued upon and expanded theorization/speculation regarding the multiverse (Chapter 4). We then leap into the twentieth century and the various reincarnations of the multiverse meditated to us through inflation and string theory run amok and through different cyclical models of the birth and demise of universes (Chapter 5). This bewildering carnival of multiverses is then ended with descriptions of quantum multiverses (provided by both the Copenhagen and Many-Worlds Interpretations of quantum mechanics), black holes, manufactured and virtual multiverses, and Max Tegmark’s impossibly daring ‘Mathematical Universe Hypothesis’. The reader can easily stagger not only before the cosmological speculations being offered, but also before the sheer time, effort, and erudition necessary on behalf of this book’s author to present so capably these speculations.
The sundry arguments for and against them; the striking peculiarities of their adherents and detractors. Why a multiverse? Why not? The arguments for and against the different multiverses come from every which way. The arguments, both for and against, run the gamut from the scientific (the empirical, deductive, and speculative), to the aesthetic, to the theological, and even to the existential. It is as fascinating to witness the entirely sympathetic reactions of some physicists to the more bewildering and admittedly terrifying implications of twentieth-century cosmology as it is to watch some others definitively rule out the existence of any creator. These brief reports of and looks into the responses, intuitions, and agendas behind the arguments for and against interject a refreshingly human element into the multiverse controversies.
The shifting boundaries of science, philosophy, and religion. That the boundaries between the scientific, philosophical, and religious are porous is clear throughout the book, but nowhere clearer than in ‘Unendings’, the book’s final chapter. Here we meet the likes of Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, who opposes the multiverse hypothesis not directly on behalf of God, but on behalf of reason (and here the Cardinal could potentially invoke some physicists as allies) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose God not of the gaps of our knowledge but of the center of our quotidian lives seems to resonate with Rubenstein. We are also given Friedrich Nietzche’s remarks on ‘the scientists’ from On the Genealogy of Moral, that third and last class of ascetics still within the thrall of Hume’s ‘monkish virtues’. Rubenstein nicely sums up these shifting boundaries when noting, ‘every multiverse hypothesis opens in one way or another onto uncannily metaphysical—even theological—terrain. Each scenario requires us to assent to worlds, gods, or generative principles that remain, in the words of an old English hymn, “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes”’ (220).
The stubbornly persistent question of whether the creation has been “designed”. The perennial question of universe, now multiverse’s ‘design’ also surfaces at various points throughout the book. Alongside the reflections on Hume, Kant, Paley, there is also discussion of what folk think is to be done about the staggering degree of our universe’s ‘fine-tuning’ and the anthropic principle (in both its Weak and Strong versions), which is arguably design come-of-age.
Worlds without end. What, then, of the phrase which begins the book’s title? Is this play on a doxology merely playful?1 Is it an amused rejoinder to the hymn or a spontaneous participation in awe before the starry skies above us? To whom or to what, for Rubenstein, might sung a hymn be sung?
As this all too brief reading of the book’s full title makes clear, Rubenstein’s has offered us much and much to learn and discuss. Nancy Frankenberry begins our symposium by boldly tackling the problem of fine-tuning, while Noreen Khawaja asks questions regarding the modern and recent shifts within science and between science and religion detailed in the book. Graham Ward considers the ‘scientific imagination’, and its subject, at work in these breathtaking cosmological discoveries and speculations. Oliver Davies returns to the question of the boundaries of science and religion and wonders what resources allowed medieval theologians to anticipate such a lively and enthralling cosmos. Ted Peters directly addresses the question of God in conversations about the multiverse, and ends by noting that more important than knowing whether God exists, is knowing whether God is a gracious God. A hearty thanks to Mary-Jane Rubenstein for writing such a wonderful book, for her participation, and to our panelists for their thoughtful contributions.
While ‘world without end’ is perhaps most famous as the final phrase of the Gloria Patri as rendered in Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, it also appeared in the slightly translation of Ephesians 3:21 given in “Cranmer’s Bible”, the Great Bible, although the phrase has been documented as early as the start of fourteenth century.↩
WORLDS WITHOUT END IS a book about connections: how our cosmos is connected to other cosmoi, how cosmology itself is connected to ethics and to aesthetics, how scientific cosmologies are connected to theological cosmologies (not only from a historical point of view), and, thanks to a quantum twist, how thinking about the cosmos is connected to the cosmos itself, to the shape and the structure that we observe, speculate about, entertain. Centering on what she calls the “stubbornly persistent” question of whether the universe is the result of “design,” Rubenstein’s work unfolds as a treasure trove of the historical ironies of speculative philosophy. Dark matter, it turns out, may imply a form of pantheism. The Copernican revolution may have been a restoration of pre-Socratic cosmology. And the argument Lucretius formulates against design (and against the project of a theistic cosmogony) appears to be much the same as that used by David Hume’s Demea (a most vocal proponent of a devotional monotheism). In fact Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion could be seen not only as one particular source within Rubenstein’s historical study but also a formal template of the book as a whole. At its strongest, Worlds Without End does for the history of cosmology something like what Hume’s Dialogues did for the idea of a natural religion––demonstrating the consistency of views that appear to be opposed, reordering the apprehensions as well as the comforts of reasoned disagreement.
The broadest arc of the book tells a story about the reappearance of cosmology within mainstream scientific discourse. For several hundred years, cosmology remained on the sidelines of experimental science. “Whereas every other secular discipline studies objects within the world,” Rubenstein explains, “cosmology studies the universe itself.”1 Relative to these other modern sciences, cosmology was considered to be insufficiently objective. But in the twentieth century things changed. Technological developments made it possible to gather empirical evidence about the structure and age of the universe (and even to ascertain that it is expanding in size). These discoveries, in turn, fueled interest in a problem that had concerned scientists at least since Einstein’s theory of general relativity: the physical conditions necessary for the development of life are extraordinarily, perhaps even troublingly, specific. As Rubenstein puts it: “The constants of nature––which, among others, include the strength of gravity, the mass of the electron, and the strength of the nuclear forces––have values that seem precisely calculated to allow life to emerge somewhere in the universe.”2
This, Rubenstein argues, is where the idea of a multiverse comes in. For while such precise calibration is difficult to account for if we consider the universe on its own, it becomes much less bewildering if we suppose that the universe is actually just this universe––one of an infinity of universes, that is, each of which with its own particular orchestration of physical forces. In some, gravity is stronger and the universe implodes. In others it is weaker and matter is too quickly dispersed to form things like planets. But in a very, very small fraction of universes, things are simply bound to go “right.” In the shadow of the multiverse hypothesis, in other words, life goes from being virtually inconceivable to being statistically necessary. So while physicists may have come to admit something like the premise of the old design argument, they now have no need for its conclusion.
One of the most fascinating subplots in Rubenstein’s story involves the work performed by ideas of “religion” and of the “biblical” (which latter term she consistently keeps between quotes). In the language of scientists struggling to reflect on the broad implications of the recent turn to cosmology, such terms operate almost defensively, recharging this unfamiliar terrain in the terms of a conventional opposition. If the big bang hypothesis ushered in a “return of the mythological at the heart of modern science,”3 in Rubenstein’s succinct phrase, then it also gave rise to a renewed sense of urgency to mark off the border between the legitimate, scientific mythoi and the illegitimate, religious ones. Up until the first few decades of the twentieth century, there seems to have been little reason to doubt the quintessential modern view of religion as that which science does, should, and will undermine. Then suddenly physicists begin to debate––and in no small measure to accept––the possibility that the universe began with something like a “primeval atom” that exploded in a burst of light. As astronomer Robert Jastrow summarizes: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream.”4
As it turns out, story is the operative word in that sentence. The renewal of mythology at the heart of science does not simply mean a resurgence of speculative stories about the origin and nature of the cosmos; it also means a greater consciousness about the role that stories play in the work of modern science.5 “The resemblance between modern science and what physicists considered a ‘biblical’ mythos was so strong and so disturbing that it prompted the renegade British astronomer Fred Hoyle [who first coined the term “big bang” during a BBC radio broadcast in 1949) to look for a different story to tell—preferably one that did not ‘aid and abet’ religion.”6 Or, regarding the three reigning theories about the end of the universe (“a continually expanding void, an infernal implosion, or a great cosmic shredding”): “Faced with the equally awful possibilities of the whimper, the crunch, and the rip, it seems that some physicists are looking for a different story to tell.”7 The narrative also appears with the rise of the “new ekpyrotic” model of the cosmos (continual destruction and rebirth): “Rather than relying on a host of extracosmic kosmoi to explain the one we are in, Steinhardt and Turok therefore set out to find a different story to tell.”8 In one sense the final two chapters of Worlds Without End read as a lively summary of key ideas and debates within contemporary scientific discussions of the multiverse. Seen from another angle, they also read as an account of the rise of metanarrative anxieties within late modern science.
Rubenstein sees these anxieties as one indication of a potentially profound shift in the relation religion and science in the modern period. Around the theory of the multiverse we discover that the analytical integrity of the “world” is considerably less secure than it seems, and we find that the border between physics and metaphysics, heavily policed at least since the time of the Enlightenment, has in fact become quite porous.9 The result of such changes, Rubenstein asks us to consider, is that the old antagonism between science and religion may at last be giving way to a new relation, one of “multiplicity” and “persistent entanglement” rather than of binary opposition.10 As she observes in the conclusion, both inflationary theory and string theory––two of theoretical physics’ most promising areas for those hoping to thwart the return of the design argument––“have ended up postulating a host of invisible kosmoi in the very process of delivering the world in which we live from an invisible god.”11 “If science can be regarded as the self-overcoming of a particular form of religion,” Rubenstein provocatively asks, “might multiverse cosmologies be something like the self-overcoming of science? Might they not mark the end of the fantasy that ‘science’ has wrested itself free from ‘religion,’ ‘objectivity’ free from subjectivity, and matter free from meaning?”12
The scare-quotes in this passage are telling. They point to one of the most consequential tensions at work in the history Rubenstein has set out to relate. In contemporary culture, as well as in Rubenstein’s book, the word “religion” holds together two utterly distinct sets of things: (1) the concrete and historically demonstrable “religions”—concrete religious traditions and the practicing religionists, who may or may not have a reaction to the new scientific cosmo-mythologies, and (2) the methodological (perhaps even mythical) construct of “religion” that operates in much scientific as well as much popular discourse, which refers to that specific form of mythological thinking that science is meant to disrupt. Reimagining the role that “the religious” might play in modern science requires us first getting clearer about which of these we are talking about, or at least about what the relation between them might look like in a given case. When Lawrence Krauss quotes Thomas Paine in his Twitter feed, writing, “scientists should be prepared to offend religious sensibilities,”13 is there any systematic way of understanding the connection between this methodological application of the “religious” with the “religion” of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn? Schönborn, we might recall, charges multiverse theorists not with a violation of faith or dogma, but with an “abdication of human intelligence,” with having abandoned the modern scientific project of explaining the world “as it appears to us.”14 And supposing Rubenstein is right about the self-overcoming of science, with which sort of “religion” are we to imagine it as being newly caught up?
I would wager that Rubenstein’s answer to this question would be some version of “Both.” I would not challenge such a reply on descriptive grounds. Analytically, however, it is worth exploring the diverse investments that this ambiguity might protect. The less specific we are about the distinction between the ideal methodological construct of religion (defined categorically as non-science) and the variety of empirical phenomena that fall under the name “religion” (which may have any or no particular relation to science), the more we leave ourselves open to a variety of questionable narratives. For one thing, this ambiguity facilitates the familiar idea that by undermining the features of some specific religious account of the universe (e.g., that all was born from nothing in a flash of light), science will be able to avoid doing religion (i.e., dogmatism). The ambiguity of “religion” also supports the converse expectation: science, if only it is able effectively to combat religious modes of thinking, will eventually be able to dislodge that pesky phenomenon called “religion.” Perhaps most surprising, however, is the fact that we can discern parallel investments on the religious side of this antagonism: If science is more dogmatic and less objective than it likes to believe, then on what grounds might a critique of “religions” proceed? Moreover, if after several millennia of concerted effort, science has come around to a picture of the universe that corroborates some ancient religious story, might this not speak to the legitimacy of religion itself? To put it simply: the persistent ambiguity between the discursive ideal of religion and the empirical varieties of religious experience is sustaining the sense of the antagonism between science and religion. And as I have been suggesting, this antagonism is something in which scientists and religionists alike may have a stake.
As an argument about disciplinary entanglement, Worlds Without End builds on these ambiguities more than it addresses them. At nearly every turn, I found myself compelled by the story it weaves and roused by the questions it asks. At the same time, by the end of the book, I came to wonder whether the narrative anxieties Rubenstein so perspicaciously tracks might not point to a different conclusion than the one she draws from this material. For the last few centuries, it has seemed as though the battle between religion and science turned on the question of knowledge, of whether faith and tradition could be viewed as legitimate forms of information about the world. In the context of a battle with “faith” over the rights to speak about the things we could know, science seemed content to leave to religion the metaphysical and speculative matters, indeed to cast them as more or less synonymous (and equally unattractive). The “end” of metaphysics, the “death” of God, modernity, secularization––all seemed to be pointing to roughly the same historical object. Now myth has returned to science and physics has begun to dabble in metaphysics. But does this mean that science and religion are entangled? Or might we see this as an indication that the empirical thing called “religion” is now also being asked to relinquish its claim on metaphysics? That quite the opposite of acknowledging its entanglement with religion, science is no longer content with only knowledge, and is now also waging a battle for cultural rights to the speculative imagination?
Schönborn’s criticism of the multiverse hypothesis, for one, becomes more comprehensible when seen in this light. The Cardinal’s call to respect the boundaries of “modern science” is also a call to respect the boundaries of modern “religion.” As long as we do not try to differentiate between myth, metaphysics, and the religious, “religion” retains the rights to the cosmological imagination. Once physicists begin to speak about manufactured universes and eternal generation and destruction and primordial seas, however, it is not easy to decide whether what we are witnessing is the discovery that science and religion are more connected than they seemed or that what looked like an antagonism for all these years was in fact a suppressed symbiosis.
Rubenstein, Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 231. Henceforth WWE.↩
Donna Haraway has been arguing something like this for many years. See especially her discussion of fact and fiction in the introduction to Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989).↩
WWE, 234. One might also note, as many historians of science have shown, that this fantasy was never quite as effective as it took itself to be. See, e.g., Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).↩
On the Multiplicity of the Imagination
IF, IN RESPONDING TO Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Worlds Without End, I begin with the anthropological, that is because the persistence of the anthropic principle (strong or weak) is fascinating and significant. If, in the same response, I also begin with the theological, that is because of the sense throughout this book that we are listening to what the Psalmist describes as “the deep calling to the deep” (Ps 42:7). The psalm, as numerous biblical scholars affirm, is cosmological in that it draws upon the ancient structure of the cosmos as the Hebrews conceived it: with waters above the firmament and waters below.
Augustine, commenting on this psalm, focuses on the anthropology this cosmology figures. Transposing “deep” into “abyss” (with its suggestive echoes on Genesis 1:2 and the Spirit hovering over the dark materials of the void prior to creation), Augustine reflects: “If by ‘abyss’ we understand a great depth, is not man’s heart, do you not suppose, ‘an abyss’? For what is there more profound than that ‘abyss’? Men may speak, may be seen by the operations of their members, may be heard speaking in conversation: but whose thought is penetrated, whose heart seen into? What he is inwardly engaged on, what he is inwardly capable of, what he is inwardly doing or what purposing, what he is inwardly wishing to happen, or not to happen, who shall comprehend?” Human beings are a question to themselves, the question installed by our unplumbed and unplumbable depths. For Augustine this question, which cannot be answered while insisting it must be asked, incites a ceaseless longing or desire or love or exilic pilgrimage. In the opening of his Confessions the restlessness only ends when it comes to rest in God. But in Gregory of Nyssa, in the afterlife, desire itself deepens in an eternal anagogē from glory to glory. Human beings proceeding from one dark flow in being created move towards the all-comprehensive dark flow of the God beyond being, the God the English poet Henry Vaughan (in his poem “The Night”) describes as a “deep, but dazzling darkness.” Theologically put, the depths of the human mind plumb the depths of the mind of God. Or, as St. Paul puts it: our “lives are hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).
So, in reading Worlds Without End, I am drawn into reflecting upon the human mind—only 3–5 percent of which, neuroscientists tell us, is accessible or well lit enough to be called “consciousness.” And, in particular, I am drawn to its capacity to imagine. True this is a cognitive capacity, but it pulls into its electro-chemical energy fields resources deep, and inaccessible, in the prefrontal and parietal cortex, the temporal lobe and the limbic area of the right-hemisphere. Imagination is a profoundly embodied cognition, as Marcel Proust understood: “Imagination and sensibility are interchangeable qualities and . . . the latter may without any great inconvenience be substituted for the former.” It emerges prior to language acquisition, as child psychologists have shown, though language greatly enhances the powers of the imagination that subtends symbolic thinking. It is libidinal. Like our senses, which are not at all passive but continually active, foraging our environments for information, communication, desire reaches for what it cannot understand. Desire gropes not grasps, and it bears imagination into all that groping . . . for “truth,” say, for a knowledge of what is true, “science.” Rubenstein, in her concluding remarks, observes the way “scientists believe that there is a truth outside themselves and . . . they devote themselves to the unconditional pursuit of that unconditioned truth” (230). And that pursuit is as much imaginative as it is empirical and libidinal.
Imagination and desire are complicit in belief-formation. Rubenstein demonstrates this so clearly in her persistent recognition that multiverses “demand[ing] just as much ‘faith’ in the invisible as does the design hypothesis” (220), that “physics [opens] onto metaphysics at more or less every turn” (224), and so how “modern science believes” (230). What is both so intriguing and apposite in this book is the permission for different discourses (scientific, metaphysical, theological) to overlap and enrich each other’s perceptions (and interpretations) of the world. Imagination, desire, belief-formation, all rooted deeply in the enfleshment of our minds, are fundamental processes in the continual human negotiation of the invisible in and beyond the visible: this is what I take from Worlds Without End. And this is why it is such a different book to the many books out there on the history of cosmology.
With this book, I plumb the scientific imagination as it possibly overreaches itself. But that overreaching is also significant because the imagination is always overreaching itself in its groping beyond the sensed and visible to that which is hidden and gives them a depth of meaning beyond the surfaces of any single phenomenon. The imagination draws no lines between the physical and the metaphysical, the immanent and the transcendent. Like believing and desiring, imagining is always both anticipating and projecting. The persistent presence (for some) or shadow (for others) of the anthropic principle, marks how we can never transcend our own minds. The anthropic principle is only a case of Feuerbach reading cosmology. While we may get away from its strong, design version, we will always have to live with its weak version. Grafting Barad’s understanding of the participatory universe—“that the observer, the observed, and the instrument of observing ‘intra-act’ to produce the universe ‘itself’ as a set of provisional and shifting intra-actions” (219)—can be supported from quantum physics, but it can also find support in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty or the scientist Michael Polyani. We create the instruments to see and we only ever see as, and seeing as reveals the “shifting intra-actions” of imagination, desire and belief.
The scientific imagination is governed by certain conceptual parameters, which is why some scientists see the exponents of multiverses as “overreaching.” The concepts are drawn mostly from mathematics: probability, calculus, repeatability, predictability, modal logic, non-contradiction, calibration, consistency, constancy. It is also governed by certain disciplinary or procedural principles: to explain, to move inductively from cause to effect, to observe the evident and demonstrate the laws ordering the evident, to test hypotheses. If both these conceptual parameters and procedural principles aim at a God’s eye view (objectivity), it is an “aim.” For as Rubenstein’s history demonstrates, cosmology is pursued in very human contexts that produce fear, excitement, wonder, controversy, fashion, passionate defense, and equally passionate denunciations. Conceptual parameters, procedural principles and socio-historical contexts all impact seeing as, acting as boundary markers upon where imagination might roam, what is desirable, and the limits of the believable.
I wonder then how the scientific imagination differs from, say, the literary imagination. If Mary Midgley has exposed the mythic in scientific discourse in her book The Myths We Live By, if George Lakoff and Mark Johnston have treated the metaphors by which our physical and social existence is examined and organized in their book The Metaphors We Live By, and if, as Marcelo Gleiser proposes, that science “remains ‘under the mythic spell of the One’” (231 of Rubenstein), then a comparison between the scientific and the literary imagination becomes important. After all, many of the older cosmologies and many of the new could be categorized as “science fiction.” And some of the new cosmologies have been used in the creation of sci-fi, either in literary or cinematic form. Interstellar is just one example. Most of the popular appeal of these cosmologies, and the appeal of writers who make them popular, lies in their imaginative appeal. Illustrations of a quilted multiverse, the inflationary multiverse, the cyclic universe and “the birth of universes from the landscape multiverse” (187), become the front-covers selling Nature and New Scientist. And it wouldn’t surprise me to find their illustrators also illustrate Lord of the Rings or design the sets for Game of Thrones.
Every act of the imagination is informed by its the socio-historical context, and the literary imagination might, at first glance, seem to take no regard of parameters set by mathematic categories or procedural principles. But the Proust quotation shows that imagination works with and upon the materially sensed. Taking Proust as a particular, albeit distinctive, example, we find him, like many painters engaged on a large work, composing experimental sketches of characters, backgrounds and scenes that eventually fit suitably with the overall “world” he creates in his multivolume À la recherche. He tests the effect of these sketches on his friends and, when published as shorter pieces, the public. The mathematics that govern this “world” have to accord with the probable otherwise he can’t make that world believable. For similar reasons, like a continuity assistant on a film or TV set, he has to erase contradictions and implausibilities to ensure consistency in the plot and characterization. Scenes and themes are replayed, albeit differently, across generations in the novel composing a certain rhythm, proportionality and balance. The narrator of the novel often pays attention to the architectural structure and details of cathedrals, and the novel displays a similar elegance and design. As for procedural principles, Proust too needs to explain (though his explanations of human relations and the events they trigger are often magnificently subtle in their complexity) and he needs to abide in his plotting to the deductive logics of cause and effect. When the narrator in the final volume, Le Temps retrouvé, reflects upon his novelistic art he too speaks about seeking through all the plethora of social material, the universal, the laws governing the drama and the behavior. These laws are simultaneously: psychological, sociological, natural and (given this is the creation of a “world” and much concerned with the concept of Time) cosmological. “We suffer what is sensed and in remembering it grope towards what lies beneath the surface,” he tells us. “Reality has its hidden existence”; a reality a great writer seeks to “extract.”
The “laws” (if one can call them that since, like multiverses, we have no access to them) governing the imagination, then, both scientific and literary lies at least analogically close to each other. These laws also extend to the production of treatises and theses, for Worlds Without End is not without its own literary and scientific qualities. Mary-Jane Rubenstein writes with flair, humour, and ironic brio; conscious herself that this book is, besides all else, a literary and imaginative construction. Her literary style engages; engages in a similar way to the creation of a new cosmology or the emergence of a new solution to an equation. These are all creative acts that return us to the anthropological—what it is to be human. Being human, we are dwarfed by the enormities conceived by the scientific imagination. They are sublime in a Kantian mathematic sense. They humble us, and yet we have generated them. Although, maybe on certain readings of the simulated kosmos we might say they have been generated within us. Either way, when we come to terms with our justified Pascalian fears, we return to a profoundly theological trope: deep calling to deep. We return also to that ineradicable anthropic principle that Christian theology can embrace in terms of an incarnational logos Christology and a Pauline attention to all things being en Christō. The Orthodox Church has always understood this, and its continuous appeal to the apophatic, dazzling darkness, has meant that this theology does not and cannot lead to any argument to or from design. Thomas Aquinas only concurs: since we can only treat secondary causality, not the primary cause, then we will never be able to see as God sees. We can only see the natural world as. That does not stop though, in fact it demands, the exercise of imagination, desire and belief-formation. If Rubenstein is right in thinking that “Christianity produces modern science” (234), then to believe, with the cosmologist Andrei Linde, that “we are now entering ‘the age of anthropic reasoning’” (222 in Rubenstein), sounds very promising to a Christian theologian. The mystery of God—whatever is meant by that noun, and certainly not the name of a Grand Architect—just got more mysterious. To cite the title of Rubenstein’s previous book, this would indeed be a Strange Wonder, and the Opening of Awe. Thank you Mary-Jane.
Upsetting the Apple Cart
ONE OF THE PRIMARY challenges for theology and the study of religion today is that the assumption in our society—long held—that religion and science are at odds with one another is slowly giving way to an understanding that contemporary science, which is very different from classical Newtonianism, is in fact presently converging with religious perspectives and concerns in significant ways. Of course, as we know from our own history in the early modern period, scientific advances in knowledge have to be internalized over time and in ways that allow their cultural and philosophical meanings to come into view. This is not at all a straightforward process but rather a sporadic and multilayered one. But it is a process which we should receive as potentially a very exciting challenge. It is a historical moment to which we should pay careful attention.
In her book, Mary-Jane Rubenstein does pay it careful attention and in a way that makes an evident contribution to this encounter and dialogue. Perhaps sensibly, the book is itself framed as a narrative which begins with the cosmological thinking of Plato and Aristotle, the classical Atomists and the Stoics, before passing on to the Christian cosmologists, Aquinas, Cusa and Bruno. Seventeenth-century cosmologists and Immanuel Kant on cosmology set the scene for an analysis of contemporary cosmological theory, both seen from an “inflationary,” infinity-centred perspective and a quantum multiverse one. This narrative signals what this book is seeking to do historically, placing ancient, medieval, early modern and contemporary together in a meaningful setting which allows us to identify the reemergence of ancient debates and insights with the passage of time. I certainly benefited from the juxtaposition of thinking about the ancient kosmoi and modern multiverse theory: each illumines the other. The historical detail was everywhere quite gripping and of great value for anyone who is concerned to know the history of the “multiverse” better. Scientific and philosophical-cosmological sources are both dealt with here with very high levels of competence.
But the overall narrative focus also tells us, I think, what the book is not about. There are quite fundamental methodological questions here to do with how scientific and religious, or indeed philosophical, discourses overlap with one another, and how they can be meaningfully reconciled in certain contexts, where they seem to be motivated by the same kinds of questions. A case in point is the scientist’s use of “infinity” in mathematical terms in contrast with the Christian (or “Abrahamic”) use of the word “God.” Now “God” cannot be “God” unless she is also infinite, but the word “God” not only evokes what the scientist means by “infinity.” It also predicates a participative relation of the self in the world. Scientific knowledge is hard-won from the perspective of the “observer” who—marvellously—finds that her mind is so adapted to what is, that she can gain deep and reliable knowledge about the universe in which she finds herself. The religious person, on the other hand, thinks like an agent: what do I have to do in order to be a good or even true human being? What do I need to do in this situation to be a good Catholic or Muslim? Religions and science are separated by principles and practices of law which are encoded within religious cultures as demanding repeated personal commitment and so become constitutive in some degree of religious identity. It is the characteristic mistake of religion’s current detractors to think that science and religion are in competition with one another as two different ways of describing the world as observers, who are ourselves somehow outside the world and looking in. Sooner or later then, if we think about science and religion, we are going to come face-to-face with the problem of how can we integrate what makes sense to someone who observes as if from without and someone who already knows themselves to be intrinsically part of the world and an agent within it? Or to put this in more traditional terms, how do we integrate theoretical with practical and social reason?
This problematic appears in Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s book at several points where she makes reference to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In the case of Thomas, for instance, God appears as “eternally pluri-singular” (73–74), or again in Nicholas of Cusa where “the unity of God is therefore not different from plurality, but a ‘unity to which neither otherness nor plurality nor multiplicity is opposed.’ To say that creation is ‘one . . . since it takes its being from the One‘ is therefore not to say that creation is not also many, because the One itself is not ‘not many‘” (85–86). It is precisely here, in these fleeting references to the Trinity, that the two worlds of science and religion potentially collide in ways that could cast light on both. Here we have a stark choice between two possibilities. The first is simply to accommodate the Christian affirmation within an overall scientific-philosophical optic whereby we think about the world as being enclosed by an infinity which somehow relates to our space and time. Here both the scientific and religious positions are arrived at, we may suppose, through parallel processes of reasoning, which already appeared in thinkers from the pre-Christian classical period. Alternatively, we can take at face value the normative account that Thomas Aquinas himself gives for the source of this knowledge of the Trinity, which is divine revelation. Aquinas is clear that the unity of one-ness and three-ness in divinity is made known to us through revelation and cannot be arrived at purely through processes of natural reasoning.
To allow that alternative perspective is already to shift the juxtaposition of science and religion to different and less hospitable terrain, since now we will have to deal with the deep differences between them in terms of their contrasting understanding of the credibility of revelation as source of knowledge. The scientist qua scientist will not be able to follow the theologian when the latter turns to divine disclosure to justify belief in the oneness and threeness of God as ultimate reality. And there are further significant distinctions here. After all, with the claim to revelation a further claim is made, which is that the acceptance of revelation is in some sense a matter of binding obligation. It affects how we are to live. The extensive divide between theoretical and practical reason alluded to above reappears here with some force. Can we really believe that someone who ceases to live as a Christian might nevertheless wish to hold on to a belief in the Trinity: in the ultimate understanding of reality as a unity of oneness and threeness? Or is it not rather the case that Christians hold to a belief in the Trinity because—however we understand this—Christian life and Christian identity seem to make sense for us though not as “philosophers” but rather as people who have, as community, stumbled upon or discovered compelling meaning in the experience of being alive in this world? From this internal perspective, the ultimate meaning of Christian communitarian life is fundamentally bound up with the threeness and oneness of God. If one stands outside the Christian community however, with its “discovered” meaning, then there is no reason to think that the symmetry between Christian belief in a Triune God and contemporary cosmology is anything more than a coincidence. It can’t be explained. It simply happens.
But Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s case is that it doesn’t just happen: there is in fact a deep resonance between Aquinas, Cusa and Bruno, and our contemporary cosmology. And in this respect she is very successful. We conclude that in fact there are all kinds of overlap, also with classical thinkers. It is reasonable to ask then what it was about medieval Christianity—here under discussion—which allowed such thinking to emerge: perceptions which genuinely seem to anticipate the highly sophisticated reasoning of later generations in a more scientific age?
Allowing revelation to enter in at this point in the dialogue, with its very different understanding of epistemic authority to that of science, may upset the apple cart but it does give us the opportunity to think a little more about the underlying rationality of Rubenstein’s depiction of this symmetry across the centuries. We need to return to the difference between practical and theoretical reason again. These two very obviously have elements which are not in common: practical reasoning generally reasons towards changes in bodily states, advantages or needs (how can I get what I need?). The process of reasoning is resolved when the final, desired state is reached. We might say that reasoning towards what we feel we need is reasoning in its “natural” state. But there is more to practical reasoning than just this. As “motive reasoning,” practical reasoning includes not only how can I get from A to B but also should I be wanting to get from A to B in the first place (Paul Janz, The Command of Grace, 2009)? What about the social effects of my acts and their consequences for others? At this point practical reason becomes more complex, for how can I factor in the effects of something from the point of view of the other or others? How can I come to decision from their point of view as well as my own?
Although we are a social animal, there is something not natural in one sense, or at least effortful, in our social reasoning. It takes training and perhaps also the habit of “virtue” to do it well. In a parallel way, we might say that the “scientific gaze” is not natural and has to be learned. It is very difficult to set aside our own preferences and to be wholly objective. A scientific training can be long and hard. Are there not see parallels here?
We are confident that the scientific mind of the observer is so measured to this fine-tuned universe (which allows itself to be known) that there is every possibility that we will come to understand some of the deepest mechanisms of our universe. In terms of science then, the human mind is “adequate” to its object. But if the adequacy of the human mind, in its scientific “observer mode,” to the universe can be affirmed, then why not also the human mind, in its “agent mode” as “participant” in the world? If we can grasp the fine-tuning through theory, then why should we not be able to reason practically in ways which are to a greater or lesser degree in tune with that fine-tuning? And in fact, just as scientific reasoning can point to its fruits in technology, so too the great world religions can point to the fruits of their acquired and specialised social reasoning in the longevity and unparalleled dissemination of their communitarian identities. It is not a given that a religious identity should thrive for three thousand years. If such longevity exists, then whatever other factors may be in play in the pro-social flourishing of religions, it is reasonable to conclude that many within that community must be reasoning socially and practically in exceptional ways.
And here perhaps some kind of explanation comes into view of how the Christian doctrine of the Trinity may have come about. If we can say that the rational lives of many members of the “body of Christ” as a pro-social community may in fact be a reflection of or even participation in the cohesion of our fine-tuned universe (of which we are all intrinsically a part), then it may in fact be unsurprising that the community should come to intuit something of the nature of the fine-tuned universe taken as a whole. This would then not be directly the product of an adequation between the scientific “observer” mind and our fine-tuned universe, but rather of our practical and social mind, as this engages with and pro-socially enhances societal cohesion, inclusiveness and the resilience of community life.
The Logic of Self Sabotage
THE THESIS OF Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s comprehensive and insightful treatment of multiverse theory looks like this: “If science can be regarded as the self-overcoming of a particular form of religion, might the multiverse cosmologies be something like the self-overcoming of science?”1 The irony here is that multiverse theory in physical cosmology is based not on science but rather on anti-theology, on a scientific opposition to appropriating God as an explanation for the big bang. Multiverse or M theorists especially oppose invoking a creating God to explain the fine-tuning of the anthropic principle, the initial conditions which make the evolution of life possible. But, argues Rubenstein with uncanny perceptivity, the appeal to anti-theology to sustain science’s opposition to theology functions to supplement physics with metaphysics. Science voluntarily becomes non-science.
Rubenstein, alluding to Friedrich Nietzsche, describes Christian theology’s own intellectual suicide. When Christian intellectuals insisted on commitment to the truth, they surrendered totally to the take-no-prisoners approach to scientific truth. Then, when scientists denied the existence of God, the theologians were left empty-handed. “Christianity produces modern science, in a staggering gesture of self-sabotage, as its consummation and its destruction.”2 With this in mind, Rubenstein asks: now, have the scientists followed the same path to self-sabotage?
As Mark Twain suggested a century ago, reports of his suicide were premature. The suicide of the theologian and of the scientist is also premature, in my judgment. Neither are dead. Nevertheless, the logic of self-sabotage is well worth examining.
The Theology of Big Bang Cosmogony
Even before the controversy over the anthropic principle which arose in the 1970s, some theologians had seen in big bang cosmogony support for the biblical doctrine of creation. This includes Pope Pius XII when addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1951. “Thus, with the concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs [science] has affirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence, Creation took place. We say, therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists.”3 When time was zero (t = 0), our world began, just as Genesis 1:1—2:4a describes.
Scientists too. Founder and former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Robert Jastrow, announced he was startled to see how big bang cosmology supports the biblical view of creation. “The astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.”4 One of his more ironic comments has oft been repeated. “At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”5
Big bang has been the scientist’s nightmare. It looks like the physical cosmologist has provided a view of reality which is consonant with that of the theologian. So, if one wants to conscript science into the atheist army, affirming big bang as the origin of a single universe looks like turning the atomic bomb over to the religious enemy. And with the arrival of the anthropic principle, it’s now the H-bomb. How can a materialist scientist muster a defense? Answer: M theory.
The Anti-Theology of M Theory: Martin Rees
I’ve been thinking about these issues for some time now. It appears to me that Martin Rees and Stephen Hawking provide the most vivid examples that illustrate Rubenstein’s thesis: by appealing to anti-theology in support of M theory, scientists are actually subordinating their empirically based physics to metaphysics.
When Templeton laureate physicist and cosmologist Martin Rees is faced with the facts describing the role of the anthropic principle in making our biophilic universe, he offers three parallel interpretations of the data. First, the data describing the initial conditions, no matter how astounding, are merely a matter of happenstance. Second, the universe was designed by God so that God’s providential plan for life, mind, and spiritual community could be fulfilled. Third, the multiverse. Rees says he finds the first option unreasonable and the second one unnecessarily religious, so he opts for the third. “We can conjecture that our universe is a specially favored domain in a still vaster multiverse.”6
Let’s examine the Rees logic. We note that this third alternative, the multiverse, is selected for an extra-scientific reason. M theory avoids observable contingency as implied in the happenstance option; so, the M theorist can support determinism. M theory similarly avoids divine design, because that would be religious. So, almost in frustration, Rees searches and finds a deterministic explanation that avoids religious implications. Whew. That was a close call!
It appears to me—as it appears to Rubenstein—that the postulation of multiple universes is based upon a philosophical assumption that denies the finality of contingent events for defining nature, while it denies divine design. Ironically, these assumptions are built on a previous theological axiom, the principle of plenitude. Basically, the principle of plenitude says that every potential becomes actualized. Translated into contemporary physical cosmology, the resulting multiverse hypothesis posits that all mathematically possible universes become actualized. Even though empirical scientists find contingency in natural processes, M theorists posit a rigid determinism that contrasts with the evidence. Oddly, a now discarded medieval theological axiom has been dusted off and silently invoked in secular circles to support M theory. The dramatic contingency displayed by the anthropic principle is flatly rejected; and the rejecting scientist discretely invokes a long outdated theological principle to justify its rejection, namely, every potential gets actualized. Anti-theology invokes theology to deny theology.
What scientists actually observe within our physical universe is not the principle of plenitude, but rather contingency. The principle of contingency, in contrast to the principle of plenitude, assumes that some potentials become actualized but others do not. If one desires to postulate determinism to describe reality, then contingency must be eschewed and something like the principle of plenitude invoked. This principle provides the basis for the theory of multiple universes or M theory. Here is the argument: because each potential pathway of a subatomic particle is taken, and because only one of these paths is taken in our universe, it follows that there must exist other universes where the other potentials are actualized. The collection of all of these universes could be called the multiverse. As one might imagine, this number of universes within the multiverse would be very large, unfathomably large.
Just a brief excursus on contingency. Contingency refers to two things: global and local contingency. First, global contingency is what Rees called “happenstance.” This is global contingency in the sense that the initial conditions at the big bang—the fine-tuning which has made the evolution of life possible—could have been different and we Homo sapiens would not be here to ask these questions. This term also acknowledges local contingency. Local contingency is what is observable every day in laboratory experiments, namely, natural processes especially at the subatomic level that are not predetermined. Individual events are not predicable; they are contingent. Robert John Russell clarifies the vocabulary here. “In my typology I first distinguish between global contingency, which applies to the universe as a whole, and local contingency, which applies to a process or property within the universe. Each of these can have two forms: ontological contingency, namely why something exists per se, and existential contingency, that is, why it exists in the particular way it does. . . . For example, t = 0 addresses global ontological contingency, and the fine-tuning arguments about nature’s fundamental constants are related to global existential contingency.”7
It turns out that theistic scientists such as Harvard’s Owen Gingerich like contingency; because with contingency the world becomes a comfortable nest for God. “To a theistic scientist, and perhaps even to God, a world with contingency is far more interesting than one devoid of it. Seen with the eyes of faith, the world seems to be organized with purpose, direction, a pervasive sense of movement toward higher organization, but not necessarily with a total blueprint.”8
The Anti-Theology of M Theory: Stephen Hawking
M theorists believe they are assembling evidence for the multiverse idea, even if as yet their argument has not proven broadly persuasive. What I observe is how postulating the existence of multiple universes brings comfort to an anxious determinist wringing his or her hands over the anthropic principle. By dumping our universe into a larger mechanistic box of many universes, our own universe loses its remarkable status. All that remains is for M theorists to prove this idea by mustering evidence.
Along with Rees, Stephen Hawking enthusiastically embraces a version of M theory. We might ask: just what is M theory? “No one seems to know what the ‘M’ stands for,” writes Hawking; “but it may be ‘master,’ ‘miracle,’ or ‘mystery.’ It seems to be all three.”9 After this apparent nonsense he proceeds to assert that “the Laws of M-Theory therefore allow for different universes with different apparent laws.”10
More relevant for our discussion here is what Hawking says about determinism. Following Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace (1749–1827), Hawking advocates what he calls “scientific determinism” this way: “Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God. . . . A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene.”11 The cosmic determinism espoused by Hawking applies to the earliest big bang universe as well as to everyday mental activity. It derives not from scientific evidence but rather from Hawking’s theology or, better said, anti-theology.
In her acute analysis of the very concept of multiple worlds from ancient atomists to contemporary M theorists, Rubenstein uncloaks the extra-scientific anti-theology of purported multiverse science. “There is, then, a profoundly nontheistic (sometimes even antitheistic) motivation behind the scientific turn to many-worlds scenarios.”12 Because “the multiverse does away with the need for a creator-god—at least as an explanatory principle,” she surmises that desperate atheism is at work here plugging scientific holes with extra-scientific metaphysics.13 “Such theories represent a total violation of the principles of falsifiability, testability, and, above all, economy that undergird the scientific project.”14
It appears to both Rees and Hawking that the idea of a big bang combined with an anthropic principle in a single universe makes plausible religious belief in a creating God. As Pope Pius XII illustrates, some theologians would agree: big bang cosmogony implies the existence of a divine designer.
Now, how might a theologian respond to M theory? Must a theologian agree with Rees and Hawking? Here is the logic: if M theory is successful scientifically then a creator God would be out of a job. However, surmises Rubenstein, M theory does not forbid the theologian from positing the existence of God. “Simply put, a Christian can easily affirm that God created the multiverse that created the universe.”15 If Rubenstein is correct, this will give Rees and Hawking another nightmare.
As a trinitarian theist, it appears to me that the logic of Rees and Hawking is correct: big bang cosmogony accompanied by fine-tuning makes plausible the existence of a creating God. These physicists deny the existence of such a God, while I affirm it. Yet, I’m not confident that this argument alone suffices for the theologian.
In my judgment, demonstrating that the designer of the big bang exists is less important than knowing whether or not God is gracious. Just any ol’ deity will not do for my Christian faith. What is decisive is the character of this deity. Is the God who creates the world loving, caring, and compassionate, or not? If God is not gracious, then I hardly care whether a big bang God exists.
Rubenstein, Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 234.↩
Pope Pius XII, cited in Helge Kragh, Cosmology and Controversy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 257.↩
Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: Norton, 1978), 14.↩
Martin J. Rees, “Living in a Multiverse,” in The Far Future Universe: Eschatology from a Cosmic Perspective, ed. George F. R. Ellis (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation, 2002), 66.↩
Robert John Russell, Cosmology from Alpha to Omega: The Creative Mutual Interaction of Theology and Science (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 15.↩
Owen Gingerich, “Is There Design and Purpose in the Universe?,” in Science and Religion in Search of Cosmic Purpose, edited by John F. Haught (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2000), 129.↩
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010), 117.↩
Rubenstein, Worlds Without End, 17.↩
2.29.16 | Nancy Frankenberry
All the Light We Cannot See
COINCIDENTALLY, MARY-JANE RUBENSTEIN’S Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse came to me at the same time I was reading Marcelo Gleiser’s latest book, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. Cross-reading both together crystallized a question that has long haunted me. How should we non-theists account for the way the universe looks disturbingly “fine-tuned” (an already loaded label) for life? Rubenstein and Gleiser offer engaging, overlapping perspectives on this question, which I shall develop in my own way in this brief commentary.
One of the pleasures of reading Rubenstein’s brilliant, buoyant, and unsettling book is the underlying irony, to which she is ever-alert, of scientific cosmology’s flight from God and into the arms of the multiverse theory, a hypothesis no less speculative, unproven, and untestable than that of a Designer-God who determined the fundamental physical constants that make our corner of the cosmos unusually hospitable to conscious life. In Rubenstein’s recounting of recent scientific developments, it is chiefly dark matter, inflationary cosmology, and string theory that have conspired to make the multiverse hypothesis more and more plausible in the last decade, at the same time providing a way out of the fine-tuning problem without invoking a theistic explanation. For if there are vast numbers of other universes, perhaps an infinite number, all with different properties, odds are that at least one of them will have the right combination of conditions to bring forth stars, planets, and living things. As cosmologist Bernard Carr put it: “If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”1
Astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser, friend and colleague, is as agnostic as I about Ultimate Concerns, but also awed by the human impulse to shine a bit more light ahead of us, and by the beauty of the universe’s striking harmony and order. With the image of an Island of Knowledge, he depicts the shores of ignorance expanding as the island of our knowledge grows. The ocean of the unknown feeds on the successes of science. In particular, two fundamental kinds of limits to knowledge constrain our epistemological quests, according to Gleiser. First, science is increasingly tool driven, but the telescopes, the cosmic microwave background measurements, the mathematically calibrated tools used in cosmology are always imprecise; and second, nature itself works in ways that impose insurmountable barriers on what we can know—bounded as we are by the speed of light, by time’s arrow, and by an irrevocable randomness.
Juxtaposing Gleiser’s island-image with Rubenstein’s quilted multiverse, inflationary multiverse, landscape multiverse, and so forth, produces a dizzying effect. Our eyes see less than half of the total light that the Sun sends our way; to extend our limited vision, we use scientific tools and we propose theoretical models, some highly speculative, like the multiverse. The instruments have only a finite reach and the theoretical models frequently boil off like so many gases leaking into the imaginary. The more we see, the more we know there is to see. The “more” that we cannot see is far, far in the past. As every school child knows, when we look out into space, we are looking back at the past, collecting light that left its source millions, even billions, of years ago. Information from any object or region of the cosmos takes time to reach us, and there is an upper limit to that. Both the 13.8 billion year age of the universe and the speed of light impose a horizon, beyond which it is impossible to receive signals. If further and further expansion is indeed the trending fate of the universe and space continues to stretch, galaxies we now see may be carried away from us, like raisins on an expanding dough. A new cosmic horizon would swim into place, beyond which the light of those lost galaxies will no longer reach us.
I find this astonishing, humbling, and slightly frightening. Could there be some truths known to us that will not be knowable to our distant descendants, not because all records will be erased, but because unrepeatable, random cosmic conditions will not recur? Keep in mind the fact that 95 percent of the cosmos is filled with dark matter and dark energy. Here is an even more mind-boggling thought: all the light we cannot see is far more vast than the tiny 5 percent that is the very stuff of which we are made.
The multiverse hypothesis, however, brings us to an entirely different order of magnitude in the mind-boggling department. It is, in principle, permanently beyond the scope of human knowledge. Never is a hard word in science, as Gleiser says, but “even if convincing observational signatures of neighboring universes could be found within our cosmic horizon, they would not confirm the existence of the multiverse.” Some physicists might, in detecting the existence of another universe, find it natural to generalize to the existence of the multiverse, but Gleiser stresses that “the data would not support this conceptual jump. Two or three neighboring homes don’t make a country. The existence of a multiverse, even if not of infinite extent, is an unknowable.”2 And this is precisely Rubenstein’s point—to show that every multiverse hypothesis opens onto metaphysical, even theological, terrain. “Each scenario,” she says, “requires us to assent to worlds, gods, or generative principles that remain, in the words of the old English hymn, ‘in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.’”3
Returning to the question about the improbable constants of nature, such as the strength of the gravitational force or the mass of the electron, it is hard to shake the idea that we do indeed live in a Goldilocks universe, as physicist Paul Davies put it, not too cold, not too warm, where the physical constants seem perfectly and improbably aligned. If our universe had more than four dimensions, atoms would not stick together. If the relative strength of gravity were greater than it is, it would rip matter apart. In the past, I have contended that the Why-question remains irresistible, but that the range of possible answers leaves something to be desired in each case. I have hesitated to come down in favor of any one answer before, and with most metaphysical or theological arguments, I have been more interested in framing a logically exhaustive matrix of positions, eliminating one by one any that do not withstand critical scrutiny, seeing what, if anything, is left. It is hard to improve on the advice of Sherlock Holmes that, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Here, however, I want to side with the fourth position below, even though in this space I am barely able to adumbrate the reasons why I believe this little-discussed option is correct.
As far as I can see, there are four positions one may take on the matter of fine-tuning. (1) The fine-tuning is exquisitely improbable, an improbability that can only be explained by God. (2) The fine-tuning is exquisitely improbable, an improbability that can be best explained if ours is only one of many actually existing universes in a multiverse. (3) The fine-tuning may be exquisitely improbable, but it is the sort of improbability that requires no explanation. Because we are here it is inevitable that the constants and conditions would be right for us. (4) Probabilities cannot properly be applied to the values of the fundamental constants and initial conditions.
The fourth position, if correct, rules out both the first and the second, eliminating the need for either a Fine-Tuner or a Multiverse. That leaves the third position as the chief contender to the fourth. Why do its proponents say that no positive probability, however low, for the constants and initial conditions essential to human life is surprising or in need of explanation? The reason is the famous “anthropic principle.” Correctly stated, this principle asserts that nothing that is essential to our existence should be surprising, unless of truly zero probability. Because we are the very ones looking, we are bound to look out at a universe with conditions that permit our existence. Now, I realize that the proper and improper applications of this intriguing principle are much debated. What is wrong with it? In my view, the semi-agnosticism of this position is right to a certain extent, but only so far. It is right that an event or circumstance with ultra-low probability does not, by itself, need a special explanation. And it is right that the fact that a circumstance is necessary to our existence should not, by itself, be seen as promoting it to a status that requires such special explanation. The question that the anthropic principle leaves unsettled is when other features of an improbable circumstance are such that we should want to dig deeper. If we concluded, for example, that the conditions for production of carbon existed only in stars located within one hundred light years of Earth, that would beg for explanation. This question of what requires an explanation beyond the anthropic principle is confounding and confusing.
As Rubenstein knows, the problem with the anthropic principle in its weak form (WAP) is that it can only assert the truism that “the world as we observe it must be consistent with our existence, insofar as we are observing it,” and in its strong form (SAP) not only invites theism in the front door but seats it at the head of the table. The multiverse hypothesis makes the weak form seem less anemic, for it proclaims that our precisely calibrated universe is neither wildly improbable nor divinely produced, but rather to be expected as one out of many, given an infinity of space, time, and material. Some proponents of position 1 seek to downplay the success of the multiverse hypothesis as physics by pushing back the claims of “fine tuning” to the conditions necessary for an inflationary Bang to get started in the first place. However, this strikes me as nothing more than dressing up the traditional cosmological, or “first cause,” argument in teleological costume.
I conclude that the fine-tuning argument fails as an argument for theism because its key “low probability” premise is technically unsupportable. Moreover, even were the argument to establish low probability, it would founder on the anthropic principle unless it could establish that the fact that we are here is not enough to eliminate any need for further explanation of the “tunings.” Finally, the fine-tuning argument would have to show that the fact that ours is only one of many actual universes is not enough to explain any improbability of our universe’s having the values that it does. All this leaves fine-tuning as a justification for theism in pretty bad shape. Although skeptical about position 1 above, I urge caution at each of the other steps. We can’t entirely rule out the possibility that someone will come up with something better than hand waving about the probability of the electron’s having the charge it does. Perhaps there is a technically sound response to the probability skepticism expressed in position 4. There may be better arguments against the third position’s use of the anthropic principle than misleading analogies to familiar circumstances. Perhaps fine-tuning can be pushed back so that inflationary cosmologies are not a satisfactory alternative to a designer, or perhaps the physics of the multiverse will run into problems. In fact, it already has, as Gleiser’s resistance shows. The fact that the physics of the multiverse are such that it is completely uncheckable, in principle, not just in practice, makes it more of a metaphysical postulate than a scientific one.
Finally, Rubenstein’s provocative claim that we may be witnessing a radical “reconfiguration” of physics, philosophy, and religion in our time deserves comment. She says relatively little about what that reconfiguration will look like. I can’t help but think that “replacement” of religion by science is the more likely result, where “religion” means classical Christian theism, the traditional Faith of Our Fathers. What if all of the existence-claims of metaphysical theology (including apophatic theology and recent theopoetics) had to face the tribunal of scientific cosmology, and be framed in terms of the physical universe? Mary-Jane Rubenstein owes us another book, as rich as this one.
Quoted in Rubenstein, Worlds Without Ends: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 17.↩
Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (New York: Basic, 2014), 127.↩
Rubenstein, Worlds Without End, 220.↩
2.29.16 | Mary-Jane Rubenstein
Questioning the Question: Response to Nancy Frankenberry
In the face of the energetic reprise of “natural religion” in a multiversal key, Nancy Frankenberry plays Hume’s Philo, skeptical of the whole mess and seeking to unsettle its fundament. Said fundament is composed of the burgeoning throng of universal “fine-tunings,” which Frankenberry with characteristic understatement calls “a loaded label.” Loaded, at the very least, because the grammar alone implies that something has done the tuning—or more narrowly, someone, since even the most agential of “things” don’t tend to tune other things. So there’s an anthropomorphic, godlike power already implied in the question, “why is the universe so finely-tuned to our existence?”
But even more fundamentally, Frankenberry suggests there is something strange about the thinking that produces the question in the first place. What is it, she asks, that prompts physicists or theologians to call the fundamental constants surprising, or unlikely, such that their values would constitute “fine-tunings” at all? Surprising or unlikely in relation to what? No one knows, and yet despite—or perhaps because of—its inability to account for itself, “fine-tuning” becomes the major premise of the argument from design and the argument for the multiverse. So the latter’s claim to invalidate the former is really just a usurpation: the same theo-logic stays in plays in order to enthrone an infinite number of worlds, right where the infinite God used to sit.
Depending on our estimation of the integrity of the premise, then, Frankenberry offers four possibilities. Either:
Frankenberry is betting on the fourth; in her words, “probabilities cannot properly be applied to the values of fundamental constants and initial conditions.”
My only real response here is total agreement. I think it is bizarre indeed to call something for which we have no embodied alternative—the gravitational constant, for example—“improbable.” But I would love to hear more from Nancy (hi, Nancy, and thank you so much for your thrilling response) about why this is the case. Why is the notion of low probability “technically insupportable” when it comes to fundamental constants? Is it because we have no other universes to which we might compare this one in order to proclaim its improbability? Is it because we have never seen initial conditions, except from the vantage point of 13.7 billion years later, on a mountaintop or a satellite in a remote corner of a single galaxy? Which Philonic objection ought we to marshal against the “loaded label” of fine-tuning?
As I have suggested toward the end of Worlds, the moment one asks why the universe is this way and not another, one is already thinking metaphysically, and can therefore only produce metaphysical answers. Hence the uncanny mirroring of the multiverse and the God it displaces. Frankenberry goes easier on the theorists, conceding that “the why-question remains irresistible.” So like the theoretical physicist, the philosophical theologian, and the four-year-old, I am left wondering why. Why the inexorable why, and to whom is it inexorable? Being more level-headed than I, Frankenberry doesn’t wade in these waters, heading instead for pragmatic shores. Insofar as we don’t seem to be able to stop asking why, she suggest, we should at the very least ask it in a well-informed manner. To wit, “all the existence-claims of metaphysical theology [ought] to face the tribunal of scientific cosmology, and be framed in terms of the physical universe.”
While I agree with the sentiment, however, I become perplexed here, insofar as the new natural theologies emerging in the face of the multiverse are framed in terms of the physical universe. Whether the metaphysical theology in question produces the God of classical theism or an infinite number of universes, it can fairly claim to be grounded in highly sophisticated observational evidence. The question, as Frankenberry helps us to see, is of what is the evidence evidence? This is a large part of the reason Gleiser is right to say we will never have a consensus about the multiverse. Being in principle unobservable, other worlds can only be detected from evidence that rival physicists can interpret as space-dust, or simple abnormality, or as evidence of a different sort of multiverse from the one whose existence the team in question believes it has “demonstrated.”
As Frankenberry shows, the argument from design and the argument for the multiverse both arise out of an uninterrogated faith in probability, specifically low probability, which is to say a faith in human exceptionalism extended out to the level of the universe itself. So in addition to calling theology to stand before the tribunal of modern science—which more and more of it does these days, anyway (Bauman, Keller, Crockett, etc.)—I think Frankenberry is also calling scientific cosmology before the tribunal of basic metaphysics, and the result is a reconsideration of the assumptions that undergird each of them. What if it really doesn’t make any sense to talk about universal properties as unlikely? In other words, what if there is no question to which either God or the multiverse would provide an answer?