One God or Many Universes?

December 17, 2008

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

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

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