I’ve got a new article out in Seed about how religious physicists, in particular, are thinking their way around the theological problems posed by multiverse theory. It’s good, mind-bending stuff.
Scientists now recognize that if space were expanding at a slightly different speed, or if the strong nuclear force were just a little off, our universe would be a hydrogen mush incapable of supporting life. The chances that the cosmic conditions needed for even a single living cell would come about in a random toss-up are astonishingly low, often called the “fine tuning problem.” “The most obvious explanation for fine-tuning is that fine-tuning is real,” argues O’Leary, “that we live in a designed universe.” If, however, we live in a vast and varying multiverse, there could be as many as 10500 different universes in all, making the chance of ours occurring among them comfortably higher.
Unfortunately, a lot of great material from my research didn’t make it into the article. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe, in Midtown. “There are features of the world that may not be explainable in the conventional sense,” he said, suggestively. “A multiverse is a very different framework to do science in.” We also spoke about the Large Hadron Collider being developed in Europe, which has raised some far-off fears about creating a black hole that will envelop the Earth. Greene told me:
From the public relations standpoint, having the whole black-hole-destroy-the-world thing was very good. I must have done six or eight programs on the LHC, and ultimately that question was, why I was there and why anyone else was there. Is it possible? If you ask me, is it possible that the moon will turn into a big ball of Swiss cheese, I guess it’s possible. It’s so incredibly unlikely that it’s not worth thinking about it or speaking about it, and that’s the kind of possibility we’re talking about.
Though the final version of the article is all about Christianity, I also asked what other traditions might think about multiverses. This brought me to Donald Lopez, a Buddhist studies professor at the University of Michigan, author of Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. “Buddhists are definitely proponents of multiverses,” he says. According to thousand-year-old sutras from the Mahayana school, Buddhas appear not only in our universe but in others, which lie very far away—not unlike an inflationary multiverse.
Speaking of which: it’s important to recognize that there’s more than one kind of multiverse model out there. In an article called “Parallel Universes,” Max Tegmark sets out four separate kinds of multiverse model, each with quite different consequences and connotations. Tegmark thinks it’s possible that all are true. For my Seed piece, I could only deal with one of these, the inflationary multiverse—#2 in Tegmark’s typology. The other multiverse model with major religious implications, the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics (Tegmark’s #3), has attracted wide interest particularly among New Agers, meditators, and speculative types who are interested in spiritual theories about the nature of consciousness.
Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind, one of the architects of string theory, offered some humbling parting words (also didn’t make it into the final):
If the multiverse hypothesis proves correct, it will mean that the fine-tunings that drive some people toward a deist view of the universe will have an entirely natural explanation in the laws of physics and probability. … That does not mean that the ultimate origin of the universe is understood.