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Multiple Universes and the Existence of God

By: Steve Fleming - September 23, 2012

In the thirteen century, Aristotle became all the rage among European intellectuals.  Aristotle had a systematic way of viewing universe as well as a compelling system of logic.  But God played a very minor role in Aristotle’s system: Aristotle said there was an unmoved mover, the first cause (which medieval theologians took to be God) that had set the universe in motion. But God played no role in Aristotle beyond that. Aristotle argued that the rules that governed the universe [1] were there by necessity and he also argued that there was only one universe/world [2]. This bothered medieval thinkers of the time because it seem to suggest that even if God wanted to create multiple universes/worlds, He could not. This all came to a head in 1277, when a massive condemnation of Aristotle was issued [3]: article 34 stated that it was heresy to believe “that the first cause [i.e God] could not make several worlds.” [4] Thus the possibility of God creating multiple worlds/universes was needed to preserve God’s omnipotence, even though most thinkers assumed that God, in actuality, had probably only created one world/universe.

It’s interesting to see that atheist scientists have used multiple universes to get around the anthropic principle (that the universe is uniquely designed to support life, that if any of numerous factors were only slightly different there could be no life in the universe).  People see the anthropic principle as proof of the existence of God, and atheist scientist argue that multiple universes could get around the issue because if there are billions (or whatever number) of universes then perhaps we are a lucky universe (one in a billion) in which, by random, all the right factors happened to come together.

Going from needing multiple universes to prove God’s majesty, to needing multiple universes to disprove it strikes me a rather ironic.[5]

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[1] This was the pre-Copernian view of the universe with the earth at the center, with a bunch of “planets” revolving around it, and then the starts beyond that. Pre-moderns often referred to this whole thing as the “world” as well as the universe. “Planets” meant wanderer because they were the heavenly objects that moved in an irregular pattern compared to the stars. It wasn’t until after Copernicus that intellectuals began to see that the plants would be “earths” or that the earth was a “planet.”

[2] Aristotle had insisted that there could be only one universe in opposition to pre-Socratics who had speculated about the possibility of multiple universes.

[3] Aristotle remained very influential despite this condemnation.

[4] Edward Grant, “Cosmology,” in Science in the Middle Ages, ed. David D. Lindberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 280. Scholars even speculated that the other worlds/universes might have different laws, such as the possibility of there being a vacuum between planets (something Aristotle said was impossible). 280.

[5] Mormons seem to be pretty fine with multiple universes because between Moses 1 where God said he created worlds without number and the King Follett discourse where Joseph Smith suggested there were lots of gods, one would suspect that considerable space was needed for all these creative gods (like lots of universes).

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12 Comments

  1. By coincidence, Worlds Without End just did a post on the anthropic principle.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2012 @ 11:43 am

  2. Ooh that is rich! Thanks Stephen.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — September 23, 2012 @ 11:51 am

  3. It is hard not to laugh at the multiple universe crowd. Physicists have such pride in using only experimental results and they never hesitate to mock believers. And then some of them go and invent an infinite number of universes only to remove the discomfort that a seemingly well-designed universe causes them. Their only evidence is the unreasonableness of our universe!

    Comment by Paul 2 — September 23, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

  4. Paul 2, actually it is really pretty easy not to.

    Stephen, this is really interesting. I do think I will quibble with your, note 5. While I would agree that later thought would fit, I don’t think the KFD necessarily does.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 23, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

  5. Thanks all. As I understand it, at this point we really have know idea what the possible other universes are like, so they probably can’t be used to prove much.

    J. my only point was the talk about multiple gods and worlds would point in these directions that that Mormons, I would guess, are fine with multiple universes.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

  6. That’s a fun turn in the history of ideas, but I think it would be a mistake to attribute multiverses primarily to a desire to dispense with God. That may make the idea more attractive to some–just as some initially found the Big Bang distasteful because it smacked of creation ex nihilo–but it stands or falls on other grounds.

    I’m not a physicist, but here as a passage from a nice 2004 FARMS Review essay:

    “Since we cannot know of the existence of other bubble universes, why should we believe in their existence? Although these theoretical predictions stand forever outside our ability to verify or falsify directly, the fact that other predictions of these same theories explain a number of previously unexplained features of our own universe provides significant support for them.”

    Comment by Jared* — September 23, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

  7. Jared* I did not mean to suggests that the multiple universes were thought up simply to argue for atheism. I’m sure that such ideas arose independent of theist debates but as the article I linked to suggests (and I’ve read this other places) there are those who want to use multiple universes as a way to explain away the anthropic principle so as to argue against theism. As I suggested, I think Mormons can find multiple universes quite acceptable.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

  8. I agree that Mormons can find it acceptable. In addition to the FARMS essay in my last comment, there is also this Dialogue article (pdf). Both argue that the multiverse concept gets us out of some theological jams that are present with the more limited Big Bang.

    Comment by Jared* — September 23, 2012 @ 11:16 pm

  9. “I’m sure that such ideas arose independent of theist debates…”

    I’m hardly a physicist, but I think the current multiverse concept arose as a way to make sense out some of the craziness associated with quantum mechanics, and because it works well with string theory. But the point is correct that the mutiverse idea is far beyond our current ability to “test in the lab”, so many scientists think of it as philosophy as opposed to science.

    Still, I think it’s cool and certainly makes the “worlds without number” of Moses 1 (and maybe even the deities without number speculation that one might draw from King Follett) all the more interesting for me.

    Comment by larryco_ — September 24, 2012 @ 5:44 am

  10. The Infinites of Matter

    If all the World were a confused heape,
    What was beyond? for this World is not great:
    We finde it Limit hath, and Bound,
    And like a Ball in compasse is made round:
    And if that Matter, with which the World’s made,
    Be infinite, then more Worlds may be said;
    Then Infinites of Worlds may we agree,
    As well, as Infinites of Matters bee.
    –Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies (1653)
    (link)

    Comment by John Mansfield — September 24, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

  11. Thanks for the links, Jared.

    Larry, that’s interesting about considering such speculation “philosophy.” It’s natural to wonder what the other universes would be like, and medieval philosophers did just that. From Edward Grant, noted 4, “Nicole Oresme … was also prepared to argue that each world would function as ours does, obeying the same physical laws. Each universe would have its own ‘up’ and ‘down,’ ‘center’ and ‘circumference.’”

    Interesting John. After Copernicus, our more modern notion of the universe began to form, starting with the realization that the planets were plantets as we would understand the term. As a result people began to wonder if there were people on those plantes. I think Descartes may have speculated about such things, but such speculation was prevalent by the 18th century. Kant had a whole system worked out.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 24, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

  12. I think the idea of bubble universes comes out naturally as we try to think quantum gravity in a sufficiently flat space time. That’s how Linde originally came up with the idea although there are variants in both String theory as well a Loop Quantum Gravity.

    Comment by Clark — September 25, 2012 @ 9:59 pm