From the book "The Case for the Creator"

The Metaphysical Escape Hatch

Spiritual skeptic Martin Rees, who became a professor of astronomy at Cambridge when he was in his thirties and was named Astronomer Royal by Queen Elizabeth in 1995, could not ignore how the cosmic parameters are so incredibly choreographed to create a life-friendly universe. If the six numbers that underlie the fundamental physical properties of the universe were altered "even to the tiniest degree," he said, "there would be no stars, no complex elements, no life."27

Declared Rees: "The expansion speed, the material content of the universe, and the strengths of the basic forces, seem to have been a prerequisite for the emergence of the hospitable cosmic habitat in which we live."28

One author nicely encapsulated this example from Rees:

For the universe to exist as it does requires that hydrogen be converted to helium in a precise but comparatively stately manner —-specifically, in a way that converts seven one-thousandths of its mass to energy. Lower that value very slightly-—from 0.007 percent to 0.006 percent, say—and no transformation could take place: the universe would consist of hydrogen and nothing else. Raise the 'value very slightly-—to 0.008 percent—-and bonding would be so wildly prolific that the hydrogen would long since have been exhausted. In either case, with the slightest tweaking of the numbers the universe as we know and need it would not be here.29

When the other five numbers that represent "the deep forces that shape the universe" are taken into consideration, said Rees, the universes structure becomes "unlikely to an absurd degree."30

Still, is Rees surprised by the universes exquisitely precarious balancing act? No. Does he believe the fine-tuning points to a designer? Not at all. Why? He answers by using the illustration of a large off-the-rack clothing store.

"If there is a large stack of clothing, you're not surprised to find a suit that fits," he said. "If there are many universes, each governed by a different set of numbers, there will be one where there is a particular set of numbers suitable to life. We are in that one."31

The argument can be summarized this way: "There could have been millions and millions of different universes, each created with different dial settings of the fundamental ratios and constants, so many in fact that the right set was bound to turn up by sheer chance. We just happened to be the lucky ones."32

In other words, if ours is the only universe in existence, then the fine-tuning is powerful—many would say, conclusive—evidence that an intelligence had tinkered with the dials. There seems to be no other reasonable possibility. But that conclusion evaporates if there are many or an infinite number of universes. With enough random dial spinning, the odds are that at least one—-our own—-would win the cosmic lottery and be a livable habitat.

Rees is not the only skeptic to escape the theistic implications of the finely tuned universe by speculating about the existence of other worlds. In fact, that's exactly the approach Weinberg took after expressing amazement at the unexpected precariousness of the cosmological constant.33

Many physicists subscribe to some sort of multiple universe, or "multiverse," theory, although others scoff at the idea, charging that it's little more than a metaphysical escape hatch to avoid the fine-tuning evidence for a designer. Said one writer:

Originally the many-worlds hypothesis was proposed for strictly scientific reasons as a solution to the so-called quantum-measurement problem in physics. Though its efficacy as an explanation within quantum physics remains controversial among physicists, its use there does have an empirical basis. More recently, however, it has been employed to serve as an alternate non-theistic explanation for the fine-tuning of the physical constants. This use of the [hypothesis] does seem to betray a metaphysical desperation.34

"Its purely a concept, an idea, without scientific proof," "William Lane Craig, coauthor of Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology, told me in an interview. "Look-—this is pure metaphysics.35 There's no real reason to believe such parallel worlds exist. The very fact that skeptics have to come up with such an outlandish theory is because the fine-tuning of the universe points powerfully toward an intelligent designer —and some people will hypothesize anything to avoid reaching that conclusion."36

Similarly, Cambridge's Polkinghorne, a former professor of mathematical physics, has called the hypothesis "pseudo-science" and "a metaphysical guess."37 He put it this way in his book Science and Theology: "The many universes account is sometimes presented as if it were purely scientific, but in fact a sufficient portfolio of different universes could only be generated by speculative processes that go well beyond what sober science can honestly endorse."38

Davies has concluded that "the many-universes theory can at best explain only a limited range of features, and then only if one appends some metaphysical assumptions that seem no less extravagant than design."39 Observed Clifford Longley: "The sight of scientific atheists clutching at such desperate straws has put new spring in the step of theists."40

Rees conceded the tenuous nature of the multiverse theory in a 2000 interview with a science journalist. Rees admitted the calculations are "highly arbitrary" (though he suggests someday they might not be), and that the theory itself "hangs on assumptions," remains speculative, and is not amenable to direct investigation. "The other universes are unavailable to us, just as the interior of a black hole is unavailable," he said. He added that we cannot even know if the universes are finite or infinite in number. Even so, he said the multiverse theory "genuinely lies within the province of science."41

All of this was swirling in my mind as I prepared to question Collins on the possibility that a multi-universe scenario could extinguish the evidence for a designer of our universe. I was genuinely curious: Can the hypothesis provide a reasonable refuge for skeptics who balk at the idea of God? Or would the anthropic argument withstand the challenge?

The Cosmic Hockey Puck

I have to admit that I was taken aback by Collins's initial response when I asked him about the viability of the many-universes hypothesis.

"Well," he said, taking a sip of tea and putting the mug on the table, "most of these hypotheses are entirely speculative and have little basis in physics. They're not worth considering. However, the most popular theory, inflationary cosmology, has more credibility. I have to say that I'm at least sympathetic to it. I'm trying to keep an open mind."

Collins was referring to the "self-reproducing inflationary universe" model proposed by Andre Linde of Stanford University, which is based on advanced principles of quantum physics. This was the theory that Weinberg cited when he tried to explain away the apparent fine-tuning of the cosmological constant. In a stunning example of understatement, one science writer said that Linde's concept "defies easy visualization."42 However, at the risk of too much simplicity, a basic illustration can be used.

Linde postulates a preexisting superspace that is rapidly expanding. A small part of this superspace is blown up by a theoretical inflaton field, sort of like soap bubbles forming in an infinite ocean full of dish detergent. Each bubble becomes a new universe. In what's known as "chaotic inflation theory," a huge number of such universes are randomly birthed, thanks to quantum fluctuations, along various points of superspace. Thus, each universe has a beginning and is finite in size, while the much larger superspace is infinite in size and endures forever.

I mentioned to Collins that in an earlier interview on cosmology, William Lane Craig had little use for this kind of theory. "Granted, its highly speculative," Collins said. "There are an awful lot of loose ends with it. But since its by far the most popular theory today-—-and I believe it should be taken seriously-—-let's not critique it right now. Let's just make the assumption that it's true."

"All right," I said, nodding. "That's fine."

"Now, here's my overarching point: even if Linde's theory could account for the existence of many universes, this would not destroy the case for design. It would just kick the issue up another level. In fact, I believe it would point toward design."

That was an interesting twist! "Why do you believe that?" I asked.

"I'll use an everyday example," he said. "My wife and I have a bread-making machine. Actually, it's defunct now, but we used to use it. To make edible bread, we first needed this well-designed machine that had the right circuitry, the right heating element, the right timer, and so forth. Then we had to put in the right ingredients in the right proportions and in the right order—water, milk, flour, shortening, salt, sugar, yeast. The flour had to have the right amount of a protein substance called gluten, or else it would need to be added.43 Everything has to be just right to produce a loaf of bread-—-otherwise, you get what looks like a burnt hockey puck.

"Now, let's face it: a universe is far more complex than a loaf of bread. My point is that if a bread machine requires certain specific parameters to be set in order to create bread, then there has to be a highly designed mechanism or process to produce functional universes. In other words, regardless of which multiple-universe theory you use, in every case you'd need a many-universes generator—and it would require the right structure, the right mechanism, and the right ingredients to churn out new universes.

"Otherwise," he said, stifling a chuckle, "you'd end up with a cosmic hockey puck!"

The Many-Universe Machine

Collins pushed back his chair and walked over to a chalkboard on the wall. "My students get a kick out of it when I draw a 'many universes generator,'" he said, sketching a whimsical cartoon of a manufacturing machine, complete with a billowing smokestack and a conveyor belt that brought in raw materials and then carried freshly minted universes out the other side.

"This machine," he said, putting the finishing touches on his artwork, "can only produce life-sustaining universes if it has the right components and mechanisms."

I leaned back and scrutinized his drawing. "What would you need, say, under Linde's theory?" I asked.

"First," Collins said as he strolled back to his chair, "you'd need a mechanism to supply the energy needed for the bubble universes. That would be the inflaton field that he has hypothesized, which effectively, acts like a reservoir of unlimited energy. Second, he would need a mechanism to form the bubbles. This would be Einstein's equation of general relativity. Because of its peculiar form, this would supposedly cause the bubble universes to form and the ocean to keep expanding.

"Third, he would need a mechanism to convert the energy of the inflaton field to the normal mass/energy that we find in our universe. Fourth, he would need a mechanism to allow enough variation in the constants of physics among the various universes. In other words, he would need a way to vary the constants of physics so that by random chance he would produce some universes, like ours, that have the right fine-tuning to sustain life."

"Is there a candidate for that mechanism?" I asked.

"Well, yes—superstring theory," he replied. "This might work, though it's far too early to tell."

When I asked why he brought up superstrings, he explained: "According to superstring theory, the ultimate constituents of matter are strings of energy that undergo quantum vibrations in ten or eleven dimensions of space-time. Six or seven of these dimensions are 'rolled up' to an extremely small size. In the jargon of string theory, they are said to be compactified. Their shape determines the modes of vibration of the strings. This, in turn, would determine the types and masses of fundamental particles and the characteristics of the forces between them. So they would have different constants of physics and laws governing the forces."

"That sounds pretty iffy," I said.

"Well, both inflationary cosmology and superstring theory are highly speculative. In fact, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku said recently that not a shred of experimental evidence has been found to confirm superstrings. Physicists are a long way from even working out the equations. Right now it's just a theory whose main merits are that it's mathematically elegant and that it holds the promise of unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity, two branches of physics that physicists have struggled to reconcile for over fifty years."

I summed up what Collins had said so far. "So the many-universes generator would need all these factors if it ever hoped to produce a functioning universe," I said.

"Right," he replied. "For example, without Einstein's equation and the inflaton field working together harmoniously, it wouldn't work. If the universe obeyed Newton's theory of gravity instead of Einstein's, it wouldn't work. But that's not all.

"You would also have to have the right background laws in place. For instance, without the so-called principle of quantization, all of the electrons in an atom would be sucked into the atomic nuclei. That would make atoms impossible. Further, as eminent Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson has noted, without the Pauli-exclusion principle, electrons would occupy the lowest orbit around the nucleus, and that would make complex atoms impossible.45 Finally, without a universally attractive force between all masses-—-such as gravity—stars and planets couldn't form. If just one of these components was missing or different, it's highly improbable that any life-permitting universes could be produced.

"And keep in mind," he added, "you would need to make trillions upon trillions upon trillions upon trillions of universes in order to increase the odds that the cosmological constant would come out right at least once, since it's finely tuned to an incomprehensible degree. And that's just one parameter."

"What's your conclusion then?" I asked.

"It's highly unlikely that such a universe-generating system would have all the right components and ingredients in place by random chance, just like random chance can't account for how a bread-maker produces loaves of edible bread. So if a many-universe-generating system exists, it would be best explained by design."

"That means," I said, "that when scientists appeal to the theoretical existence of many universes to avoid the implications of the fine-tuning of our universe, they still can't escape design."

"Exactly," he declared. "Theists have nothing to fear from the idea that there may be multiple universes. There would still need to be an intelligent designer to make the finely tuned universe-generating process work. To modify a phrase from philosopher Fred Dretske: "these are inflationary times, and the cost of atheism has just gone up."