Dead Parrot Watch: The Multiverse Appears To Be in Trouble. Does That Mean Atheism Is in Trouble Too?

In 2008, cosmologist Bernard Carr of Queen Mary University of London, told a science journalist for Discover the following:

If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.

Carr said this because our universe appears to have numerous wildly improbable properties hard to explain by chance (especially if our known Big Bang universe is the only roll of the cosmic dice, setting its cosmological constants). Put bluntly, the cosmos appears to have been designed, and with very particular purposes in mind.

In whose mind?

Well, God’s of course!

Like an apple tree following its genetic imperatives, the universe appears to be following the imperatives of its cosmological constants. It apples galaxies, carbon-based life forms (like apple trees), and minds (like our own).

On planet Earth alone, there are 7 billion minds right now and counting.

Whooda thunk it?

Maybe Someone did.

The Discover article gave examples that illustrate our universe’s mind-boggling good luck (or creation by God, if the multiverse doesn’t come to the rescue of atheism). Here’s one:

The early universe was delicately poised between runaway expansion and terminal collapse. Had the universe contained much more matter, additional gravity would have made it implode. If it contained less, the universe would have expanded too quickly for galaxies to form.

The 2008 article that Bernard Carr was quoted in also noted this:

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border.

Now, fast forward to 2011. What’s the status of string theory and the multiverse in light of the data that has come in from the LHC (Large Hadron Collider)?

Answer: Not good.

Atheists, are you listening?

Theoretical physicist and mathematician Peter Woit of Columbia University, discussing this summer’s String 2011 Conference at his blog, writes that at past conferences they: 

. . . often featured a call for progress towards making predictions that could be tested at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider]. With LHC data now coming in, [opening speaker David] Gross acknowledged that this had been a failure: there are no string theory LHC predictions.

None.

As for what the String 2011 Conference’s opening speaker, David Gross, said of the multiverse, here’s Peter Woit again:

Surprisingly, not a word from Gross about anthropics or the multiverse. I assume he’s still an opponent, but perhaps feels that there’s no point in beating a dying horse. Susskind isn’t there and oddly, the only multiverse-related talks are from the two speakers brought in to do public lectures (Brian Greene and Andrei Linde, Hawking’s health has kept him from a planned appearance). So the multiverse is a huge part of the public profile of the conference, but pretty well suppressed at the scientific sections. Also pretty well suppressed is “string phenomenology”, or any attempt to use string theory to do unification. Out of 35 or so talks I see only a couple related to this, which is still the main advertised goal of string theory.

A dying horse. Isn’t that sad? And remember: as goes string theory, so goes the multiverse.

And perhaps even atheism. As uber-atheist Jerry Coyne noted recently at his blog, how the multiverse debate pans out among physicists has unmistakable consequences for the God question:

[M]ultiverse theories . . . represent physicists’ attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for what others see as evidence of design.

But here’s how Peter Woit describes the String 2011 Conference summary by Jeff Harvey: 

In Jeff Harvey’s summary of the conference, he notes that many people have remarked that there hasn’t been much string theory at the conference. About the landscape, his comment is that “personally I think it’s unlikely to be possible to do science this way.” He describes the situation of string theory unification as like the Monty Python parrot “No, he’s not dead, he’s resting.” while expressing some hope that a miracle will occur at the LHC or in the study of string vacua, reviving the parrot.

That the summary speaker at the main conference for a field would compare the state of the main public motivation for the field as similar to that of the parrot in the Monty Python sketch is pretty remarkable. In the sketch, the whole joke is the parrot’s seller’s unwillingness, no matter what, to admit that what he was selling was a dead parrot.

And, as for Scientific American’s recent coverage of the multiverse hypothesis, Woit is critical:

One might be tempted to criticize Scientific American for keeping this alive, but they just reflect the fact that this pseudo-science continues to have significant influence at the highest levels of the physics establishment.

The multiverse is pseudo-science. Really?

Based on what Bernard Carr said in 2008, and what Woit reports of the goings-on at the String 2011 Conference and in Scientific American, should this alert us to the possibility that atheism itself might be quietly trending in the direction of Monty Python’s dead parrot?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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29 Responses to Dead Parrot Watch: The Multiverse Appears To Be in Trouble. Does That Mean Atheism Is in Trouble Too?

  1. eneraldocarneiro says:

    Carr said this because our universe appears to have numerous wildly improbable properties hard to explain by chance

    Well, when you throw a dice, the probability that you have any one of 6 numbers is the same: 1/6. If you throw 2 dices, the chances of any combination are 1/12. You know that because there are only six faces in a dice, so you know in advance what possible outcomes are, if you throw 1 dice, or 2, or 3. We don’t have this information about the cosmological constants.
    For a start we don’t know if they could had different values. Maybe this Universe as it is is the only possible. If that’s so there’s nothing mindblowing about it be as it is, and no need for a designer.
    if the constants could have different values, we don’t know, what values they could have been, and how many. People making probability games on this, talk as if they could have any possible value of a very large set of values, what is not absolutely a given. AS such, nobody can claim anything about this particular Universe been more or less probable. Nobody can even talk about probabilities
    As for the Multiverse, it is not a Theory, or a Hypotesis, but a prediction. The problem is that it is not testable.

    • santitafarella says:

      Eneraldo,

      Would that it were so simple!

      The fact is that physicists can plug in alternate numbers for the cosmological constants and thereby model what kind of universes would result. What they find is that if they move in any substantial direction away from the constants as they actually exist, they don’t get galaxies, they don’t get stars, they don’t get planets, they don’t get carbon-based life forms, they don’t get minds.

      They get jack squat.

      That is a fact in need of explanation. The universe naturally “apples” some very exotic fruits based on very specific physical laws and cosmological constants. Just as it would never do to account for an apple tree by saying, “I guess it’s just luck that the apple tree had all this complex information embedded in its seed that made it grow and sprout the fruit that it now does,” so it does not do to say, “The universe is the way it is, and produces the things it does, by just dumb luck.”

      As to your point about whether the universe could be different, your point is taken. But if it couldn’t be otherwise, it still begs the question: what a fortunate and strange inevitability!

      —Santi

      • Thanks Eneraldo for the shortest, clearest explanation of the “don’t misuse statistics” reply to the “fine-tuning” argument. I still don’t find it quite convincing, I can’t put my finger on why.

        Perhaps it’s because “we don’t know enough and maybe there is some other way for the constants to be” seems too close to the “it’s unknown so it must be God” argument to me. In other words, when theists say “Well, we can’t explain it but it’s so mysterious that probably god is the likely cause” non-theists object. But the “we don’t know the possible stats” argument seems perilously close to the same kind of argument.

        I will have to ponder this some more. To put Santi’s “fortunate and strange” another way, I still think (Sartre’s?) “Why is there something rather than nothing?” has some power.

      • hello tho says:

        “That is a fact in need of explanation.” No, it is not. “Luck” is a very loose word, with different usages and meanings, some subtle, some not. Nobody says it is “luck” within the established scientific community. If they do, they mean it in a very colloquial sense and not a rigid sense, which is what you seem to be saying.

        Second, “fortunate” and “strange” are also in the same boat. All of these seem so value-laden. “Fortunate” implies, in this case, the idea that we are somehow bestowed upon or lucky enough for things to happen for carbon life forms to evolve. Of course, comets had something to do with this, as did our moon. Would you be willing to say that the comet/asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was NOT pure “luck”? If not, we would not be here, I would suppose. “Luck” seems out of place with the dinosaur extinction–if you want to really make a strong claim for minds, humans, etc, then you have to account for these extinctions and environmental variables. If you think of it that way, “luck” is nonsensical. What happened is a fact; adding “luck” to it only makes it sound more mystical than it should.

        “Strange” is also very value laden. The strange is that which is different, but what you’re saying is something else. You take an outward look and say, hmm, isn’t it “strange” that we are all here rather than not? Of course it is. Precisely because of the fact that you first thought cosmologically or imagined yourself or the world as other-than-it-is. There’s no way for it to look BUT strange in such a circumstance: you’re coming from outside.

  2. eneraldocarneiro says:

    Santi

    that physicists can plug in alternate numbers for the cosmological constants and thereby model what kind of universes would result.

    It doesn’t follow that such “dialling” is remotely possible in reality. Show me that such numbers could have, in REAL PHYSICS, different values in a wide range of possible ones, and then we can talk about mindblowing probabilities. That physicists can plug numbers here and there and model anything, is a fact. That those models could have existed is not.
    Your analogy with apple trees don’t follow as we know where apple trees (and monkeys) came from.
    It’s not more strange and inevitable as anything else. If you’re talking about human life and inteligence, I think I should rmember you that having been here for only about 200000 years don’t even qualify us as a successfull species, and there is nothing in the history of this planet that remotely sugests that our outcome was inevitable. The Universe been as it is it’s a necessary condition but not a sufficient one.

    • santitafarella says:

      Isn’t it quite extraordinary that our universe first “appled” stars, then planets, then (on our planet) life from nonlife, then mind from non-mind?

      What a surprise!

      The multiverse is a way of positing a process of variation and natural selection to account for this extraordinary tree we call the universe. The analogy to a biological tree is apt. Just as we ask where the information in an apple tree comes from (and have an answer, and a natural history to appeal to), so physicists want the same thing for our Big Bang universe (with its low-entropy initial conditions and its complex, mathematical, and information-rich laws and physical constants that appear to be set just so).

      But, here’s the problem: if the universe has no ancestors (as an apple tree does), then we’re stuck with accounting for its initial order and symmetry with a mind prior to matter (God) or saying “That’s just the way it is—it’s the luck of the draw or it could not have been otherwise.”

      • hello tho says:

        “But, here’s the problem: if the universe has no ancestors (as an apple tree does), then we’re stuck with accounting for its initial order and symmetry with a mind prior to matter (God) or saying “That’s just the way it is—it’s the luck of the draw or it could not have been otherwise.”

        That’s not a problem at all. Read Hume – Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. 500 years ago and the problem was still the same. Most critical accounts have the atheist winning that dialogue.

  3. andrewclunn says:

    The Anthropomorphic Principle was always the weakest argument in Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Emergence is based on simple rules leading to complex structures. Relying on emergence (via multiple randomly formed universes) implies a lower level set of rules, and is therefore no better at removing infinite reduction and first cause from a causal universe. Deism is (or rather should) be alive and well. Sadly, those who advocate such arguments almost always do so in the hopes of justifying a particular religious dogma, not actually promoting Deism.

    • Anonymous says:

      Andrew,

      Your point about deism (as opposed to bringing along the ridiculous baggage of the institutional religions) is a good one.

      Thomas Aquinas has a lot of baggage that he brought along for the ride in his Summa, but his Aristotalian arguments for the existence of God are actually pretty plausible.

      For example, he argues that the very fact that the universe’s objects change and move suggests that there is a First Mover, and it’s hard to avoid his causal logic. It goes like this: if you’ve ever noticed, a form doesn’t move without an external source turning what is potential in it into an actuality.

      Thus, for example, your hand, as a form, will move IF the muscles of your arm are attached to it and prompt it. And those muscles will move IF they are stimulated by nerves, and those nerves will move IF the brain prompts them, and the brain will move IF it receives the proper nutrient energy provided by the food you eat, and your mouth will take in food IF the muscles in the jaw trigger it to open, and so on.

      Motion and change, in other words, demand external provocations to turn what is a form’s potential into something actual, and, seeing as the whole universe is in motion, it could not just have started itself (any more than a city of people and objects could start itself with no energy from outside of it. The universe, like a city, must itself have promptings and energy to make it go).

      Another quick example. What moves the leaf? The wind. What moves the wind? The heat of the day. What moves the heat? The sun. What moves the earth around the sun, making the sun’s energy uneven throughout the day, and so generating wind currents? Gravity. What initiates the law and power that adheres to gravity? God.

      In other words, ultimately, you arrive at an Unmoved Mover, and, as Aquinas tends to put it, “We call this God.” You can’t have an infinite regress. Something has to be necessary, fundamentally different from the contingent change we see around us, to get forms moving about at all.

      Aquinas’s argument is not actually weakened by the multiverse because even the multiverse needs an Unmoved Mover to get the first universe started, but it’s harder to escape confronting this logic if our Big Bang universe is the only one that there is.

      —Santi

      • The Arabic Kalaam argument is interesting too, and makes some observations on the impossibility of eternal regression and the necessity of a starting point. William Lane Craig brought it back to the West’s attention 25-odd years ago. I don’t find him engaging in person, but he is not stupid. He did his PhD in Germany under Wolfhart Pannenburg, and the Germans have probably the most rigorous PhD programs in the world.

  4. Hi Santi.
    This is a simply brilliant and informative post. Thankyou. I’m not blogging much at present due to the demands of a 6 week-old baby and my academic workload, but I will “inflate” my own universe by connecting you to my fellow agnostic scribblings via these “strings”.

    A consideration of Stephen Hawking’s book promoting the multiverse
    http://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/hawkings-grand-design-cosmology-still-needs-god/

    And even better, there’s a brilliant “multiverse” webcomic. See here http://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/the-multiverse-returns-or-daddy-is-there-a-god/
    where i even quote Santi! :)

    Jonathan Spritzophrenia

  5. Marcus says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalam_cosmological_argument

    My interest is quantum gravity (qg) and I’ve been studying a quantum cosmology model where the singuarity that occurs in classical (non-quantum) cosmology is turns out to be replaced by a bounce—and there is a prior contracting phase.

    By odd coincidences today I happened on your blog and heard for the first time about Kalam cosmo argument, and W.L. Craig, and various other related things. I see nothing wrong with infinite regress. It is not illogical or unintuitive to me. Either in the physical world or in human explanations.

    But you may find infinite regress (either physical or explanatory) unacceptable. I don’t see any need for us to argue. Just our separate POV.

    Today also I happened on this visually beautiful YouTube thing I want to share, called “Debunking the Kalam Argument” or words to that effect. Have a look. It features clips of WLC and also some famous cosmologists, but best of all, shots of the natural world.

  6. Marcus says:

    You are welcome Santi. I generally agree with the part of your post based on Peter Woit’s reporting. String and multiverse thinking have lost some of their appeal. Perhaps you could say that both are “in trouble”. Neither have ever appealed to me, nor does the idea of a personal creator. All three ways of thought seem like unnecessary complications for which there is insufficient evidence. So string and multiverse thinking being in trouble (and researcher interest shifting) does not have any affect on my godless view of the world.

    Maybe I should say “Laplacian” view : Sire, je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse
    What Bernard Carr said to the New Scientist best be taken with a grain of salt :-D.

    I remember being impressed back around 1970 by reading in some magazine like *American Scientist* that there would be unfortunate consequences if some of the numbers in physics were changed by a few percent. After living with this realization for some 40 years I still find it puzzling. It is something to be explained. We have to live with unexplained circumstances. Why are certain constants in nature, certain proportions in the universe, what they are and not something else? Our lack of explanations is unimaginably vast. And so it is. Much progress has been made in the past 40 years, and I expect much more. More of the numbers will be explained. Some too may finally be understood as *environmental*. The Universe may be PATCHY in some respects. We may just happen to find ourselves in a large region where there is 8 times more dark matter than ordinary matter, other regions might have proportionallyi more or less. That is not a real Multiverse just some patchiness or variation in a single environmental parameter. I expect some numbers will be explained by mathematical necessity, and others simply accommodated as features of our part of the U.

    When all the parameters in the current model of nature have been explained or accommodated in such wise (including those that Bernard Carr might want to make a big deal about) our lack of understanding will still be unimaginably vast. There is one universe IMHO and no end to wonder.

    I feel no need to rush things, and postulate a final Explanation. One lives with the lack, or so I prefer to think.

    • santitafarella says:

      Well, I don’t disagree with you that atheism is still logically possible without the multiverse, but let’s face it, absent a scientific explanation of things like the cosmological constants, the guesses of atheism are no more grounded in evidence than those of theism.

      And it’s not just Bernard Carr who is stark about the logical implications of the cosmological constants. Uber-string physicist Leonard Susskind, in 2005, said this about multiverse theories (if they fail):

      “Without any explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.”

      —Santi

  7. andrewclunn says:

    I just came across this:

  8. eneraldocarneiro says:

    Santi

    Sorry but this is tiresome. Unless we have a complete full understanding of everything, then theism is true? Win by W.O.? Come on…

  9. Santi,

    Lenny Susskind was one of my thesis advisors at Stanford. He is very bright. He is also more than a wee bit eccentric: he was pals with Werner Erhard, of the EST (Erhard Seminar Training) cult, for example.

    As a Ph.D. in elementary-particle physics myself, I cannot think of any serious physicist who really expected the LHC to turn up evidence of superstrings, much less the landscape scenario / multiverse. Some of my colleagues have made some bucks off books and gotten some attention from gullible journalists by prattling on about such stuff, and, well… it’s a free country: if they want to make some bucks off the suckers, I do not suppose anyone can stop them.

    But, if you take this silliness seriously, I’m afraid you’re letting yourself be one of the suckers.

    Even if the multiverse is shot down for sure (and no serious physicist really expects the LHC to give any information about the multiverse, either pro or con), there are other alternatives: e.g., Lee Smolin’s propagating baby universe idea.

    And, Smolin’s ideas are also wild speculations, way beyond any current tests, too. The truth is, whatever the explanation for the values of physical constants may be, it probably relies on science that will not be discovered for decades or centuries. Science is like that: if you try to give answers to questions that are way beyond our current theoretical or observational capabilities, you are only likely to make a fool of yourself.

    You might also like to check out the work of my fellow physicist Victor Stenger, who claims that the whole fine-tuning argument is based on several scientific errors.

    Atheism existed long before the multiverse silliness, and it will survive long afterwards.

    And, if you take seriously scientists letting off steam in the popular media without the normal constraints of the scientific method, well, you are just letting yourself be one of their suckers.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • santitafarella says:

      Dave,

      Thanks for the cautionary advice. As a non-scientist just trying to make sense of the things I read (and trying to decide whether I think God exists or not), it’s appreciated.

      —Santi

      • Sure thing, Santi.

        By the way, while I’ll call myself an atheist (mainly because others want to – might as well not argue about it), I certainly do not know whether some sort of God exists. And, alas, science really cannot answer that question, at least not present-day science.

        Don’t get me wrong: it is not that science is irrelevant. Science can show conclusively that Genesis 1 ought not to be taken literally, for example, and that does cast doubt on a literalist interpretation of the rest of the Bible. I’ll go so far as to say that science can show that it is irrational to take seriously a literal interpretation of the miracle stories of the New Testament also. Although, I am beginning to think that maybe the initial creators of the New Testament stories meant them as “fan fic”: i.e., perhaps the “walking on water” story was like “Washington and the cherry tree,” an entertaining yarn meant to illustrate Jesus’ character imaginatively.

        I would in fact argue, as a physicist, that physics as we now know it (and therefore the reductionist forms of neural science) is not capable of fully explaining consciousness. This is a more widespread view among physicists than many people would expect (e.g., Schrödinger seemed to think this; Penrose is inclined in this direction). If you’d like to explore such questions, I strongly recommend Colin McGinn’s “The Mysterious Flame” and Colin’s essay, “Consciousness and Cosmology,” published in Davies’ and Humphreys’ “Consciousness: Psychological and Philosophical Essays.” Colin is an “atheist” philosopher (and a nice guy) who is knowledgeable about science and who shares my view that there are problems in reducing consciousness to physical processes.

        Don’t put credence in anyone – philosopher, theologian, or scientist – who claims that they have answers to all of the important questions about reality. The universe is stranger than we imagine, maybe, as Haldane said (and McGinn thinks), stranger than we *can* imagine.

        All the best,

        Dave

        Dave

      • santitafarella says:

        Dave,

        I agree with you about the nature of the Bible, and thanks for the book recommendations. I’ll definitely get them.

        As for the literary nature of the gospels, I’d recommend having a looksie at this book on the relationship of the gospel of Mark to Homer (put out by Yale University Press). A fascinating read it is:

        —Santi

  10. Pingback: God Belief: The State of Play | Prometheus Unbound

  11. Pingback: The Multiverse is a Dead Parrot? Is Atheism In Trouble? « Spritzophrenia

  12. Santi, I liked this post so much I’ve re-posted it at my own blog (with reference and encouragement to visit yours, of course.) Hope this is ok, if not I will take the post down.

    http://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/the-multiverse-is-a-dead-parrot-is-atheism-in-trouble/

    • santitafarella says:

      Oh, well thank you! By the way, I’m going to ask the Muslims I got to know last year for lunch again (after Ramadan). If you have any energy for participating in “Meal with a Muslim II”, that would be great! I’ll promote it again at my blog (but probably not quite so hard as last year). You were a great sport last year, locating someone to go to lunch with and promoting it at your blog and elsewhere.

      Thanks again. I appreciate you. There was some really moving feedback from a smattering of people last year.

      —Santi

      • You know, I was just thinking “it must be getting close to that time of year again.” What are the actual dates? Soon after Sept 11, right? Aargh! I now realise yet again that it’s only a few weeks away. Academia and life has distracted me (studying sociology, specialising in sociology of religion). I had intended to have a much longer build-up and publicity this year, but it looks like it won’t happen as I planned.

        I appreciate you likewise, is why I subscribed to your blog :)

  13. multiverser says:

    HI Dave, I liked your thoughts on Science and God and it is hard to disagree, especially when Richard Dawkins himself mentions that from a scientific point of view, he could not say God does not exist. More a Popper point of view, perhaps.

    But wouldn’t you say that what Science can do is prove that the specific basis for believing in any one specific God can be proven to be not true, except again for an unprovable claim like ‘I feel there is a God, so there is.”

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