“Multiverse of the Gaps” vs. “God of the Gaps”

Have you noticed?

Contemporary theists and atheists, in their debates with one another, tend to invoke gap arguments that mirror each other. For the theist, God-of-the-gaps arguments are designed to introduce mind into an explanation; for the atheist, multiverse-of-the-gaps arguments are designed to eliminate mind from explanation.

Here’s an example from physics: the value of the cosmological constant is so near to absolute zero that it appears to have been fine-tuned for bringing about life’s existence. How do we account for this? Theists tend to attribute the improbability of the number to the mysterious purposes of God; atheists to the power of the multiverse to generate improbable things.

Both explanations (prematurely) fill a gap in our knowledge. The truth is that we don’t know why the cosmological constant is so near to zero.

According to physicist Stephen Barr, the cosmological constant “tells how much gravitational pull is exerted by ‘empty space’” (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, University of Notre Dame Press 2003, pg. 129). That number is a decimal point accompanied by 120 zeros with a lonely little 1 at the end (10^-120).

That’s a dinky number. In relation to the matter in our universe, it’s not even a grain of sand. It’s half a grain of sand.

Here’s Stephen Barr again (129):

[W]hether the cosmological constant is exactly zero or just fantastically small, physicists are confronted by a very deep puzzle. In physics, if a number is either exactly zero or extremely small there is usually a physical reason for it. For example, the mass of the photon is believed to be exactly zero; that is understood to be the consequence of a fundamental symmetry of the laws of physics called ‘electromagnetic gauge invariance.’ So far, no one has been able to find the physical reason why the cosmological constant is small or zero. This failure is the so-called ‘cosmological constant problem,’ and is considered by many scientists to be the deepest unsolved problem of physics.

Barr notes that if the cosmological constant had been a positive number even just a little bit larger than what it is, our universe would have known a “ferocious eternal expansion”; if it was a measurable negative number, it would have known rapid expansion followed by rapid collapse. These are both bad conditions (obviously) for life (129-130):

It turns out to be a very fortunate thing for us that the cosmological constant is so small. If it were not, the universe would not have been able to have a nice steady existence for the billions of years required for life to evolve. . . .

In order for life to be possible, then, it appears that the cosmological constant, whether it is positive or negative, must be extremely close to zero—in fact, it must be zero to at least 120 decimal places. This is one of the most precise fine-tunings in all of physics.

If a theist infers from this that God must surely exist, you can expect an atheist, on hearing of it, to cry foul, asserting (properly) that God-of-the-gaps conclusions have a bad track record. Like so many other premature explanations overturned by the advance of science, this one may find itself, through additional research, upended as well.

Therefore, if you don’t have a scientific explanation for something—the big bang, the origin of life, consciousness—you shouldn’t be content to reflexively invoke God as a causal place holder for perplexity and consider yourself basically done with the question.

God-of-the-gaps arguments may even be folly on strictly theist terms, for if God exists and is the ultimate or first cause of all things, He may still have set in motion secondary material causes for events which science, given time, will come to identify.

But what about multiverse-of-the-gaps arguments? Are they any less dubious than God-of-the-gaps arguments?

Multiverse-of-the-gaps arguments work in the following way: whenever something an atheist wants to believe in seems highly improbable—such as that no mind ever causally precedes or influences matter—he or she simply introduces a number into the discussion large enough to make the improbable suddenly seem probable. Indeed, if the number is really big, even the vastly implausible can take on the appearance of being inevitable.

Positing literally trillions upon trillions of multiverses gets you, on any implausible event, as large a number as you like to make an implausibility go away. For multiverse proponents, everything becomes possible to those that believe in the multiverse.

In, for example, a refereed scientific paper available online, biologist Eugene Koonin invokes the multiverse to account for abiogenesis (the origin of life from nonlife). He states his thesis in the following manner:

[T]he stage for Darwinian selection is set by anthropic selection of complex systems that rarely but inevitably emerge by chance in the infinite universe (multiverse).

Multiverse speculation can also be used, not just to account for an absence of evidence or an implausibility, but to explain away things that clearly already exist (or, at least, appear to). Take human free will. If you’re a strict materialist, even when human minds are quite obviously present in the world, they are, a priori, assumed not to be causal agents: free will is an illusion; only determinate physics and chemistry really cause things to happen.

For instance, I think I’m typing these words right now because it’s my purpose to do so; I assume they’re appearing on the screen because I intend them to. It’s quite evident to me that I have a mind that acts freely upon my environment.

At least this is what I believe. It’s my explanation of what’s happening, but it’s not a scientific explanation. So say strict materialists. Actually, I’m neither a necessary nor sufficient explanation for what I’m typing.

What’s happening at this moment, using multiverse-of-the-gaps reasoning, is the following: my typing is a causal product of forces that have been blindly interacting with one another since the big bang energized them 13.7 billion years ago, so no one is to blame for what gets written. It’s just the way the ball (the bang) bounces. In this big bang universe, the cosmological constant happened to be consonant with the evolution of life, and I’m a phase state that some of the atoms of the universe are passing through right now. All of this was inevitable because we are embedded in a multiverse. Conscious beings, doing exactly what we’re all doing right now, under the illusion of intentionality, were bound to happen sooner or later. And it will all happen exactly the same way again, trillions upon trillions of multiverses from now, when, far in the future, our big bang’s initial conditions, by chance, repeat themselves and play the movie again.

Thus it is with multiverse-of-the-gaps reasoning that purpose is eliminated from explanation and the human will, seeming to act upon the world, is accounted for—or rather, discounted—as a trick of perception; a delusion (as belief that the mind of God has influenced the creation of the cosmos is also a delusion).

But what if I were to say the following:

I think I should take mental states more seriously than this. Quantum physicists, after all, seem to find paradoxes in the nature of existence and the behavior of particles depending on when (and whether) observers choose to look in on experiments (think of Schrodinger’s famous cat here). Maybe mind is not merely an epiphenomenon of nature, but really, really has causal effects on matter. This leaves room, not just for me to act, but for God to act. Just as what I’m typing is the way it is because my mind willed it, so perhaps the universe is the way it is because the mind of God willed it. Maybe the universe simply wouldn’t be the same without my mind and God’s mind acting upon it.

To which the strict materialist might retort:

That’s not science—not a scientific explanation.

But, quite obviously, neither the mentalist nor materialist explanations are based in empiricism, but philosophy. They’re both hunches about ultimate things absent conclusive data to settle the matter. Taking minds seriously as causal agents generates logically possible accounts for what we observe and not taking minds seriously as causal agents generates logically possible accounts for what we observe.

So we are left with an impossible-to-decide-with-confidence dilemma: do we fill our gaps in knowledge with faith that the determinate multiverse exists—or that human contra-causal (libertarian) free will and God exist?

Or do we maintain staunch agnosticism about such matters?

Here’s Stanford physicist and multiverse theorist, Leonard Susskind, explaining the God problem posed by the cosmological constant:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to “Multiverse of the Gaps” vs. “God of the Gaps”

  1. andrewclunn says:

    To state that emergence (complex structures arising from simple rules) must be the basis for our universe’s simple rules themselves is open to the same arguments of infinite reduction (well where do THOSE simple rules come from?) as the God principle. Actually the argument that God has always existed is logically sound by comparison. That’s why a Deistic origin of the universe should not be dismissed. Sadly most people who use this argument do so to attempt to justify their own holy books as absolute truths.

  2. James says:

    Its takes 10 seconds of logical thought to dismiss multiverse—yet God has been at the top of the mountain in all of human history. The only conundrum here is why people who proclaim they hold the mantle of Reason cant see how utterly incoherent multiverse is.
    You can only propose multiverse as the answer and STOP there. You cannot sustain any contemplation on an the actual multiverse and not dismiss it in seconds just as you can dismiss in seconds that particles just wrote this post.
    So the torch of logic and reason are being held by the same little nerds we’ve always know were weirdo’s for a reason..but because they wear suits now even complete nonsense out of their mouths is acceptable? Throw these bums out. They’ve exposed themselves as atheists and an atheist far too biased to reason correctly.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think the interesting thing to me on the theist side is the evolution of the Diety as science has progressed to explain more things…which diety is the correct one now?…in addition it would seem that the other organisms that exist on our planet that are also composed of a trillion particles bare alot of resemblance to us…who is their god ?…thats a little simplistic…but the point is at least the multiverse doesnt exclude the possibility a diety right now…but from the theist side it must seem harder and harder to believe that the diety would be one heavilty involved in tinkering with our lives…to more one at that sets the laws of nature in motion…

    • Adam says:

      That’s an interesting point, anon… and why can’t the deity just be constructed from facets from all possible deities? Maybe we are all seeing different aspects of the same face but due to poor perspective can never see the whole face? What if all gods are one in the same?

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