As millions of fans know, Marvel Studios recently released its latest superhero blockbuster Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Like earlier Marvel films, this offering unfolds within an interconnected network of parallel universes known as the “Multiverse.”
Popular culture has grown increasingly fascinated with the concept of alternative universes. The idea has been featured in comics since the 1960s and in movies like Sliding Doors, the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, and the films in DC Entertainment’s Extended Universe series. Mark Zuckerberg has even advanced the idea of infinite alternative digital universes.
So what exactly is the Multiverse and why has it generated so much interest? Isn’t one universe enough?
Although it may seem like pure science fiction, the Multiverse has gained traction in popular culture largely because serious scientists first proposed it. According to some scientists, every possible event that could have occurred in our universe actually has occurred (or is occurring) in another parallel universe.
Thus, strangely, the Multiverse concept implies that a copy of each of us exists—not just in one other universe, but in an innumerable array of other universes. It also implies those other copies of ourselves are experiencing infinitely many different circumstances—some similar to those in our world, some dramatically different.
In 1956, physicist Hugh Everett first proposed the Multiverse as an interpretation of a strange quantum phenomenon known as “the collapse of the wave function.”
In the 1980s, Physicist Alan Guth, introduced “Inflation Theory,” suggesting that as our universe expands it will eventually birth an infinite number of new bubble universes.
Physicists conceive of parallel universes as disconnected realities that have, nevertheless, emerged from some common “universe-generating mechanism.” In science fiction, however, characters can “teleport” between universes through “wormholes” or via dreams.
So given its weirdness, what accounts for the popularity of the Multiverse?
In physics, the Multiverse has gained adherents because it seems to explain an otherwise inexplicable mystery known as “fine-tuning.”
Since the 1960s, scientists have discovered that the physical laws and parameters of our universe have been finely tuned, against all odds, to make our universe capable of hosting life. Even slight alterations—such as the expansion rate of the universe or the strength of gravity or electromagnetism or the exact masses of elementary particles—would make sustainability or even the existence of life impossible.
In essence, physics has revealed that we live in a “Goldilocks universe” where the forces of physics have just the right strengths and balances and the properties of matter just the right characteristics to allow for life. Physicists refer to these many fortuitous factors as “cosmological fine-tuning.”
Many scientists initially concluded that this improbable fine-tuning points to a “Fine-Tuner”—an intelligent creator who established the physical parameters of the universe with life in mind.
As former Cambridge University astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle argued: “A common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics” to make life possible.
To avoid this conclusion, some physicists have doubled down on the Multiverse. That allows them to portray the fine-tuning of our universe as the outcome of a grand lottery in which some universe-generating mechanism spits out billions of universes—so many that our universe with its improbable combination of life-conducive factors eventually had to arise.
Thus, despite its speculative character, the Multiverse has attracted support from prominent scientists, from Hugh Everett to Alan Guth to Stephen Hawking. Why? In part because it provides an alternative to an idea many would prefer to avoid: intelligent design by a transcendent creator.
Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind explains the attraction of the multiverse this way: “Without any [other] explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID [intelligent design] critics.” Indeed, the Multiverse is now the go-to atheistic explanation for the design of the universe.
Multiverse advocates overlook two obvious problems, however.
First, as Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne has argued, the Multiverse constitutes a more convoluted, less simple explanation than “the God hypothesis.” The God hypothesis requires the postulation of only one explanatory entity, a transcendent intelligence, rather than the multiplicity of entities—including an infinite number of separate universes and various universe-generating mechanisms—required by the Multiverse. Thus, positing one God meets the test of Ockham’s famous razor, whereas positing Many Universes does not.
Second—and here’s the twist—all Multiverse proposals, whether based on “inflationary cosmology” or “string theory,” posit universe-generating mechanisms that themselves require prior, unexplained fine-tuning. This means that the ultimate origin of the fine-tuning remains a mystery—which seems to take us right back to the need for an ultimate Fine-Tuner.
Ironically, the folks at Marvel and DC studios seem to recognize this. The Marvel Universe envisions a God-like figure called the One-Above-All as the creator of all the interconnected universes in the Multiverse. His DC equivalent is called The Presence.
Yet many modern scientists, wedded to atheism or materialism, fail to distinguish these ideologies from science itself. Consequently, they have recently advanced ever more strange and exotic hypotheses. In addition to the multiverse, some scientists posit a space alien designer to explain the digital code in DNA, while others suggest we may be nothing more than the simulation of a cosmic computer programmer.
These speculative hypotheses illustrate the growing strangeness of scientific atheism, as scientists reach for increasingly exotic ideas to explain evidence that seems otherwise to point straightforwardly to God.
As for the Multiverse, even sci-fi writers now recognize that if such a thing exists, it would still require an ultimate Creator.
So, who will tell the scientific atheists?
Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle. He is the author of Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Discoveries that Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe (HarperOne).