David Hutchings on a Theological Response to the Possibility of a Multiverse

Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Guille Pozzi / The New York Public Library / Unsplash

The ideas expressed in this article are drawn from God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse: What Hawking Said and Why It Matters, by David Hutchings and David Wilkinson (SPCK, March 2020).

David Hutchings is a physics teacher at Pocklington School near York, United Kingdom. He is a fellow of the Institute of Physics and a leader in the local church in York. His first book, Let There Be Science:Why God loves science, and science needs God(Lion Hudson), was co-written with Tom McLeish, a fellow of the Royal Society.

Life was a lot simpler when there was just one Spider-Man. Okay, so it was a stretch of the imagination to think that a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider might develop superpowers and save the world, but it was manageable. One hero, one world. Simple.

Then, in 2018, Columbia and Sony unleashed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It was a huge hit—critics and fans were delighted, an Oscar was awarded, and the movie made more money than any other Sony animation in history. What was the key plot device of this barnstorming blockbuster? A multiverse.

Yes, that’s right—the universe, I’m afraid, is old hat. That “uni” sitting at the front of it implies “one,” and it just won’t do any more. The Spider-Verse was a whole new realm; one in which there were countless Spider-Men and Spider-Women, countless New Yorks, countless bad guys, and countless storylines to be exploited—which the writers did to great (and brain-boggling) effect.

As it happens, interactive systems of parallel universes have existed in the world of science fiction for many years—from the big screen and small screen to paperback novels—and they have become a staple for any author looking to play with possibilities and muddle our minds. Thankfully, though, such complex extravagancies need not trouble us here in the real world, for the multiverse is fictional.

Isn’t it?

Leveling Up

The rather surprising answer to that question is: not necessarily. Over the past decade or so, more and more top-level scientists have not only entertained the notion but have bought into it wholesale. According to some of the best minds in the business, there may very well be a lot more going on than just our own little (very, very big) universe. There may be lots of universes. There may even be an infinite number of them.

What on earth(s) is going on here? Where has such a strange idea come from? Is there any evidence for it? More to the point for Christians: What does it mean for God? Does he still exist? Might there even be Gods?

The first thing to point out is this: The concept of a multiverse can be arrived at by following many different scientific routes. It is, therefore, far too simplistic to write it off as an atheistic version of pie in the sky—one that was devised purely to try to get rid of God. Multiverses show up as possibilities when we start to ask questions about physics—and they show up often enough to be worthy of real, considered discussion.

Back in the mid-2000s, the MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark bit the bullet and reviewed all the different multiverse models that had been doing the rounds. He decided that every existing theory could be placed into one of four categories, which he called Levels I to IV. They are, briefly:

Level I: Our own universe carries on forever (or very, very far)—way past anything that we can currently, or could ever, observe.

Level II: There are other regions of space that have the same basic laws of physics as ours, but different constants of nature—different particle types, different numbers of dimensions, etc.

Level III: There are parallel and inaccessible universes that are constantly being created by quantum mechanical effects. Some of these will be very similar to ours, while some end up being very different.

Level IV: Anything goes. There is an infinite number of universes, all with their own laws of physics—some have no gravity, some no electricity, etc. The only limitations in place are due to the abstract laws of maths and logic.

Most, but not all, practising physicists are on board with the existence of at least a Level I multiverse. It should be pointed out, however, that this could still quite sensibly be called a universe, since there is only one of it. When we hit Levels II or higher, though, controversy reigns. This is because other universes are undetectable to us—and will almost certainly remain so, regardless of technological breakthroughs. Multiverses of these types, it would seem, are pretty close to being a matter of scientific gut instinct, or of taste, or of faith.

Getting Rid of God

Having said all this, there is an undeniable attraction to the multiverse for atheists because the existence of many universes can help them deal with an issue that is otherwise quite problematic for their worldview. One such thinker was Stephen Hawking, who nailed his atheistic colours to the mast in the years before his death in 2018. When discussing the dilemma of “fine-tuning”—the inescapable fact that our universe has rules and constants that are magnificently suited to our human existence—he wrote:

The discovery relatively recently of the extreme fine-tuning of so many of the laws of nature could lead at least some of us back to the old idea that this grand design is the work of some grand designer.

Hawking is right. The mind-blowing precision of the values we measure smacks of divine intervention; even the hard-nosed atheist Fred Hoyle admitted that “a common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics.”

This often-undesired conclusion can be avoided, however, if a multiplicity of universes exists out there somewhere. Ours is perfect for us, yes, but there was bound to be at least one cosmology like that amongst the ensemble. The mystery, therefore, goes away. Hawking again writes:

The multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.

Hawking saw fine-tuning and the necessity of a First Cause as being the two strongest arguments for the existence of God. In the 1980s, working with professor James Hartle of UC Santa Barbara, he figured that he had found a way of dealing with both of them—by combining the two most successful scientific theories of all time: quantum mechanics and general relativity.

The outcome was a universe that appeared to have no beginning in time, thus removing the need for a First Cause. What’s more, as the Hawking-Hartle model was let loose, it was capable of describing not only a universe that looked very loosely like ours but also billions of other universes. Hawking’s reassessment of the rules had not just brought about one potential cosmos but had built a countless number of them vying for his attention. Suddenly, the Spider-Verse doesn’t seem quite so crazy.

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Source: Christianity Today