Contending with the multiverse

This is a review of the second essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

At home in the multiverse? by James Daniel Sinclair

Sinclair sets his sights on the multiverse, one of the leading contenders for a sound naturalistic explanation of apparent fine-tuning. I will pick out some highlights.

First, let me say that the fine-tuning argument – the latest and least ambitious incarnation of the ancient argument from design – has always seemed to me to be the strongest argument for the existence of a god. But, having read accounts of it from both sides, I’ve come to feel that its strength lies mainly in our anthropocentric biases rather than any logical superiority it possesses. (See Luke Muehlhauser’s discussion of Fine Tuning at Common Sense Atheism.)

Sinclair also commits some curious blunders. For example, he says that science flatly rejects gods as impossible. Certainly, few modern scientists consider gods as possible explanations. But that is largely because they’ve learned the lessons of history. Early scientists (such as the ancient Greeks, Newton, and Darwin in his youth) did believe – at least in some deistic lawgiver, if not a full-on personal god. But those beliefs got them nowhere in terms of explanation, so modern science tends to skepticism about the usefulness of gods as explanations. Also, look at Dawkins. Sure, he rejects the god hypothesis, but he does so only after evaluating it within a scientific framework. There are scientists, even atheistic ones, who assert that god is outside their purview, but that is not a universal belief among scientists.

As another example, I will share an interesting passage that presents a multiverse version of the ontological argument.

Jay Richards asks us to consider another refutation of an atheist Many Worlds: Christian Alvin Plantinga’s modal version of the ontological argument. In the strong version of the SAP, all possible worlds are considered actual. But if this is so, then if it is even remotely possible that God (the necessary being) has reality (i.e., He is in one possible world), then this necessity implies He must be present in all possible worlds. In essence, an atheistic attempt to produce a necessary universe produces God-as-computer-virus which propagates to “infect” every world! As Richards states, “Such can be the penalty for toying with notions such as possibility, necessity, and infinite sets.” (pages 22-23)*

This argument suffers not only from the linguistic defect of Anselm’s original ontological argument; it also commits a fatal equivocation. Anselm’s key error was to treat “existence” as the same sort of property as “redness”. That error is repeated here. The equivocation in the multiverse version above has to do with whether the god exists separately for separate universes, or exists transcendently, a single presence spanning them all. On the one hand, if the god’s existence in universe A is a different question from the god’s existence in universe B, then it is true that the probability of the god existing in some universe increases as the number of universes increases. On the other hand, if the god is equally present across all the universes by definition, then the probability of its existing is unaffected by contingent details like the number of universes. The above argument switches definitions at a crucial point. In a more valid form, the argument can give you either a probably-existing contingent god in a small subset of universes, or a very unlikely god that is present across all universes.

In truth, I don’t know if a multiverse approach is worth pursuing. I don’t know if it solves the apparent problem of fine-tuning. But then, after reading Luke Muehlhauser’s thoughts on the issue, I’m not convinced that fine tuning is a legitimate “problem” for naturalism that requires a solution.

At any rate, I don’t see that this essay gives any reason to shift my beliefs.


* Sinclair references this online paper by Richards as the source of this argument.


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2 Responses to “Contending with the multiverse”

  1. Contending with Christianity’s Critics « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] At Home in the Multiverse? by James Daniel […]

  2. Tony Lloyd Says:

    The best argument against the fine tuning argument I have come across is in Graham Priest’s “Logic a very short introduction”. (A jolly good book, even without the anti-fine tuning argument).

    Priest points out that you can’t just look at the likelihood of the universe without God. You have to compare that likelihood with the likelihood of the universe with God.

    He then runs off into Bayesian probabilities, but that needn’t concern us here. We just have to appreciate that for every universe that could have been without God there is a universe that God could have created. On atheism we lucked out on getting this universe. On theism we lucked out on getting a God that wanted to create this universe.

    My own touch is to consider that (only) around 10^500 universes are possible given string theory. So the probability of this universe happening by chance is 1/10^500. But with God ALL things are possible (Matthew 19:26) so that denominator is way bigger and the probability way lower!

    (BTW I came here from a search of the Modal Ontalogical Argument to self-promote my post on the subject: Whether it does treat “existence” as a property I don’t know, but in the post I argue that limitations in modal logic force an equivocation in the first premise. I fix the limitations and any persuasive power of the argument disappears)

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