Thursday, October 29, 2020

Infinite Improbability and the Multiverse Hypothesis

I’m going to start this post with an apology. I’m sorry.

I usually don’t go all egg-headed and philosophical in this space. I think that usually truth can be spoken plainly and simply, and it’s my aim to do that. Every now and then, though, I run into something that is bugging a whole bunch of people — Christians among them — and that just can’t be treated without going off the grid. This is one of those issues. If I lose you, don’t worry; this probably isn’t an issue that’s come up for you, and it needn’t worry you. Tomorrow there may well be a post that suits you more directly.

On the other hand, if you’ve run into the arguments below, you might be very glad for some help with them even if it takes us into deeper waters. So I’m going to risk it.

Who Is This For?

What I’m on about today is this: some people choose to explain away the specialness of the universe. 19th century arch-atheist Friedrich Nietzsche all the way up to 21st century materialist scientists, this has gone on. Usually, they refer to some theory that suggests that the universe is such a big place that potentially anything can and will happen there. Thus, they insist, chance plus time, not God, are all we need to use to explain why the universe exists. Ordinary folk also pick up this idea — usually because they remember hearing it vaguely from someone somewhere — and they think or worry that it might be some kind of answer.

What follows, then, is what a thinking Christian might say if he or she were responding to someone struggling with this egghead problem.

The Fine-Tuning Argument

If you haven’t heard of the Fine-Tuning Argument, it can only be that you’ve been tuned out to the whole Atheist-Theist debate lately. It’s got to be at least in the top three of hot contentions today.

In a nutshell, the Fine-Tuning Argument says that the chances of a universe like ours existing and being capable of supporting life are immeasurably small, due to the extremely “fine-tuned” values of a whole panoply of scientific variables required — everything from the large-scale proportions and distribution of matter and energy in our galaxy to the strong and weak forces in the atom itself. From macrocosm to microcosm, our existence is so improbable as to require a non-accidental explanation.

In a recent Slate article, David Goldberg makes the situation even more problematic: “You’re almost unfathomably lucky to exist, in almost every conceivable way,” he writes. “Ours isn’t just a randomly hostile universe, it’s an actively hostile universe,” one in which “the laws of physics themselves seem to be working against us.” According to Goldberg, by all rights — or rather, by all probabilities — we all ought to be “nothing more complicated than a cloud of charged gas.”

The Rejoinder

The Multiverse Hypothesis (MH) was invented to explain away this difficulty: that it is hugely improbable that anything would exist at all, and especially something as immensely complicated as intelligent life, in a universe that is a product of pure chance.

This uncomfortable notion isn’t even a matter of scientific controversy anymore; it’s verifiably true. We are an extreme unlikelihood: it’s a fact. But the MH is supposed to deal with that fact and dispatch it.

Here’s how the MH is supposed to work. Granted, your existence is highly, highly improbable. But if the universe were bigger than you think and more complex than you can imagine — say not one universe but a complex of an infinite number of possible universes — then is it not the case that your improbable existence could become necessary and inevitable?

An Illustration

To illustrate that argument simply, we might put it this way. All rolls of the dice are improbable; but given enough time and enough rolls, the appearance of any particular number becomes inevitable. A die has only a one-in-six chance of rolling a 5, say. But given a hundred rolls, a 5 becomes an almost absolute certainty to turn up. So, say the MH proponents, given a big enough set of possibilities, there are enough “rolls” out there that even a highly improbable state of affairs like our universe would become not just more likely but essentially inevitable.

In fact, say some others, given the megagigantic proportions of the known universe, it is actually likely that out there are not only other life-supporting universes, but perhaps an infinite concatenation of them, each with just marginally different conditions than those we experience here on Earth.

Therefore, they conclude, even though you are a highly improbable creature in a highly improbable universe, you really have no reason not to expect your own existence.

The Problems

But wait a minute: let’s use some common sense here just to get us started in the right direction. If things which are highly improbable by chance become expectable when repeated chances are high enough, then is it likely to be the case that somewhere there is a universe in which unicorns are real? Even more extremely, is there one wherein Superman is real? Or is there going to be — somewhere — a universe in which not only is Superman real, but she is also a dog, a hippo and an emu?

Is there a universe in which the strong force in the atom is zero? No, because such a universe would not even be able to exist. But why not? How is that option prevented, if infinite universes means everything happens?

Even on a basic level, the idea makes no sense at all. It has zero probability of being right. So why does anyone even assume it?

Or More Technically

But we can debunk it much better than that: the explanation offered by the MH doesn’t work. It’s premised on a simple fallacy.

The fallacy is this. The number of “rolls” only increases the odds for a die with a FINITE number of sides. But the proponents of the MH assure us that the universe itself is INFINITE — which, if it means anything, means that it includes not just infinite amounts of time, but also an infinite number of variables (i.e. an infinite number of ways things could be).

So now, picture once more, if you can, a die with six sides. True, the chances of a 5 turning up are only 1 in 6. But if you do enough rolls — say, 100 — then a 5 is almost sure to appear at some point, right? Sure. And that thought seems to support the MH as an answer to improbabilities like the extreme fine-tuning of the universe. Fine and dandy.

But wait: what if the die does not have 6 sides, but rather an infinite number of them? In that case, no matter how many rolls one took the odds would NEVER go up. Even if you took infinite rolls, then there would always be an infinite number of other possibilities!

Infinite Confusions

That’s hard to grasp at first, because we keep wanting to think that infinity is some kind of real number, and real numbers can be combined with one another so as to restrict their capacity: like 5 being reduced to 3 by the operation of subtracting 2. But that doesn’t work for infinities. That’s one of the strange features of this mental construct we call “infinity”: it doesn’t ever limit, reduce or cancel itself out the way real numbers do, because it literally has no end. Infinities absorb other infinities, because infinity has no “size” at all; it’s infinitely big. And it cannot be reduced except by being expressed as a rational number, which means by not being an infinity anymore, but just a really big real number.

You can’t cancel out an infinity with reference to an infinity. For those in doubt of the truth of that, take a look at David Hilbert’s famous “Hilbert’s Hotel” thought experiment:

It nicely demonstrates this rational problem in several different ways.

For those who like the math version better, see Katherine K├Ârner’s All About Infinity.


So getting back to our dice analogy, in an infinite universe of infinite variables it would always be infinitely improbable you would EVER hit a 5, or in other words, that we would ever have the kind of universe we have, or that anyone like you would be alive in it.

So the Multiverse Hypothesis does not explain our improbable existence. In fact, it makes that existence infinitely improbable, and thus raises the question even more powerfully, “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” or more personally, “Why am I here?”

“Because of the Multiverse” is no answer at all.


  1. Or another way to think about it. What are the chances that on my way to work today I will sudden turn into a big blueberry? Zero. And it is zero regardless of how many universes there might be.

  2. Here is another current reference supporting these conclusions.

    Also a new theory is now emerging from Japan, and has been mathematically tested, that we are living in a universe that is a hologram of a lower dimensional one.

    And here is my educated guess about the next theorem, which I think might be the final one. We are simply a video game being played on some massively divine X-box.

  3. "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools..."

    The multiverse has not been seen, measured, tasted, touched, detected, scanned or heard. There is no evidence approaching even the broadest definition of 'science' that can be offered in defense of the multiverse theory. So now we are to believe that instead all we have around us is a hologram - because it's "mathematically" possible. Huzzah! Personally I'm going to stick with the equally plausible and equally scientific "it's turtles all the way down...." theory.

    These breathless representations in the popular press are simply bald-faced statements of faith, not science. Personally I'm not troubled by expressions of faith at all. I'm only slightly annoyed that I am repeatedly told that I'm the credulous one - when clearly there is a massive desire to embrace anything-but-a-creator philosophies no matter how improbable.

    And next Christmas I am SOOOO going to order the "Massively Divine X-Box" because it sounds wicked awesome.

    1. Hmm, did you ever buy it yet? If so please let us know where so we can get one too ;-).

  4. Wow. This is hard...funniest comment of the day...two really good ones...hmmmm.

    Okay, Shawn gets the To-The-Point Award, and Bernie wins the Closing Zinger Award.