Does the existence of the universe violate scientific laws?

Continuing from yesterday’s post, I said that some religious people think that since there is matter in the universe that did not exist before the universe came into being, this must constitute a violation of scientific laws and thus requires some agency to create it. But they do not understand that energy comes in many different forms and that they all have to be included in the calculation. The fact is that despite all the matter that exists in the universe, the net energy of the universe is zero because the positive energy in the matter is canceled by the negative gravitational potential energy. So the appearance of an entire universe out of nothing need not violate the law of conservation of energy or any other law. Hence unless expressly forbidden by an as yet unknown law, there is nothing to prevent a vast, even possibly infinite, number of universes to have been created and exist simultaneously with ours, each with its own space-time and laws and matter distinct from ours.

This is known as the multiverse theory. In this scenario, given the large number of universes, it is not only likely, it is almost inevitable that one of those universes would happen to have the form of matter and the laws of science that eventually led to us. The so-called ‘fine-tuning’ argument that religious people sometimes invoke, that the properties of our universe seem to have just the right values to produce life like ours and thus suggests some deliberate design and hence a designer (which is, of course, our old buddy god) goes away, because those universes that did not have those properties would not have produced our kind of life forms. (There are other solutions to the fine-tuning problem that do not require multiverses.)

The problem is that we do not, at this time at least, know how to make contact with these other universes or have any direct evidence for their existence. But, as is usually the case with scientific theories, scientists are working on the problem.

[Cambridge University astrophysicist Martin] Rees, an early supporter of [Stanford physicist Andrei] Linde’s ideas, agrees that it may never be possible to observe other universes directly, but he argues that scientists may still be able to make a convincing case for their existence. To do that, he says, physicists will need a theory of the multiverse that makes new but testable predictions about properties of our own universe. If experiments confirmed such a theory’s predictions about the universe we can see, Rees believes, they would also make a strong case for the reality of those we cannot. String theory is still very much a work in progress, but it could form the basis for the sort of theory that Rees has in mind.

“If a theory did gain credibility by explaining previously unexplained features of the physical world, then we should take seriously its further predictions, even if those predictions aren’t directly testable,” he says. “Fifty years ago we all thought of the Big Bang as very speculative. Now the Big Bang from one millisecond onward is as well established as anything about the early history of Earth.”

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border. If string theory is right, the collider should produce a host of new particles. There is even a small chance that it may find evidence for the mysterious extra dimensions of string theory. “If you measure something which confirms certain elaborations of string theory, then you’ve got indirect evidence for the multiverse,” says Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at Queen Mary University of London.

Support for the multiverse might also come from some upcoming space missions. [Stanford physicist Leonard] Susskind says there is a chance that the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, scheduled for launch early next year, could lend a hand. Some multiverse models predict that our universe must have a specific geometry that would bend the path of light rays in specific ways that might be detectable by Planck, which will analyze radiation left from the Big Bang. If Planck’s observations match the predictions, it would suggest the existence of the multiverse.

Physicist Sean Carroll explains the multiverse theory in this three-minute video.

The point is not that we have shown that the multiverse theory is true because we haven’t. The point is that there is no shortage of scientific explanations for why our universe exists and has the properties that it has. Like Laplace, what we can say is that we have no need for the God hypothesis. People might want to believe in a god to satisfy some emotional or psychological need, but we do not need such an external agency to explain our being. As Steven Weinberg said, “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.”

Will religious people now give up on god as they realize that there really is no hope for finding something that only god or religion can explain? I hope so, but am not optimistic. Although religion has proved itself to be totally useless for anything except as a soothing or scary bedtime story for children and credulous and insecure adults, the desire to believe in a god is so strong in some religious people that they will find some other leaky boat to put their faith in, even as the waves of disbelief wash over them.


  1. says

    I would like to pick up on the contention that religion “has proved itself to be totally useless for anything except as a soothing or scary bedtime story for children and credulous and insecure adults….”

    There is one area in which religion may be rather useful; namely, social control through the means of a powerful code of morality. Most of the world’s major religions include some variant on the Golden Rule; i.e. do unto others as you would have them do to you. Of course, the members of the flock do not always actually follow these rules, merely paying lip service to them as that is part of the peculiar ritual of booking one’s ticket to the celestial paradise that awaits them. But, the fact remains that these sermons do have some influence on the way large numbers of people behave.

    I often look at America and feel that many of my countrymen are not terribly far away from being savages -- and they aren’t Rousseau’s Noble Savages, either. Respect for the legal system is one of the things that keeps them in line, though one does wonder how much longer that will last with all this anti-government rhetoric being broadcast by our many self-appointed defenders of liberty.

    If religion can supplement the legal system as a means of social control, I am not entirely sure that I have a problem with it -- so long as the believers refrain from attempting to proselytize the rest of us. I recognize, however, that there is a certain inconsistency in that attitude: I want them to keep their beliefs strictly private, yet I want the benefits of those beliefs to be felt publicly. This is philosophically dubious, but politically and socially expedient.

    That point made, I do want to ask what sort of a substitute, if any, atheism has to offer in the way of a moral code of human behavior. The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill? Something from the Classical world, perhaps? Or the Book of Hawking?

    It’s all well and good knowing why the quark crossed to the other side of the super-conducting super-collider, but how is he supposed to behave when he gets there? Does it matter? Who decides? Is it simply every quark for himself?

  2. says


    There is no reason to think that things like the golden rule originated in religion. We do not need ethics of behavior handed down to us from on high, we can figure them out on our own.

  3. says


    I do not disagree with your scorn for organized religion. Nor am I satisfied with a set of ethics that originates in a fairy story. The Bible has no more moral authority for me personally than Aesop’s fables (although I am sure my exposure to it, in an educational system that did not feature a separation of church and state, influenced my moral development).

    My concern here is a purely practical matter of maintaining an ordered society. If we are going to figure out ethics on our own -- as we obviously must when freed from the shackles of religious superstition -- then which “we”, exactly are we talking about? Which individual or group will do most of the “figuring”? Without an absolute moral authority, we seem to be left with moral relativism. And that’s a tough sell down here in the Bible Belt! Americans prefer their truths self-evident and as simple as possible….

    There is a very real issue here. If you and Richard Dawkins could magically convert all the believers into atheists overnight, what would you tell them to refer to for moral guidance? As you know, the church-goers aren’t too fond of Darwin, the personification of science for them, and America itself went through a very ignoble phase of Social Darwinism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are quite a few morons on the right who’d go back to that ideology in a heartbeat, which is more than a little ironic given their closeness to (or exploitation of) the Moral Majority and its ilk.

    Which moral philosophers, Mano, do you find the most relevant? What if you like Kant and I prefer Jean-Paul Sartre? (Anybody who can turn down a Nobel Prize, as Sartre did in 1957, has got to be a pretty cool cat. And “coolness” counts for a lot these days -- lots of potential there on Twitter and Facebook.) Do we let the political process decide, as it essentially does already through proscribing certain behaviors deemed inimical to the public interest? If so, we’d better make damn sure that political process works properly. Good luck with that…!

  4. Anonymous says

    I am an avid reader and fan of your blogs (by way of Machines Like Us). However, I do agree with Richard Frost that, properly defined, there is value in a naturalistic form of religion. In fact, there is a “movement” of sorts by several scientists and philosophers to promote religious naturalism or, as some others call it, a scientific form of pantheism, where if they use the term at all, “God” is really just nature or the overall cosmos and not a person.

    I think Joseph Campbell, the preeminent expert on world mythology, had a definition of myth that provides a good definition for religion too, and fortunately it’s more of a sociological definition than a theological one. He identified four important functions (as I recall from memory):

    1. cosmological: explaining the cosmos or nature (which is now performed by science and generalized by some into a “deep time” or “big history narrative” of the evolution of the cosmos and life).
    2. psychological: how do we live, what is fulfillment, how do we find meaning for our lives? Again, this should be based on science applied to personal circumstances.
    3. sociological/moral: what is the good society, what values should we nurture, what morals should we have, what utopian vision should we have?
    4. mystical: the aesthetic appreciation or reverence for the cosmos (which need not be seen as union with a divine being). I think even people like Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and all of us have this appreciation from time to time. It’s even what drives many scientists, atheistic as they might be.

    So I see a societal function for religion, but obviously in dire need of being based on our most current and widely accepted elements of scientific knowledge, knowing that it is provisional and evolves over time. I wonder what you think of this approach to religion. Otherwise, it seems that we would have no social institutions to promote values, morality, and a broader vision of the cosmos and the individual’s place within it. We can’t just leave it up to individual scientists (and educated lay persons) trying to snuff out religion altogether. We need to offer an “organized” alternative with positive and practical messages.

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