The Accidental Universe

265152959_f995e03b12_oAlan Lightman wrote a fantastic essay for Harper’s Magazine that then got selected for The Best American Essays of 2012. It’s called “The Accidental Universe.” I highly recommend reading the whole essay, but I want to address it here. In the essay, Lightman talks about the history of science as recasting things once thought to be phenomena as explainable events necessary considering ever growing understanding of laws of nature. Things like the color of the sky or the temperature of boiling water were once miraculous and now easily explainable. “This long and appealing trend,” he writes, “may be coming to an end.”

Recent scientific developments are leading physicists to believe that our universe is one of several universes and that what we used to think of as necessary consequences of laws of nature are actually accidental. “Multiverse” is the term coined for the totality of universes. Theoretical physicists are uniquely distressed about the multiverse theory. Theoretical physicists work on explaining the why behind discoveries. They want to explain the properties of the universe in terms of fundamental principles. They believe in laws of nature that govern the behavior of matter. They want everything to make sense. Implied in their work is one universe with one set of rules. The fewer principles the better. Success is reached when every mystery is solved, when everything in our universe can be explained by scientific truth. If there are multiple universes with different properties, the work of theoretical physicists will never be the same again. The search for one set of answers may be coming to an end. “According to the current thinking of many physicists, we are living in one of a vast number of universes. We are living in an accidental universe. We are living in a a universe incalculable by science.”

To explain the shift in thought further, Lightman uses a fish analogy. It is like theoretical physicists are a group of fish who set out to prove that the entire cosmos needs to be filled with water to support life. The world they can see is the only one that must exist. If another world did exist, it too must be life in water. They are never quite able to prove it, and then some fish start imagining that maybe there are dry worlds where life exists, too. Some fish are relieved, some think their life work in proving the necessity of water a waste. Still other fish are concerned because there is no way for the fish to do research in the dry worlds to prove the theory. It remains a conjecture. “We must believe in what we cannot prove.”

This shift in thought has consequences for religion. Many people believe the multiverse theory does not leave room for a Designer. There are many universes, and ours happens to have the conditions that support life. We are here, so our universe permits the emergence of life. We are an accident. A benevolent creator does not necessarily fit in the story.343167590_b39069b13e_o

Or did God just get bigger in our minds? The multiverse theory is asking physicists to accept that there will always be mystery in the universes. “Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not.” What would it mean for our faith today if the multiverse theory is correct? There may be countless other universes out there. Some may have stars, others may not. Some may be infinite. We will never know. And for me, that feeds my faith and fills me with wonder and awe.