Was the Multiverse Hypothesis Invented to Explain Away Fine-Tuning?

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 10, 2010 in Design Argument,Science

I am often told by believers that multiverse theories are absurd, and were invented by desperate atheists trying to find ways to explain fine-tuning without having to resort to the God hypothesis.

For example, here is Cardinal Christoph Shonborn:

…faced with scientific claims like… the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology, invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again [proclaim] that the immanent design evident in nature is real.

Of course, if multiverse theories had such an origin, this would not show them to be false. To argue that way would be to commit the genetic fallacy. Moreover, such an origin for multiverse theories would do nothing to bolster the evidence for the God hypothesis, which has problems of its own.

But, let us consider the question anyway. Was the multiverse hypothesis invented to avoid the conclusion that God fine-tuned the universe?

This claim is immediately falsified by the fact that multiverse theories far preceded the very recent discoveries concerning fine-tuning:

Some ancient Hindu cosmologies proclaim a multitude of universes. Here is a passage from the Bhagavad Purana:

The countless universes, each enveloped in its shell, are compelled by the wheel of time to wander within You, like particles of dust blowing about in the sky.

Several ancient Greek atomists proposed a plurality of universes. For example, here is Democritus:

In some worlds there is no Sun and Moon, in others they are larger than in our world, and in others more numerous. In some parts there are more worlds, in others fewer (…); in some parts they are arising, in others failing. There are some worlds devoid of living creatures or plants or any moisture.

In the modern era, one recent many-worlds theory came from Hugh Everett in 1957, who was motivated not to explain fine-tuning but to interpret quantum mechanics. Along with the Copenhagen interpretation and pilot-wave theory, Everett’s theory remains one of the top three contenders for a correct interpretation of quantum mechanics.

In philosophy, David Lewis discussed and defended modal realism, perhaps the most extreme multiverse theory, since at least his book Convention, published in 1968.

But as far as I can tell, the physics community was not much discussing “anthropic coincidences” or “the anthropic principle” or “cosmic fine-tuning” until the 1970s, and widespread discussion probably did not occur until Barrow & Tipler’s landmark 1986 book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.

So, did atheists invent the multiverse hypothesis to explain away fine-tuning without having to resort to theism?

No, they did not.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex November 10, 2010 at 4:45 am

I think it’s also worth pointing out that as long as you can develop a serious theory that has empirical consequences and actually explains the data at hand, it doesn’t at all matter whether the data were previously taken to support folk theories involving religion, magic, etc. Otherwise the theory of evolution would be problematic, since the design argument has been around for much longer. The same would apply to neurological explanations of various mental illnesses, and many other examples. So it looks like as long as your theoretical project can be rationally reconstructed without giving the preceding folk theories a crucial role, you’re just fine, regardless of what role the folk theories may have played in the psychology of the investigators developing the theories.


Andy November 10, 2010 at 4:56 am

It might be true that *some* multiverse hypothesis were invented to explain away fine tuning, but I’m scratching my head trying to come up with one. You already mention that one (or some) was put forward to explain QM. But there are others also like Eternal Inflation, which was put forward to get rid of the “graceful exit” problem of inflation.

I’m wondering if anybody here can give an example of a multiverse model put forward solely to explain some type of fine-tuning, a model which is/was also acclaimed by some group of physicists (as other models are).


Bill Maher November 10, 2010 at 5:52 am

I believe Andrei Linde has worked on it because he thought that multiverse is a consequent of inflationary theory, just like Michio Kaku and Brian Greene think it is a consequent of m-theory.


Taranu November 10, 2010 at 6:04 am

some time ago you linked to a you tube video in a post entitled Craig and circularity. During that video you can read a quote from the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology in which Craig says that if the Multiverse Hypothesis were proposed only to solve the fine-tuning problem the proponents would commit the Inverse Gambler’s Fallacy. You can read it at 3:27 in the video. I thought maybe you could add this in the current post after what the Cardinal said.


Muto November 10, 2010 at 6:19 am

The guy is called Schönborn.


maynard November 10, 2010 at 6:37 am

“M-theory was not even a theory and hardly science but instead a collection of hopes, ideas and aspirations…. and no support from observation.” -Roger Penrose (Sept 2010)


Bill Maher November 10, 2010 at 6:56 am

“M-theory was not even a theory and hardly science but instead a collection of hopes, ideas and aspirations…. and no support from observation.” -Roger Penrose (Sept 2010)  

What does quote-mining prove again? You should quote Fred Hoyle about how the big bang is fake and the steady state theory is true while you are at it.


Garren November 10, 2010 at 7:33 am

Apologists could still claim multiverse theory is widely picked out and promoted by Atheists more to avoid a design hypothesis than because it is anything close to consensus science.

It’s worth bringing up the possibility of a multiverse in response to claims that an intelligent designer of our universe is the only possible conclusion, but at this point cosmological fine tuning does not have any good scientific explanation. It’s not analogous to the way we do now have scientific explanations of biological and planetary “fine tuning.”

From Dawkins:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

We are still in this position today with regard to cosmological fine-tuning. There is no logical compulsion to accept a design hypothesis, yet any feeling of unease Dawkins sees in the pre-Darwinian Atheist would apply to contemporary Atheism.


Justfinethanks November 10, 2010 at 7:55 am

I never quite understood why God is supposed to be the “default” explanation for fine tuning, and any other explanation represents an attempt to “escape” from it. I think it would be equally silly for atheists to say “In response to the question of fine tuning, which presents powerful evidence of a multiverse, some theists came up with this kooky ‘cosmic designer’ hypothesis simply to avoid the multiverse conclusion.”


Luke Muehlhauser November 10, 2010 at 8:18 am


Thanks. Though, Craig also goes on to say that most multiverse theories seem to be proposed to solve other problems.


smijer November 10, 2010 at 8:20 am

might be worthwhile to bear in mind the distinction between multiverse and many worlds. They probably shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

Multiverses generally are at issue here more so than many worlds. The wikipedia articles claim that many worlds is a subset of multiverse, but I’m not sure that is the best designation for it. In any case, it is many worlds that was an interpretation of qm. They can each give a sort of answer to the anthropic coincidence, I suppose – but multiverse isn’t tailored to it.


Josh November 10, 2010 at 8:59 am


That is a good point. This has always struck me as strange, but I wasn’t able to articulate it so clearly as you did. Thanks.


Haecceitas November 10, 2010 at 10:11 am

“Moreover, such an origin for multiverse theories would do nothing to bolster the evidence for the God hypothesis, which has problems of its own.”

That would tend to show that the evidence confirms theism over atheism (at least in the estimation of those scientists who supposedly came up with the multiverse to avoid theism). Surely a piece of evidence can confirm a hypothesis that is problematic in other respects, so it seems to me to be false that this would do nothing to bolster the evidence for the God hypothesis.


Garren November 10, 2010 at 11:06 am

Also, consider how often we still hear that scientists invented evolution and an old earth for the sole reason of avoiding faith in God. It should come as no surprise apologists would use the same line for things without a mountain of compelling evidence.


Greg November 10, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Also, consider how often we still hear that scientists invented evolution and an old earth for the sole reason of avoiding faith in God. It should come as no surprise apologists would use the same line for things without a mountain of compelling evidence.  

Funny that you say that. Just recently walked by a person holding up a sign saying, “Evilution is a lie.”


cl November 10, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Well, I understand the frustration but this is a little bit misleading:

Was the multiverse hypothesis invented to avoid the conclusion that God fine-tuned the universe? This claim is immediately falsified by the fact that multiverse theories far preceded the very recent discoveries concerning fine-tuning

The phrasing of the question implies a Boolean answer when in reality, many different people over many different periods have “invented” or conceived of multiverse hypotheses. Of that set, some were – and are – probably motivated by the desire to avoid the conclusion that God fine-tuned the universe; others probably not. The question just isn’t precise enough to warrant the conclusion that you’ve falsified Schönborn’s claim – which of course is even more imprecise and certainly deserves to be called out.

Andy had the right idea: you should just ask Schönborn to justify his claim, i.e., “Hey Cardinal, can you show me an example of somebody who invented a multiverse hypothesis to avoid the conclusion that God fine-tuned the universe?” You’ll either learn something, or show his claim for what it’s worth.


Hermes November 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Also, consider how often we still hear that scientists invented evolution and an old earth for the sole reason of avoiding faith in God. It should come as no surprise apologists would use the same line for things without a mountain of compelling evidence.  

Well said Garren. The gripes about evolution and old Earth really miss the mark and only show how ignorant or desperate someone is. Clearly neither are a problem for many individual Christians, and most large sects of Christianity officially acknowledge no theological problems with either. It’s good to see that reality isn’t entirely ignored or shunned.

For me, I’m a spectator towards the whole multiverse or many worlds theories. If they are true or not has no impact on the whole issue of theism as theists still have to show that they have something supporting their conjectures not just sniping at things they see as threats to their ideas but probably are not given a modest amount of rearranging of the deck chairs.


Michael November 10, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Cardinal Schonbron merely continues the Church’s proud tradition of high quality argumentation. The immanent design is almost as evident in nature as that epilepsy is caused by demonic possession and curable by exorcism. My favorite examples of Catholic argumentative infallibility are…

Doctor of the Church Robert Cardinal Bellarmine wrote on April 12, 1615 that:

“To affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens…and the earth… revolves with great speed around the sun, is a very dangerous thing… by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false… And if Your Reverence would read not only the Fathers but also the commentaries of modern writers on Genesis, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Josue, you would find that all agree in explaining (ad litteram) that the sun is in the heavens and moves swiftly around the earth, and that the earth is far from the heavens and stands immobile in the center of the universe. Now consider whether the Church could encourage giving to Scripture a sense contrary to the holy Fathers and all the Latin and Greek commentators… I add the words ‘the sun also riseth and the sun goeth down, and hasteneth to the place where he ariseth, etc.’ were those of Solomon, who not only spoke by divine inspiration but was a man wise above all others and most learned in human sciences and in the knowledge of all created things, and his wisdom was from God. Thus it is not too likely that he would affirm something which was contrary to a truth either already demonstrated, or likely to be demonstrated.”

The Holy Father, Pope Urban VIII, decreed in condemnation of Galileo Galilei on June 22, 1633 that:

“We say, pronounce, sentence and declare that you, the said Galileo…have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having believed and held the doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west and that the earth moves and is not the center of the world…after it has been declared and defined as contrary to Holy Scripture…From which we are content that you be absolved, provided that…you abjure, curse, and detest before us the aforesaid errors and heresies and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church.”

Scientisticals ain’t gots nuthin on the Holy Trollers!


Hermes November 10, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Michael, yep. Sooner or later the same people — or someone in a future generation who takes up the same role — will act as if they had a hand in discovering a bit about reality when they or their peers were foes of knowledge. While it is not ideal and a needless waste of time, it is progress that they eventually accept reality. Only the absolute nutters stand up for unreal nonsense when better information is available and shows otherwise.


Rupert Mirdock November 10, 2010 at 6:01 pm

is this the real Bill Maher?


Mazen November 10, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Fucking pricks, telling themselves they’re at the center of every debate and that physicists are just whittling away time trying to answer bullshit questions. Multiverse and string theory models exist for the fundamental problems of gravity and linking quantum mechanics to relativity. Yes, they exist to answer a fundamental question, like EVERY IDEA EVER


Luke Muehlhauser November 10, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Rupert Mirdock,

No, not the Bill Maher from TV.


Hermes November 10, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Rupert, if you are curious, while Bill Maher here is not TV’s Bill Maher, I am the actual Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods. To prove it, here’s a message: Zeus says howdy. ;-p


sayak banerjee November 10, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Perhaps you could direct theists to an actual discussion about Multiverse hypothesis. That should convince most that multiverse is not a theory invented by scientists to “save” atheism.
Here is a good link with Alan Guth, Paul Davis, Brian Greene and many others,



rupert mirdock November 10, 2010 at 7:03 pm

good. cause I think Bill Maher is a fucking prick. and btw, I am rupert murdoch


Hermes November 10, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Rupert, with that reply I don’t doubt your authentic voice. If you gave me a new car, you’d reduce all other doubts entirely.


rupert mirdock November 10, 2010 at 9:27 pm


I’m not going to give you a new car. That’s Oprah’s job.


Luke Muehlhauser November 11, 2010 at 3:06 am


Yes, I anglicized his name just like I anglicize the name Ἀριστοτέλης to ‘Aristotle’.


Luke Barnes November 11, 2010 at 4:18 am

A couple of points:
* Democritus seems to be talking about planets (or solar systems), rather than universes. I haven’t read much Democritus, though.

* Everett’s original proposal isn’t really a multiverse proposal, because the laws and constants of physics don’t change when the universe splits in two. Everett’s universes explore state space, not parameter space. To make it a multiverse, you have to put the idea in a bigger framework in which the universe must make a quantum decision between, say, values of the cosmological constant, and “takes both roads”.

* Lewis’ multiverse (plus the anthropic principle) only explains why our universe has been life-permitting in the past. Of all the universes that permit intelligent life up until 12pm tomorrow, the vast majority then change in ways that destroy life by 12.01pm. (Dawkins: “however many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive.”). So we’ll see if that prediction holds.

* Much of the modern literature on multiverses sell the idea using (amongst other things) fine-tuning for life: “the existence of an amazingly strong correlation between our own properties and the values of many parameters of our world, such as the masses and charges of electron and proton, the value of the gravitational constant, the amplitude of spontaneous symmetry breaking in the electroweak theory, the value of the vacuum energy, and the dimensionality of our world, is an experimental fact requiring an explanation. A combination of the theory of inflationary multiverse and the string theory landscape provide us with a unique framework where this explanation can possibly be found.” Andre Linde, 2007 (http://arxiv.org/abs/0705.0164)

Linde traces the first anthropic explanation of the cosmological constant using inflationary cosmology to 1984. [Not surprisingly, for a Linde paper, the reference is (Linde, 1984)]. The anthropic principle in its modern form goes back to Carter (1974), or possibly Dicke (1964). Carr and Rees (1979) was also very influential.

* None of this really matters. Quantum mechanics was invented to explain spectral lines and the stability of atoms. The only question that matters is “is quantum mechanics the best explanation of the phenomena we observe?” We can’t expect to be always one step ahead of the universe – its far to big and weird for that. This is the best answer to the Cardinal: it doesn’t matter where we get our hypotheses from. The only question is which one, if any, is true? For an opposing view to Linde’s above, there is a nice talk by George Ellis called “A critique of multiverses” here: http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/Multimedia.php

At best, the Cardinal could argue that, given that the most plausible explanations of fine-tuning are multiverse and design, the fact that some scientists have an aversion to design, they have overstated the case for multiverses, where they would otherwise have been far more hesitant. Perhaps he would argue that an atheist appealing to Hindu mythology as precedent is another example …


Luke Muehlhauser November 11, 2010 at 7:24 am

Luke Barnes,

Thanks! That’s very helpful.


Michael November 11, 2010 at 7:55 am

It really is heliocentrism all over again. Only this time with the rest of reality.


cd November 11, 2010 at 9:35 am

What always gets me about attempted defenses of design is that enabling of narcissism is the basis of their appeal.


Steven November 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I don’t even understand why anyone would need to explain away “fine-tuning”. If the universe is “fine-tuned” to meet humanity’s needs, why are there consistent droughts, floods and uninhabitable places that must be tamed through hard work, blood, and suffering? And why is it fine-tuned so that our sun will eventually become a Red Giant, killing every living organism in the process or in a way were a bunch of orbiting rocks threaten to crash unto Earth and wipe out all traces of it at anytime? It seems as if this “fine-tuner” did a very bad job of it indeed.


Luke Muehlhauser November 11, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Ah, but suppose the fine-tuner has a good reason we can never know about for why there is so much suffering? :)


Hermes November 11, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Ah, but suppose the fine-tuner has a good reason we can never know about for why there is so much suffering? :)  

Reminds me of a friend’s ex-wife.


Steven November 11, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Ah, but suppose the fine-tuner has a good reason we can never know about for why there is so much suffering? :)  

Doesn’t that undermine the premise of the Fine-Tuning Argument? If we can explain away all imperfections by appealing to some unknowable plan, then couldn’t any imperfection of universe also be defended this way? That is, suppose the Earth was 99.99% water. One could reasonably argue that the Earth is NOT fine-tuned for terrestrial human life. But the Fine-Tuner Theist could just appeal to this mysterious plan and have the same going for this specific “Fine-Tuned” Earth as the one we now inhabit. And this can go on and on until we wind up with an Earth where only one person can live out a meager, miserably experience, and the Fine-Tuning Argument could be used to defend this Earth’s existence just as reasonably well as it could our own world. It seems to me that because of this, the Fine-Tuning Argument is only convincing if it can be shown that everything is fine-tuned to optimal levels for human existence, otherwise, the F-T Argument can reasonably justify just about any sort of world and the central premise that THIS world we inhabit is so good only God can explain it is severely undermined. I hope I made my point clear–it’s very hard to word what I’m trying to say.


toweltowel November 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm


I believe I understand and agree with your point. ‘Skeptical theism’ as a response to the problem of evil has a tendency to undercut such natural theology as the fine-tuning argument. After all, the former denies that we are in a position to know much about God’s reasons, whereas the latter insists that we are in a position to know what a divine intelligence would be likely to do. This is a point Paul Draper makes in his essay “The Skeptical Theist” and it arguably goes back to Hume’s Dialogues. It might also be why such natural theologians as Swinburne eschew skeptical theism.


Sabio Lantz November 12, 2010 at 2:39 am

Heck, here’s another Lewis: even CS Lewis was content with multiple universes — parallel universes running on different times. See Narnia


rupert mirdock November 12, 2010 at 5:27 pm

“Ah, but suppose the fine-tuner has a good reason we can never know about for why there is so much suffering? :) ”

you can know… in Heaven. If God is good, then he must have good reasoning. Just because we don’t know what it is, doesn’t mean it is isn’t good….

This is why astrology is easy to debunk and Christianity is hard…the more vague the belief is, the easier it is to defend. The more specific one gets, the more they need evidence to defend their position (this is why new religions such as Mormonism and Scientology are so easily debunked).

I thought the same thing recently in a conversation I had with a friend about the “multiverse to debunk fine-tuning,” but I don’t think I mentioned it.

It seems as long as there is something we don’t know about there will always be a God to fill the gaps…


maynard November 14, 2010 at 6:03 am

Bill Maher,

“There is no scientific evidence for the M-theory.” – Maynard


JohnJay60 January 28, 2012 at 11:19 am

Good discussion. It is also important, from what I read (as an engineer, not a physicist) to distinguish between a matter/antimatter universe and the ‘infinite number of universes’ conjecture. That is, the difference between “1″, “2″, and “Infinite” is significant.

For example, I’m reading “The Big Questions: Physics”, by Michael Brooks who has a PhD in Quantum Physics. Early in the book he explains how Heisenberg works, namely, that whatever measurement touches a particle to observe it will change its location. Makes sense at the photon level; everyone gets that if you bounce a tiny particle off another tiny particle to determine where it was, you’ve changed its position.

But then in a later chapter he discusses whether an ‘observation’ of the universe, such as glancing at the sky, causes a new universe to be created. He seems to be conflating two distinct definitions of observation: one where my observation is altering the item itself (as Heisenberg intended) and one where I’m long after the fact. Yet this idea that we create infinite universes with every quantum state change is given the same page space as the fundamental testable theories of Newton, Einstein, and Bohr.

This is I think completely different than the question of whether we have an alternate antiuniverse or antimatter or something like that. A conjecture of proliferation of universes and a conjecture about dark matter and dark energy belong in separate sections of the book store: fantasy and science, respectively. The latter discussion is attempting to explain observed phenomenon. Multiverse seems to be a solution in search of a problem.


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