George Ellis recently spoke out again about the problems of thinking about multiverses in a scientific setting. Problems like their inability to be directly observed even in principle, the weakness of any hope even of indirect evidence, their engaging in what amounts to philosophy and metaphysics under the banner of science (oh, the irony), and so on.
Now, there’s one popular angle to approach the multiverse debate from – namely, the idea that the multiverse is being grasped for to avoid admitting even the possibility of a designer. Valid, I think, though a little more complicated than one would normally think, since multiverse speculation also includes speculation that there are numerous universes that are themselves creations (simulations and otherwise.) So while some theists argue that a multiverse doesn’t disprove a designer (true), there’s also the angle that a multiverse can actually be part of an ID theory.
But I want to put even the design v no-design idea aside. There is, I think, an underappreciated aspect of the multiverse debate that doesn’t get enough attention. The fear isn’t just that certain features of our universe require an explanation, and that explanation may be ‘design’.
It’s that there may be limits to science, and beyond those limits are answers to some tremendously important questions. Maybe the most important questions.
That’s not a very dramatic way of putting the situation, I know. There’s a certain amount of excitement that comes from viewing multiverse proponents as motivated by atheism in some way – and there’s also some truth to that, I’m sure. The Discover article itself touched on that, and you certainly see that page in the combox warrior playbook.
Putting the question that way – “God or multiverse, or maybe both! Which will science show us to be the explanation?” – is a little misleading. It sneaks in the assumption that these are conclusions that can be reached by science, and thus makes what threatens to be far more mundane scientific work – and the scientist working on it – look very important. Most people, especially people who typically rely on public funding, would much rather be “the guy shedding light on the existence or non-existence of God and our purpose in the universe” than “the guy who’s trying to figure out why Nebula 415a.21-B looks kind of like a baboon’s ass.”
But if George Ellis and others are right, that assumption is wrong: Whether or not a multiverse exists, science is incapable of showing this, and speculation about the topic is not scientific. Worse, such speculation may be thoughtful, even persuasive – but it’s going to be philosophy and metaphysics rather than science. Frankly, given the choice between being viewed as a philosopher or studying Nebula 415a.21-B, I think many scientists would go for the Nebula.
Since neither option is appealing, a third option is being pursued by some: Bluff. Engage in philosophy and metaphysics, but firmly insist that it’s science after all. Insist that if such speculation falls outside the scope of science, then the definition of science must be changed to allow for making inferences about that which cannot be directly observed, but which can explain some of what we can observe. Sharper ID proponents’ eyes should light up at what I just said.
But in the end, I find myself siding with George Ellis – and I think Ellis’ observation is what motivates more of the worry on the part of many multiverse proponents. It’s not just the possibility and inference of a designer that’s worrying, but the realization that not only does science have limits, but that one of those limits has already been reached.