Mad Science of the Multiverse

“Why do you and I exist? Why was this world created? Since it was to be created, why was it not created sooner?”– Samuel Johnson

“Mystery has its own mysteries, and there are gods above gods. We have ours, they have theirs. That is what’s known as infinity.”

– Jean Cocteau

The Anthropic Principle in a Nutshell

The “anthropic principle” is a hybrid idea – part scientific hypothesis and part philosophical argument – which seeks to account for our presence in a life-sustaining universe using inference and probability.

It asks the questions: why does our universe seem fine-tuned for human life? Did an Intelligent Designer plan this universe just for us, or is it simply one of many universes in a larger multiverse, the random byproduct of an endless process of creation with no beginning and no end?

Cosmology and the Culture Wars

Attempts by scientists and academic philosophers to address these and similar questions via various “anthropic principles” have generated considerable public controversy and misunderstanding over the years; definitions are all over the map, and agreement in short supply. Complains Oxford mathematician Nick Bostrom:

“A total of over thirty anthropic principles have been formulated and many of them have been defined several times over – in nonequivalent ways – by different authors, and sometimes even by the same authors on different occasions. Not surprisingly, the result has been some pretty wild confusion concerning what the whole thing is about.”1

Contributing to this confusion, Christian writers have flooded the market with books and pamphlets which use anthropic terminology to argue in favor of authoritarian monotheism; apologetic researcher Hugh D. Ross is a particularly egregious offender in this regard, claiming in his essay “The Anthropic Principle: A Precise Plan for Humanity” that:

“The space-time theorems of general relativity prove that an Entity transcending matter, energy, space, and time is the cause of the universe in which humanity lives. Of all the gods, forces, or principles that people have proposed throughout human history…only the God of…the bible predicts and explains the anthropic principle..”2

In this essay, I’d like to continue the tack taken in my last article3 and start pulling the anthropic principle apart at the seams, examining the arguments both for and against it and looking at their implications.

As we shall see, most readings of the anthropic principle do not support the Judeo-Christian vision of a perfectly planned universe as the one-time creation of an omnipotent, omniscient and infallible Intelligent Designer – rather, to the extent that the AP supports a theological narrative at all, it places us firmly in the camp of the ancient Gnostic Christians, suggesting a multiplicity of flawed and randomly variegated universes created by bumbling mad scientists who are themselves the chance byproducts of a ongoing (and perhaps infinite) process.

The Bible and the Big Bang

Most people are familiar with the Biblical creation myth: God hovered over the abyss in darkness, proclaimed “let there be light!” and proceeded to create the stars and the earth. Where god came from, who created him, and whether he created other universes too are not addressed – in the closed and self-referential system of the Bible, scripture is the final authority and those who seek knowledge outside its scope are regarded as “heretics.”

The modern equivalent of the Genesis myth is the “Big Bang” theory of physics, which holds that space, time and matter came into being simultaneously and then expanded rapidly from a pinprick into the vast universe we live in now. Because our universe forms a continuous and self-contained whole, we can’t look at anything outside of it, or look back in time and see what came before it; for this reason, some scientists argue that theories which attempt to reach beyond its confines are pointless and “unscientific.”

Speculative Cosmology

Despite the apparent limits of scientific inquiry, the lure of the unknown remains strong for contemporary cosmologists and the field is rampant with wild theoretical explanations of how our own universe might have been produced.

It could be, for example, that the big bang was but one of many big bangs in an endless cycle of universes which expand and contract in sequence, almost like breathing; or it could be that our universe was the result of a quantum fluctuation in a pre-existent vacuum; or perhaps it had a “parent” universe which birthed it through the “branching” off of parallel universes or even through the expansion and “budding” of a miniature big bang from within a black hole!4

In short, almost no working physicists actually deny that the big bang occurred. Where they differ from each other is in their willingness to speculate about what caused it and whether or not it was unique.


In a very similar way, the vast majority of primitive Christians acknowledged the truth of the account set forth in Genesis. Our universe exists because it was produced by a supernatural being who said “let there be light!” – this much was obvious to most ancient believers.

Where many early Christians parted ways, however, was in their willingness to speculate about what happened before this. Like modern speculative physicists, some of the faithful were just too curious to resist prying.

If a creator god made this universe, then where did he live before that happened? Did he make our universe because he was forced to leave his old one for some reason? And who created God, anyway?

Christians who dared to ask these sorts of questions were known as “gnostic” Christians, and their theories about these and similar issues formed the basis of many fantastic, elaborate and bizarre creation stories which were once studied alongside the writings which make up the present-day Bible.

Gnostic teachers encouraged innovative thinking, and their sects claimed different founders (often otherworldly); as a result, the first few centuries of the Christian era enjoyed a bumper-crop of bewildering beliefs that spread all over the Roman Empire and beyond.

The Basics of Gnostic Myth

While Gnostic Christian creation myths were very diverse, they did share certain basic premises; one of these was the idea that our own world had emerged as the flawed side-effect of a mysterious experiment launched by alien beings from an unknowable world beyond space and time.

In Gnostic thought, the “God” who created this universe was a bumbling tyrant, accidentally produced when a mother goddess from this unknowable realm became trapped outside of her own domain.

In her confusion, she somehow projected the “shadow” of matter; this shadow transformed into a swirling abyss from which countless insane creator deities poured forth like twisted parodies of the divine:

“[And] as for the shadow, the powers which came into being after [it] called it “the limitless Chaos.” And out of it every race of gods was brought forth, both one and the other and the whole place…”5

First among these spurious deities was the “Demiurge” (literally “half-maker”) a blind, arrogant and powerful being identified by Gnostics with the God of the Old Testament. Ignorant of his own origins, the Demiurge declared himself the Supreme Being and spawned assistants called “archons,” mechanical demigods intent on creating artificial worlds of their own.

The archons proceeded to build a series of synthetic heavens and false creations, poor imitations of the divine world above; some version of the myth held that 365 separate sub-domains were created in all, one inside the other. The last and least of these fake heavens sits directly above our own earth, itself little more than a glorified zoo.

The Demiurge rules over his fallen kingdom like a mad scientist run amok in a laboratory, fine-tuning it for life, the myth relates, not because he is benevolent, but because he is hungry – he feeds on the energy generated by human fear and worship, and spawned our warlike species of talking monkeys only to serve his own enormous appetite.

Gnostic myth relates that those humans who strive to transcend their biological, social and cultural programming can eventually hope to overthrow the Demiurge and his archons and rule over them instead.

Orthodox Objections

French heresy-hunter St. Irenaeus invokes these strange stories in an attempt to refute the idea that there is another heaven above heaven, and another god above “God”; for if gods produce gods who create heavens filed with yet more world-creating gods, then where does it all stop?

“…by that very process of reasoning on which they [Gnostic Christians] depend for teaching that there is a…God above the Creator of heaven and earth, any one who chooses to employ it may maintain that there is another [heaven] above [heaven and] above that again another… flowing out into…worlds without limits, and gods that cannot be numbered… so that the formation of heavens of this kind can never cease…the operation must go on ad infinitum…”6

The Anthropic Coincidences

Almost two millennia later the origins of the cosmos remains an uncomfortable mystery, and modern scientists are plagued by most of the same questions as their Gnostic forbears. Where did our world come from, and how? Did creation occur only once, or is it an ongoing process? Something about the way this universe unfolded makes it just right for human existence – but why?

Research shows that the universe we live in can only sustain beings like ourselves because it has certain features – a set of 20 or so narrowly defined parameters often referred to as “anthropic coincidences.” If any of these differed by as much as 1% (or even much less, in many cases), life itself would not exist.

To look at just a few examples: if gravity was stronger or weaker, if our universe had more or less than three dimensions, or if it was expanding at an almost undetectably different rate, most of the physical phenomena which make life possible – from the molecules in our bodies to the sun which gives our planet light and warmth – would burn out, fly apart or implode (assuming they even existed in the first place)!

In short, life as we know it would never have emerged – our universe would have been dead from the beginning, a tragic, cosmic miscarriage.

Instead, all of the right features are in place – and for no reason that we seem to be able to predict or understand. So why does our universe seem fine-tuned for human life? It certainly didn’t have to be that way – in fact, the odds are overwhelming against it.

The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP)

In 1974, a British physicist named Brandon Carter suggested the “anthropic principle” as a response to these coincidences, noting simply that we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that our universe is compatible with life, because if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it.

While superficially true, this answer isn’t particularly satisfying – of course we wouldn’t be able to wonder about our origins if our universe didn’t support life, but that still doesn’t answer the question of how we got here in the first place.

The Strong Anthropic Principle

Another variation on this same, basic concept holds that since our universe supports life and we are here to wonder about it, life-supporting universes must be inevitable – the “strong” anthropic principle. Dozens of theories purporting to explain why this should be so have been proposed; of these, two have proven especially durable. Either:

1. There is only one universe and it was deliberately fine-tuned for life by an Intelligent Designer

– or –

2. Our universe is simply one of many universes, some of which support life and some of which do not.

Divine Design

Not surprisingly, the first interpretation of the S.A.P. is extremely popular with Christian thinkers eager to establish a basis for the Biblical creation account. These argue that since life as we know it can only exist within a very narrow range of physical constraints, the odds against the emergence of life-supporting universes must be very great.

This supposed improbability is often taken as proof that the big bang was steered and fine-tuned by an Intelligent Designer with a specific interest in human life. Claims one Christian author:

“The basic thrust of the anthropic principle is that chance is simply not a valid mechanism to explain the atom or life. If chance is not valid, we are constrained to…realize that we are the product of an intelligent God.”7

Of course, if this “intelligent God” were truly all-powerful – not a bumbling fallen angel like the Demiurge, but an actual Supreme Being – then why would he even need to fine-tune a universe for life in the first place?

Couldn’t he just create whatever type of life he wanted, whether or not it was compatible with the laws of physics?

Exotic Alternate Universes

Another problem with the design inference is that it assumes that life can only exist in a universe with physical laws exactly like our own (a position sometimes known as “carbon chauvinism”); unfortunately, we have no way to verify this assumption, since we can’t leave our own universe or even peer out of it.

If a different sort of big bang had produced different laws of physics, life might have taken the form of telepathic silicon-based fungi, or entire civilizations of gaseous beings trapped in the hearts of white dwarves. We simply cannot know.

One Universe and One God?

A third objection to the design inference arises with the question: “Where did the Intelligent Designer come from?”

Either God emerged from a life-supporting universe of his own and then created this one, or else some other being in another universe created him first, which means that there is more than one universe and more than one god!

Perhaps gods create universes which produce gods who create universes and the process simply goes on forever (see Irenaeus’ objection to Gnosticism, above).

The Ensemble Argument

Most scientists reject the design explanation altogether, arguing instead that our bio-friendly universe is simply one in an endless array of exhaustively novel parallel worlds – a multiverse.8

Some of these universes are inhabited by living beings, while others – “dead universes” – possess laws of physics too bizarre or broken to allow for life.

The reason that our own universe appears designed for human life is because we live in it; if we lived in a different type of life-supporting universe, then that too would appear fine-tuned for whatever type of life it supported.

In any event, once we posit an infinite number of universes, probability and improbability fly out the window – not only must there be other life-sustaining universes like this one, but if this one exists, then there must be an infinite number of them.

Many different multiverse scenarios have been proposed; of these, three stand out as particularly strong candidates:

The Self-Reproducing Inflationary Universe

Inflationary cosmologists like Stanford’s Andrei Linde believe that our universe may exist within an infinite sea of universes, each with different laws of physics, expanding like bubbles from within “space as a whole” via the process of “chaotic inflation.”

In this view, there are (and have always been) countless big bangs, but not every big bang produces a life-supporting universe; some do, some don’t, and still others produce forms of life so strange that we couldn’t imagine them if we tried.

“If my colleagues and I are right, we may soon be saying good-bye to the idea that our universe was a single fire-ball created in the big bang. We are exploring a new theory…that instead of being an expanding ball of fire the universe is a huge, growing fractal. It consists of many inflating balls that produce new balls, which in turn produce more balls, ad infinitum…

This process, which I have called eternal inflation, keeps going as a chain reaction, producing a fractal-like pattern of universes. In this scenario the universe as a whole is immortal.”9

The Oscillating Universe

Closely related to Linde’s “chaotic inflation” theory is the oscillating universe model proposed by physicist John Wheeler, which holds that our universe goes through cycles of big bangs and big crunches, expanding from a point a trillion times smaller than the head of a pin before collapsing back into that same, super-dense point. Each cycle of expansion and contraction generates an entirely new set of fundamental constants and so produces a completely new type of universe.

In this model, the worlds which make up the multiverse are separated not in space, but in time – a new universe is born as the old one dies, and if a previous universe was “dead,” a new one might have physical laws conducive to the emergence of life.

This process repeats, not dozens or even hundreds of times, but forever.

The Ultimate Ensemble

The simplest prediction of all holds that every “logically possible” universe we can imagine actually exists as its own, self-enclosed world; Max Tegmark of MIT calls this idea the “Ultimate Ensemble Theory”.

As with other multiverse models, not all of the universes in Tegmark’s “Ultimate Ensemble” are life-friendly; only some are stable and complex enough to support what Tegmark calls “Self-Aware Substructures,” or living beings:

“Although every mathematical structure exists and has physical existence [as an actual universe], only some are perceived to have physical existence… For instance, a universe consisting of Euclidean geometry exists but its equations are nowhere near rich enough in possibilities to evolve observers.”10

In other words, every sort of universe the human mind can dream up is real and exists somewhere, but since most of them are too simple and unstable to support life, they can never be measured, observed or perceived in any way.

For all practical purposes, these “dead” universes are invisible, untouchable and forever off-limits to anyone, human or alien.

The Multiverse and Occam’s Razor

Science tells us that out of two explanations, the more economical is most likely to be true – and seen in this light, some of the theories described above can seem unnecessarily complicated.

Why posit an infinite number of endlessly varying universes when the alternate explanation is so easy and obvious: there is only one universe, designed and created by an Intelligent Designer?

In fact, it really doesn’t matter how complex the multiverse itself is, since the premise which describes it – “every universe that can exist, does” – could hardly be simpler.

The other explanation – our universe as the one-time creation of an invisible being with unknown motives – requires the introduction of countless additional premises before it even begins to explain anything meaningful.

If our universe was created, then why shouldn’t there be others too? If our world is an exception, then what rule is it an exception to? What makes us think our universe is a special case?

The further along this second path we travel, the more ad-hoc assumptions and one-time-only exclusions accrue, until their cumulative complexity begins to rival the universe itself! Indeed, the existence of the multiverse is ultimately the simpler explanation.

Close Encounters

A second (and unlike the first, serious) objection to multiverse theory is more difficult to rebut: if an infinite number of exhaustively random universes exist, where are they? How can we prove they exist when we can’t even see them?

In fact, other universes (if they do exist) are by definition separate from our own world and beyond the reach of scientific measurement; if a human researcher even tried to enter another universe, the molecules in his or her body would cease to exist as they came under new laws of physics.

While we can’t, therefore, actually explore other universes, we might be able to someday observe their creation – and the simplest way to do that would be to create our own.

The Multiverse and Simulation

How might we create other universes? If some researchers are right, the shortest distance from man to Intelligent Designer might be based, not on carbon, but on silicon – specifically, highly advanced super-computers.

For example, Nick Bostrom claims that “even a single planetary-sized computer, constructed with advanced molecular nanotechnology, could simulate the entire mental history of humankind by using less than one millionth of its computing power for one second”11 – and what’s more, this scenario isn’t something we should only hope to observe some day in the far-flung future, but might even be experiencing right now. How?

Simulation Theory

An infinite multiverse, Bostrom argues, is bound to produce to produce at least one civilization sophisticated enough to program virtual universes of its own.

Assuming that virtual worlds are easier to create than “real” ones, then once a civilization learned how to program them then it would have no reason not to produce numerous simulated worlds populated by countless artificially intelligent life forms.

Simulated worlds would soon greatly outnumber “real” worlds, increasing the probability that any randomly selected inhabitant from the multiverse as a whole would be virtual instead of real. Laments Paul Davies, an Australian physicist:

“…if simulated systems are every bit as good at simulating their own conscious sub-systems, sub-sub-systems, and so on ad infinitum, gods and worlds, creators and creatures in an infinite regress, embedded within each other… then there would seem to be little point in pursuing scientific inquiry at all…”12

There will of course be those who object that simulated universes inhabited by artificially intelligent, virtual people aren’t (and will never be possible), but Bostrom argues convincingly that human civilization – assuming that it continues to develop increasingly sophisticated computer programming – can only hope to follow one of three possible courses:

1) Develop the advanced technology necessary to create virtual worlds filled with simulated life forms (like the Matrix)

2) Develop the advanced technology necessary to create virtual worlds filled with simulated life forms but decide not to do so for some reason

3) Destroy ourselves before we develop the ability to create virtual worlds filled with simulated life forms

So how could this help us prove or disprove the existence of other worlds? Notes Bostrom:

“Assuming the simulators, or at least the early generations of them, have a very advanced knowledge of the laws of Nature, it’s likely they would still have incomplete knowledge of them (some philosophers of science would argue this must always be the case). They may know a lot about the physics and programming needed to simulate a universe but there will be gaps or, worse still, errors in their knowledge of the laws of Nature… [if so, then] we should expect occasional sudden glitches, small drifts in the supposed constants and laws of Nature over time…”13

Or, as 2nd century Gnostic teacher Valentinus once put it:

“However much a portrait is inferior to an actual face, just so is the world worse than the living realm…For the form was not reproduced with perfect fidelity…”14

The Demiurgic Anthropic Principle

Alternately, we may discover that it is easier to create physical (as opposed to virtual) universes; consider Edward Harrison, a British physicist who claims that the reason our universe appears “fine-tuned” for life is because it was designed that way by alien scientists in another universe.

The reasoning behind this startling hypothesis is as follows: if it is true – as physicists like Andre Linde, Alan Guth and others claim – that a universe can be created in a laboratory, then the possibility arises that our own universe was created by scientists too:

“…the only thing you needed to get a universe like ours started is a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter. That’s enough to create a small chunk of vacuum that blows up into the billions and billions of galaxies we see around us. It looks like cheating, but that’s how the inflation theory works – all the matter in the universe gets created from the negative energy of the gravitational field. So, what’s to stop us from creating a universe in a lab? We would be like gods!”15

In time, if our experiments are successful, then some of the universes we create will eventually produce advanced civilizations of their own; some of these will create yet more new “living” universes, and so on.

If “intelligent life takes over the business of making universes,” as Harrison predicts, then living universes could multiply rapidly:

“There are about 10 billion galaxies like our own Milky Way in the observable Universe. If, during the lifetime of each galaxy, a single civilization emerges which makes a new universe – a modest figure when you consider that our Galaxy alone has 200 billion suns – then our Universe manages to reproduce 10 billion times! Furthermore, if intelligent life in each galaxy of each daughter universe repeats the ultimate experiment just once, the result is 10 billion times 10 billion granddaughter universes. And so on, ad infinitum.”16

If our universe was created by alien scientists whose own universe was also the result of an experiment in yet another universe, then where did the very first living universe of all come from? Per the Strong Anthropic Principle, there are only two possibilities: either a god created the first “living” universe, or else it arose by chance from an ensemble of “mostly-dead” universes – a multiverse.

So where did this god, or this ensemble come from? Harrison doesn’t really try to answer:

“Perhaps the Supreme Being occupied another universe created by an even higher form of intelligence, and perhaps the initial ensemble consisted of botched and bungled creations by a sorcerer’s apprentice in another universe.”17

Notes Andre Linde, “You might take this all as a joke but perhaps it is…why the world we live in is so weird. On the evidence, our universe was created not by a divine being, but by a physicist hacker…”18

Simplicity in Multiplicity

In the end we find that the conflict between the design inference and multiverse theory – like the conflict between Genesis and Gnostic creation myth – is only apparent, for in both cases, the first scenario is contained within and emerges from the second.

Put simply: even if this universe represents the one-time creation of an Intelligent Designer (Genesis), that Designer too must have been created and we still end up with multiple Intelligent Designers in infinite regress (Gnosticism).

What’s more, if we are part of a larger multiverse – if there do exist an infinite number of worlds both created and random, simulated and laboratory-manufactured, perfect and flawed – then the Biblical creation account is indeed literally true somewhere, as are the creation cosmologies of the Eskimo, the Yoruba, and the ancient Vikings!


So which universe do we live in now? Until we discover how to create universes of our own, the origins of this one remain anybody’s guess; my sneaking suspicion (though I cannot prove it) is that it creates itself at the seams in response to the stories we tell about it – a once-popular but now seldom-discussed third alternative called the “Participatory Anthropic Principle”:

“The Universe starts small at the big bang, grows in size, [and] gives rise to life and observers and observing equipment. The observing equipment, in turn, through the elementary quantum processes that terminate on it, takes part in giving tangible “reality” to events that occurred long before there was any life anywhere.”19

In other words, our universe exists as a self-excited loop in which the research of present-day inhabitants can actually alter the course of past events – including the first few seconds of the big bang! Effect precedes cause, egg precedes chicken, and both turn inwards upon each other in an infinite cycle, like a serpent endlessly devouring its own tail.

If – as the P.AP. suggests – the present can affect the past, then how does this affect the future? Stanford physicist Peter Carroll explains the concept of retrocausality in metaphysical terms, noting that:

“Retroactive enchantment…consists of rewriting our personal history. As our history largely defines our future, we can change our future by redefining our past. Everybody has some capacity to reinterpret things which were considered to have gone wrong in the past in a more favorable light, but most fail to pursue the process to the full….”20

Seen in this light, the elaborate Gnostic reinterpretations of Genesis discussed earlier appear not as exercises in cultic inversion for its own sake but shamanic portals to the very heart of creation, theological wormholes which propel the reader backwards in time to rewrite history, change the past and outwit God himself, bringing a liberating, magical and radically transformative understanding of humanity’s collective future into being at the same time.

Or, as the Gnostic philosopher Valentinus once noted:

“…in the beginning God created man. But now men create God. That is the way it is in the world – men make gods and worship their creation. It would be fitting for the gods to worship men!”21

  1. Bostrom, Nick. “Observation selection theory: a primer.”  2002. []
  2. Ross, Hugh. “Anthropic Principle: A Precise Plan for Humanity.” Facts for Faith, Issue 8. 2002. []
  3. Max, Rev. “The Incredibly Strange Story of Intelligent Design.” New Dawn No. 97. July – August 2006. []
  4. “Cosmology and Theology.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 1998 Edition. []
  5. ”On the Origin of the World.” The Other Bible. Ed. Willis Barnstone. Harper San Francisco, 1984. 64. []
  6. Irenaeus. Against Heresies : Book II. []
  7. “A Practical Man’s Proof of God.” Does God Exist? []
  8. Tegmark, Max. “Parallel Universes: Not just a staple of science fiction, other universes are a direct implication of cosmological observations.” Scientific American. 25 Mar., 2003. []
  9. Linde, Andrei. “The Self-Reproducing Inflationary Universe.” Scientific American, Vol. 271, No. 5. Nov 1994. 48-55. []
  10. Chown, Marcus. “Anything Goes.” New Scientist, Vol. 158. 6 June,1998. 26-30. []
  11. Bostrom, Nick. “Why Make a Matrix? And Why You Might Be In One.” 2005. []
  12. Davies, Paul. “Multiverse or design: reflections on a Third Way.” Paper delivered at Stanford University workshop “‘One Universe or Many?” 28-29 Mar., 2003. []
  13. Barrow, John D. “Living in a Simulated Universe: We explain why, if we live in a simulated reality, we might expect to see occasional glitches and small drifts in the supposed constants and laws of Nature over time.” []
  14. “Adam’s Name.” The Gnostic Scriptures. Trans. Bentley Layton. Doubleday /Anchor, 1995. 237. []
  15. Holt, Jim. “The Big Lab Experiment: Was our universe created by design?” Slate Magazine. 19 May,2004. []
  16. Chown, Marcus. “Was the Universe Created by Angels?” 2002. []
  17. Chown, Marcus. “Was the Universe Created by Angels?” 2002. []
  18. Holt, Jim. “The Big Lab Experiment: Was our universe created by design?” Slate Magazine. 19 May,2004. []
  19. Wheeler, John Archibald. “Bohr, Einstein, and the Strange Lesson of the Quantum.” Mind in Nature. Ed. Richard Q. Elvee. Harper and Row, 1981. 18. []
  20. Carroll, Peter. Liber Kaos. Red Wheel / Weiser, 1992. 124. []
  21. ”The Gospel of Philip.” The Other Bible. Ed. Willis Barnstone. Harper San Francisco, 1984. 95. []
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