Science's Alternative to an Intelligent Creator: The Multiverse Theory
Now, I can't speak with authority on whether the scientists quoted in the article are doing bad science (improbable), or whether they're just terrible at communicating their good science (entirely possible), or whether the person who wrote the article simply misrepresented them horribly (most likely in my opinion). But I do know that the article is woefully misleading in both science and logic.
The article discusses the idea of the "multiverse," which is actually an interesting idea to contemplate. It proposes that there are many (possibly an infinite number of) other universes, which may have different physical laws than our own. Some variations of this theory include the proposition that other universes are continually spawning (possibly even from our own, through black holes or other oddities). Now, there are significant and legitimate arguments for the possible existence of a multiverse. The ones described in the article are not among them.
The authors try to tie the multiverse concept to another legitimate scientific idea: that the existence of the universe as we know it is highly improbable. It turns out that if you tweak certain parameters of our fundamental physical laws, life as we know it - along with other elements of the universe as we know it, such as stars, planets, etcetera - could not exist.
In the process, they commit at least two grievous logical errors which not only undermine their argument but could serve to discredit in the minds of the public the real, legitimate scientific theories which they are claiming to promote.
The first sin against logic is basing their argument on a highly-flawed understanding of probability. In essence, the argument is based on the idea that our universe's laws are highly improbable, but would be more probable if there were a bunch more universes out there. This argument is perhaps emotionally compelling, but it is in fact ridiculous.
It is true that when you play a game of chance a lot of times, it is in fact more likely that you will get a specific desired outcome one of the times. If I play the lottery ten million times, it is more likely that I will win one of those times than if I only play it once. This is basic probability, and most people have an intuitive understanding of it.
However (this is a big however), our intuition frequently leads us astray. The fact is that playing the game many times does not increase the odds of getting the specified outcome on any one specific play. Most of us intuitively believe that it does. It's normal, when playing at a slot machine, to think "I've lost so many times, I'm due to win any minute now!" Casinos base their profits on this intuitive misunderstanding. In reality (and casinos' profit margins operate in reality) the odds of winning the next time you play are completely unaltered by the fact that you lost the last 50 times you played.
This seems contradictory - doesn't playing more increase my chances of winning? Yes. But it doesn't increase my chances of winning at any one particular time. The converse is that knowing I've won on one particular play does not increase the probability that I've played a bunch of other times and lost. If I went out tomorrow, bought a lottery ticket, and won, you would not be able to reason from that outcome that I'd probably played the lottery hundreds or thousands or millions of other times.
How does this relate to the Discover article? The fact is that (assuming the laws of the universe arose by chance and not by some mechanism of necessity that we have yet to discover) all we know is that we've played the game at least once and won. We won this one specific time, and this specific universe has stars and planets and galaxies and life in it. If we had not won, we would not be here to argue about it, so it's guaranteed that in any universe where we exist to talk about it, we won. We can not deduce from that outcome how many times the game was played. It could have been played once, ten times, a thousand times, a million times, an infinite number of times, and none of those would alter the probability of this particular specific universe being the winning ticket. The probability of us being here, in this universe, right now, would be completely unchanged and would remain (again, assuming the laws we're talking about are a matter of chance) statistically infinitesmally small.
The second is invoking a false dichotomy. Here's the claim in the article:
Call it a fluke, a mystery, a miracle. Or call it the biggest problem in physics. Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multiverse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.Now, I don't know if they got this from the physicists. I certainly hope not. It lends credibility to two horrible anti-science arguments: first, that scientists are out to disprove the existence of a deity (and will go to any number of ridiculously absurd and illogical lengths to do so); second, that observations about the universe as we know it can be used as scientific evidence to point to the existence of a deity. Both of these arguments are patently false. Scientists in general are not hostile to religion and are not out to disprove it, and the fact that our universe is improbable is not an argument for the existence of an even more improbable entity.
Even barring the argument I made above from the discussion and assuming that the multiverse is actually a legitimate solution to the problem of the improbability of our universe (if it is a problem), this argument is still a false dichotomy.
First of all, for the same reason that intelligent design is not a solution to the problem of complexity, a divine or intelligent creator is not a solution to the problem of improbability. The creator/designer itself would have to be complex, and is certainly improbable - it would have to exist in the first place (how? we'll never know unless we can detect and measure it) and have a very specific set of characteristics in order to have created this specific universe as we know it.
Secondly, there are other possible solutions to the problem of improbability. Maybe there's something inherent to the process by which our universe formed that made its characteristics inevitable. Maybe there's something inherent to the stuff that comprises it. We don't know, and we're trying to find out. There are many potential solutions to this problem, and it is horribly disingenuous to point to two of them (neither of which is actually a solution) and claim that they're the only two.
Discover, I'm extremely disappointed in you.