Some Explanations for Our Universe

by Eric Steinhart

The following is a quick-and-dirty survey of the current literature on explanations of our universe:

It is widely thought that our universe is highly unusual. It has certain features that make it lovely. Note that the term “lovely” is merely a term of art. It has no connotations beyond designating that our universe has certain features. These include (a) the fact that the universe is lawfully ordered; (b) the fact that the laws of nature have certain mathematical forms; (c) the values of the fundamental physical constants; (d) the fact that the universe starts in a low-entropy state. These lovely features are significant because if they were slightly different, then our universe would not contain any things that have value. The values include complexity, life, intelligence, rationality.

It is also widely thought that these lovely features require some explanation. Finding that you live in a universe with lovely features is far stranger than finding a watch on the heath. These features raise the Leibnizian question: why is the universe the way that it is? It is sometimes said that if our universe weren’t lovely, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about its loveliness. That counterfactual is a verson of the anthropic principle. Obviously, it’s true. And, what should be equally obvious, that truth does not in any way explain the existence or nature of our universe. The anthropic principle is not a hypothesis about the existence or nature of our universe. It is consistent with every hypothesis listed below.

1. The Brute Fact Hypothesis. The universe just exists. Our universe does not require an explanation. The loveliness is neither special nor rare nor significant in any way. There is no reason to provide any explanation for our universe.

Objections to the Brute Fact Hypothesis. We have regularly sought explanations for complex phenomena; and we have regularly found them. The success of the search for explanations both in science and in mathematics provides overwhelming evidence that the Brute Fact Hypothesis is wrong. So it is reasonable to search for an explanation for the existence and nature of our universe. Worse, the Brute Fact Hypothesis is itself not based on any evidence at all. It is an unwarrented hypothesis. It can be given for anything. God exists. It’s just a fact. Don’t ask why. This hypothesis celebrates ignorance.

2. The Necessity Hypothesis. The Necessity Hypothesis says that there is only one way that a universe can be. The lovely features of the universe are like variables in a big equation. There is only one solution to this equation. Since the lovely features are the only possible features, it is not surprising that our universe has them.

Objection to the Necessity Hypothesis: It is not the case that there is only one possible universe (so that if any universe is actualized, it must be that universe). On the contrary, there are many possible universes. And many of them can be actualized. Hence the Necessity Hypothesis is false.

3. The Plenitude Hypothesis. The Plenitude Hypothesis says that all possible universes are actual. This is the hypothesis of David Lewis. The library of possible universe blueprints is complete. For every way a universe can be, there is some blueprint in the library. So there is a blueprint in the library that describes our universe. Every blueprint in the library is actualized. There is no selection. So for every way a universe can be, there is some universe that actually is that way. Since our universe is one of the ways a universe can be, our universe is actual.

Objections to the Plenitude Hypothesis: The Plenitude Hypothesis seems to be unable to account for the regularity of our universe. Our universe exhibits regular patterns up to the present time – it’s like a novel that makes sense up to the current page. But in the library of all possible novels, there are infinitely many other novels that are like our novel up to the present page, but then diverge into random nonsense. So, the Plenitude Hypothesis seems to undermine one of the things it is supposed to explain: the regularity of the universe. All universes may indeed be possible; but there must be a selection of the ones that are actual.

4. The Lottery Hypothesis. The Lottery Hypothesis says that the lovely features of our universe are explained by random selection. There is a super-cosmic bucket filled with blueprints for universes. A lottery was somehow held and the winner was the blueprint for our universe. The winner was actualized.

Objections to the Lottery Hypothesis: There are at least two problems with the Lottery Hypothesis. The first problem is that universes with lovely features are highly rare. It is highly unlikely that the blueprint for our universe would be picked in a lottery. The second and much more damaging problem is that the lottery itself needs an explanation. What is its mechanism? Is it necessary? Was it designed? Did it evolve? The Lottery Hypothesis just pushes the mystery deeper. The Lottery Hypothesis is rejected.

5. The God Hypothesis. The God Hypothesis says that our universe was produced by God. The intelligence of God enables Him to find a lovely universe from among all the possible universes; the benevolence of God makes Him want to actualize a lovely universe; and the power of God enables Him to do it. Therefore, he does it.

Objections to the God Hypothesis: Suppose our universe does have a designer-creator (a DC). There is no reason to believe that the DC is personal or that it satisfies any of the definitions associated with the God of Abraham. The problem of evil makes it hard to say that the DC is maximally perfect. Any features of the DC that enable it to explain our universe are features that demand their own explanation. Since the DC requires its own explanation, it is not an ultimate necessary being. But God is supposed to be an ultimate necessary being. Our universe may indeed have a designer-creator, but it certainly does not match the features of the theistic deity. It is not God.

6. The Fecund Universe Hypothesis. The physicist Lee Smolin developed the idea that universes give birth to baby universes through black holes. When a star collapses to form a black hole in some parent universe, a baby universe pops out in some other dimension. This baby universe can give birth to its own babies. So there is an evolutionary tree of universes. Universes whose features are finely tuned for making black holes have more babies. So, generation after generation, the percentage of universes finely tuned for making black holes increases. But universes that are good at making black holes are also good at making stars, complex elements, planets, and life. So the loveliness of our universe is explained by this cosmic baby-making. The Fecund Universe Hypothesis is an evolutionary explanation for the existence and loveliness of our universe.

Objection to the Fecund Universe Hypothesis. This is a great idea. But it is a highly speculative idea – nobody really knows what goes on in black holes. So the hypothesis may well be false. And even if it is true, it faces problems. The first one is that the so-called “universes” really aren’t maximal physical wholes – they’re just parts of some bigger physical whole. And the bigger physical whole is the universe. And the hypothesis it isn’t ultimate. It depends on deeper laws of universe formation. Why are universes such that they can produce offspring? Why are black holes involved? What is the explanation for the ultimate laws of physics?

7. The Evolutionary Algorithm Hypothesis. This is a generalization of the Fecund Universe Hypothesis (and thus includes that hypothesis as a special case). Our universe is generated by a process of super-cosmic evolution. Super-cosmic evolution starts with some initial universe. This universe exists necessarily and does not depend on anything else for its existence. The initial universe produces some more lovely versions of itself. Once started, this process of universe-evolution is self-sustaining and self-amplifying. Each universe in any generation produces some more lovely successor universes. These successor universes populate the next generation of universes. The result is a series of generations of universes. Here’s the rule: for every universe, for every way to make it more lovely, there exists a successor universe that is more complex and congenial in that way. From generation to generation, the successor relation defines a growing tree of universes. As the tree grows, the universes in the tree become ever more lovely. Eventually, our universe appears.

Objections to the Evolutionary Algorithm Hypothesis. This is a highly speculative idea. As stated, it is also vague. It needs to be refined. And, since it is so abstract, it isn’t really even a hypothesis – it’s a type of hypothesis. More work must be done.

All the hypotheses in this list are speculative. They are all metaphysical, in the sense that none of them can be empirically tested. The hypotheses up to the God Hypothesis all suffer from very strong objections. The God Hypothesis and the Evolutionary Hypotheses (including the Fecund Universe Hypothesis) are based on analogies. This gives them some extra strength – they gain some weak empirical support from processes that we already know can produce things with lovely features (e.g. intelligent human design and biological evolution). However, the God Hypothesis faces inconsistencies. The Evolutionary Hypothesis is thus arguably the strongest hypothesis. Of course, it is really only a type of hypothesis – it needs to be worked out in detail and carefully studied.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Saying our universe is “unusual” is strange. What makes a universe either “usual” or “unusual” and how do we know that.

    And even stranger is the emphasis on the universe being “lovely”. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. What is it to be lovely? How do we know it is lovely? Why is this kind of “loveliness” not just the loveliness that could be explained by the fact we were naturally selected to love certain things which were in our interests and hate other things that were against our interest because this enhanced our ancestors’ reproductive success?

    Also strange is your use of the word “values” and your list of them. While I am happy to defend notions of objective value, I do not understand where they fit in your account. An account of what value is (not to mention what the unusualness of universes and the loveliness of universes are) is needed for your very first premises to even get off the ground here.

  • Eric Steinhart

    Nobody disagrees with the first premise. If you need convincing, get John Leslie’s book Universes, or Barrow & Tiplers book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, or read Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis.

    If you want to focus on the connotations of a word, too bad for you. If you don’t like “lovely”, because of its poetic associations, then replace it with “cromulent”. Or “snorvid” or “twithectic”.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I don’t know what in the world this dismissal of my confusion is supposed to mean. We can just put in any word whatsoever? The world is lovely and this loveliness needs to be explained really means the world is “anything you want it to be” and this anything you want it to be needs to be explained?

      You’ve totally lost me. But, I guess that’s my fault because I want to know what the words in a sentence mean before I accept it as true.

  • James Sweet

    I’m with Daniel, it is very much an open question whether our universe is “unusual”. It may be that there are many possible universes with many possible values for fundamental constants, types of physical laws, etc. Or it may be that it “had to” be this way for some reason heretofore yet unknown.

    I’ll buy that it has “lovely features” (i.e. features that enable complexity) and that this requires some explanation. But you can’t assert (yet) that it’s definitely “unusual”, and that nobody disagrees with this. Many do. I lean towards thinking it is unusual, but we really don’t know that for sure yet.

    Furthermore, just because some explanation is “required” doesn’t mean that we each individually are required to provide one. You can throw out your speculative hypotheses, but it is not incumbent on anyone to pick their favorite one if they don’t want to.

    Lastly, I continue to be nonplussed by your mode of argumentation here. You’re still leaning heavily on arguments from analogy and on apparent common sense, which are weak modes of argument to begin with, but IMO completely fall apart when you start talking about something like the origin of the universe.

    As my thinking on this subject has evolved (hah!), I have come to the conclusion that any attempt to apply pure logic and reason (independent of observation) to the origins question is folly. Already when we rewind the clock back to the first few picoseconds after the Big Bang, our intuitive notions of causality, etc., start to perform very poorly. I would argue that in discussing that domain, we should be cautious about employing even the most modest logical constructs, e.g. even something as simple and apparently obvious as modus ponens or modus tollens. (A ^ A->B) -> B could be an emergent property of something more fundamental, and may not always apply in the way we think it does.

    What I am objecting to is not your pure reason-based speculation, which I think is fine, but your unqualified statements “The X hypothesis is rejected”, basing those rejections on pure reason. I don’t buy it. For instance, your objection to the Necessity Hypothesis is based purely on human imagination, as near as I can tell. WTF? Just because I can imagine a different universe doesn’t mean that such a universe could exist. There may be hidden assumptions baked into your argument that will only be exposed with greater scientific knowledge. I’ll go so far as to say that the Necessity Hypothesis “feels unlikely” to me, but you can’t just reject it based on some argument rooted in logic. You need a testable and confirmed theory that predicts otherwise in order to reject it.

  • Eric Steinhart

    I’m just giving a survey of the literature here. I suppose I get annoyed when the Internets pick up on the most superficial connotations of some word. But maybe I should just write more technically and give lots of citations. Would that be more impressive? But then I’d be writing an academic article. (Alas, I’m tending to think that blogging is a big waste of time.)

    • Daniel Fincke

      I’m just giving a survey of the literature here. I suppose I get annoyed when the Internets pick up on the most superficial connotations of some word. But maybe I should just write more technically and give lots of citations. Would that be more impressive? But then I’d be writing an academic article. (Alas, I’m tending to think that blogging is a big waste of time.)

      Yes, Eric, it is a total waste of time to provide basic clarifications of confusing terms as part of educating a wider public. All knowledge therefore must be confined to academic journals where it is least accessible to any wider audiences, lest academics be forced to provide clarifications to the great unwashed—including other PhDs who just happen to come from a different specialization from one’s own.

    • Daniel Fincke

      As it turns out, I read too quickly and missed the sentence where you specified that lovely was a term of art and gave it a narrow specification. (I still think it’s a dubious term of art and that raising such an objection is not irrelevant anyway—at least not something to be irritable about, even if you don’t want to address it.)

      And there is nothing wrong about asking about your account of value or for a specification of how you know the universe is “unusual”. Such hostility to being asked basic questions is only going to discourage people from feeling comfortable putting their questions, confusions, or objections to you. Is that what you want? Should we just close the comments sections under your posts?

  • James Sweet

    To put my money where my mouth is, let me also admit: the variation of the God Hypothesis that we might call the Deist’s Hypothesis, I do not think we can reject that either. It seems terribly silly to me, superfluous at best, and laughably implausible at worse, but I cannot flatly reject it. My reasons for doubting it are largely based on analogy, i.e. as we peel back the layers of the onion, we find things that are simpler and less personal, not more complex and more personal. It would be quite a surprise (to say the least!) to peel the final layer and find an intelligence there.

    I think most other forms of the God Hypothesis can be flatly rejected, because they make testable predictions which have already failed a billion times over. But I would not deign to flatly say, “The Deist’s Hypothesis is rejected.” I will say, and have on many occasions, that deism is superfluous and silly, but I won’t say without qualification that it is false.

  • mikespeir

    #1 is admittedly a cop-out. But, unfortunately, I’m more-or-less driven to it. I’m glad there are keener minds than my own, though, that aren’t satisfied with it.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I was wrong when I said above that it was my fault for misunderstanding Eric for missing his specification that the word “lovely” was a “term of art”. I just checked the history of the post and it turns out that was added after my objection to the term. I had not overlooked a clarification. The clarification was made as a response to my complaint.

  • plover

    Eric, you have stated that you are a Platonist of some sort. I’m not sure whether this Platonism is restricted to the objects of mathematics, or, even if it is so restricted, whether that might mean something in the context of a cosmological argument.

    I am also unsure of the precise definitions you would use to qualify someone as a naturalist, materialist, or empiricist, so I can not identify myself with one of those terms — though I do suspect you might consider me one of those, or perhaps something similar that belongs in the same category of positions differing from your own. I do at least possess a fairly strong anti-Platonist streak.

    You yourself have expressed frustration at the fact that many non-theists equate their lack of belief with naturalism, materialism, or empiricism. And so you must be aware that your audience is likely to consist largely of people holding such views.

    Is it possible that many of your arguments imply a framework for argumentation that does not come naturally to naturalists, materialists, or empiricists?

    I share many of the reservations expressed above by James and Daniel. In particular, I share James’s reservations about the weakness of your mode of argumentation.

    Do you think the arguments you made here should be acceptable to a naturalist, materialist, or empiricist? Do you hold any premises that affect your acceptance of the arguments in your post that you think are foreign to those positions?

    There are also at least two possibilities, grounded in physical cosmological speculation, as Smolin’s is, that you appear to have overlooked.

    Your objection to the Plenitude Hypothesis implies a set of universes in which every conceivable sequence of events occurs, like a cosmological version of Borges’s Library of Babel. If the set is restricted to every sequence of causally connected events, you end up with something like the Many-Worlds Hypothesis favored by some physicists. At least in some forms, this would not be vulnerable to your objection.

    The second possibility I have in mind is the one I mentioned in my previous comment and stems from various inflation-derived speculations such as Andre Linde’s. I suppose it might be considered a variant of the Lottery Hypothesis. If a spawning process produces enough random universes, then (presuming a finite number of parameters) having one with any degree of loveliness you require becomes statistically plausible. This possibility is at least as well grounded in physics as Smolin’s.

    However, like Smolin’s ideas, these cases are vulnerable to the question: “What is the explanation for the ultimate laws of physics?”

    The issue here — and some parts of your argument seem to account for this — is to make a clear distinction between the questions:

    A) why is it plausible that there is a part of the multiverse that is congenial for life as we know it?

    B) why can there be any universe at all that is congenial for life as we know it?

    The difference is between (in A) an account of the physical universe (hereafter “PU”) we find ourselves within — our visible cosmos plus whatever extended multiverse it may be a part of — and (in B) an account of the ultimate universe (hereafter “UU”) that allows that multiverse to exist. These are not necessarily distinct objects.

    Physically grounded speculation can, in any easily envisaged form, only give some account of question A (though it does not seem necessarily impossible that it could give some bridge to question B in the future). This seems to be one of your points. And I can pretty much agree with you there, at least if I’m understanding you correctly.

    The problem is, that anything beyond that, anything that might be an account of the UU, requires an explanation of what it means that an entity “exists necessarily and does not depend on anything else for its existence” (hereafter “self-justifying”). It’s not clear how any account of the UU gets around asserting a self-justifying entity somewhere. That appears to be the grain of truth in the Cosmological argument used by theists (of course, getting from there to a personal god requires, um, lets just call it logical leaps…).

    However, the fact remains that we have no idea what the UU is, nor what a self-justifying entity might be like, nor any obvious candidates for either the UU or a self-justifying entity other than our own PU.

    Your evolutionary notion of the UU seems to require the following premises:

    1) our PU is not self-justifying

    2) the UU began as a self-justifying PU

    3) a self-justifying PU is simpler (less lovely) than our own

    4) a PU (self-justifying or not) is capable of spawning other PU

    5) a PU necessarily spawns other PU

    6) enough daughter universes of any PU must be more lovely than their parent to such a degree that it is plausible for at least one of the random walks starting at the initial self-justifying PU to arrive at any measure of loveliness required (to wit: the measure we observe in our own PU)

    All these are speculative, but, since we’re speculating, that by itself is not a problem. However, as I see it, the weak link is premise 3. Complexity requires an explanation in a context of causation. The notion of a self-justifying entity means that all expectations regarding causation must be jettisoned. The idea that the UU requires the same kind of explanation for loveliness that our region of the PU may require seems completely arbitrary.

    Speculations like Smolin’s and Linde’s are motivated by the fact that (as you noted) our observable cosmos appears to be a fairly rarefied specimen among the possible universes suggested by our knowledge of physics. However, there is no obvious space of self-justifying entities. We have no parameters for them whatsoever. We may need to posit them in order to make certain arguments about a UU, but we can not depend on any attribute they might possess (that is not a direct corollary of simply being self-justifying) to lend force to an argument. Thus it is unclear how the evolutionary metaphysics you are proposing might be more compelling than other similar speculations. Why is it any different than other accounts that make the ultimate nature of the universe match a particular human aesthetic?

    It is possible, even though I have tried to avoid it, that the criteria I have used for my own metaphysical argument may, in the end, be no more than another such aesthetic. But even if that is the case, it seems to underscore the difficulties involved in making a compelling argument in this context. The hurdle that must be overcome for such an argument to appear as a case for rational assent, rather than something more resembling an attempt at conversion, is quite large.

  • James Sweet

    Okay, it’s a far cry from what we’ve been discussing, but this caught my eye. While it’s true that even if this pans out, there’s very little we could say other than “Other universes were there,” it still proves my point that one ought to be cautious about asserting that a certain proposition is untestable and always will be.