The arithmetic of multiverses

I came across a comment on this 2007 article on Uncommon Descent. It is a peer-reviewed piece in the online magazine Biology Direct (of which the author, evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin, is also by chance an editor). Its premise, basically, is that the huge statistical improbability of the earliest life arising by chance can be solved at a stroke by adopting an infinite multiverse cosmology. Koonin specifically points out that this obviates the need for any intelligent design. It is hard to exaggerate what an affront this is to science, and even common sense.

Just think of the implications of this piece. For a start, it shows a remarkable degree of hypocrisy. Scientific journals typically refuse to publish ID articles, even when dealing only with actual evidence, on the grounds that they are “religious” and outside the scientific domain. Yet the speculative multiverse hypothesis, whose basis in mathematical theory is looking increasingly detached from observed reality as the months go by, is suggested here as a foundational axiom for origin of life studies.

Secondly, the article is a tacit admission that, after fifty years of studying the origin of life, there is no model under consideration that does not require probabalistic resources far beyond those in the Universe. In other words, the odds for the formation of the first life are impossible in the known Universe. Stephen Meyer’s case has been accepted, at least by Eugene Koonin, except that an intelligent agent is, for purely metaphysical reasons, anathema to him.

Thirdly, what Koonin is arguing for is, essentially, a miracle, if a miracle is defined as an event beyond the reaonable expectation of natural processes. The multiverse is not observable (arguably even in theory) and is invoked purely as an explanation of what, to the observer, must seem impossible.

Imagine the actual situation for a moment. We are not talking about some distant universe irrupting into this one, but instead an incredible stroke of luck right here on earth. Imagine you go in your time machine (Koonin forgot to mention that this universe is also unspeakably lucky in having the possibility of time travel…) back to a spot on earth 3 billion years ago. There are some simple organic chemicals about, but the atmosphere isn’t reducing (a necessity for all those chemical reactions in the primordial soup) and the temperature’s all wrong. The soup itself is actually full of sludge from reactions that have already occurred, blocking the possibility of further reactions. And all the compounds are racemic, so they won’t work in a living system. Directed by luck to the right pool (that’s just the anthropic principle in action – if you had been in a different universe, you wouldn’t have been in the right place at the right time), you fish some goo on to a microscope slide. And you suddenly see self-reproducing non-racemic RNA molecules appear spontaneously, enclosed in a nice lipid membrance with a fully-formed genetic code busily producing a variety of offspring on which natural selection can work. It’s a miracle!

Well, no, actually. You just happen to be in one of the universes where the 10^-1018 probability actually happened. Returning back through time in awestruck wonder, you notice that the E.coli colonies in a Petrie dish on your lab bench have changed into a family of fleas. Well, how unlikely is that? Can’t be more than 10^-1018 now, can it? You realise you’ll never have to provide a proper scientific explanation again.

An idea of just how many multiverses you’d need to produce this kind of event is expressed by material.infantacy, a poster on another Uncommon Descent blog. He’s dealing with the much smaller odds, maybe 10^500, of producing a 400-residue protein. Starting with the total possible number of events ever in  the history of our universe (about 10^150), he reasons:

“And if every Planck Time Quantum state in this cosmos spawned another universe of same size with the same number of PTQS’s, we go to 10^150 squared or 10^300.”

Brilliant! Now we’re making headway.

In such a situation, ten-million, trillion, trillion, trillion universes would be spawned every second, which would be 10^43 UPS (universes per second) and 10^123 atoms (that’s a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion… never mind) per second.

It would take a full 15 billion years of 10^43 UPS to approach your 10^300…

And we still fall well-short of imagining 10^520, which is the search space of a single solitary protein with a paltry 400 aminos.

Well, one protein done. Just how many universes does it take to be the one where the whole of life as we know it exists? Answers on a (large) postcard, please.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to The arithmetic of multiverses

  1. uchitrakar says:

    If total energy of the universe is zero, as claimed by some scientists, then based on this data it can be shown that multiverse theory is probably not true. This is because total energy being zero, total mass will also be zero due to mass-energy equivalence. Scientists have shown that anything having mass will always occupy some space. So anything that fails to occupy any space cannot have any mass. Our universe perhaps fails to occupy any space, and that is why its mass is zero. But if multiverse theory is true, then our universe will definitely occupy some space within the multiverse, and thus in that case its mass cannot be zero. But as this mass is zero, therefore multiverse theory cannot be true.
    Here it may be argued that radiation occupies space but its mass is zero. So here is an example that something occupying space can still be without mass. So our universe can also be without mass even if it occupies some space within the multiverse. In reply we will say that the example cited here is a bad example, because our universe is not any kind of radiation. So if it is without mass, then that can only be due to its not occupying any space, and not due to its being some sort of radiation.
    However, if total energy of the universe cannot be taken to be zero, then the conclusion drawn here will not stand. In that case multiverse theory may be true, but we cannot say whether it will be necessarily true.

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