On Mystery, Monkeys, & The Multiverse

And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. 

— Matthew 12:44-45

A friend of mine, who knows I’m a sucker for reading things I don’t understand, sent me an article this past week entitled “Our Improbable Existence Is No Evidence For A Multiverse” from the online magazine Scientific American. I was immediately sold. And, as it turned out, the article was mostly comprehensible, even for people as science-dumb as me. 

In the end, it got me thinking about science and religion and especially about our ongoing relationship with what we do not know: what the Bible often calls “mystery” and what modern science sometimes calls “randomness.” That’s what I want to talk about today. But before I do, it’s worth quoting a few paragraphs from the article…

We exist, and we are living creatures. It follows that the universe we live in must be compatible with the existence of life. However, as scientists have studied the fundamental principles that govern our universe, they have discovered that the odds of a universe like ours being compatible with life are astronomically low. We can model what the universe would have looked like if its constants—the strength of gravity, the mass of an electron, the cosmological constant—had been slightly different…The physicist Lee Smolin has calculated that the odds of life-compatible numbers coming up by chance is 1 in 10229

Some take this to be evidence of nothing other than our good fortune. But many prominent scientists—Martin Rees, Alan Guth, Max Tegmark—have taken it to be evidence that we live in a multiverse: that our universe is just one of a huge, perhaps infinite, ensemble of worlds. The hope is that this allows us to give a “monkeys on typewriters” explanation of the fine-tuning. If you have enough monkeys randomly jabbing away on typewriters, it becomes not so improbable that one will happen to write a bit of English. By analogy, if there are enough universes, with enough variation in the numbers in their physics, then it becomes statistically likely that one will happen to have the right numbers for life.

This explanation makes intuitive sense. However, experts in the mathematics of probability have identified [a problem]. Specifically, multiverse theorists commit the inverse gambler’s fallacy…In the inverse gambler’s fallacy, a visitor walks into a casino and the first thing she sees is someone rolling a double six. She thinks “Wow, that person must’ve been playing for a long time, as it’s unlikely they’d have such good luck just from one roll.” But this is fallacious [reasoning]. The casino- visitor has only observed one roll of the dice, and the odds of that one roll coming good is the same as any other roll: 1/36. How long the player has been rolling prior to this moment has no bearing on the odds of the one roll the visitor observed being a double six…[Now,] just as the casino-visitor says, “Wow, that person must’ve been playing for a long time, as it’s unlikely they’d have such good luck just from one roll,” so the multiverse theorist says “Wow, there must be many other universes before this one, as it’s unlikely the right numbers would have come up if there’d only been one.”

Now some thoughts…

To me, this is one of those not-so-rare cases in which science itself seems to be blinding us from realities that might otherwise just be intuitive. To give the authors their due, using the inverse gambler’s fallacy against the multiverse theory is pretty clever. If you didn’t quite get the argument, it’s basically saying: if a dice has a trillion faces on it, then the odds of rolling a 1 on the first try are just as good as the odds of rolling 987,563,215,754. That’s what “random chance” means. But what exactly is the take-away? We’re just very, very lucky? Our metaphorical universe-monkey randomly banged out the complete works of Shakespeare, without missing a single punctuation mark, first try? And that’s how life exists? 

To be fair, I understand why scientists speak this way–about random chance, etc. We want our scientists to look into the nature of things as they appear–not just to settle for Sunday School answers as a kind of consolation prize.

But to me, the assumption of many secular scientists that our existence is, in fact, due to random chance is not without its own consequences. In fact, it’s the sort of assumption that seems to blind the scientists in this article from realities that any normal “un-scientific” person would see immediately. For instance, as the article indicates, the current scientific consensus is that the odds of a universe like ours being compatible with life are “astronomically low.” But it is at least equally logical to conclude that the odds of a universe like ours being compatible with life are astronomically high. In fact, the odds are 1/1–because we actually live in a universe with life, and it is the only universe we know. No less than 100% of the universes we have observed have life. Those are pretty good odds. So if our scientists find that “the fundamental principles that govern our universe” make the odds of life “astronomically low,” a much more likely explanation is that our scientists are missing at least one fundamental principle of the universe.

At first glance, this statement should be obvious. Of course we do not believe our scientists have discovered every fundamental principle of the universe. But to the scientists quoted in Scientific American, it is seemingly not…obvious. After all, calculating our chances of life as 1 in 10229 is a pretty specific number. Why not just say, “This whole life thing doesn’t make sense to us yet. We are clearly missing something.” 

In part, the confusion of certainty lies in the way we use words as a kind of fig leaves to cover our nakedness. Without quite noticing what we’ve done, we disguise the things we do not know with words that sound like knowledge. C. S. Lewis once quipped that, “To say migratory birds find their way by instinct is only to say that we do not know how migratory birds find their way.” The point is, the word “instinct” is a space-filler, a word that feigns knowledge. It masquerades as an explanation, when its actual meaning is that we do not have one.

The same is true of the word “random.” The whole scientific difficulty of the improbability of life in our universe, which we’ve been discussing, hinges on the scientific principle of randomness: that the existence of life is in some way akin to a monkey mindlessly banging on typewriters and producing a masterpiece. But the problem is, randomness is not a principle. Randomness is, by definition, the absence of a principle. Which is not to say that it isn’t a useful scientific term. Specifically, it describes a pattern that cannot be predicted or understood within the scientific or mathematical frame. 

But science isn’t the only viable frame by which we judge reality. The scientific method is not how we judge what music we like or what hobbies to pursue or who our friends should be. It’s not how we judge whether we love our spouse or whether our spouse loves us or whether we believe that love is even a real thing. It’s not how most people make most of the important decisions in their lives or how ancient people made almost any decision at all.

In fact, science cannot say how or why we make most of the choices we make in life. Many of our choices are akin to the “instincts” of migratory birds: sometimes unpredictable, possibly irrational, but almost certainly not random. And to go even further, even technically random things are not truly random. Just because subatomic particles move in a way that is impossible to predict does not mean their movement is absolutely random. No one could ever prove such a thing, as that would require knowing all of the patterns that exist. Rather, we call it “random” because it’s unpredictable to us. Which is fine. Again, I’m not saying that randomness isn’t a useful term.

Nor am I saying that randomness isn’t real, in a way. Plenty of things in life have no discernible pattern. Plenty of things in life are truly mysterious. But science doesn’t love mystery. Modern people in general don’t love mystery. We would much rather fill the void of unknowing with something we seemingly “know.” “Birds find their way because of instinct,” we say, because we don’t know how they find their way. To give another example, we’ve been doing the same sort of thing for the past year with COVID-19. Because we can look at the virus under a microscope, we can pretend we know what it is and what it’s doing to us. But increasingly we find that we don’t know exactly what it is–that we don’t know what it’s doing to us. And yet, every day, every hour, the news has something seemingly new and true to say about it. Health officials and politicians and journalists must give updates. And we refresh our feeds to read those updates. And of course they can’t say, “We have nothing substantial to add at this time.” So they give us piles and piles of new information, which cover over the fact that, in many ways, we still don’t know what COVID-19 is doing to us–I don’t just mean biologically, but psychologically, economically, socially, spiritually. could we? It’s still happening to us as we speak. 

The point is, this habit of perpetually using information to cover over mystery is unhelpful, because it’s training us to think that words and data can fill that void. That we can live lives protected from what we do not know. But we can’t. There will always be unknowns, things that we cannot explain–not just in science, but in our everyday experiences. We have to learn to live with these mysteries, or else we will die by them. Exhibit A: the rising pandemic of anxiety in our culture is at least partially due to our increasing inability to reckon with what we do not–and sometimes cannot–know. 

Notice that I’ve traded the word randomness for the word mystery. In truth, they aren’t exactly the same thing. Mystery is an ancient word. In Scripture, the Greek mysterion means something hidden, like a secret, even, “an unfolding secret.” That is, something that seems indiscernible to us, but is discernible to God–and may even be made known to us over time, if we have eyes to see. Thus Jesus declared, “Everything that is hidden will be made manifest.”

Randomness, on the other hand, is a more modern concept, and it tends to come in two forms: 

  1. Randomness as a phenomenon (something we experience); and 
  2. Randomness as a principle (something we know)

First, randomness as a phenomenon happens when we can’t see the pattern or explanation of a thing, but we know that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. The pattern or explanation is simply hidden from us. This is close to what the ancients meant by mystery. It’s also what they meant by humility. 

On the other hand, there is randomness as a principle. In this case, when we cannot see an explanation, randomness is the explanation. Randomness becomes its own cause. Randomness as principle forces us to imagine things like one lucky monkey accidentally creating the universe. It is the opposite of mystery. It opposes mystery. It deletes it. To be clear, it has not discovered any truth. It has only erased the mystery. So… what remains when mystery is gone but the inexplicable pattern continues? Only randomness. Monkeys banging on typewriters, as a fundamental principle of the universe.

This is where we need to beware. Because again, inexplicable patterns will continue to show themselves, not just in science but in life. And one can live–indeed, one must live–with randomness as a phenomenon of everyday experience. Only the madman has an explanation for everything. But…one cannot live with randomness as a principle, believing that everything happens for a reason–and that reason is no reason at all. Leaving aside the self-contradiction, the main problem with randomness as a principle is that it ignores actual life. It prefers infinite imaginary mathematical universes to the one universe we actually live in, in which order–and seemingly, providence–are very real. There is nothing less human-shaped–nothing less true to our experience–than the principle that things happen without reason. The very order of your own words, which you expend articulating such a thought, stand against you. If the world is made of anything–from the human perspective–it is reasons. We may not know what all those reasons are. But we know that they are, as surely as we know that we are.

This is why I prefer the ancient word mystery to the modern word randomness. The main difference between mystery and randomness is that mystery is a principle. It is the principle that states, even though we may not be able to see a pattern or an explanation, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. And this principle of mystery leads to sanity. The principle of randomness, inasmuch as we insist on it being a principle, leads to madness.

Later in the Scientific American article, the author expands the argument against the multiverse theory with an even more entertaining analogy…

You wake up with amnesia, with no clue as to how you got where you are. In front of you is a monkey bashing away on a typewriter, writing perfect English. This clearly requires explanation. You might think: “Maybe I’m dreaming … maybe this is a trained monkey … maybe it’s a robot.” What you would not think is “There must be lots of other monkeys around here, mostly writing nonsense.” You wouldn’t think this because what needs explaining is why this monkey—the only one you’ve actually observed—is writing English, and postulating other monkeys doesn’t explain what this monkey is doing.

Now, only a certain kind of scientific mind–a mind, let’s say, with scientized amnesia–could frame the analogy this way without recognizing the irony: “You wake up with amnesia…and find a monkey bashing away at a typewriter, writing perfect English.” To be clear, I have no qualms with the English-speaking monkey bit. Again, the existence of life is unbelievable and inexplicable. Almost as inexplicable as a monkey typing English. Likewise, if you live long enough, life itself forces you to reckon with the inexplicable on a somewhat regular basis.

My problem with the analogy is the amnesia bit. I assume, in typical scientific fashion, it’s meant to depict the ignorance or “neutrality” of the observer to anything before the moment of the monkey. But this is not how anyone experiences anything in the real world. The scientist does not (cannot) do his work as though with amnesia. Sure, we all wake up out of the womb with no idea where we are. But by the time we’re old enough to ask, “What’s going on here?” the evidence is all around. We do not experience life as the ongoing consequences of random chance, but as a series of ordered patterns so beautiful and fruitful and resonant that we might be tempted to study them for the rest of our lives (as scientists actually do!). In fact, we might even be tempted to believe that a monkey could type in English, even if we don’t yet know how. But what we would never be tempted to do–unless of course our strange modern way of thinking leaves us in a state of scientized amnesia about our own experiences–is believe that all of this is akin to a monkey accidentally typing the complete works of Shakespeare. In fact, the existence of the real Shakespeare should be sufficient to refute the monkey theorem. 

Again, this is not to deny how incredible–how truly unbelievable–our existence really is. By all means, let’s keep doing the math equations that prove how physically “improbable” we are. After all, we come from a long tradition of doing so…

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, 

the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 

what is man that you are mindful of him…?  (Psalm 8)

But in a world so full of meaning and magic, the monkey story needs some rethinking. In closing, here’s my take:

You wake up to a monkey bashing away at a keyboard, typing perfect English. You don’t have amnesia. This is not your first day on the planet earth, though it does seem to be your first experience with an English-speaking monkey. You think: What’s going on here?

Then–because, again, you don’t have amnesia–you recall the symphony of “random events” that have formed the course of your life up to this point, the day before and the day before that, all the way back to the first day you can remember. You think of your parents and their parents and their parents. Of wars and one-night stands. How did all that come to this? How did you end up where you are, marrying the person you married, feeling the things you feel, which seem so real, though of course you’ve been told they are only neurons and neurotransmitters firing in the grey matter? Nevertheless, somehow you are here. You. Why not someone else? One protein out of place, and it might have been. How much of your own existence resembles the inexplicability of the typing monkey? Come to think of it, what if you’re a typing monkey? Ah yes, the modern scientific lens has assured you, that’s exactly what you are, thanks to “random mutations” and “natural selection.”

So finally we have arrived at an answer. The typing monkey mystery has been solved: You were simply looking in the mirror through the lens of your modern scientific eyes.  

Special thanks to Zach Kuenzli for sending me the article, and for being my own personal, curated Twitter.

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