Facts So Romantic

The Case for Cosmic Pantheism

Einstein, a professed pantheist, wrote that he experienced a “cosmic religious feeling,” a persistent awe at the “sublimity and marvelous order” of the universe. He was not alone.Credit: Internet Archive

Aren’t those opposites?” people often ask me, when they discover I study science and religion. As a professor of religious studies, I am particularly drawn to the places where religion and science seem antagonistic, but turn out to be entwined. The multiverse, I would argue, is one of those places. This may come as a surprise, because the multiverse is so often used as an argument against the existence of God.

The multiverse hypothesis has been around since the late 1950s, but it gained traction in the late 1990s when physicists discovered dark energy, or the cosmological constant. When it comes to the mass of the electron or the strength of the nuclear forces, nearly any other value would have prevented the emergence of life as we know it. As for the cosmological constant, nearly any other value would have prevented the emergence of the universe itself. So, this discovery forced physicists to confront a question they had been avoiding for decades: Why is the universe so well suited to our existence? The weakest answer is that it’s just a brute fact. If the constants of nature were any different, then we wouldn’t be here to ask why we’re here. The strongest answer verges on theism: The cosmological constant is so improbably small that a godlike fine-tuner must have fashioned it into existence.

But maybe there is another explanation. Physicist Steven Weinberg argues that the multiverse explains our existence without appealing to an extra-cosmic creator, because if there are an infinite number of universes, then every possible value is out there somewhere. We just happen to live in one of those Goldilocks universes where the constants are just right, but there are an infinite number of other universes where they aren’t. This purported resolution to the fine-tuning problem has prompted other physicists in addition to Weinberg, such as Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Susskind to argue that the multiverse obliterates God as an explanatory principle.

There are deities emerging from multiverse scenarios that we might miss if we’re only focused on the father-God of classical theism.

Of course, the multiverse does not disprove the existence of God. A theist can always argue that God created the multiverse that created the universe. But it seems to me there are other sorts of deities emerging from numerous multiverse scenarios—unexpected figures that we might miss if we are only focused on proving or disproving the father-God of classical theism.

Take, for example, the simulated universe scenarios, where the gods are reborn as the omnipotent techies running the simulation. Or Tegmark’s mathematical universe, in which infinite copies of all mathematically possible universes necessarily exist, and the divine principle is mathematics itself: The transcendent, eternal, infinitely generative source of all mathematically possible universes. Or in more common versions of the multiverse theory—such as inflationary, quantum, superstring, and ekpyrotic scenarios—the creator becomes an omnipresent, immanent, material-energetic principle, whether it is in the form of inflation, the quantum vacuum, the landscape, or an all-governing dark energy. In these multiverse cosmologies, we find a creative principle that is the ever-evolving universe itself. This sort of theology, which identifies God with the physical universe, is a position historically known as pantheism.

Although various pantheisms can be found in Hindu philosophy, Buddhist cosmology, and ancient Greek Stoicism, the idea also has its modern scientific precursors. Just before the turn of the 17th century, the philosopher Giordano Bruno proposed that an infinite God could produce nothing less than an infinite universe filled with infinite worlds. Bruno’s universe was the unmediated pouring-out of God—not into the universe, but as the universe. Bruno realized that this infinite universe with its infinite worlds was the source of all things, the life in all things, and the end of all things, or in other words, “God.” For the heresy of equating the creator and creation, Bruno was executed by the Inquisition. A few decades later, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza developed a similar idea, which his critics equated with atheism, that led to his excommunication. Spinoza argued that if God is infinite and self-subsistent, then everything in existence must be an expression of God. Spinoza’s God is nature itself: all pervasive, impersonal, and unmiraculous.

What if God is the emergent order of nature itself?

Pantheism denies an anthropomorphic creator, and so it’s also often accused of rejecting divinity altogether. As 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer charges, “Pantheism is only a euphemism for atheism.” For Schopenhauer, pantheism embraces the scientific worldview while clinging to the niceties of religion, and so ends up saying nothing at all. “To call the world God is not to explain it,” Schopenhauer argues, “it is only to enrich our language with a superfluous synonym for the word world.” Or as Richard Dawkins recently put it, “Pantheism is sexed-up atheism.”

Baruch Spinoza, a controversial 17th-century philosopher, argued that everything was an expression of God.Wikimedia Commons

Whether theistic or atheistic, these critics assume that the only thing God can be is an extra-cosmic, masculine monarch. Do away with “Him” and you’ve done away with divinity. Under this assumption, the dialogue between religion and science is reduced to little more than a Ping-Pong game: One side says the monarch exists and the other says he doesn’t. But in the pantheist multiverse, I find a more fruitful way to talk about what we might mean by divinity.

What if God is the creatively emergent order of nature itself? In this case, the difference between pantheism and atheism might be emotional. Einstein, a professed pantheist, wrote that he experienced a “cosmic religious feeling,” a persistent awe at the “sublimity and marvelous order” of the universe. He was not alone. For the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, religion was a feeling of the whole universe at work in each part of it. Or perhaps the difference between pantheism and atheism is ethical. As neo-pagans, ecofeminists, radical environmentalists, new animists, and even some biologists have suggested, the Western opposition between God and world seems to have endorsed our exploitation of nature. So if God is the world, might we be more inclined to care for it? Or maybe the difference is conceptual: What would it mean to recode divinity as embodied, evolving, multiple, and multiversal? What kinds of new mythologies and spiritual practices might emerge from the unlikely terrain of modern physics?

Thinking about a pantheist multiverse prompts us to ask a host of psychological, ethical, philosophical, and even theological questions. They may be controversial, and they will certainly be unanswerable in any final sense. But for those who are interested in the history and future of science and religion, such questions should give rise to a far more productive conversation than the tiresome debate over the existence of a supernatural patriarch.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein is a professor of religion at Wesleyan University, and the author of the books Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe and Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse. 

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This article was originally published on Nautilus Cosmos in January 2017.

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