Steinhardt: The Anthropic Landscape Has Run Its Course

Over at John Horgan’s blog, he quotes an e-mail from Princeton cosmologist Paul Steinhardt, who corrects Horgan’s account of a recent conversation between them, writing

I said that I thought that the idea of a string landscape and the notion of anthropic selection had run its course. I think it is too early to give up on string theory.

While Steinhardt sees anthropic selection of our universe out of a multiverse as an idea that has run its course and is on its way out, it’s still quite popular in certain quarters. The Templeton Foundation, through the FQXI organization, is a major source of funding for anthropic multiverse research. FQXI’s web-site has a new story up entitled Philosophy of the Multiverse, which asks “On what side of the borderline between science and philosophy are multiverses?” The writer evidently couldn’t locate anyone to take the “it’s philosophy, not science” side of the argument, quoting Sean Carroll, Anthony Aguirre, Alexander Vilenkin and Aurelien Barrau as supporters of anthropics as science. Barrau suggests that we may need to change the definition of science to accomodate the multiverse.

Whatever Steinhardt says, at least the Mormons are getting on the multiverse bandwagon, with their journal Dialogue recently publishing a long article entitled Eternal Progression in a Multiverse: An Explorative Mormon Cosmology. The article begins:

This article is an examination of the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression within the context of big-bang cosmology, a description of a finite universe that appears to contradict that doctrine. I argue that a multiverse cosmology, a theory that posits a multiplicity of universes, resolves many of the problems posed by big-bang cosmology.

and goes on to explain how the multiverse agrees well with the doctriine of “eternal progression” in Mormon theology:

In a Mormon multiverse cosmology, God does indeed manifest his infinite creative prowess in the respect that God (any god along the infinite chain of gods) creates children, some of whom progress to become gods, who in turn create their own universes and children, some of whom progress to become gods, and so on, forever. Each universe in the ensemble of universes becomes an extension and continuation of the creativity of every “ancestral god” in an eternal family of deities. The creativity and glory of each god increases exponentially with the production of new universes. In this cosmology, the multiverse is a hallmark and witness of the infinite work and glory of God and the dwelling place for an infinite number of eternal progressing beings.

While solving the problem of justifying eternal progression, the multiverse idea leads to all sorts of new possible research directions:

In a Mormon multiverse cosmology, many questions remain open. Are there communication and movement of the gods and other premortal and postmortal beings between universes? When a universe experiences a big crunch or big freeze, does the god of that universe generate a new universe or “relocate” to another universe fit for carrying out the “great plan of happiness” for a new household of spirit children? Did God, our Father in Heaven, achieve godhood in this universe or a prior one? If God was exalted in a prior universe, how many universes has he governed? Jesus Christ is the redeemer for this universe, but is he the redeemer for others? Are some universes “stillborn” in the sense that they do not have the required values of the physical constants for a universe capable of sustaining life? Because the multiverse is infinite, are there replicas of us in other universes as postulated by the replication paradox? Cosmologists speculate whether the physical laws are the same across the ensemble of universes, but what about the spiritual laws? Are the spiritual laws “multiversal” or just “universal”? As multiverse cosmologies develop scientifically, these questions and others will stimulate much discussion.

The author ends the piece with a quote from Andrei Linde: “Universes can have babies — it’s nice.”

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24 Responses to Steinhardt: The Anthropic Landscape Has Run Its Course

  1. JC says:

    If this is true, then maybe the anthropic landscape stuff being decoupled from physics and being isolated in the Templeton domain is what may possibly end up happening. That will show what the merits of all that anthropic stuff is really all about.

  2. John Stevens says:

    Dr. Woit, I have two questions for you: How did you learn of this Dialogue? Are you LDS? (A Mormon?) Second: Are you trying to make the claim that the Anthropic Landscape is on the same level as Mormon Theology? Thanks?

  3. Eric H says:

    It’s interesting that just as some cosmologists and theoretical physicists are farther along in their total rejection of string theory, others are just starting the journey via their disavowal of the anthropic and mulitiverse ideas. Paul Steinhardt seems to be on the path of escaping from the clutches of string theory, but has not quite reached escape velocity yet. And finally there are the really backward individuals jumping onto the caboose and not realizing the locomotive miles in the distance is just careening off the cliff…

  4. Peter Woit says:

    John Stevens,

    No, I am not LDS, this came up in a Google search for something else.

    I know just about nothing about Mormon theology, and would suspect that this argument is something that conventional Mormon theologians might think of as “pseudo-theology”: not interesting because it is pure speculation, with no way of ever deciding if it is true or not using the investigational methods of Mormon theology (whatever they might be).

    The study of the string theory landscape using anthropic arguments is certainly different than theology, Mormon or otherwise, but I’m not the only one who feels that it has more in common with theology than it does with science.

  5. Anthony A. says:

    Hi Peter,

    I’m sorry that the FQXi article rubbed you the wrong way. A short article like this can’t do much justice to the complexities of an issue like this. In my own view, there certainly are things one might call a ‘multiverse’ that are essentially philosophy (though I do not use that word synonymously with ‘evil’ or ‘rubbish’), and others that are clearly not. But in terms of your post I think a few things are worth commenting on from the perspective of accuracy:

    1) If you are discussing multiverse research supported by FQXi, I think a more accurate statement would be that “FQXi (funded in large part by Templeton) is a major supporter of multiverse research.”, because the Templeton Foundation plays no role in deciding what projects FQXi supports.

    2) Your entry gives the sense that FQXi is, as an organization, supportive of the multiverse. FQXi has no such ‘ideology’, and supports the best of the proposals it receives. I think I can safely say that FQXi has not rejected a single serious proposal explicitly opposing the ‘anthropic multiverse’, and has funded a number of proposals that work to provide alternatives to string theory, as well as anthropic ideas.

    3) On my personal views, you may be interested to know that although it does not really come across in this article, I have actually been one of the leading critics of anthropic reasoning, starting with my first paper, where I discuss how Weinberg’s cosmological constant argument can be subverted. Later papers pointed out in detail how incredible hard anthropic/probababilistic reasoning in a multiverse is. However, in my view ‘critic’ means to take something seriously and show what works and what does not, rather than dismissing it categorically. Also (as mentioned in that same FQXi article), I have been working hard lately on the possibility of directly observing signatures of other (eternal inflation) ‘universes’.

    4) Much of the interest by cosmologists in ‘multiverses’ comes directly from the acknowledgement that generic inflation models do this, and that inflation is a really nice idea. Steinhardt and others have worked heroically to give alternatives to inflation, and I think we should all support these. But I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of cosmologists have yet to be swayed by their charms…

    5) Pointing out how multiverses are now being discussed by some paper by Mormons is fun, but I think you could easily do the same using any scientific theory (e.g. the big bang, quantum mechanics, etc.) and various religious groups, some respectable and some not. So I’m not sure what your real point is with that…



  6. Zany Zebra says:

    This is great.

    The Mormon religion has more to do with the “new thought” (now we call it “new age”) movement of the 1800’s and early 1900’s than it does with orthodox Christianity, but it comes from a time when people developing alternative religions felt a lot of pressure to pretend to be Christian. (These days alternative religions that don’t pretend to be Christian have an easy time getting started, but have a hard time sustaining themselves… The bible-based churches that look like warehouses on the outskirts of your time are the survivors of a natural selection process that included Scientology, Hare Krishnas, the Divine Light Mission, the Jesus Freaks and thousands of others.)

    The article is a good example of the imaginary that surrounds anthropic and other cosmologies: the kind of cosmology that’s fashionable at a given time depends as much on people’s emotional needs as on real science. I remember the pre-inflation days when many cosmologists had a preference for omega < 1 because a universe that expands forever just seemed too lonely.

  7. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks for the interesting and sensible response to my rather hostile posting. You raise a lot of issues worth more discussion, here are some thoughts.

    Yes, the Mormon theological document was a cheap shot. But still, I think it provides a useful reminder of where you end up when you stop paying close attention to what is legitimate science and what isn’t. A lot of what I see reputable cosmologists going on about these days seems to me to have gone over the line. Why is Linde being quoted in the NYT about reincarnation??? If he has a sensible scientific point he should be avoiding theological concepts like the plague when trying to make it to the public.

    Barrau’s suggestion that standard criteria of what is science and what isn’t may need to be changed is dangerous nonsense. It’s well known that there’s more to this question than falsifiability, but the issues surrounding this are the same as in any science. Whether the multiverse can be invoked to provide a conventional scientific, testable understanding of anything is a real and complicated question, but you can’t cheat by changing the rules. This issue is worth debating if one can agree on the ground-rules of what is science and what isn’t. If not, there’s not much point in going any farther.

    I thought both the FQXI article and the recent NYT article were disappointing in that they don’t reflect the fact that many if not most physicists are not sold on the idea that this is actually science. Steinhardt would be a good example. Promoting uncritically this kind of research to the press is really a bad idea, it threatens to discredit physics research in general, as much of the public can recognize all too well that some of what is going on can’t be legitimate science.

    As for Templeton, I did not mean to imply that they have any influence over your grant decisions. But, blurring the distinction between what is science and what is religion is something that fits well with their agenda, and their decision to fund FQXI seems to me to have been taken knowing that it would be an organization sympathetic to anthropic multiverse research, something they probably saw as an argument in its favor.

  8. Struwwelpeter says:

    @Peter Woit:
    “If he has a sensible scientific point he should be avoiding theological concepts like the plague when trying to make it to the public.”

    He never mentioned the plague, which, by the way, is not a theological concept but a disease (especially useful in curses).

  9. Peter Woit says:


    OK, OK, so this comment wasn’t up to my usual standards of excellent grammar and great clarity. It has been a busy day so far…

  10. Bee says:

    I am actually quite fond of philosophical questions, but my biggest problem is always to figure out the actual meaning that is attached to a word. Good philosophers do at least try to start with a sensible definition, yet when I hear people ‘philosophizing’ they just fight over their interpretation of words which for a scientist can be pretty tiresome. Likewise, I find the multiverse discussion in the broad sense somewhat odd because different people seem to attach different meaning to the ‘multiverse’ to begin with. In some cases, it could have a scientific content, in others not.

    E.g. the sentence (from the fqxi article) “So wouldn’t it be strange if there were just one universe?” is already quite comical and illuminates this confusion, given that the Online Etymology Dictionary explains:

    universe – lit. “turned into one,” from unus “one” (see one) + versus, pp. of vertere “to turn”

    If the universe is the one and all there is, there can by definition be no other universes? But leaving that aside, for some the rest of the ‘multiverse’ (of whatever kind) outside ‘our own’ (whatever that means) is by construction unobservable, in other cases there are observable consequences, which makes the essential difference as to scientific content.

    Also, I’d acknowledge that sometimes a change in perspective can lead to progress even if that view itself isn’t actually a testable hypothesis. Take e.g. the free will question. In practice it doesn’t make any difference whether you do in fact have a free will, or all your decisions are predetermined but you don’t know it. It does however make a difference to how you think about yourself and what you believe how the world works. Questions like this and the prevailing culture and sociological atmosphere in which scientists work do without doubt influence how we invest our brain time. Here as always however, I’d appreciate more clarity on what is science, what is scientific uncertainty, and what has nothing to do with science. For the scientists working on it that might be perfectly clear, but in the communication to the public one has to be extremely careful the scientific content doesn’t get reduced to ‘reincarnation as a BB’ or an ‘infinite amount of duplicates of yourself’.

  11. Coin says:

    I think I can safely say that FQXi has not rejected a single serious proposal explicitly opposing the ‘anthropic multiverse’

    Although I don’t mean to denigrate your point here (i.e. that FQXi has no “official” stance on the multiverse and is simply promoting papers, multiverse/string or otherwise, that are found of quality) I do kind of wonder about this specific statement. How could you receive proposals explicitly opposing the anthropic multiverse?

    Is it even conceptually possible to form an objection or line of attack on the anthropic multiverse idea, of the kind that could be actually be submitted to FQXi as a grant proposal? After all, the primary criticism of the anthropic multiverse concept in the first place is based on complaints of unfalsifiability– that is, claims that no scientific basis exists for attacking (or evaluating) the proposals of the anthropic multiverse idea.

  12. Eric H says:

    I think you made a lot of good points. I find a connection between the motives for individuals in their theological thinking and the motives of scientists in their thinking about the physical world. There seems to be a similar motivation but the distinction seems to come from their reaction to anthropomorphication in religion.

    I was brought up in a heavily Christian home, but like many people I ultimately rejected the human centered interpretation of God and his followers. Just too much projection of our own emotional desires onto symbols in religion. While still trying to adhere to the major tenets I’ve rejected the cloaking of those tenets behind ideas that set man as separate from the universe. So for me science, and physics especially, is sort of a spritual quest to move from the specific (human beings) to the general.

    I think there is a dichotomy in people’s basic nature, with many people in science anthropomorphizing their emotional needs in a way similar to how organized religion often does. I think it exposes itself in projecting “infinite universes” or an “infinite God”. I think for some people it would be actually frightening to believe the universe is a closed system. But if the universe is not closed, i.e. energy or information can be injected spontaneously without a counterbalance somewhere else in the system, then what would be the point of science. It would all be for nought. I think most people don’t realize a closed system is a GOOD thing!

  13. Struwwelpeter says:

    @Peter Woit
    No,no, Peter, I wasn’t criticising you in the least.
    It was a not so clever meta-level-joke and my only excuse is that I found it amusing to make a wordplay in what is not my mother tongue.

    I am a great admirer of your chronicle (that’s what they call blogs in my 1920 Berlitz English course, in which fans are still mechanical ventilators, not admirers) and am very grateful to you for all I have learned in it, both in mathematics and physics.
    Cordial wishes, S.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Eric H. (and others),

    Please, I really don’t want discussion of religion here. It’s a topic that people have an infinite amount to say about, of which I’m only interested in a very small part, and that’s the part that has nothing at all to do with science, so is off-topic here.

    Mostly I quite happily just ignore people who want to engage in metaphysical discussion. When I can’t ignore it and have to pay attention to it (as in when the field of particle theory starts being infected by it as it gets used to prop up a failed research program), it raises my blood-pressure and causes me to stop being my normal mild-mannered self and get hostile. Please help me stay healthy and not frothing at the mouth by sticking to science and leaving religion to other venues.

  15. Eric H says:

    Sorry to get your dander up. I perhaps shouldn’t have cloaked my argument in terms of religion. My real emphasis was the idea of bringing in infinite universes, and infinite, or near infinite, tuneable cosmological parameter combinations in string theory comes from the same drive as the worst parts in religion i.e. that the essential nature of the universe is something not ultimately knowable, no matter how much progress is made over time. Just because it’s not known yet doesn’t mean it can’t ultimately be known. String theory is just the wrong road. The right road is in accepting the universe as a closed system – you know, the first law of thermodynamics.

  16. milkshake says:

    usefulnes of ideas can be figured by proposing the exact counter-ideas. If one has no way of telling the two cases apart, by looking at this world, then his way of thinking belong to philosophy, psychology, poetry, marxism or other forms of religious experience

  17. Shantanu says:

    Peter, changing the subject a little, there is another paper on Boltzman brains
    yesterday Btw do you think this
    is a serious problem for inflation?

  18. Peter Woit says:


    I saw the Gott paper, and tried to restrain myself from adding a hostile mention of it here, but since you brought it up… No, I don’t think Boltzmann Brains are a serious problem for inflation (they’re only a problem for the anthropic multiverse), but do think they are a serious problem for physics, with the field of Boltzmann Brain studies full of nonsense which makes theoretical physics look bad when it gets publicized. Some of Gott’s arguments are just beyond absurd:

    “The BB does not count as an intelligent observer because it is observer dependent and does not pass the Turing test. It can be distinguished from a human because even if it answers 20 questions successfully in a row, it will likely fail to answer the next question.”

  19. Gilbert Awad says:

    Krauss, et al., have just published a paper in PRL where they argue that anthropic reasoning proceeds from ignorance more than knowledge. They try to demonstrate that anthropic lines of reasoning reveal more about the biases of the arguer than lead to any terribly useful knowledge. Unfortunately, they also claim that the end of anthropocism, if it comes, will be a long, slow death. Still, anthropics always having left a bitter taste in my mouth, I welcome their effort with open arms.

    Krauss, Maor, and Starkman,”Anthropic Arguments and the Cosmological Constant, with and without the Assumption of Typicality,” Physical Review Letters 100, 041301 (2008)

  20. Marcus says:

    is that article by Krauss Maor and Starkman a retitled version of
    “Anthropics and Myopics”?

  21. Gilbert Awad says:


    I’m not much of a gambling man, but that one looks like a pretty sure bet. In a word, yes. And thanks for pointing it out; I hadn’t seen the Arxiv preprint.

  22. Shantanu says:

    Hi all,
    See also this bizarre talk by Don Page at here

  23. Seth R. says:

    Sorry for re-visiting a conversation that has run its course. I’m not much of a scientist, so I can’t speak to that. But I am Mormon and well acquainted with the small world of Mormon blogging and intellectual debate.

    “Dialogue” is considered to be a rather unorthodox and fringe publication within the Mormon religion. Many believing Mormons consider such publications to be a frivolous waste of time at best and misguided apostasy at worst. There is certainly an anti-intellectual current in Mormonism, like there is in many religions. But occasionally you get intrepid believers who like to push the boundaries and venture into new theological territory.

    My own experience is that Mormon attempts at cosmology are usually either wholly, or in large part, a reaction to mainline Christian attacks on Mormon theology. Mormon apologists and other Christian apologists get in their little spitting matches over whether Mormons are monotheists, whether they believe in Jesus, and whether they are being presumptuous by putting God in the same ontological category as human beings.

    I won’t bore you with all that. But to get to the point, there is a growing awareness in the world of LDS apologetics that the central divide between Mormons and other Christians is, not trinity, or scripture, or anything else, but the doctrine of “creation ex nihilo” – the idea that God created the universe out of nothing but His own power. For traditional Christian theologians, the entire universe can be divided into two ontological categories: 1. God – who is uncreated and self-existing and 2. everything else – which was all created by God. That ontological distinction is absolutely crucial for traditional Christian theology and their entire notion of the “trinity” is an attempt to preserve that ontology.

    Mormonism collapses that ontological distinction and posits that not only are God and humanity the same species, but that creation ex nihilo is a false and groundless notion. Mormon doctrine states that all matter is eternally pre-existent. God never created anything out of nothing. He is only creator in the sense that a painter is a “creator” – i.e. He takes pre-existing materials and creates something from them. All matter has existed eternally in some form or other. So has the most foundational part of human identity.

    That’s what Mormonism claims, and it directly attacks the foundational assumptions of traditional Christianity about God and the universe.

    Now, whenever a Mormon-Christian debate comes around to the topic of creation ex nihilo, the traditional Christians inevitably cite “The Big Bang” as cast-iron proof of their ontological claims. They cite the Big Bang as the moment when God spoke, and the universe burst into being. Mormon apologists, of course, are only too happy to ally (as best they can) with modern quantum physics in attacking this assertion.

    This theological debate hasn’t fully matured yet because theologians on both sides are still in the process of discovering the central controversy of creation ex nihilo. But at present, it seems very much like the traditional Christian theologians are positing a universe based on a fundamentally Newtonian model of physics. Increasingly Mormon theologians – the new kids on the block – are turning toward modern developments in quantum physics to undermine and refute the Newtonian-based theology of mainline Christianity.

    String theory, of course, offers a real grab-bag of possibilities for the Mormon theologian. How can a physically present God be omnipotent and everywhere? How can the idea an infinite past (an assertion of Mormonism) overcome the problem of infinite regress of causes? How can a human become god and yet not surpass his or her own Creator? Fun stuff, if you’re into that kind of thing.

    I know this isn’t a theology blog. But you cited the Dialogue article, so I thought you might be interested in the environmental impulses and demands that probably gave birth to it.

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