Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Good Idea? A Bad Idea? Both? Neither? Yes!

Writing in The Atlantic, Sam Kriss suggests that the cosmological concept of the multiverse, which was designed to solve a problem, may have created some much larger ones. In fact, he says, the concept could be responsible for "rotting" our culture.

Some background first. The "multiverse" is an idea that's supposed to help answer why we live in the universe we do. See, there are a number of basic physical phenomena that are pretty finely balanced and if they were to have swayed a little this way or that, life might not have been possible. Which is fine except when you hold the principle that there isn't now and never has been any force guiding or shaping those phenomena. Because the odds that a universe would develop where even matter is possible, let alone life forms that reflect on the meaning and purpose of their existences, are close enough to impossible that it doesn't make much of a difference.

One solution is called the "anthropic principle." In its most limited version, all it says is that we know the universe formed this way because we're here to observe it. In its strongest version, it's not really distinguishable from creationism. There are other points along a continuum between those two poles. Some folks reject the principle completely, though, even in its mildest form. There is no guiding hand or principle behind the creation of the universe and it was all random. Which gets us back to those impossible odds at getting us the universe we have.

But the multiverse proposes that the universe we live in isn't the only one. At every point of creation where more than one thing could happen, all of them did and each created a branching path of reality. So "somewhere" there's a universe where gravity varies with the cube of distance instead of the square of it. And "somewhere" there's a universe where matter was spread so evenly following the Big Bang that no planets or stars could ever form.

Kriss notes that as a concept strictly limited to physical properties, the multiverse does solve some issues for strict materialists. But as the idea expands beyond physical laws, it can have a real wet-blanket impact on things. Imagine that every time you made a decision, the possibility that you didn't chose was chosen, but in another universe. Every time you said "Yes," another you in another reality said, "No." Every time you decided not to do something, another you in another reality decided to do it. Every time Donald Trump said something stupid, in another reality another Donald Trump didn't. Every time Hillary Clinton wasn't truthful, in another reality another Hillary Clinton was.

Yeah, I don't buy those last two either.

Anyway, Kriss says that knowing that none of our decisions actually makes much of a difference makes us figure, "Why bother?" Why write a book or record an album or paint a picture when there are countless other realities in which we won't, and which will get along just fine without whatever it is we would have produced.

I'm of two minds about Kriss's article. On the one hand, I think he sees the multiverse concept as having penetrated much more deeply into culture than it has. There's just not that many people who know about it, let alone accept it as a way of understanding reality. Plus, it's not like culture needs advanced theoretical physics concepts to rot. Eli Roth has managed to create plenty of decay with just plain ol' retread mindless gore, for example. And although one might wonder if one universe is enough to contain Kanye West's opinion of himself, the multiverse concept is not required to observe how he and his famous-for-no-good-reason spouse have absorbed an incredibly outsized share of public attention.

On the other hand, there's something to the idea that a reality that includes all possibilities takes away much of a reason to choose from among them. Why do A when the me who does B will have a completely different result that's just as real as mine? A belief that everything -- not just the basic laws of physics -- is involved in creating new slices of the multiverse could certainly bring people to wonder what point there might be to their choices. So Kriss may just be ahead of a curve that will one day be just as damaging as he believes.

But I guess you'd say someone like me, mired as I am in my orthodox Christian theism, sort of cheats around the issue. Not because I believe the universe is 6,000 years old or the dinosaurs died out because Noah was exercising his mammalian privilege -- but because I believe our choices and actions definitely matter. They matter not because they represent some kind of unique irrevocable channeling of reality into one lane or another -- but because the choosers matter to the One who has already chosen them. And they will continue to do so, no matter how weird reality gets.

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