Pruning the Landscape

Planet Earth      Physicists refer to the realm of multiple universes as the “landscape” of the cosmos.  Let’s return to the hypothetical realm of the multiverse (see Part I below) and survey this idea of  landscape for ethical implications.

The most incomprehensible feature of this landscape is that if you were to look long enough and far enough, you would eventually find anything and everything happening.  Of course that would presume that you were capable of stepping beyond the bounds of your own “bubble” universe (i.e. your own constraints as a being existing in time and space) to survey the surrounding landscape.  Perhaps only God could have such a vantage point, to be able to step outside the stream of time and the fabric of space in order to view multiple “universes.”    From such a vantage point, God would be able to see you and me doing every possible thing

It seems to me this would render ethics a meaningless concept, because people with minds identical to yours and mine would at this moment be doing and believing any number of radically different things, for better or worse.  In a landscape of infinite universes, free will would turn out to be an illusion of our confinement to a random bubble of existence.  Every possible decision would obtain, for better or worse. We might imagine that we were exercising free will, but so would our spitting images in other universes who were making different choices.  Choice then turns out not to be a logical determinant of freedom.

Of course this is a ridiculous metaphysics which renders the idea of ethics incoherent.  There is however one way God could redeem ethics within the landscape of a multiverse — he could intervene in every specific universe and personally reveal ethics.  Of course in order to do that, it seems he would have to reveal himself in person; otherwise, the revelation could be just one more random fluctuation of the landscape, and then it would be no different from all the other meaningless fluctuations, for every fluctuation would have equal authority.

To give ethics any meaning, God would need to intervene in a specific, non-random mode of being, within the history of that universe; otherwise, there would be no source of reality which carried any more meaning than a random fluctuation of matter.

What we discover in this thought experiment is that nothing less than a personal intervention by God could salvage reality and free will, and thereby also provide meaning to ethics.  We have now wandered far afield from the practice of physics, and even beyond the realms reachable by metaphysics and philosophy.  We have now turned to ‘God-talk’ — theology — to make sense out of this mathematical idea.  I find this conclusion rather interesting.  This idea —  that the God of the universe would step into human history to redeem it and give it meaning — does not drop out of the equations; but in this particular universe (the only universe as far as we know) it turns out to describe just what he has done.

The movie Golden Compass opens with a quick, professorial tutorial on the metaphysics of multiple universes, in which anything can happen, and eventually even does happen if there are infinite universes.  From there we are led into a magical world of adventure in which people can be separated from their very souls.  Let’s set aside this incoherent and troubled definition of “soul” for the moment, and consider the premise of multiple or infinite universes.  This fascinating idea comes straight out of the pages of current scientific journals.  Brilliant Nebula

Dennis Overbye, writing in the NY Times sums up this modern school of thought succinctly:

According to the [theory] called eternal inflation, an endless array of bubble or “pocket” universes are branching off from one another at a dizzying and exponentially increasing rate. They could have different properties and perhaps even different laws of physics, so the story goes.[1]

This is an outcome of the mathematics of probability that physicists have devised to explain how fluctuations in matter, energy and space itself could possibly form new universes like bubbles in a stream of time.  If you wait long enough, anything could happen, and eventually does happen, when the math yield infinite possibilities.

What then is real? We may ask in the oldest of philosophical questions.   Is this world, this universe, real?  Are they all real?  Or are they all simply fluctuations predicted by math?  It strikes me that this view of the universe fits quite comfortably with Plato’s philosophy.  For Plato, the ideas themselves were the reality, not the various material instances of them which we encounter in this life.  Likewise, in the case of a “multiverse” in which every idea “happens” somewhere, in some “universe”, how could we say that those happenings were really real?  The equations underlying the multiverse might be the real reality, but the happenings and instances themselves would somehow be “less real”.  You end up with degrees of reality,[2] as it were, in which case some things are less real than others.

But don’t worry, the physicists have not all lost their minds; most of them would agree with Steven Weinberg who says, “These kinds of speculation are fun, but they are not science, yet.”  Weinberg repeats the one-liner of the late great Caltech Nobelist Richard Feynman, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”[3]

As preposterous as the multiverse seems, it does raise the question of why we should believe there is anything special about this particular universe, this particular world, and this particular life.  What difference would it make if we believed there were infinite universes instead of just this one? 

It makes all the difference in the world… A multiverse of infinite universes would strip all life of meaning.  Every world would become an “un-universe”, a non-universe reduced to unreality, because every decision and every history would be refuted by a an infinite array of counterexamples.  Is this any way to live?  After all, how can any of this world be real if there is another universe next door where I am doing and saying and believing in any number of different things?

An un-universe is not a very interesting place to live.  This one is far superior.


[1] Dennis Overbye, “Big Brain Theory: Have Cosmologists Lost Theirs?”, NY Times, Jan. 15, 2008.

[2] For a good treatment of this idea, see Vlastos, G., Platonic Studies (2nd ed., Princeton, 1981), pp. 58-75.

[3] Dennis Overbye, “Laws of Nature, Source Unknown”, NY Times, 18 December 2007.

    When I was a kid, the ads in Boy’s Life magazine fascinated me, especially the ones selling the mysterious creatures called Sea-Monkeys.  Just add water and these creatures come to life! So the ads claimed. I couldn’t believe it.  How a living animal could be dried up like an old carrot stick, shipped through the mail, and then magically come to life in a bowl of water in my kitchen.  I figured it had to be a hoax, false advertising, or a waste of money, and I never ordered any of the plastic-wrapped sea creatures.I understand the life cycle of the brine shrimp “Sea-Monkey” better now, but I still don’t believe in “miracle by mail-order”.  There’s another type of miracle though that is not so easily explained-the miracle of faith.  How does someone come to believe in God, and what’s more, to communicate with God?  Is this just one more pseudo-miracle to be explained like the Sea Monkey? Is it a matter of wanting to believe (like Freud argued), and then trying to believe (like gurus teach) until we feel we believe, and then start to believe that we believe? If that’s the way faith works, then it really is no more miraculous than a Sea-Monkey, and we really can bring something dead to life by “just adding water”. That would be a pseudo-miracle, not a real one.

Brine shrimp, aka, “sea-monkey” when in state of cryptobiosis.  Size: a few millimeters.

If God is real however, then faith is a likewise real miracle, not a fake one.  And if faith is a real miracle, then it has to be God’s doing, because we can’t pull the trick off by ourselves. We can’t produce the “mail-order miracle” for ourselves by “just adding water” or any other type of recipe.  Karl Barth understood this well, in describing how faith happens-

A sheer miracle must happen to him, a second miracle in addition to the miracle of his own existence, if his life shall be a true Christian life, which is a life within the hearing of God’s Word.  This miracle is the office of the Holy Spirit.[1]

It’s a miracle, because God, in the office (or, “the action”) of the Holy Spirit, must do it.  We can’t do it by just adding water or any other special sauce we can concoct out of our own personalities or will-power.  And because God’s miraculous action takes priority, it would also seem to be an on-going process, not a once-and-for-all miracle that took place in our past:

… God’s revelation must be ever increasingly becoming the voice of the living God to us, seeing that God is continually saying to us what he said by the mouth of prophets and apostles once for all, so too the outer and inner constraints of our existence must be ever acquiring the character of divine indications, duties, and promises through the divine speech to us.[2]

Notice here the emphasis Barth places on the participles becoming and acquiring, to indicate the present and continual active, living role of God in the acquisition and apperception of divine speech.  Without this living presence of the living God, there is no miracle, and faith lies as dead.

It’s not the non-living water that brings the Sea Monkey to life; rather, it’s the life that was already in the Sea Monkey’s body to begin with, though it lies dormant.  Likewise, it’s not non-living water from our own hands and efforts that brings our faith alive; rather it’s the living water of Christ that makes us alive in a new way as we are born anew of the Spirit.

[1] Karl Barth’s 1929 lectures published as: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: the theological basis of ethics, translated by R. Birch Hoyle (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) p. 11.[2] Ibid., p. 9.

   Sir Edmund Hillary celebrates work with Sherpa people on behalf of the American Hiimalyan FoundationI met Sir Edmund once about ten years ago, at a dinner with the American Himalayan Foundation, a charitable organization that supports humanitarian projects among the Sherpa people whom Sir Edmund loved.  It was a memorable moment for me, but certainly not for Sir Edmund.I remember how gracious Sir Edmund was to me, a complete stranger.  He warmly received my introduction, tolerated my inconsequential dialog, and posed for a picture with me.  He displayed a humble gentleness that I have also encountered in my meetings with the first American to summit Everest, Jim Whittaker, and his rope-mate Gombu, a Sherpa man related to Hillary’s rope-mate Tenzing Norgay.

These giants of climbing history are humble.  My own miniscule climbing experience has taught me this much — mountains make you humble.  Mountains reveal the power and majesty of a creation that strips us of all pretension. Perhaps Hillary, Whittaker, Gombu and others in their league have faced risks of fame down here in the land of media circuses and chicken dinners on white table cloths, but the mountains do not present that particular kind of risk.  Mountains make us more human, because they make us more aware of our place in comparison with the size of creation and its Creator.

Along with unknown millions, I add my humble salute to Sir Edmund, and the fine example he set for the rest of us.