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.


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