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Saturday, April 12, 2003

Cosmology op-ed!

How odd to find "A brief history of the multiverse" nestled among the op-eds in the New York Times this morning. Does anyone have thoughts on why exactly it's on the op-ed page?

I haven't read anything significant about religion and science in a few years — George Johnson's Fire in the Mind: Religion, Science, and the Search for Order was the last great book on the topic I read — and I'm no expert about the much-debated "anthropic principle." I hold your standard modernist biases against creationism in its old-fashioned and "intelligent design" forms, and your basic literary-humanistic objections to scientific reductionism. But I'm pretty intrigued by the cosmologists' suggestion that our universe may be only one of many real or potential "universes," each operating with its own set of natural laws. Sure, we live in a three-dimensional universe, but there might be nine- or thirteen-dimensional universes, too!

I had assumed that this idea was essentially a thought experiment, a way of saying that there's no real reason that our universe had to have the peculiar set of laws that seem to make life as we know it possible. The dice just rolled this way — or maybe every potential universe "exists" somehow, in some sense, right alongside our own, running according to its own rules, and we're just the lucky occupants of this universe. Sure. Why not?

So was Paul Davies's intriguing op-ed just a bit of Cosmology 101? Or is there some arcane debate going on that he was taking sides on? Is the Kansas school board about to demand teaching the One Universe Only theory? I don't really know. But I did find this interesting:

Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.

He goes on to comment on the probability that in some universes, intelligent creatures would create virtual worlds with their own artificially-intelligent creatures — "The Sims" meets "The Matrix," I guess — and that these virtual universes might proliferate without end, too. Infinite regress shows up infrequently in the Times, so the vertigo I experienced over coffee this morning shouldn't happen too often — at least in this universe. Davies adds, about the infinite regress of virtual as well as actual universes:

Far from doing away with a transcendent Creator, the multiverse theory actually injects that very concept at almost every level of its logical structure. Gods and worlds, creators and creatures, lie embedded in each other, forming an infinite regress in unbounded space.

So what's the upshot? Multiverse theory is really just faith for scientists? Does Davies have a proposal for multiverse theory that has some theoretical-physical limits? Does he think that our universe's "laws of nature" are just a lucky roll of the dice? Does he think that there is an "anthropic principle" at work? Or that there might be some kind of intelligent design in our world? The only point I could really find was that science can only answer certain kinds of questions, but that human beings have many other questions, too. Some of those other questions are basically religious or leaps of faith. But I'm still not sure why the op-ed was there in the first place.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 12 April 2003 at 9:57 PM

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