Just weeks after the turn of the 17th century, Giordano Bruno was burned alive by the Roman Inquisition for, among other things, claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity.
The “multiverse”—or the idea that our world might be just one of many others—dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and has long been a controversial notion since, as Mary-Jane Rubenstein notes below, God becomes less necessary in our quest to explain certain aspects of the world around us. The cosmic multiplicity proposed by the Atomists and Stoics became an intellectual target for St. Augustine centuries before Bruno’s fate was sealed. Yet the “multiverse” seems to be back in style, now wearing a scientist’s lab coat instead of a philosopher’s robes. What are we to make of this radical scientific theory, and where did it come from?
Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s latest book takes up these questions and more, tracing a history of multiple-world cosmologies that highlights the philosophical, mythological, and theological precedents for today’s scientific theories. Rubenstein also demonstrates how multiverse cosmologies can be a site for “reconfiguring” the traditional boundaries between science and religion. RD spoke with Rubenstein recently about her new book.
What initially inspired you to write Worlds Without End?
Five or six years ago, I was clamoring to find something to write for a conference on energy, a topic about which I knew nothing at all. One morning, I came across a feature in the New York Times Magazine on “dark energy”: the negative pressure that’s accelerating the expansion of the universe, causing galaxies to race away from one another faster and faster as time goes on.
I was struck not only by the metaphorics of this substance (it’s said to be “dark,” “mysterious,” “strange,” “creepy”) but by the psychological instability it seemed to be causing among the researchers who discovered it (“no one expected this,” “it’s like hell without the fire,” “we’ll never understand this thing but we can’t not study it”). This was my entry point: as someone who studies the history of philosophy and theology, I was fascinated by a group of scientists professing a freaked-out, studious devotion to an inscrutable darkness.
“Like hell without the fire”- what a telling phrase. In the book you document how cosmologists frequently utilize metaphysical concepts, and sometimes get entrenched in theological debates. Are these just metaphors chosen for convenience, or is something else at play?
What this study has taught me above all is that the stories we tell and the concepts we use determine the kinds of questions we ask. These questions then structure the measurements we make and the experiments we conduct. So any scientific “object” is formed by a complex mixture of ideas, people, energy, and stuff. In other words, things like narrative and metaphor and metaphysics aren’t just added onto scientific objects in order to make them more accessible to ordinary people. They help to make the objects in the first place.
It’s only because Einstein had a story he rejected (Genesis) and a metaphysic he accepted (an eternal universe) that he produced “the cosmological constant” as a scientific object. When the “Big Bang” (which is, incidentally, a metaphor) became our new story, the cosmological constant was rejected as a scientific object. And then when “dark energy” (another metaphor) forced us to change the story again, the cosmological constant came back.
So there’s a fascinating cycle of dependence between language and experimentation here. And at the end of the day, what I’m trying to suggest is that we wouldn’t have any of this stuff—big bang, dark energy, universe, or multiverse—if we weren’t trying to answer the metaphysical and mythological questions of where the world came from and how.
Worlds Without End could be read as an underdog story. Is the multiverse finally having its day?
The first serious multiple-worlds scenario to emerge in the modern scientific context was the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of Quantum Mechanics, which Hugh Everett posited in the late 1950s. The next versions to come around were the “new” and “chaotic” inflationary scenarios in the 1980s, and the most recent has been the “landscape” of string theory, which emerged in the early 2000s. Since then, a host of rival multiverse scenarios have emerged, as well. In each case, the proponents have been ridiculed and dismissed, but with diminishing levels of rancor with each passing decade.
What we’re witnessing right now is a reconfigured repetition of a 2500-year debate over the oneness or the manyness of the universe. Just as it was for the Atomist philosophers in the 5th Century BCE, the multiverse is a way to sidestep theology: if there are an infinite number of universes that take on all possible parameters throughout eternity, then we don’t have to appeal to a god to explain the bounty or harmony of the world around us. Given an infinite number of universes, a few of them are bound to be life-friendly at some point, and we’re in one of them.
The problem, of course, is that the price of getting rid of God is an infinite number of universes we can’t see. So sober-minded contemporary scientists end up on the same side as (some) theologians in arguing that the multiverse is extravagant, unnecessary, and unscientific. The groups part ways when the theologian says we should just give in to what seems so obvious (the universe was designed) and the sober-minded scientist says we should stop asking why the universe is the way it is and get on with learning to master the what.
That having been said, more and more physicists are signing on to one or another version of the multiverse hypothesis. So it may well be “having its day,” but insofar as it is, science itself is undergoing a radical reconfiguration at its own limits, which open so dramatically onto things like metaphysics and mythology.
Let me push you on that last point. How is science “reconfiguring” itself in the 21st century?
It seems to me that many fascinating developments in the contemporary natural sciences can be seen as outcroppings of the quantum “revolution” in the first part of the 20th Century. What quantum physics teaches us is that nothing is itself all by itself. An electron, for example, doesn’t have determinate properties on its own. It only becomes “an electron” when you go to measure it, and depending on how you measure it, it becomes a different electron. It seems to me that contemporary theories of complexity, emergence, and symbiogenesis are trying to come to terms with this same insight: that things only become “themselves” in relation to other things.
To name just one example, the human body contains only 10% “human” cells; the rest are some form or another of microbe. These “others” form 90% of what “I” “am.” As you can see, then, this insight throws into question all our ordinary ways of speaking about self and other, human and nonhuman, and “being” itself. So it seems to me the modern natural sciences are trying to figure out what anything is when everything is a complex product of mixtures, relations, and recombinations of stuff-and-ideas.
You describe your book as an attempt to “come to terms conceptually with the multiverse.” If our universe is indeed just one of many others, would this require us to revisit any philosophical, scientific, or theological foundations? Or is the multiverse too distant and abstract to affect our cosmos here at home?
I should say here that it’s not clear to me we’ll ever be able to say “there is” or “there isn’t” a multiverse. This is what I mean about coming to terms with it conceptually; the work isn’t so much to ask whether it exists or not, but to ask what the “it” is in the first place, and as your question suggests, I think the “it” in question messes with the conventional categories of philosophy, science, and theology.
That having been said, each of those disciplines is stalwart enough to continue conducting business as usual in the face of the multiverse: science can look for evidence; theology can always say God created the multiverse; and philosophy can say the Atomists or Leibniz or modal realism knew this all along. To me, however, these options are far less interesting than the disciplinary reconfigurations the multiverse could also provoke; for example, philosophy might re-evaluate its categories of “many”ness; physics might revisit its barriers to metaphysics; and theology might ask whether an extra-cosmic Father is really the most compelling vision of divinity in the face of an infinitely multiple “creation.”
Perhaps multiverse isn’t just dizzying on a personal level—it can shake up science and theology as well! To bring us back down to earth, I have two questions about writing Worlds Without End. First, the book has a number of striking images and a gorgeous cover—did you have some of these in mind as you were writing?
The cover was designed by my brother, Kenan who is a graphic artist and web designer. He came up with the image on a family day at the beach, when I told him I couldn’t get Kandinsky’s “Several Circles” out of my head. Crouching down in the sand, he sketched the first version of what’s become the cover image, complete with the strip of text down the left-hand side. What I like most about the image are the warmth and textures of the circles, which stand in such stark distinction to the cold colors and sharp contours of most other cosmological renderings these days.
For me, the image gets at the interrelation of the sciences and humanities, and of objects and stories, that sets the book in motion in the first place.
Finally, what’s next? Did writing this book raise any new questions for you?
It did—first of all, by closing an old one. For a long time, I’ve thought that one of the least interesting questions out there is, “does God exist?” The endless backs-and-forth over “God’s existence” prevent us from answering the far more interesting questions of what we mean by “God,” and what this idea does in the world. If by “God,” we mean a Father-figure outside the universe, then there is no way to prove “he” exists or doesn’t exist, precisely because “he” is outside the universe and all our methods of proof are stuck within it. So the more interesting question is how this idea works. What does it mean to think of the creator of the universe as all-powerful, disembodied, humanoid, male, and fundamentally beyond “creation”?
The image of an active God breathing life into inert matter becomes far less compelling in the face of new paradigms in the human, social, and natural sciences, which show that new organisms are “created” and changed all the time through complex interrelations of matter, culture, and energy. The next project will therefore ask what it means to call the creativity internal to our complex, symbiotic multiverse “divine.” What would it mean politically, ethically, and ecologically to say that the cosmo- and biodiversity that constantly brings forth new worlds and forms is what we mean by “God”?