The multiverse of possibilities

Sam Kriss, who has written before on the joylessness of the pop-scientism so much vogue on the internet and in the media, has written a piece at The Atlantic about the multiverse theory. Indeed, Kriss has made himself a winning critic of scientism, pop vel non, by pointing out the absurdities it forces on its adherents. Now, we wouldn’t confuse Kriss for a religious writer—we have the impression that he’s an unbeliever, though we couldn’t swear as to why we believe that—but Kriss has little use for secularism as it has come to exist popularly. You know the type of secularist we—and he—mean, full of answers like “because science” and “it’s 2016.” Given Kriss’s evident suspicion of people like that, he has some insights, especially on the question of scientism, that we think are profitable for Christians to consider. And his skewering of multiverse theory is one such insight.

Now, as we understand it, the concept of the multiverse is that there is a some number of parallel universes, perhaps an infinite number. The question is, as you might imagine, mathematically dense and contentious even among physicists. But Kriss makes an interesting point that sounds ultimately in common sense:

Heim’s work has been enormously influential in the field of theology, but for some reason it’s generally rejected by the scientific community. Instead, thousands of physicists—big names like Stephen Hawking (who called it ‘trivially true’), Brian Greene, and Neil deGrasse Tyson included—pay lip service to the many-worlds interpretation: the particle still passed through both slits; one here, and one in another universe, created especially for the occasion. It certainly sounds more scientific than Heim’s theory, which tries to shoehorn a Bronze Age concept into an increasingly inhospitable reality. The only snag is that there’s actually very little difference. There’s no way we could ever carry out any experiment to test for the multiverse’s existence in the world, because it’s not in our world. It’s an article of faith, and not a very secure one. What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?

(Emphasis supplied.) He goes on to note that multiverse theory is itself “an organized assault” on imagination:

The Mandela Effect is silly, but is has its roots in the philosophical precursors to multiverse theory. What looks at first glance like an opening up of possibilities is actually an organized assault on the unreal: the delicate networks of falsehood, the boundlessness of counterfactuals, the imagination as such. It goes back to Leibniz, who got analytical philosophers talking about contingency in terms of ‘possible worlds’ for tedious centuries—actually, it goes back to Democritus, twenty-five centuries ago—but there’s no purer instance than the ‘modal realism’ of David Lewis. In a series of books, the Princeton philosopher argued that counterfactual statements (‘There is a possible world in which ‘chartreuse’ describes a shade of red,’ ‘If the author-electrocuting button existed, I’d be dead now’) could not be intelligible unless they refer to an actually existing state of affairs. If the author-murdering button doesn’t exist here, it must necessarily exist in another universe. What this means is that the human capacity to imagine a different world is really nothing of the sort. It’s all just the same washed-out reality, and your hopes and dreams are as drearily physical as a sack of potatoes. Want to write fiction? Want to build a better life? Don’t bother. Everything that could happen has already happened, and nothing can ever change.

(Emphasis supplied.) This, of course, goes back to Kriss’s piece on Dr. Tyson. The sort of materialism that delights in “science,” including the idea of an infinite number of universes where an infinite number of possibilities plays out separately, ultimately seeks to create a world without possible escape. Endlessly, rigorously “correct.” What you see is what you get, if you’re lucky. More likely, what you see is what you see and what you get is nothing. Eventually one does not even need the tweets and blog posts and talking-head programs saying “actually…,” one simply internalizes the “actually…” The goal, to nick the title of that book of Sagan’s, may have started out as to free us from “a demon-haunted world,” but it seems to have wound up being to free us from a human-inhabited world.

One may say, too, that the multiverse idea is an organized assault on faith. We know that God took flesh, dwelt among men, died on the cross, and was raised from the dead on the third day. But if there are an infinite number of universes, then it is entirely possible (probable, even?) that there is a universe in which that did not happen. Right? (We’re not experts in this stuff, so maybe it isn’t right, but we certainly have the sense that this is the thrust of the theory.) There may, in fact, be several universes in which that did not happen. And you see it goes on and on. And for every single thing Christians know to be true. If struck by a perverse mood, one can posit ever more ridiculous hypotheses: let’s say that everything that we know to be true is true for n-1 universes, including ours, but in the n-th, the 27th condemned proposition of the Laxists wasn’t condemned by the Holy Office, or something like that. That’s the only difference. Such a hypothesis is unfalsifiable, obviously, but it’s no more or less so that the more serious hypotheses discussed. (We could gussy it up with some calculations, but we were never that good with figures.) At some point one has to come back to Kriss’s earlier point: “What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?” 

We wouldn’t put it like that, exactly, but that’s a devastating answer to the adherents of scientism who tell us increasingly improbable things and expect us to swallow them whole.

Now, perhaps Kriss means to say that the multiverse and God are equally improbable, but we’ll set that possibility to one side. Perhaps in another universe, we take it up. Levity aside, there is, as a function of scientism and our indefatigable faith in scientific progress notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, too much piety about science. The scientists say. The experiment shows. And all too often Christians—who know better; who know the truth about God, the world, and our place in it, in point of fact—are stuck either sketching some complicated modus vivendi for faith and science or demonstrating how the scientific explanation fits into our understanding of things. Perhaps the better approach would be to call up “up” and down “down,” as Kriss does, and to say that a given “explanation” is so wildly, hysterically improbable as to be essentially an alternative faith. Thus dialogue between a Christian and an adherent of these theories ought to be in the nature of interfaith dialogue—not some grand disputation between faith and reason—acknowledging always that, while there might be points of agreement, there are points of dogma that cannot be transgressed by the respective believers.

We’re by no means an expert on the intersection of faith and science. We know what we know. And that may not be all that much. But we think there’s good reason to ponder Kriss’s point and its implications.