Of Two Worlds and the Multiverse

Most of us live in a state of cognitive dissonance with our internal beliefs in conflict with what dominates our worldview through culture. Does the current fascination with the multiverse undermine this two-world dilemma?

This is the fourth in the Top-Down v. Bottom-Up series.

Japheth Mast on Unsplash. “What is out there? What is the world made of? What is real?” Intuition, the history of intellectual thought and religious up-bringing create a world-view in conflict with the culturally-dominant view of physicalism.

Sometime between the age of about three to eight, a child’s knowledge of the world and self-awareness arises. As I slowly awakened to my own existence as a person in my own right living in this universe, I wondered what was real. I still ponder that question. I supposed that everyone did and to some degree they do, but certainly some more than others. (If you are reading this and the other posts in this series you are almost certainly a serious seeker.) Many seek the answers more seriously and diligently than I do. But now, late into the sixth decade of my brief life I find the question and possible answers more interesting than ever.

Like most of my generation, I was raised in two worlds or world-views. One, was the world of faith, religion, the Bible, and revelation. The words of the preacher and the written word of holy scripture told the truth about what is real. The other worldview issued from scientists who, based on the indisputable effectiveness of their revelations, claimed exclusive authority. Scientists, interpreted by teachers, science writers and reporters, believed that only what can be observed, measured, subjected to empirical tests can be considered real. That certainly left out God or anything outside the physical or material out of the picture. That view, with all its philosophical and theological implications, is dominant among our cultural leaders when discussing what is real. As Stephen Hawking said in an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer:

“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

The quasi-religious philosophy or belief known as “scientism,” which includes the notion of physicalism, has won in our culture — at least among our cultural drivers. These drivers of “higher culture” in academia, journalism, entertainment and politics with few exceptions do not divert from the authority of science nor the belief of physicalism expressed by what is seen as a consensus among today’s scientists. “Bottom-up” thinking, which is our focus here, is physicalist because it says that everything including the complexities of life and the mind emerge from the random, purposeless aggregation of particles operating under the laws of physics and Darwinian evolution. Science’s success, according to Hawking and many scientists and philosophers today, has resulted in science replacing religion as the source of authority. But, has physicalism won over the majority of the population? A core doctrine of physicalism is that only the physical world is real, eliminating any idea of the immaterial including a spirit world and, of course, God. Various opinion polls claim that well over 50% of Americans believe in God or a Higher Power and over 90% believe in the afterlife. Professional scientists are near the average and younger scientists skew higher than older in these beliefs. This interest in or belief in something beyond the accepted physical understanding is not restricted to traditional religions. Gregory Shaw, Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, wrote in Chapter 8 of Beyond Physicalism:

“Yet beneath the veneer of our culture’s scientific education there remains a fascination with the paranormal, and the business of mediums and trance channelers is remarkably strong, at least in popular culture.”

It’s not the 1950s anymore, but do we still live in two worlds? There is much evidence that physicalism — despite its dominance in the voices leading our culture — has failed to win the hearts, minds and beliefs of most in today’s world. The growth and persistence of belief in “something more” is likely behind the emergence of the so-called New Atheists mentioned in an earlier post. We noted the “fundamentalist” response identified by Karen Armstrong that emerges when a view or set of beliefs that has dominated is being challenged. The New Atheists of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and more suggest that confirmed physicalists may be reacting against a rising tide of top-down, non-physicalist ideas. The basis of the firm atheistic beliefs of these and other major scientist-philosophers like Steven Pinker and Leonard Susskind appears to be the fear that a world-view that acknowledges something more beyond physicalist science will hinder not only the advancement of science but the Enlightenment project of human progress.

But science itself is making it harder for them to defend physicalism on the basis of “observation and reason” as Hawkins stated. From physics to biology to psychology, scientists are being pushed to the edge of observation and reason and far beyond it. In moving away from this historic foundation of science, some are suggesting we are moving toward a totally unexpected convergence or reunion. Might the two world-views we occupy be one after all? Will the cognitive dissonance of holding on to two conflicting ideas about reality be resolved? To whom will we turn to answer the question of what is real if the solid ground of physicalism is shown to be far less solid than many are claiming? As contemporary science studies produce more and more results that call into question this foundation, we find that many scientists are abandoning traditional definitions of science and occupying the formerly forbidden worlds of theology, philosophy and metaphysics. If the curtain is pulled back on those who loudly claim the mantle of “authority” even while we observe them pulling the strings and levers, who will assume the mantle?

What are the discoveries that are pushing scientists and philosophers beyond the limits of observation and reason? One of those is referred to as fine-tuning which has led to the widely accepted but rather curious response called “the anthropic principle,” and contributed to the growing popularity of the concept of the multiverse. Another is the realization that the acceleration of the expansion of our universe, and other factors, can only be explained by the presence of unknown and so far undetectable realities called dark energy and dark matter. Another is the diminishing but still strong interest in the mathematical demand for many unseen dimensions as required by string theory. Another is the discovery that some fundamental aspects of our physical world violate the laws of physics that have been seen as immutable — including quantum entanglement and cosmic inflation. But the two issues that are at the center of what many consider a crisis in science are quantum mechanics and consciousness. As the most well established scientific theory in history, quantum mechanics applies to the fundamental particles and forces of our physical universe and therefore has application to every other form of scientific inquiry. Consciousness, while recognized as a reality of our lives by every thinking being, has emerged as “the hard problem” in the words of philosopher David Chalmers. Consciousness presents a hard problem because it apparently contradicts one of the stated foundations of science which is that only what can be explained in physical terms is real. So far, consciousness escapes this foundation and thereby forces the conclusion that either consciousness is an illusion or that the foundation of physicalism needs to be reexamined.

These two extremely puzzling phenomena of nature are linked through the curious situation often referred to as the “measurement problem.” In its simplest form, at a very deep level the physical world as we experience it is somehow connected to a mind — a conscious entity — observing it. The world of particles at the smallest levels exists as an amorphous cloud scattered across potentially vast distances across the universe and remains in that state–– until someone with a conscious mind takes a look.

The mathematical physicist Henry Stapp in his book Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer notes that this new reality of physics is one of the most profound scientific discoveries of all time. He observes that since Newton scientists determined that all reality was deterministic or causally closed. No action outside of the laws of matter and forces had any impact on what happens in the universe. All was determined by these laws set in motion at the beginning of space and time. There was no room in this for free will or intention. But, quantum mechanics changed all that Stapp insists:

This radical change swept away the meaningless billiard-ball universe, and replaced it with a universe in which we human beings, by means of our value-based intentional efforts, can make a difference first in our own behaviors, thence in the social matrix in which we are imbedded, and eventually in the entire physical reality that sustains our streams of conscious experiences.”

The physics of subatomic particles represents one of the most confounding mysteries in the history of human inquiry. At the heart of this puzzle is an outright contradiction in how these particles and therefore all physical reality behaves. Wave or particle? Distributed across space and time with no certain location, or isolated and pinpointed? Like a ripple in a pond or like a bullet? The answer is both. More than just both here, there and everywhere and all at the same time, these particles are also connected in a strange and mysterious way. If they are “entangled,” or married, as we might say, they may be separated but like a true marriage, their hearts remain entwined. So, when a characteristic of one is observed, a complementary characteristic of the other may be known as well and it doesn’t matter how far they are separated. Change the characteristic of one, and the other entangled particle will instantly change. Not at the speed of light as that could take a lot of time traveling the galaxies, but instantly.

These are not fantasies, speculations or even what the general public thinks of when the word “theory” appears. Nothing theoretical here. No fact of nature has been more well established, none more accurately expressed in mathematical terms. We depend on this strange reality for much of what the technologists have delivered to make our lives the connected, frantic and productive place we now know and (mostly) love. At the same time, the mystery of what this indisputable reality means is leading scientists to offer explanations that pass from the world of science into that territory more commonly known as metaphysics. Most current popular physics books try to avoid answering the questions of “ontology” or how these bizarre discoveries relate to the reality we experience in our daily lives. Some physicists venturing into philosophy and many philosophers do try to explain connections to everyday reality with what has been fully established in this strange world of particles. Scientists who do try to make these connections cannot avoid suggestions that are more metaphysical and philosophical and even theological than strictly science as we see in Greene’s Until the End of Time. (You can read my review of Brian Greene’s 202o book on Medium here.)

The difficulty of avoiding philosophical and metaphysical discussions when dealing with what is now known about quantum physics is understandable. The measurement problem stands at the heart of that. Because of the role of the conscious mind, and apparently the conscious mind alone, in causing changes in physical material at a very foundational level, the mind has become a focal point for the defense of physicalism. The importance of this discovery of a basic feature of physical reality at the quantum level was expressed simply by the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner as he wrote in 1961:

“When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena, through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again: it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a consistent way without reference to consciousness.”

Physicists found this discovery more than unpalatable — they found it unacceptable. Many still do. Stapp observes “the now falsified classical conception of the physical world still exerts a blinding effect.” Taken on its face, the implications are unavoidable and profound. There is at the very heart of nature a connection between something that is seen as immaterial and deeply mysterious and the most basic operations and laws of nature. This rubs up against the doctrine of physicalism and scientists have taken various approaches to dealing with it. The Copenhagen Interpretation formed by the famously brilliant but nearly incoherent Niels Bohr, focused on understanding the underlying mathematics of quantum mechanics while putting aside the most basic questions of meaning. An American physicist aptly called this the “shut up and calculate” response to the measurement problem. It was clearly intended to develop the understanding and applications of quantum mechanics without bothering to try to understand what it really means.

The implications of the most basic laws of nature requiring a consciousness combined with the on-going mystery of the “hard problem” of the mind/brain connection have led many to pose all kinds of ideas. The measurement problem developed by Bohr and the Copenhagen school evolved into the “orthodox” understanding of quantum mechanics through John von Neumann and others. It undermined physicalism at a very basic level. Because of that there have been and continue to be many ideas on how to understand this without requiring something as non-physical as consciousness itself. These include the Everett “many worlds” theory that is very popular today, the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation which involves a “hidden variable” and elimination of the wave function collapse, the GRW (Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber) theory which involves rare but spontaneous collapses, the Joos-Zeh idea where collapse is caused by the environment in something called quantum decoherence, and the objective collapse model which includes spontaneous collapse and that redefines the impact of the collapse on macroscopic or large objects compared to quantum or microscopic objectives.

Most of these alternative ideas to the “orthodox” view of consciousness altering physical reality stand in opposition to the “many worlds theory” first developed in 1957 by doctoral student Hugh Everett III. But, popularized through books such as Cox and Forshaw’s 2011 book The Quantum Universe: (And Why Anything That Can Happen, Does) and Sean Carroll’s 2019 Something Deeply Hidden, this idea is at least taking on the appearance of consensus and has entered the popular imagination. The fact that a wide variety of disciplines within physics have all arrived at the concept of an infinity of other worlds or universes tends to give weight to this idea. First, there was fine tuning. Stephen Hawking describes it this way:

“The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. … The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”[5]

The many ideas about the emergence of the universe from the singularity, including cosmic inflation, require some remarkably “special” conditions. The unbelievable coincidence of a whole range of very precise values necessary for our universe as well as life as we know it forces essentially two conclusions: design or unimaginably good luck. The design theory requires a designer, or Designer. Physicalism rejects that notion out of hand. That leaves good luck. Physicalists responded to this challenge in two ways. One was to wave the question away with the pseudo-scientific term, the “anthropic principle,” which says in effect that, “well, sure there is a remarkable coincidence that resulted in us being here. But, if that did not happen, we would not be here. So, so what?” That answer has never been very satisfying except, it appears, to those wedded to the physicalist presupposition. The circularity seems obvious. The other is the idea of the multiverse. Some have said that the fine tuning of the universe is a coincidence on the level of one person winning the lottery in every state — simultaneously. Those are very long odds. If someone rolls a dice 10,000 times and it lands on six every time, either the dice is weighted or the person rolling it is very lucky. Lucky especially if something significant like life in the universe is at stake. Luck, or chance, comes down to probabilities and probabilities comes down to the number of chances. So, it is not only possible but very much certain that if there were an infinite number of people rolling dice that even a non-weighted one would end up showing sixes repeatedly, even ten times in a row. All you need for probability to work is for there to be sufficient chances. Is infinity enough? Sure. So, if there are an infinity of different universes out there all with different sequences of numbers of critical elements such as the force of gravity and the force that holds the nucleus of atoms together, then it is absolutely certain that one of them would end up with the right sequence. This answer calls into question Occam’s Razor. It seems theism might be more parsimonious, as the Razor folks would say. But since committed physicalists believe the theistic answer is impossibly complex, the multiverse is the preferred option.

String theory is another way of suggesting or requiring a multiverse. This remarkably complex and elegant mathematical construction of the universe that promises to unite quantum mechanics with classical physics requires some major alterations to our understanding of reality. One is the number of dimensions. We all know of three of space — up, down and sideways — and one of time. But string theory initially said there were 26 actual dimensions. Later versions narrowed that down to eleven and even ten. Where are they? Very small. Probably rolled up into unmeasurably small things like straws where if you unroll a straw you have a two dimensional object. String theory also requires a multiverse.

Then there is the eternal inflation model of the universe. It requires a multiverse, too. Inflation is seen by many if not the majority of cosmologists to be necessary for the Big Bang to have evolved into the universe we have today, but it requires an explosion of mass at speeds far, far greater than the speed of light. That is a bit of an issue, since nothing (except entanglement of particles) exceeds this limit. It also involves a much higher level of fine-tuning, which for reasons we have already explained, causes understandable discomfort among physicalists. One of the reasons why there is such a crisis in physics today is that the underpinnings of science in the absolute reliability of physical laws such as the speed of light seem to be tossed aside with increasing frequency. It seems ironic that a multiverse is needed to explain away the astounding coincidence of fine-tuning, but that the ideas such as eternal inflation used to justify a multiverse actually require even more fine-tuning.

NASA on Unsplash. Is there a multiverse? Many different areas of study point in that direction. But, the idea is complicated by fine-tuning and the fact that it is impossible to know, access, measure or study. Does that leave it in the area of philosophy and metaphysics rather than physics?

While more and more empirically impossible ideas are batted about, today the focus is on the Hugh Everett III concept of the multiverse as developed by the young physicist in 1957. Called “the many worlds” theory, it appeared so bizarre and unlikely that after much derision Everett gave up on physics and took up a career in the defense industry. His dissolute life-style led to an early death at the age of 51. Today he would be amazed that his name is on the lips of many of the most highly regarded physicists in the world. Everett looked at the measurement problem and how a conscious mind brings about the collapse of the wave function, fundamentally altering physical reality. He concluded that if there were an unlimited number of universes the wave function would continue on, but the world where the observation was made would continue on as well. The two worlds would branch or split. The conscious observer would be in the world where the collapse occurred and would therefore observe the particle’s location. Life would go on as normal. Carroll explains through environmental decoherence this branching or splitting into new universes occurs gazillions of times each second (well, he used numbers not gazillions). Numerous popular books about contemporary science now promote this idea as the best possible description of our natural world, and Sean Carroll’s Something Deeply Hidden is perhaps the best and most widely-read.

What does Carroll have to say about the multiverse and what does he mean when he says reality is defined as a universal wave function operating Hilbert space? As this discussion is one of those key issues at the heart of top-down versus bottom-up thinking, we’ll take the time to dive deeper into the idea of the multiverse in a subsequent post.

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Gerald R. Baron

Gerald R. Baron

Husband, father, grandfather, mostly-retired, farm advocate, author, communicator. Deeply curious about science, nature, spirit and history.