Thursday, December 10, 2009

Theoretical Cosmology Ain't Got Nuthin' on Faith

As part of my ongoing meme about the multiverse, morality, and faith, here's a little snippet from a prominent theoretical physicist on TEDblog:

What's interesting is that Deutch's esoteric musings about how multiverse cosmology resolves issues of freewill and determinism exactly mirror my own mystically gleaned musings from earlier this year.

Funny how faith always gets there first.


  1. Ah, but of course there is almost certainly a universe where atheist David came to the same basic realization ten years ago, right after he read *The Fabric of Reality* in the first edition.

  2. There is also certainly one where Methodist Deacon Browning realized that C.S. Lewis provided the theological rudiments of a multiverse-friendly progressive Christianity in his Narnia books back in the 1950s.

    Or where the first Viking Lander mission included a sub-mission to drop a fine china teapot into orbit around the sun between Earth and Mars, just to mess with Bertrand Russell.

    The fulfillment of all possibility is so very entertaining. ;)

  3. Yes, it is. Like all pleasurable exercise of the imagination. When I was a child I loved imagining that Narnia was real. Now I enjoy imagining even more plausible and richly complex scenarios. And I find I can enjoy them even when I know that the probability of their existence, even in a multiverse, at least as described by Deutsch, is still essentially nil.

    I mean, surely a multiverse-friendly progressive Christian theology doesn't allow for every possible work of fiction to be real in some other parallel universe, does it? A multiverse where EVERYTHING happens seems to me to be infinitely cruel and unjust.

    But thinking about this also made me curious about your multiverse defense of Anselm's ontological argument. It seems to imply that God could exist in some subset of possible universes. But if God is limited in that way, then he doesn't really fit the definition anymore, does he? He's not The Creator anymore, but just more like a vastly powerful but finite creature. Maybe I'm misunderstanding?

  4. As opposed to our little slice of spacetime, which you feel is beneficent and just, eh? ;)

    When it comes to Anselm 2.0 and the finiteness of God, I would tend to think of such a state of being as requiring a rather different physics than we experience in our universe, to the point at which the laws and structures of our spacetime would not be particularly relevant. Why would such a being be limited in any categorical way, or bounded according to the frameworks by which we understand finitude?

    I also tend to conceptualize that state of being as something roughly akin to a sentient reality engine, the source of not just our universe, but all others. But here I'm stretching my little primate brain and the bounds of language a bit past their limit.

  5. Well, of course I don't think our universe is beneficent and just. But then I'm just a humble atheist, so I don't expect it to be. But I also don't think our universe is the worst of all possible worlds. I can imagine all sorts of horrible hells. If I believed that every possible hell I could imagine -- as well as another infinitely vast variety that were worse than I could image -- if I believed all of those actually existed, then I would say that the multiverse was not merely as unjust as our own little province, but infinitely unjust.

    I mean, I'm not even saying that I categorically disbelieve in such a multiverse. I am agnostic about it. I am more agnostic about it than I am about God, but only because I see Deutsch's point that some sort of multiverse can explain quantum mechanics, and do so better than any other explanation we have. (Though I am less agnostic about a multiverse in which there exist supreme fictions such as your Anselm 2.0 implies.)

    But what I don't get is how one could believe in such a multiverse AND believe in a benevolent/omniscient/omnipotent creator. How is there justice when literally everything happens? In such a theistic multiverse, it would seem that every soul necessarily commits every sin it is possible for them to commit, and an infinite number of iterations never repent. For everyone who is saved, there is a real looking-glass version who is damned. And, if you believe in a multiverse explanation of free-will/determinism, then the damned are without free will, because they are merely the versions of us who were predestined to to damnation. Free-will only emerges when you have the multiverse as a whole. So how can this be the creation of a benevolent deity? I don't have to answer this question, because I don't accept its premises, but it seems to me that you do.

    As for your Anselm 2.0, my understanding of it is this:

    • Anselm 1.0: God is defined as the greatest blobbity blah blah blah, and since something that exists is greater than something that does not, then God must exist. QED.
    • Atheist: Superman is defined as the greatest possible man, blobbity blah, therefore Superman must exist. Repeat for all other such fictions. So Anselm 1.0 "proves" that all manner of fictions exist, which means that it "proves" too much, so Anselm is refuted.
    • Anselm 2.0: Ah, but you are forgetting the multiverse! In which all things are possible! Therefore Superman does exist in some portion of multiverse, and all those other things besides! Therefore, if you accept the multiverse, then you have no coherent objection to Anselm 1.0, and therefore you must admit that God exists. QED.

    Am I missing something?

  6. Always looking on the bright side of life, eh, Browning? Of course, the scenario you propose would also require you to imagine all sorts of marvelous and benign paradises...but you choose not to, because it wouldn’t work well with your efforts at atheistic theodicy.

    I do appreciate your ceding the central ethical point that both I and Deutch are making, albeit from our differing perspectives: Free-will coexists with determinism in a multiverse taken as a whole. Further...and listen again to Deutch on gives our choices and actions infinite weight, as they influence the nature and form of the universe in which we exist. So if we are created free, and our decisions have bearing on the overall nature of being, why then is it the fault of the Creator when we vote for Palin in 2012? It’s not. We are, in essence, choosing to participate in the creation of the “hells” you describe, or to play our tiny, tiny roles in bending our spacetime towards deeper graciousness.

    Justice in a multiverse would then be, from a theist’s standpoint, no different from that in a single linear spacetime. Actions are their own blessing or curse, depending on their impact on others. The atheistic counterargument against this has always rested on linear determinism and the blobbity blah unfairness of it all. But if all possible things are, and choice is maintained, that counterargument is gutted.

    As for what you’re missing, my response would simply be: an answer.

  7. Well, I do think I am looking on the bright side of things, as best I can. I think the godless universe we have is incredibly beautiful. It is also unthinkably awful, but that just serves to make the beautiful parts that much more so. We are so lucky to be alive at all. And I am all about those autotuned Carl Sagan videos. But I'm under no obligation though to see only the bright side of other people's weird cosmo-theologies.

    My point was that the multiverse that YOU propose (unless I misunderstand you) would be infinitely unjust, because infinite innocent sentient beings born into an infinite variety of hells. And yeah I can, and certainly have, imagined some of those parallel paradises. But don't they just make things worse? It's like someone saying "It's totally fair that y'all live in agonizing poverty, because.. check this!... our fabulous wealth makes it all balance out!"

    My pointing that out does not mean that I am some hopeless Eeyore, willfully gloomy because it helps me stay an atheist. Not at all. Because I don't think a Anselm 2.0 multiverse scenario is necessary, or even plausible. It doesn't worry me because I don't see any reason to believe in it. But it seemed as if you do believe in it, or something like it. Which I think is confusing. I really just want to understand.

    Just when I think I sort of get it, it stops making sense to me. It seems to imply something along these lines:
    Because this is a multiverse, everything that can happen, actually does happen. Consequently, everything that is possible is multiversally inevitable. God made the multiverse this way, and it's good that he did, because it means we can have free will and determinism, which means that the multiverse is ultimately just and completely rational. Therefore, literally everything that possibly can happen is ultimately just. Like the man says, it's all good. It's a panglossian multiverse. No, wait. That can't be right....

    I mean, I don't think I'm being stupid or unreasonable. Maybe it's all just the same old arguments writ large. It's a fallen multiverse. Tsunamis and cholera epidemics are either our fault, or they are good for our souls in some beautifully mysterious way. No less so for hell-worlds, where it's all cholera tsunamis all the time.

    But then I think there are some special problems. I'd be curious, for instance, to know what you thought about the universes where Jesus beats some poor old money-changer to death with a broken table-leg. Do those universes not exist because they're impossible? Does that mean that Jesus has the same free will as the rest of us? Is that just one of the "mysteries?" Maybe we live in some one-off universe where Jesus went nuts one day and used his magic to kill a perfectly good fig tree in an irrational fit of pique, because he was hungry and figs were out of season. Or where he told everyone that it was cool for people to perform exorcisms in his name. Maybe this is just not one of Jesus' better universes. Or maybe it's just a universe where the Bible is all screwed up. Presumably there are universes where the scriptures are slightly, or utterly, different -- like the books in Borges' Library of Babel. In some universes, the sacred books of the true religion must be liberally sprinkled with lies, horrors, and absurdities. Could we be in one of them? How would we know?

  8. Yeah, I can cede that we can have free will and determinism, and that we can make our own hells, or subtly bend the world around us towards what you call "deeper graciousness." I don't think you have to be a theist to do so. Daniel Dennett is a leading light among the new atheists and he'll tell you the same about free will, has written books about it. The hell/grace thing is just common sense, common decency. Atheists are often all about doing everything you can to make the world a better place. You don't need God to do that. We do it because this one short life in this beautiful, awful, awesome universe is probably all we have, so you do what you can to make it count.

    Also, since you brought her up, I have to point out that you're going to have a hard time finding an atheist who is voting for Palin in 2012. I'm not saying it's God's fault if she gets elected, because I don't believe in God, but it's certainly the fault of those who do believe in God. She belongs to the Jesus people. And then I gotta live in that Palin universe, even though I voted against her? How is that fair? ;) Anyway, I'm not trying to pin Palin on you. Just thought it was funny that the one example you give of us making our own hell is one of theists making a hell that atheists have to live in.

    So it does not follow from the fact that we have free will (or some Deutschian version of it) that the universe is just. Sometimes you get hell even when you didn't deserve it, and vice versa. In fact, that seems to be the principle message of the Book of Job (at least the parts that you take seriously). Job's central poem in a nutshell: Life isn't fair, and God feels no obligation to fix it or even justify it. "I made the freaking leviathan, dude. Do you realize how impressive that makes me? That thing breaths fire! I don't have to explain myself to you." Read "God" as a poetic personification of the indifferent universe and it makes perfect sense to me as an allegory about what the universe is really like, especially for an atheist. Except that the universe isn't quite so long-winded and boastful. It just kind of stands there not giving a shit while you stare at it and wonder.

  9. By the way, I'm sorry to hear about your struggles to save your congregation, and I mean that sincerely. That sounds really stressful, and I can empathize with that -- one philosophical primate to another. It may sound strange coming from me, but I wish you the best in that regard.

    I hope my pestering you with this stuff is not unwelcome. I don't mean it to be hostile. I really am interested in understanding your thinking. It's fascinating and provoking. Also, I am one of those atheists who joyfully celebrates Christmas, so I want to wish you and your family a merry one.

  10. Is the multiverse necessary? Possibly. Plausible? Yes. Provable? Not in any empirical way, by necessity. Quod erat demonstrandum. You are justifiably agnostic about it’s existence. But if you're agnostic on that must be consistent, mustn’t one?

    Speaking of consistency, I will endeavor not to mention the dissonance between your saying that in our universe the “unthinkably awful just serves to make the beautiful parts that much more so” and then saying that the existence of more just and gracious universes would “just make things worse.” That would be catty. Oh. Ooops. Mea culpa. ;)

    Universes where Jesus is a bastard? Hmmm. Isn't he sorta already in this one? What about ones where he's made of chocolate, Waits Be Praised? As a Jesus follower, those realities may be, but they don't speak to my existence right now, or the decisions I need to make to conform myself to the form of being he both taught and lived out in the slice of spacetime I inhabit.

    I am the farthest thing from dear Dr. Pangloss. Everything happens is not just, not here, and not elsewhere in God's manifold providence. There’s some nasty [poop] that goes down. But that does not mean that justice does not exist, or that it should not be the purpose towards which we direct ourselves. It does mean, however, that our choices have weight, and that our failure to choose grace and justice can mess things up considerably.

    That sense of the ethical weight of the now is something that we seem share, despite our rather considerably different views on other things. What matters for Jesus people is how we live in each and every moment of our wee little sputtering spark of temporal existence. Our actions and thoughts are infinitely important. They are our ultimate measure, etched forever into being.

  11. Oh, and thanks for the positive wishes. I do enjoy these exchanges.

    Best to you and yours this season too!

  12. Like most atheists, I am technically, philosophically agnostic, insofar as I recognize that I can't prove a negative. I remain ever open to the possibility of there being a God, or a cold fusion reactor, or a Loch Ness Monster. Just show me some evidence.

    There are also degrees of agnosticism though that pertain to the probability of something being true and the evidence for it, or lack thereof. Even His Stridency, the Arch-Atheist Dawkins, puts himself only at a 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being pure, certain disbelief in God. For me, God and Russell's teapot fall near the far disbelieving end of my agnosticism, whereas a Deutschian multiverse is more towards the middle because I am at least somewhat persuaded by his arguments in *The Fabric of Reality* (to the extent that I understand them) that the multiverse better explains quantum weirdness that any other theory we have. So I find that there are somewhat better reasons to believe in a multiverse than there are to believe in God.

    I also see a difference between the somewhat plausible Deutschian multiverse that erases the contradiction between free will and determinism (though not to my complete satisfaction), and the implausible multiverse required for Anselm 2.0. I am less agnostic about the latter.

  13. With regards to my other apparent inconsistency: The dissonance you perceive is an illusion, though I see how it seemed real to you. But I stand by both statements. It has partly to do with the absence or (alleged) presence of a divine agent. One pertains to a godless universe, and the other to a divinely designed multiverse. And it has partly to do with the fact that things are accentuated or amplified by a juxtaposition to their opposite. Good next to evil is more good. Evil next to good is more evil. These two statements are complementary, not contradictory.

  14. If you say so. If I can have my illusions, then you are more than welcome to yours. ;)

  15. Well, that's very relativistic, and it's probably a polite way of saying "Bored now." But it makes me think I should have made my case more plainly, because I think you are reasonable enough agree with me that there is no inconsistency in what I said.

    The fact that somewhere a prince is thoroughly enjoying an evening with his concubine in his sumptuous Winter Palace does not make right the suffering of the homeless amputee shivering on a steam grate. In fact, it aggravates it. It “just make things worse.” In a single theistic universe, this is one thing. The prince has only to share his wealth to set things right. But in the infinite multiverse you imagine, there are heavens and hells that never intersect. Not all such imbalances can be laid at the feet of flawed creatures caught in the middle of them. In such a scenario there are necessarily universes where the prince could not share his wealth to beggar even if he wished to. Even the suggestion that all would be made right in the end -- the last shall be first, etc -- doesn't suit my ethical intuitions, especially in a multiverse where everything literally happens. In fact, it seems particularly incoherent in a multiverse. If everything happens, then time itself is an irrelevant illusion. The whole thing might as well run backwards. In short, such a multiverse is a kind of ethical chaos. An accidental chaos is one thing, but a deliberate chaos is another.

    However, in a godless universe, there is no expectation for justice. I stand by my assertion that the beauty one finds nevertheless in such a universe is accentuated by the horrors that surround it, like an act of grace in the midst of a terrible war is greater than one at seaside picnic on pleasant day. Or similarly, a good poem can become a great poem when it you find it in the midst of your despair. It's the widow's mite, if you will. Her gift is small, but it's made large by the poverty -- the evil -- of her circumstance. If her poverty is an accident of nature, that's one thing. You can only admire her generosity. But if you were to learn that a powerful lord had contrived her poverty -- to have her serve as an object lesson, or to take part in some grand pageant that he stages for his own inscrutable reasons -- you'd rightly condemn the lord. You wouldn't praise him for causing the widow's suffering just because it made her gift seem greater. At least I wouldn't.

    So. You may have an objection to my case, but I think you'll have to agree that it cannot be that I am inconsistent. But it's Christmastime and I know you are busy, so as my gift to you, I will allow that I am very probably mistaken without requiring that you point out my error. :)

  16. The problem I have with Dawkins simplistic diagram consists of the fact that there are many possible things for which we have no evidence but can not even evaluate the plausibilty because of our ignorence.

    Of course, it is also true we can be almost certain that certain entities don't exist because they utterly conflict with our knowledge.

    This is the case for the flying spagueti monster (spagueti is a inert stuff which rapidly decomposes and can not be the base of any kind of living organism, and for any type of unicorn living on our earth: will all our present knowledge of paleontology and all numerous explorations and observations that have been undertaken until now, we should have found them if they really existed.

    Now, let us consider the following possibility: among all existing universes, there exists at least one with at least one planet where yellow unicorns live: there are two basic attitudes one can have:

    - the likelilhood may be evaluated

    one can then believe with 90%, 60% , 20%, 1% and so on of probability that this creature does exist somewhere

    - one can also be strong agnostic about it and either believe that the probability is not calculable or that this concept would be meaningless due to our lack of knowledge.

    I rather tend towards the second position. While it may be unlikely that an unicorn would evolve on an other planet, it is not more unlikely than the evolution of horses on our own, and unlikely things happen every day and every minute !

    In fact, if I was convinced that the multiverse version of Deutsch is true, then I would believe with certainty that such yellow unicorns do exist, for in this case all possible physical configurations are realized !

    But to be honest, I am quite not sure there are parallel universes, let alone ones where all situations (or many) become possible, so I can not know if such entities or many other ones really exist or not.

    If someone came up and told me he is almost certain that there exists somewhere a yellow unicorn, then I would expect of him to bear the whole burden of proof.

    But the same thing holds for an "a-unicornist" who boldly claims he know beyond every possible doubts there exists absolutely no unicorn in every existing universe: he would also clearly have the burden of proof to show me why this is so.