Friday, October 1, 2010

How God Plays Dice

The first of the challenges to faith posed by M-Theory is the apparent randomness in the structures underlying the universe.  The Grand Design takes a good hard look at quantum mechanics, and notes that the model that best represents the nature of subatomic particles suggests that they seem to exist everywhere they could possibly exist.   Meaning, if a subatomic particle is moving from point A to point B, it does so in a straight line.  It also does so in a curve.  And a wildly squiggly and embarrassingly unfunny Family Circus kid-coming-home line.   It also does so by way of taking a bus up to New York to see a revival of Cats, and then coming back.  All of those options occur, but only one is observed.  For subatomic particles, there's no one, simple, straightforward, deterministic path or location in space time.  What ends up "happening" is completely unpredictable.

This means, according to Hawking and Mlodinow's interpretation of the bleeding edge of physics, that our spacetime is fundamentally random.  There is no design, because everything that has arisen has done so because of tiny random variances at the subatomic level, and their echoes in the larger visible structures of our universe.  Einstein once famously rejected the idea of randomness at the foundation of all existence by saying," God does not play dice with the universe." 

Well, says Hawking, hate ta tell ya, but that's exactly what is going on.  God does play dice with the universe.  The whole thing's a crapshoot.

So according to M-theory, everything is random, and could just as easily not have occurred.  Therefore, one might argue, the existence of a Creator who has an intent for our universe or provides purpose and meaning in life can't be defended.  It's just, like, totally random, dude.

But here, Hawking seems to have forgotten the most revolutionary assertion of M-theory.   The universe is not just our time and space.  It is every possible time and space.  It includes realities that may not involve time at all.  It involves dimensions in which the laws of our physics are replaced by other, impossibly alien laws.  It may even involve versions of our own space time in which Glenn Beck is a force for good, though that stretches even my credulity.

Sure, God plays dice.  But according to M-Theory, he rolls a one.  And a six.  And snake eyes.  And gets a Yahtzee.  And makes his saving throw against poison, even though he's only a level one magic user with a constitution of 5.

A multiverse in which every potential possibility is by necessity expressed is cannot be described as random.  It is, rather, complete.  It is utterly thorough.

Precisely what one might expect when an omniscient and omnipotent player sits down at the table to play.


  1. I don't see how a multiverse in which every possible thing happens has any more "purpose" than a single universe in which only random things happen.

    To use an old theist argument-from-design analogy: If I come across a beautifully painted portrait of the Mona Lisa, I can assume that there was a designer. This is no less true if the image is depicted not in paint and canvas, but in a blob of a billion pixels. It could, for example, be depicted in a roughly circular arrangement of colored grains of sand. (That would be awesome.)

    But if I find a roughly similar blob of pixels that depicts nothing but purely random noise, then I need no designer to explain it. It's just a pile of sand.

    But now suppose that instead of a single image or a random noise, I discover a multi-blob, if you will -- a blob in which the random arrangement of pixels randomly changes constantly, forever, such that in the fullness of time we can expect every possible arrangement to appear at least once eventually, temporarily. There will be a vast fraction that look like the Mona Lisa to varying degrees. Assuming that the Mona Lisa is not the epitome of all possible beauty, there will necessarily be paintings that will exceed the Mona Lisa in beauty. There will also be dogs playing poker. Drawn badly. And the most vile, degrading, sadistic pornography. There will be every possible image, and all of them will be merely a vanishingly small fraction of the whole, which will be mostly indistiguishable blobs of noise.

    Is a designer necessary for such a thing? I'd say no. Even the most beautiful portraits that appear are just as random as the randomest noise. I suppose it might have a kind of designer, one who has set in motion a kind of avant garde John Cage experiment in non-intentional art, but, if I had no other evidence of such a hands-off creator, such a random blob of pixels might be just what it seems, some kind kind of pure accident.

    Don't you agree?

  2. Okay, so an animated multi-blob randomly arranges its pixels into an image of the Mona Lisa. How is it recognized as beautiful? More to the point, WHO recognizes it as beautiful?

  3. @skipj.

    For the purposes of my thought experiment, no one need ever recognize the beauty (or ugliness) of the sand blob. We just know (standing outside the thought experiment, looking in) that given enough time, every possible picture will eventually appear. The fact that all possible pictures appear does not imply that a designer is necessary for them to appear. Don't you agree?

    If your point is that my scenario is an imperfect analogy for a multiverse that contains conscious beings such as us, then, yes, of course. All analogies are imperfect, and it's difficult to imagine a pile of sand in which certain subsets of sand grains become conscious of their environment, etc.

    But given a big enough multiverse in which every possible thing happens, then consciousness -- including an aesthetic sense that recognizes beauty -- does not require designer, anymore than the sandblob did. It is just another arrangement of "sand" in an infinite, or nearly infinite, array of possible arrangements.

  4. I have no problem with a universe that functions on the basis of randomness.

    I believe God uses the random nature of the Universe to intervene without destroying it. He hides his interaction between the the random tosses of the dice. Like a code that looks like gibberish, without the decryption key you can't tell the difference between random noise and intelligible Word.

    Some are given moments of Holy Spirit intervention when they are given the decryption key and allowed to see God in the midst of the noise.

    But as John points out, Faith is when you allow the randomness be, and just let God hide.

  5. @Jodie.

    In a multiverse in which all possibilities occur, there is no such thing as "his interaction." Interaction under such circumstances is identical to non-interaction. Even the moments when you perceive "the Holy Spirit," there are necessarily just as many, if not more universes, where you don't perceive it, and there is no act required of God for you to experience that sensation.

    Another analogy: Suppose I claimed to be a great cookbook author. Here is my book: Take every possible ingredient and combine it with every other possible ingredient in every possible proportion and combination and every possible cooking process for every possible duration. If you follow these instructions to the letter, I guarantee that some of the results will be delicious. Now, I ask you, am I not the most wonderful, perfect cookbook author that can be imagined? No? Why not?

  6. @ Browning: Assuming there can be no interaction and suggesting that every possibility is actualized is internally inconsistent. But you seem to recognize this, so we'll move along.

    Actually, the only rational answer to your cookbook analogy would be yes, of course. If you wanted to lay claim to being the most astounding cookbook author conceivable, that would be necessary. Every recipe, for everything that could ever possibly be prepared? Honey chil', you can't beat that with a stick.

    Not, of course, that you'd want to eat all of it. I'd personally give a pass to the marmoset feces and uranium 238 smoothie, although I understand in some spacetimes it's quite the delicacy.

    Here, though, we are free beings, set into this astounding existence with the right to make our own menu selections. And, though you deny it, we also get some pretty clear nudgings towards those recipes that aren't just good for us, but also positively scrumdiddlyumptious.

  7. In "The Grand Design" Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same eternal event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the seeing which differs.

    In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents.
    (Two paragraphs from my e-book on comparative mysticism)

  8. @David.

    "Assuming there can be no interaction and suggesting that every possibility is actualized is internally inconsistent."

    My point exactly. It's not only consistent, but necessary. You can't have a complete multiverse AND an interventionist God. At best you can have a John Cage-like deist God. That's a weird thing to believe in with no evidence (that is, "on faith"), and I would also say completely at odds with the the vast majority of theist beliefs.

    I don't see how such a God could be considered benevolent. In fact, from the perspective of finite creatures such as we, I would consider him to be evil, by virtue of his literal indifference to us. It would necessarily be his intention that for the sake of completeness near infinite number of sentient beings suffer and die without any hope of redemption. There would necessarily be worlds in which there were no "pretty clear nudgings" in the right direction, and/or no possible paths to get there. There would be worlds where Jesus was evil, and there was no "Good News."

    (We've had this conversation before in the context of your Anselm 2.0, and I know the next page in your playbook: you accuse me of being a pessimist. "Always seeing the bright side, eh, Browning? How can Cage-Deist God be evil when his hells are balanced with heavens?" To which my answer is : "How can anarcho-capitalism be evil when the suffering of the poor and oppressed are balanced with the pleasures of the wealthy elites?" )

    "Actually, the only rational answer to your cookbook analogy would be yes, of course."

    See, that is a totally weird answer to me. It seems completely obvious to me that I have not written the greatest possible cookbook imaginable in these blog comments. If you think I have, then all I can say is: You're crazy. And you're welcome.

  9. I'm still at "the marmoset feces and uranium 238 smoothie"--

    I am beginning to appreciate the nice universe we have here... unless this is all just a dream of mine.

  10. @David.

    Looking back, I see now that that I misunderstood what you were trying to say in your last comment. I misread this sentence to say the opposite of what it does say.

    "Assuming there can be no interaction and suggesting that every possibility is actualized is internally [in]consistent."

    I somehow missed the negating prefix in the brackets. So we are in even less agreement than I thought. Sorry for the confusion.

    I think I see where you are coming from though: If everything happens then one thing that must happen is that God intervenes from time to time in the affairs of mortals.

    But this is only makes sense superficially. Once you've gotten your head around the idea of a multiverse, it's actually nonsense.

    After God creates a "complete," "utterly thorough" multiverse, he has nothing else to do. He can never decide to perform a miracle or bestow a moment of grace on someone, because he has already "decided" at the start of the universe to simultaneously do that and its opposite. In other words, he has "decided" nothing except that he will decide nothing. By allowing everything to happen, there is nothing that he does or can do.

    And this is why he not necessary. A complete multiverse with a creator is identical to one without a creator.

    This is the problem with my "perfect" cookbook as well. It's why it's absurd for me to claim to have authored a cookbook at all. My "cookbook" is completely superfluous to the set off all possible recipes, and only a fool would congratulate me on my perfect God-like culinary expertise.

  11. @ Browning: So you can see the rational and cosmological foundation for an Enlightenment Deist God, eh? Excellent. Not where I end up, but it's a start. ;)

    So we're not quite there yet with the cookbook. Let's think of it in terms of storytelling. If you're making the claim to be the most marvelous storyteller possible, then presumably you know 'em all. And can tell 'em all. Some, like that hour-long ramble Great Aunt June told in her nasal monotone about her trip to the doctor to have a boil lanced, well, they wouldn't be great. Others, like the loss-song of aaaa-eee-OOarrr, would only be comprehensible to other humpbacks.

    But some would be aching and perfect and make you laugh and weep and leave you wiser. And there'd always be a better one still.

    The storyteller who knew them all, and could tell them all, well, they'd have my attention.

  12. @David.

    I am saying that if the complete multiverse has a God then he must be a Deist God. And I also so think he must be evil, in the sense that he is completely indifferent to our suffering. But there is no good reason to believe in such a God beside faith. And that is a completely weird thing to have faith in. Does that still sound like a "start"?

    Re: cookbook. I don't see how changing the medium to storytelling brings anything new to the discussion, but it doesn't take anything away from my point. It's all really just a variation on Borges Library of Babel or the old saw about the infinite monkeys and their typewriters. But monkeys are expensive to feed and clean up after, so let's simplify it. Imagine a simple, insentient computer program that flashes onto a screen every combination of every glyph of Times New Roman, randomly, forever. You could write the program in Basic. Is that computer program the greatest possible novelist/poet/playwright/cookbook author/philosopher/theologian? I would say no. Would you say yes?