Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Multiverse and Consequences

The thought hummed insistently in my head, demanding a place in my already over-dense, convoluted sermon.

It was a thought about the multiverse, which continues to fascinate me over all these years, but which I endeavor not to shoehorn into every other Sunday because, well, c'mon.   Specifically, it was a thought about the impact of multiversal cosmology on consequentialist ethical frameworks, which is exactly why people show up to a little country church on Sunday.

Golly, I sure do hope pastor's talking about multiversality and consequentialist ethical frameworks again this Sunday!  I just feel so blessed by the love of Jesus every time he mentions Everettian quantum branching.


But the the idea came to me nonetheless, as I considered how we make moral decisions.  There are two primary schools of ethical thinking, two ways of approaching our moral choices.

The first is what they call "deontological ethics."  That means you always act in a particular way, because it is your duty.  That duty is the same, no matter what.   Tell the truth, always.  Care for others, always.  Love your neighbor, always and no matter what.  "This I do, though the heavens may fall," or so my fierce, brilliant ethics professor used to put it.

The second, and the more common these days, are "consequentialist ethics."  Consequentialism takes context into consideration, and impact.  Our duty is to the truth, we might say.  But consequentialism responds.  Would you speak truth, it asks, if Nazis were at the door asking about the Jews you were hiding in the basement?

Or to use a non-Nazi analogy, would you speak truth, consequentialism queries, if your wife asks you if she looks fat in those pants?

One must think about the consequences.  Lie if you must, rather than cause harm.

Consequentialist ethics seem wiser, more grounded in reality, more in keeping with the flexibility of our ethically malleable age.

But the idea that reality might be fundamentally unpredictable messes with that.  It isn't just that you might be wrong about the outcome.  It's that you cannot meaningfully say there is a single outcome.

Because a multiverse is non-linear.  Our choices have not one possible outcome, but a functional infinity of all possible outcomes.  Some are more probable than others, but in a multiverse, all are made manifest.

And if my choices have a near-infinity of possible consequences, how and why would a consequentialist ethic be meaningful?  Sure, my actions might have a particular outcome.  Those Nazis could go away because I lie.  But they are equally likely to stay anyway, rendering my lie moot.  Or my confronting them might stir a moral argument that resonates outward, bringing in trusted neighbors, the genesis of a local counter-movement.  Or the moment after I lie, a large asteroid comes barreling in, causing the extinction of the human race.  My lie means nothing to the race of sentient cockroaches that ultimately inherit the earth.

That is not to say we should not consider likely outcomes of our actions.

But if creation is a multiverse, and there is no one linear sequence of outcomes, consequentialism seems to find less purchase as a moral framework.

That's not quite how Jesus put it.  But it's close enough.