Parallel universes and angels on pins

Readers of this week’s Onion were shocked to discover our universe is the backstory for a detective series called Hard Case in a parallel universe.When the series is cancelled, we will simply snap out of existence.

I know this isn’t pleasant news, and many readers will be in denial since we know that the end of the universe depends on Jesus finally deciding to show up again and tell all the unbelievers, “You’re screwed; we were right.”

The article may seem preposterous to some, but it is well-grounded in modern cosmology which suggests that ours is only one of many parallel universes, which may or may not connect. The most extreme versions (and most popular with the general public) suggest that whenever an event with more than one possible outcome occurs, the universe splits to pursue each outcome.

Readers versed in the literature of modern cosmology (which is considered a branch of science) generally have no problem processing this information, even if they balk at the most extreme possibilities. The theories are, after all, science and science is proved rather than something we take on faith.

Many Christians, however, find such ideas bizarre to the extreme. The idea of many universes spinning infinitely more universes seems outrageous. Much the way early rationalists found the idea of a universe filling with an infinite number of souls prior to life and in the afterlife outrageous.

The Onion article got me to thinking, however. As a writer I realize that the problem of infinite universes is compounded by the existence of art, music and fiction (whether it be novels, plays or film). At almost every stage in a musical score, a painting. every word of a poem and every plot twist in fiction, the author could in fact have created a different work.

Since we now know that thoughts are inevitably linked to brain states and structures (although we aren’t even close to knowing how) every artistic decision corresponds to a change in the physical world. Even if we don’t want to spin a new universe for fictional plot twists, we have to spin a new universe for corresponding brain states.

As a consequence we end up with infinite universes within infinite universes, or the equivalent of an open loop in computer code. Or perhaps Plato’s third man gone viral.1 Sooner or later the sequences can’t be stopped from proliferating forever.

Wow, you might say. What’s the point of this? The point is that scientists tend to reduce the choice between science and faith to a single logical proposition, a proposition known as Occam’s Razor. Basically the argument suggests that given a choice between two explanations, the simplest is preferable.

To scientists a big bang and subsequent evolution through random change and mutation seems like a much more simple explanation than a divine being who guides the universe. The problem is, simple to whom? To many religious thinkers, one cause (God) is a simpler explanation than a complex chain of random events. It’s simple math.

The problem with Occam’s Razor is that it is merely a window into the mind of the thinker. “Simple” is a relative value. There are too many ways to define it, and yet it seems, on the surface, to be a clear cut principle.

Invoking Occam’s Razor creates a number of additional problems for science. It isn’t empirical. There is no way to create a test to prove or disprove the fact that the simplest explanation is the best. Many would suggest that science is filled with explanations that are far from the simplest, including relativity, string theory, variable speeds of light and quantum mechanics.

Nor is it science. It is a philosophical principle first adopted by Ptolemy who also came up with the idea that everything in the universe revolved around the earth (which is, admittedly, the simplest explanation if not completely wrong). It takes it’s name from a Franciscan monk to suggest that miracles are best explained by the fact that they please God.

It doesn’t get more scientific than that. 2

I have no problem with science. I think science has a legitimate claim to explaining the workings of the universe. But I think scientists and philosophers make a strategic mistake when they try to claim that science has exclusive privileges to providing those explanations. By trying to make people choose between God and science, they make it more difficult for politicians and school boards to side with science when the electorate is hostile.

It’s easy to claim the electorate is composed of morons, but they’re still morons that science has to answer to when seeking public funds for science education, stem cell research, climate change legislation or anything the Christian right believes stands in the way of faith in the public sector.

Oh, and they’re not all morons. Many are quite bright. But when told they should reject their faith or be labelled stupid, it’s only natural to get their defenses up. I certainly do.

To deny that science has any role in explaining the universe, however, does appear to be moronic. Especially when the same deniers run to the pharmacy for aspirin or climb in their cars or buckle into an airplane and trust that it stays aloft. Or wear eyeglasses, check in for heart surgery, accept pacemakers or even take antibiotics.

To acknowledge the earth circles the sun when the Bible says the sun stood still is to side with science over the Bible, but it is something Christians do every day.

As the early church never seemed to learn, in a war of ideas everybody loses. We mistakenly assume ideas are real things with a truth all their own (we can thank Plato for this). In fact ideas, theories and even beliefs are glimpses of a universe too large to comprehend, not just the laws that drive it but any divine presence behind it.

Scientists need to remember that few theories remain intact longer than than three or four centuries, and many have to be revised or even discarded in less than a generation as new information comes to our attention. Christians need to remember that Jesus claimed he was the truth, not the Bible or any of the beliefs his followers held (which almost always proved to be misguided in some way).


1The third man argument was Aristotle’s jab at Plato, who believed that things we encounter are reflections of a very real ideal (perfect form). Each of us, for example, is a reflection of the perfect human that gives meaning to us all. The third man argument suggests that if this is true, there must be a third higher form of human and individual by which both might be compared. For that higher form there must be an additional higher form. If this seems tedious to you, it’s not to people who love Plato anymore than parallel universes are tedious to scientists, or angels are tedious to many Christians.
This may be why people tend to avoid conversations with philosophers, scientists and Christians. If you don’t know what they talk about they all seem tiresome, and if you do understand you forget how tiresome you can be.back
2Before you leap to the conclusion that I have resorted to argument by slander, a strategy I often (correctly) attribute to Republicans and the Christian right, let me point out that my real argument is this: Occam’s razor can and has been used to justify a number of very unscientific conclusions. And not because it was used incorrectly.back

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