A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Lion, The Klingon, and The Carpenter's Son: Is Our Universe Only Part of a Multiverse?

We have learned a lot since God humbled Job by daring him to comprehend how Orion and the Pleiades held together. But some scientists and philosophers say our idea of the universe is still too small for the infinite mind of God.

"Creation is more vast than we've ever understood," says Gerald Cleaver, a physics professor at Baylor University. "We as humans have gone through stages, understanding reality to be much larger than it was before."

We first expanded our understanding of the cosmos from a single planet with an intriguing, sparkling sky overhead, to a system of planets circling the sun, then to a galaxy of stars. Now we know that our galaxy, comprising a hundred billion stars, is one part of a universe that includes immense superstructures containing thousands of galaxies—"Great Walls," astronomers call them, millions of light-years across. Imagining this expanse shames some of our finest minds into Job-like awe. Cleaver and others believe we might have to widen our view yet again.

"The vastness of reality makes me appreciate the vastness of the Creator," says Robin Collins, a philosophy professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. "I come into contact with it through just thinking about the universe itself. It serves as sort of an icon for me."

Cleaver and Collins say we might have a clearer answer than ever to God's later, more basic question for Job: Do you know the laws of the heavens? (38:33).

Cleaver works in a branch of theoretical physics called string theory, specifically M-Theory—the same theory that gives physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking the confidence, in his recent book with Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, to declare philosophy dead and God unnecessary.

"To me [M-Theory] offers a Christian God whose creative ability is much larger than we ever could imagine before," Cleaver says.

At first, string theory at its simplest had a lyrical—or at least musical—explanation. Every particle in the universe was a tiny, one-dimensional string, and different particles existed because of the different ways a string could vibrate. Physicists say that, just as different vibrations produce different notes on a violin or cello, the vibrations of a string could produce an electron, a quark, a neutrino, and so on. That, the theory said, was how the universe worked.

Those were the days. By the mid-1990s, debates over the exact properties of strings had created five competing string theories. Princeton University's Edward Witten came up with a way to stitch them together, but the result was not really a "string" theory anymore. A new, single theory arose, called M-Theory, which remains so sketchy that theorists don't agree on what the M stands for. It might be membrane.

In the old string-theory days, many theorists had come to believe that space had ten dimensions—the three directions that we see, with time as a fourth dimension, then six curled-up spatial directions that are too small to see unless you happen to be a string. M-Theory added an eleventh dimension, in which a lot seemed to be going on. In addition to one-dimensional strings, the eleventh dimension revealed multi-dimensional objects dubbed membranes (branes for short). Hidden from us with our three-dimensional perception, branes could be as small as a string or as large as a universe. In fact, some have suggested that our universe is a massive brane inside a much larger reality.

The violin metaphor doesn't really seem to encapsulate all this. But if experiments prove it accurate, M-Theory might solve several technical problems that have previously kept scientists from creating a unified "Theory of Everything." At the moment, M-Theory is the best chance scientists have for arriving at a complete picture of the universe. Some M-Theorists, Cleaver included, think ultimately it will take us even further: that our entire universe—planets, stars, Great Walls, and all—is just a "bubble" on an ocean of existence covered with many more like it.

These aren't Star Trek-style mirror universes, in which duplicates of each one of us live on parallel Earths where Hitler won the war or the Twin Towers never fell. The multiverse made possible in M-Theory predicts an incredibly diverse array of possible universes with different sets of physical laws—maybe as many as 10500 possible realities. We likely cannot ever reach them, and only a few would be hospitable to human life. Some suggest that universes are continually created, and maybe destroyed, as branes collide with one another.

According to Hawking, the multiverse eliminates the need for God. "M-Theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing," he writes in The Grand Design. "Their creation did not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law."

But Collins says Hawking can't escape God that easily: If the universe arose from the laws of physics, then who designed the laws of physics? Why does the multiverse work the way it does? Trying to apply science to the question of God, Collins said, "is where scientists are way overstepping their area of competence."

"One of the problems with those arguments is it really puts God … in a very small box," Cleaver says. "It portrays God as someone who can only fill in the gaps that science can't explain. As theists, we need to perceive God as the primary source, the fundamental laws of physics as the secondary."

To Cleaver, M-Theory's multiverse, with its dizzying variety, unending moments of new creation, and perhaps infinite scope, makes perfect sense as the work of "a God of the infinities, who creates eternally." If God is truly eternal, infinite, and self-consistent, Cleaver wrote in a 2006 paper, "We should expect God to create eternally and infinitely, or not at all."

A scientist stepping on philosophy's turf? Maybe. But Collins expressed similar thoughts.

"Paul says in Romans 1 that creation manifests the eternal attributes of God—God's eternal and infinite power," Collins says. "You may expect an infinitely creative being to create more than one universe—in fact, many, and maybe more kinds of realities."
You can read Trevor Persaud's entire article, "Christ of the Klingons: A Physicist and a Philosopher Envision God's Design in the Beautiful Equations of String Theory," here.

HT: David Opderbeck


Country Parson said...

As a reader of most of Polkinhorne's books, though not necessarsily understanding all of it, I am grateful for this concise review of M Theory. As it is, I am writing this comment on my iPad through my new wireless keyboard, and I don't understand that either.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I am a huge fan of Polkinghorne. So, I have considered getting an iPad. Do you have any preliminary thoughts?

Country Parson said...

I've had my iPad for a year and love it. It does not replace a computer, but it does so much that I use the computer a good deal less. I've got books from Apple, Amazon and Barnes and Noble that make traveling a lot less bulky. With both WiFi and 3G I can log onto the Internet most anywhere. We are off to SE Asia on Tuesday and I'll leave the laptop at home. The bible in many translations, lectionary and BCP are all on it. I am not a fan of movies or television, but my wife is and uses hers to watch things that she likes. I charged the battery yesterday morning and still have 81% left as of tonight. Having said all that, it is an expensive toy. That's important to remember.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks for the review. Have a wonderful trip!