THERE’S MORE THAN ONE UNIVERSE
About 10 years ago my brother wrote a book called God, Actually, in which he argues for the existence of a Divine Being. Its content surprised many of his closest friends and family, who’d always thought of Roy as an atheist. Turned out my brother had experienced a midlife seeing of the light.
Right off the bat he makes the case for the universe being too perfectly finetuned to have occurred by chance. Yes, I know: you’ve heard it before – and so had I. And to his face I countered with all the usual objections. But one of his responses stayed with me.
“Look,” he said, “dismiss the idea of intelligent design if you like. But understand that if you do, you’ll need to embrace something truly farfetched: multiverse theory.”
And he was right. Well, maybe things aren’t quite as binary as that. But since it was first proposed in the 1950s by US physicist Hugh Everett, multiverse theory has won over a lot of high-calibre scientists, including Stephen Hawking.
Multiverse theory posits that what we think of as the universe (as everything there is) is really just one of many. The total number of universes might be finite, proponents say, or infinite. Either way, it’s a logical explanation for how it could be that the laws of our universe happen to be ideal for the formation of stars and planets, and the emergence of intelligent life. Because if you accept the notion that ours is one of many universes, and that most or all of the rest operate by a range of different laws and are, consequently, chaotic or barren, then you can get past the problem of how humanity got so impossibly lucky as to exist, except by the hand of a supernatural being.
Luke Barnes, a lecturer in physics at Western Sydney University and co-author of A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos, says we tend to assume the universe “is kind of the same wherever we look”. And based on what our most powerful telescopes tell us, that’s a reasonable assumption. “But we do wonder whether if you go far enough out, beyond what we can see, maybe conditions there are totally different,” he says.
If you take everything around you, Barnes explains in a quick and basic science lesson, and start breaking it into little pieces, eventually you get down to atoms. Atoms, in turn, can be subdivided into electrons, protons and neutrons. “And what would happen,” he says, “if these subatomic particles were a bit heavier and had slightly different properties and all that stuff? Well, basically, there are a lot of changes you could make to the fundamental ways in which our universe works, and nearly all of them ruin it for anything remotely resembling life.”
Barnes says he’s undecided on the validity of multiverse theory. Like my brother, it turns out, he’s a man of Christian faith. Unlike my brother, he thinks God and the multiverse might both exist – that they’re not mutually exclusive theories.
“If I threw a universe together at random, would I get the stuff we see around us? From the finetuning we see, it seems the answer is you’d just get a really boring universe,” Barnes says. “Well, what happens if I throw a multiverse together at random? We just don’t know the answer to that question. So, to me, the multiverse is kind of a punt into the darkness.”
Your takeout How everything came to be is the biggest question of all, yet chances are you spend very little time thinking about it – maybe, to be fair, because it’s unanswerable. But as a topic for contemplation, in our opinion, it sure trumps MAFS post-mortems and baldness treatments.
YOU’RE LIVING IN A COMPUTER-GENERATED SIMULATION
THE YEAR BEFORE LAST, riding the train to work, I thought I spotted a few rows ahead of me a girl I once knew but hadn’t seen or spoken to for five years. I could see only the back of her head and shoulders, but a few things about her appearance and posture had me convinced it was her. Then she stood up and I realised it wasn’t. No more than two minutes later, as the train pulled up at the next stop, there on the platform, clear as crystal, was the girl in question.
“Mate,” I said to a colleague later, “I think I’ve just experienced a glitch in the matrix.”
Ridiculous? Are you sure?
In 1999, The Matrix intrigued cinemagoers with the notion of a computer-generated dreamworld whose inhabitants (everyone on Earth, basically) think they’re living a free and rich life but who, in reality, are little more than brains in a vat.
“What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it,” Morpheus tells Neo. “You’ve felt it your entire life – that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”
In 2001, two years after The Matrix hit cinemas, Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has a background in theoretical physics and computational neuroscience, circulated the first draft of his “simulation argument”. He did so, he’s said since, having not even seen The Matrix. Bostrom contends that humanity will create technology enabling us
to run a huge number of highly sophisticated simulations of our evolutionary past.
And if this happens, explains Toby Walsh, scientia professor of AI at the University of NSW, “then the probability that you and I are in the real world right now, as opposed to one of the simulations, is low. We’re much more likely to be in a simulation because there can be many more simulations than there are real worlds”.
Walsh adds that “some smart people do believe this”, including Elon Musk, who in 2016 put our odds of living in a non-simulated reality at “one in billions”. Evidence for simulation theory: the steep (and probably secret) trajectory of AI research; unexplained or seemingly paranormal events (just glitches in the program?); and the very fact the concept of simulation is out there and captivating the sharpest minds.
Also in 2016, it was reported that two Silicon Valley billionaires had commissioned a team of scientists to get to work on busting us out of the matrix. On hearing this, Bostrom called it a dangerous plan: if it worked, it could be calamitous – akin to millions of us taking the red pill all at the same time.
If we’re in a simulation, I ask Walsh, what am I?
“You might just be some electrons,” he says.
His overall take on the theory?
“It’s an interesting thought experiment,” he says. “I don’t think it’s something science is going to prove or disprove. I hope we’re not in a simulation. It would be terribly disappointing to discover that we are. Why would we put up with all the cruelty in life for the occasional moments of beauty and love if it’s all just
Your takeout Keep an eye on the world’s super-geeks. In the 20th century they gave us the bomb. Thanks a lot. This century it could be uncanny simulations. The longer humanity pushes tech boundaries without destroying itself, the more likely it is we become capable of inventing a matrix. It may be too late already, of course. Or it may not be.
ALL YOU CAN KNOW FOR SURE IS THAT YOU HAVE A MIND
If you're across any philosophy at all, it’s probably “I think, therefore I am,” the immortal line of 17th-century thinker Rene Descartes, who sat down one day and tried to work out what he could be absolutely certain about. For a time, he couldn’t find a single thing. His senses often deceived him, he figured, so they couldn’t be trusted. Dreams routinely fooled him, so how could he know he wasn’t dreaming all the time?
At last, he settled on the fact of his mind’s existence as a refuge from doubt: even if some all-powerful “evil demon” were constantly deceiving him, he reasoned, he must still have a mind capable of being deceived.
Broadly, this is the basis of what’s known as solipsism: the idea that you cannot know anything beyond your own mind.
If that sounds absurd to you, fair enough. But it’s the darndest thing: some 400 years after Descartes’ musings, there is still no way of proving that solipsism is bogus. You can’t know with certainty there are other minds because you can’t experience others people’s thoughts and feelings. Even state-of-the-art brain scans can’t show that a person has internal consciousness. And if you can’t prove that other people have minds, then you can’t know they do. Other people might be just biological robots – or images in your dreams. “There are versions of solipsism that still have traction today,” says Richard Menary, professor of philosophy of mind and cognition at Macquarie University.
The dreaming problem goes way back. In the 4th century BC, a Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu, awoke from a dream in which he was a butterfly. “Now,” he said, “I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” You might have reassured Chuang that seeing as he feels like a man almost all of the time, the butterfly bit was the dream. But who knows for sure that dreaming is a fleeting departure from reality rather than a fleeting insight into it? Such thoughts have troubled thinkers through the centuries and across cultures, Menary says, and are “based on the premise that there’s some disconnect between our experience of things – or how the world appears to us – and how it really is”. The version of reality that quantum mechanics tell us is out there, for instance, is radically different to the one we perceive.
Dwelling on solipsism can still perturb Stephen Hetherington, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of New South Wales and editor of the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. “You’re in a relationship,” he says, “and yet all you think your partner can do is accept on the balance of probability that you have a mind. They can’t know with certainty that you have thoughts and feelings, let alone the nuances of them. On your worst emotional day, that could really get to you. You either turn your back on these ideas and live a normal life, or you can think about them a lot and, as Lear says, ‘that way madness lies’.”
The best defence against solipsism is a pragmatic or common-sensical approach to what constitutes knowledge, some philosophers argue. Okay, you can’t know that other minds exist or that the external world is how it appears. But lower your standard of proof a fraction and the fog clears. Perhaps you can find all the evidence you need for other (and better) minds in a book or film that runs with an idea that you’ve considered yet carries it to places you could never have reached on your own.
And while sometimes our eyes and ears deceive us, most of the time our senses seem to collaborate exquisitely to confirm a truth: you smell the heady scent of a wild beast; now you hear its roar; now you see it charging; now you feel its teeth on your throat; and your last sensation is the taste of your own blood. That’s a complete experience, where each sense backs the testimony of the others.
Your takeout: While there’s no need to tie yourself in metaphysical chains, be aware of the limitations of what you think of as knowledge.
EVERYTHING IS PREDETERMINED
My year 6 teacher sometimes broke from the curriculum to encourage us kids to think about interesting stuff. One morning he chalked this quote from As You Like It on
the blackboard: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women erely players”
“Do you think that’s right?” Mr Sumpton asked the class.
While most kids chorused yes, I remember pushing back. My initial arguments sounded feeble, even to me, but then I said, “Actors in a play can’t change what happens to them but real people can”.
Mr Sumpton looked pleased. And for a long time afterwards I assumed I’d uttered an essential truth that day. Now I’m not so sure. Determinism is the theory that everything that happens must happen as it does and could not happen any other way. That includes human actions. You think you’re making choices – about what to eat, whether to quit your job – but really everything is unfolding as it must. Determinists extend the laws of physics to humanity. They say the laws of nature act on the world according to a path determined at or by the Big Bang, and that humans are just part of physics. We experience thoughts and feelings because it’s been predetermined that we experience them when we do. We have no free will, no choice but to play out our pre-written script.
Huh? Really? Where’s the evidence?
Back in the 1980s, researchers led by Benjamin Libet at the University of California in San Francisco conducted brain studies that tossed up some remarkable results. Libet’s team found evidence of unconscious brain activity setting up participants to perform simple tasks milliseconds before they were conscious of having decided to act.
Reflecting on those results today, Macquarie University’s Menary says they suggest the thought processes we associate with decision-making “are not really the things that make any difference to our actions”. Are we really no more than instruments of physics? “If that turns out to be so, then it radically alters the way that we think about ourselves and the way that we organise our societies,” says Menary. “There’s really no point in punishing or blaming people if they have no control over what
Menary continues: “If the beginning of the universe set the causal order and the way things would have to go over billions of years, then everything we’re doing now was already causally determined by those early interactions at the birth of the universe. Working out the details of that argument are pretty hard. But roughly that’s the intellectual idea. In which case even just walking to the fridge and getting milk is, in a sense, predestined. It couldn’t have been any different. You couldn’t have gone in and picked up some orange juice.”
Unconvinced? So are a lot of neuroscientists, who reject the idea that the brain is a simple deterministic system, believing instead it’s an astonishingly complex one, where all manner of intricate interactions produce unpredictable output. “There are,” says Menary, “alternatives to the mind-blowing idea that once the universe came into being, that was it – everything has to be the way it is.”
For the University of NSW’s Hetherington, it’s productive to look at determinism from the perspective of genetics and upbringing. The “full-on, power version of free will – I am the sole architect of my life and I can do anything I set my mind to!” – clearly doesn’t bear scrutiny, he says. “No, that’s just how you feel on a good day.” And should we laud elite athletes for their achievements? Well, why should we, exactly? Bountiful fast-twitch fibres, exceptional hand-eye coordination – these are gifts. Ah, you say, but these same athletes worked their tails off to make the most of those gifts. Sure. But the formation of character is largely or entirely out of one’s control, too. And even a decision to improve one’s character stems from character.
Your takeout When you’re anxious, hum Que Será, Será. Don’t judge others too quickly or too harshly, nor be too easily impressed.
THE EARTH IS DOOMED
This isn't science fiction. It’s fact. And we’re not talking about climate-change catastrophe, nuclear apocalypse or meteor strikes.
All those things could happen. But they may not. What is certain, however, is that at some point our sun is going to die and take the Earth with it.
Here’s the deal. The sun’s fuel source is hydrogen. That hydrogen burns into helium, driving nuclear reactions that keep the sun unfathomably
hot. This heat maintains an outward-directed pressure that resists gravity.
Trouble is, the sun’s reserves of hydrogen are finite. When they expire, gravity will take charge. As the sun’s core becomes smaller and denser, its outer shell will expand to 1000 times its present size, engulfing first Mercury, then Venus, then the blue planet we call home. For any living creature, that’s curtains.
“We get fried in about five billion years. That’s the short story,” says astrophysicist Luke Barnes.
Five billion years? It’s doubtful humanity will last that long, anyway. But if we do, interplanetary relocation looks like the only option.
Your takeout Given the timeframe, it’s not quite carpe diem. More like, don’t sweat the small stuff.