Friday, February 15, 2008

The WHAT Outside

If there is a large stock of clothing, you're not surprised to find a suit that fits. If there are many universes, each governed by a differing set of numbers, there will be one where there is a particular set of numbers suitable to life. We are in that one. (Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, in Just Six Numbers)

Every now and then a universe happens. What's the big deal? A lot have happened, a lot are happening, and a lot more are going happen. All have different initial conditions and different laws. All are governed by different numbers. Only one set of numbers produces a universe with an observer.

Welcome to the second solution to the Goldilocks enigma. It addresses the statistical improbability of our universe without turning to divine providence. If the odds of a universe like ours are one in a gazillion, well, there are zillions of other universes out there. To use last week's analogy, there are zillions of other firing squads we know nothing about. In the vast majority of them, all the marksmen hit the target. In a few, a couple of marksmen miss. In a handful, the majority of marksmen miss. In one, they all miss. Simply the laws of probability.

What will the one man who survived the firing squad tell his grandchildren? What will be his story? "Somebody gave me a break" or "God had other plans" but not "It was an accident." He may fish for the reasons but he'll believe they're there. He will discount accident because he doesn't know about the other firing squads and cannot grasp the odds. Perhaps he just feels grateful and needs someone to thank.

Now think about the Cosmic Jackpot, which it seems we have hit. Solution #2 says it looks like someone made a conscious decision. It looks like there were reasons. It appears that someone wanted to give the universe an observer. But appearances are deceiving because we don't know about all the other universes. There may be an infinity of them, making up a multiverse. Most are sterile, but once in a great while one of them produces life and mind. Simply the laws of probability.

Solution #1 posited a Who outside the universe. Solution #2 posits many whats. It says there were houses in the woods that the story of Goldilocks forgot to mention. Nearly all were wrong for her. She chanced on the one that was right.

The multiverse theory wasn't developed to solve the Goldilocks enigma. In fact, the idea of many worlds goes back a long way. It was one of the reasons Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. He embraced theological heresies as well, and he believed with Copernicus that the earth traveled around the sun.

Fifty years ago physicist Hugh Everett proposed a many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which the universe sprouts countless branches with different events occurring in each. Most physicists dismissed the idea, and Everett left physics," though his thesis advisor, John Wheeler, tried to keep his idea alive.

Today, string theory and inflationary theory have gotten physicists thinking multiverse again, proposing ways that universes happen. For some, those universes remain possibilities. (Leibniz had this idea in the 17th century, saying that God chose among the possibilities.) But others say the universes actually exist, right alongside ours. Some are pictured as bubbles popping out of an eternally inflating space. I see Goldilocks' house standing in a row of condos.

On the Goldilocks map, the multiverse position lies close to the designer position. There is no evidence for those condos, or those bubbles, or any of those other universes. If no one has seen a Who outside the universe, no one has seen a what either. The Goldilocks Enigma is about an observer who is not in a position to observe the outside.

What, then, is left for this observer? What kind of knowing? Speculation? Conjecture? Inference? If you believe the equations in the bubble universe are real, the best descriptor is faith. Faith was part of solution #1. Faith is part of #2. If the cosmos has an outside, it's seems the only way to get there.

P.S. Billy Grassie, founder of Metanexus, offers another layman's take on the multiverse here. A "cosmotheological" view can be found here.

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