In a recent Washington Post review of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, The Grand Design (Bantam 2010), physicist James Trefil summarizes how the authors answer this question: Where did our lawful universe come from?:
Our current best description of the physics of this event, they explain, is the so-called “M-theories,” which predict that there is not a single universe (the one we live in) but a huge number of universes. In other words, not only is the Earth just one of several planets in our solar system and the Milky Way one of billions of galaxies, but our known universe itself is just one among uncounted billions of universes. It’s a startling replay of the Copernican Revolution.
The conclusions that follow are groundbreaking. Of all the possible universes, some must have laws that allow the appearance of life. The fact that we are here already tells us that we are in that corner of the multiverse. In this way, all origin questions are answered by pointing to the huge number of possible universes and saying that some of them have the properties that allow the existence of life, just by chance.
In other words, anything seemingly mysterious or designed in our universe is only apparent. Move along. There’s nothing to see at the ‘ontological mystery’ level. We are improbable, but nevertheless inevitable, products of chance.
For this thesis to work, however, some version of string theory must be true (“M-theories” are based in string theory), and there must also be some mechanism that multiplies and varies universes.
Maybe black holes? The ‘black holes are portals to new universes’ thesis can be found here.
But let’s grant Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s thesis: we live in a completely godless universe in the midst of other godless universes that span before and behind us forever and ever.
Why does this make me uneasy?
I’m thinking of lines from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”:
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.
A dove-house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro’ all its regions.
A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
In the context of this new book, I would read Blake’s lines as tropes for the human spirit: what does it mean to cage free will in determinate physical laws and declare to one’s soul that the universe multiplies its godlessness in all directions?
Doesn’t this starve the soul and predict the ruin of the human state?
Maybe strict naturalism is true—I suspect that it is—but what are the consequences to the psyche of concluding this definitively? I’m thinking of something that GK Chesterton wrote in the second chapter of his book, Orthodoxy:
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in the earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them.
If Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s thesis of the godless multiverse is right, we need to take it seriously, for we are confronted with a serious existential problem: where can a person wander for poetic sustenance and refreshment in such a multiverse?
Nietzsche? Nonself Buddhist practice? I Love Lucy reruns?
The little self (or no self!) of the atheist multiverse obviously sucks. By contrast, most people intuit their own contra-causal freedom, and feel in themselves something large and overgoing; a “big self” that fits into an ontological mystery, a “grand design.”
And transcendent religions answer to this intuition; they say:
You’re not crazy to feel this way: life really is more than news, weather, and sports. And have we got some grand narratives to share with you!
In other words, the grand designs or narratives that we care about are not the universe’s; they are ours, and the ones related to us, and the one’s generated by minds like our own (such as God’s mind). But if there is no author responsible for what the universe is doing, then the universe is just one damn thing after another. We admire James Joyce and read his books because we perceive behind each word an author; but if we discovered that Joyce’s “Araby,” however beautiful a short story, was actually generated by chance, what meaning could we draw from it? For meaning, we would have to look elsewhere.
And so, in the choice between a universe of genuinely grand design—one with an author behind it—and the atheist multiverse dependent on dicing time, it seems to me, as an agnostic, that most people will decline to play Esau, exchanging a hopeful inheritance and narrative, even if ultimately illusory, for so cold a bowl of chance-generated gruel. Religions of transcendence, and their narratives—however implausible, and even ridiculous—aren’t going away anytime soon because they function as a block to the full recognition of our nothingness: that we are lost in space, and there is no meaning to it whatsoever.
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, given its distressing thesis, ought better to have been titled, No Purpose Here; Keep Busy.
Here’s Marina and the Diamonds: