If there were an infinite number of You scattered around the cosmos, would this life of Yours still matter?(More)

Science, Exceptionalism, and the Meaning of Life

This week Morning Feature will consider a number of scientific questions with political and social implications. Today we ponder physicist Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality and what multiple universes would imply for our sense of meaning. Tomorrow we’ll explore the Republican Party’s acceptance of the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory in response to the scientific consensus on climate change. Saturday we’ll conclude with animal consciousness and the role of science in a democratic society.

How Many Are You?

You may think of yourself as ordinary, or exceptional, or ordinary in most ways and exceptional in a few others. Regardless, you probably think of yourself as unique. Yes, you share some common traits and interests with most people, and share less common ones with at least a few people. But no other person – anywhere in the world, now or ever – is You. No other person has Your parents and Your children, all of Your likes and dislikes, all of Your strengths and weaknesses, all of Your memories. No one else is sitting in right now in Your chair, reading this on Your computer.

Ordinary or exceptional, you are at least uniquely You. Or are you?

In The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene explores scientific theories that imply multiple universes, many of which would be very much like ours, with a galaxy like our Milky Way, including a star like our Sun, orbited by a planet like our Earth, on which there exists someone with parents and children like Yours, someone with all of Your likes and dislikes, all of Your strengths and weaknesses, and all of Your memories.

That person is sitting in a chair just like Yours, reading this on a computer just like Yours, right down to the smudge on Your monitor. That person may have just now thought “Pure speculation!” or “Prove it!” or “What does this have to do with politics?” … or whatever else You just thought. But let’s look at those three.

“Pure speculation!”

It may sound like pure speculation, but the theories are based on the mathematics of physics as best we understand them … and on one big assumption that Dr. Greene freely admits right up front. We’ll start with that assumption.

He assumes that You exist as a constellation of quantum states that comprise the particles, atoms, molecules, cells, and organs of your body, including your brain and the signals flitting across your synapses that you experience as thoughts. That constellation extends out in space to encompass your computer, your home, and any person or object you could experience right now. It also extends back in time to encompass your childhood, your children, and any experience you might remember.

Any quantum constellation that contained all of that same information, Dr. Greene assumes, would be another You. Dr. Green admits there may be some other energy – “a life force or soul or chi,” independent of the quantum states that comprise your parts – that would make you uniquely You. But there is no physical evidence for any such energy. If we look only at the physics, then everything about You is contained in that constellation of quantum states … and any other constellation with the same information would be another You.

Like anyone, you’re very complex. The probability that another quantum constellation would contain exactly the same information – or even similar enough that You might see that other person and think “That’s who I would have been if such-and-so hadn’t happened!” – is a Very Small Number, but it’s not zero. You are very complex, but you are still finite.

That fact is the mathematical key to most of the theories Dr. Greene discusses. If our universe is infinitely large, or if there are an infinite number of universes in the cosmos, then – no matter how unlikely You are – it is mathematically certain that there are other quantum constellations just like You out there somewhere, and others that You would recognize as a “who I would have been if such-and-so hadn’t happened.”

The reason is that if you divide infinity by any finite number, the solution is … infinity. Think of counting “1 One, 2 Ones, 3 Ones,” forever. Now think of counting “1 Two, 2 Twos, 3 Twos,” forever. Now “1 Billion, 2 Billions, 3 Billions,” and so on. If only one in a Bippilion quantum constellations would be just like You, then in a universe with “100 Bippilion” quantum constellations, there should be about 100 of You. And in an infinite universe – count “100 Bippilion, 200 Bippilion, 300 Bippilion,” forever – there would be an infinite number of … You.

“Prove It!”

Physicists can’t prove it, and Dr. Greene admits that. The physical laws we’ve tested allow for an infinite universe, and several mathematically sound theories suggest there may be an infinite number of universes. But the physical laws we’ve tested do not require an infinite universe, and those mathematically sound theories have not yet been tested.

Indeed some of the theories can’t be tested directly. Let’s say there’s another You, in this universe, 100 billion light years away. Our universe is only about 14 billion years old, so no light from that other You could not have reached us yet. What’s more, observations show that space is expanding, and it’s expanding faster the farther away we look. At 100 billion light years away, space is expanding faster than the speed of light. (Space itself can move faster than light, even if nothing can move faster than light through space.) The expanding space is carrying that other You away with it … so You could never see that other You. So much for comparing notes at Starbucks.

That same general limitation – with different mathematical wrinkles – applies to the other Yous that might exist in other universes, and to seeing those other universes. But Dr. Greene notes that the processes that created (and may still be creating) the other universes may have left (or be leaving) evidence that we could detect here in our universe. Physicists don’t yet have precise enough mathematics or instruments to predict or detect that evidence, but they could, someday. Until then, the theories are speculation … but speculation grounded in science as best we understand it.

“What does this have to do with politics?”

That’s a fair question. Yet consider how much of the friction between science and religion has been about humans’ central role in the universe. Galileo’s observations upset the Catholic Church because he suggested the Earth – where we humans play what we imagine to be a starring role – was not the actual center of the universe. The religious objection to evolution lies less in Genesis than in arrogance: if we’re just another animal, why did God give us souls and dominion over the other animals and plants? If we’re not special, we’re “merely” slightly smarter chimps.

What’s more, most pseudo-scientific objections to evolution point to the astonishingly unlikely combination of elements and other scientific facts that allow our existence here on Earth. Tweak the values of the fundamental forces or the masses of particles just a tiny bit – the argument goes – and life as we know it could not exist. The specific combination of values that allow galaxies and our Sun and our Earth and thus us are so ridiculously unlikely that they must have been set by an Intelligent Designer. But if there are an infinite number of universes … then our universe, however likely, becomes mathematically inevitable.

And let’s not forget American Exceptionalism, the belief that our nation’s unique history and unique values make us uniquely special and worthy to tell other countries what to do. American Exceptionalism is an extension of individual exceptionalism, the idea that each person is unique and some persons possess special gifts that make them worthy to lead others (and get much bigger paychecks). What happens to that if each of us is not unique … if You are merely one example of a quantum constellation that exists in infinite other examples scattered through the cosmos?

One response is to reject such theories out of hand, on the premise that “If I’m not even uniquely Me, if I’m just a random happenstance of quantum bits, then what’s the point of my life?”

But there is another possible response: humility. Maybe You are not unique. Maybe this life of Yours is only one of an infinite number of lives lived by an infinite number of You. Maybe some of You made better choices. Maybe some of You made worse choices. Regardless, You will never see those other Yous, and they will never see You.

So You, however mathematically inevitable, are still You. Your life is still Your life. Your choices are still Your choices. Those choices have consequences for You and for others. And if You are not even unique – let alone exceptional – maybe You should consider those others a little more.

I don’t know if the theories of infinite, multiple universes are true. Dr. Greene suggests we probably won’t know the answer within his lifetime. But if those theories turn out to be true, it won’t change anything about the meaning of my life. And even the thought that they might be true … makes me feel like just another passenger … on just one of many pale, blue dots:


Happy Thursday!