Uni, Multi, Sim, Meta
What is the philosophy behind the multiverse, metaverse, and simulation theory? Does science play any role in them? And how do we frame these concepts in a biblical world?
The word “universe” originates in Latin. It means “turning” or “combining into one”, seeking to describe everything that exists. But some people have other beliefs on how to best describe our tangible reality, or even intangible aspects of it. In this post, I explore the ideas of multiverse, simulated realities, and the metaverse.
The Problem of Teleology (Life-Sustaining Design)
Where does everything come from? The words we use to describe tangible realities imply specific presuppositions about this question. Like I already said, “universe” is Latin for “turning into one” or “combining into one”. The Greek word “cosmos” implies complexity and order. These names reflect observable attributes of our encompassing reality. The universe seems to extend as far as we can sense, includes everything we can sense, and follows patterns, laws, rules, seasons… In other words, it shows order and harmony.
But there’s an aspect of this reality that, outside of a theistic worldview, becomes very troubling: its uniqueness. Our universe uniquely meets the conditions required for life to emerge and flourish; in fact, it seems specifically designed to sustain these processes. These facts are hard to reconcile with worldviews that presuppose no creator for the universe, and no reason for its structure other than random happenstance.
The uniqueness of life as we know it is acknowledged even by non-theists. Noted atheist Richard Dawkins thinks it’s highly improbable that life may exist elsewhere. In his view, life originated accidentally, and that is unlikely to happen more than once. Likewise, English physicist Brian Cox, the presenter of the BBC Two series Universe, recently told The Guardian that planets like Earth are very scarce. He believes it’s highly improbable that sentient life exists elsewhere. In his mind, this has important implications for political leaders with respect to climate change.
Here’s where I see a common thread: one way to address the uniqueness of life from a non-theistic worldview is to frame our reality as just one of billions of materialized probabilities. Enter the ideas of the multiverse and simulation theory.
The Multiverse Theory
In “As Good as it Gets”, I discussed how Gottfried Leibniz thought that multiple universes were theoretically possible – that God could ideate as many of them as he wished, but only one could exist in reality. By contrast, the multiverse theory seeks to split or spread reality across multiple smaller instances, all of which exist concurrently at any point in time. Popular contemporary proponents of the multiverse theory include Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku.
The multiverse theory is an alternative to the Big Bang theory, the prevailing cosmological theory. The Big Bang theory implies a universe (a single, unified copy) that isn’t past-eternal – that hasn’t existed forever – and therefore had a beginning. Arguably, such a universe would need a creator and a design – again, troublesome ideas outside of a theistic worldview.
The Big Bang also implies that the universe is constantly expanding. Some theoretical physicists think that this expansion isn’t uniform across time and space. They posit that various portions expanding at varying rates could create “pockets” or “bubbles” that effectively constitute multiple separate universes. Now, allow a sufficiently high number of these universes – billions and billions of them; and assume that all of their properties have randomly and uniformly distributed values. In theory, our universe could be one of them – an instance that just so happens to have perfect conditions to harbor life, and even to originate it.
There isn’t broad scientific consensus around the multiverse. My favorite dissenter would be Physics Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, who passed away in July this year. Weinberg was a staunch atheist. Earlier in his career, he had a philosophical preference for the “steady state” cosmological theory, because it was as far as it gets from the Genesis narrative. Later, however, Weinberg scientifically came to support and work on the Big Bang theory, and opposed the way in which the multiverse theory reduced Big Bang mathematics to purely random numbers. Speaking of Big Bang math, Physics Nobel Prize winner Arno Allan Penzias, whose work helped to establish the Big Bang theory, said:
“The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.
You have to love the irony.
For the sake of time, I won’t even go into the complexity of trying to gather empirical evidence of the existence of other universes while trapped within ours. Can we reliably detect collisions or interactions with other universes?
Simulation theory is a different take on the same idea. If there are billions of realities existing in parallel, that we happen to live in a very unique one isn’t all that surprising. The modern articulation of this theory belongs to Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. In his 2003 essay “Are we Living in a Computer Simulation?”, Bostrom claims that in the distant future, one of these three statements must be true:
- Humans become extinct before technology allows them to simulate our present time; or
- Humans do reach that level of technological development; and then,
- Either they are uninterested in simulating our comparatively primitive present, or
- They are interested, and we are living in one of their simulations.
An open question in this theory is how likely each of these possibilities is. In 2016, Elon Musk put it in the following terms. If computers continue to develop like they have, and more specifically, if videogames continue to become increasingly realistic, it’s reasonable to assume that in a few hundred years, billions of extremely realistic simulations could exist. At that point, the probability that our current lives are happening in one of those simulations would vastly exceed the probability of us living in “base reality” – the name for traditional or actual reality in this theory.
By contrast, in a recent Scientific American article, Columbia astronomer David Kipping explained how he used Bayesian analysis to conclude that the odds of living in base reality are about the same as the odds of living in a simulation. Crucially, Kipping pointed out that if humans were ever able to simulate consciousness, the odds would change dramatically; we would be almost certainly living in a simulation.
This consciousness argument plays a huge role in this theory. Perhaps the most popular simulation in culture is The Matrix, but the movie trilogy chiefly implies simulating a real world to present to pre-existing human consciences. Bostrom’s theory demands that the simulation spawns consciousness – that consciousness itself can be simulated, not just tricked or emulated.
Those are the multiverse and simulation theories in a gist. I find that both attempt to explain away the teleology of our universe by reducing it to one of billions of equally possible realities. How do we think through this? Here are four ideas to keep in mind.
First, and most important, neither of these theories addresses the question of origin; they simply kick the can. Even if we lived in one of many multiverses, that theory doesn’t address how they came to be. There’s evidence that multiverses are not past-eternal, just like there’s evidence that the Big Bang universe isn’t past-eternal. If this reality isn’t past-eternal, some pre-existing reality must have originated it.
Likewise, even if we do live in a complex simulation run by our sophisticated successors, simulation theory tells us nothing about the past of those successors. In fact, it reduces everything we know about history to simple simulation, and shrouds the true origin and history of humanity in impenetrable darkness.
The second idea is that these theories dramatically reduce the probability of our existence, almost to the point of turning reality into a fallacy. If the explanation to our universe’s fine-tuning is that it’s just one of billions of universes, what are the odds that we actually get to experience and observe this one? This denigrates existence to pure luck, devoid of meaning and purpose. The unpleasantness here isn’t just emotional or aesthetic; the mathematical and epistemic implications aren’t very sound.
The same goes for simulation theory. Saying that the possibility of billions of imagined worlds makes it more likely that we live in one of them, versus base reality, is like saying that whatever is most likely to be imagined is also most likely to be true. Albert Mohler offers a helpful illustration: a child who, questioned on something he did, says, “Well, you know, that thing I did? It’s dwarfed by the net number of things I might have done.” But the possibility of what could be doesn’t redefine the reality of what is.
The third idea is this: in case it wasn’t obvious by now, these theories are eminently philosophical. They’re often espoused by scientists and technologists, but they really aren’t scientific or technical in nature. Scientists and technologists have opinions too. Not everything they share publicly is pure science or technology. Employees and officers clarify in their social media bio that “opinions are their own”. By contrast, I think that some people intentionally blur the line between opinions and knowledge, to great effect in the public square. I also think that many others fail to realize that this stretches science and technology into religions that are fashionable and acceptable in modern society, unlike classical ones.
The fourth idea is that these theories challenge Christianity in very different ways. I’ve been treating them together, but in this regard, I have to address them separately. The multiverse doesn’t answer the question of origin, and arguably it doesn’t directly challenge the biblical narrative. Indeed, you could argue that a multiverse is more likely in a theistic world view than in a non-theistic one. The principle we apply here as Christians is the same principle we apply whenever the Bible is silent on something: biblical silence entails neither strong endorsement nor strong denial. This applies whether we’re talking about dinosaurs, extraterrestrial life, or multiverses.
Simulation theory is a bit more controversial, because it actively refutes the epistemology of creation. If our world is a simulation, the creation narrative of Genesis is at best a simulation too. But I think the many problems with the simulation theory’s non-answer to the question of origin make this a feasible debate. Where did our advanced ancestors – or the aliens running our simulated reality – come from? The silence of simulation theory on origin is deeply unsatisfying, and isn’t inherently better than the Christian alternative.
A Closing Sidebar – the Metaverse
I want to end on something of a sidebar, because there’s another word that rhymes with “universe” that’s showing up strongly in recent news, and that is the metaverse. This word was coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 dystopian novel Snow Crash, and it refers to a fusion of our real world with a digitally generated one.
As is often the case with science fiction, the inevitable progress of technology has brought what was once a pipe dream into very feasible reach. In their 1998 book “The Medium and the Messenger”, Philip Marchand and Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote:
There might come a day where we will have portable computers, about the size of a hearing aid, to help us mesh our personal experience with the experience of the great wired brain of the outer world.
That time has now arrived. And perhaps no other company is being as vocal about this as Facebook, which has pledged to build a metaverse and to hire 10,000 developers in Europe over the next few years to accomplish it. And this week, a news leak claimed that the company is preparing to reorganize and rebrand, with an official announcement expected at its yearly Connect conference. The new structure would be similar to Google’s Alphabet conglomerate. But more importantly, the rebranding would center Facebook properties around the metaverse.
What Facebook and other companies propose is blurring the boundaries between the physical and virtual realms. In the metaverse, you would constantly be online, while also remaining present in the real world. Thus, the idea conjures notions of an expanded or alternative universe. But it really doesn’t speak to the uniqueness of tangible reality. To be sure, it’s rife with commercial motivations and the philosophical traps behind them – which are interesting topics in themselves. They’re just different from what the multiverse and simulation theory try to address. I might discuss them in the future.
Our reality is fairly unique, and highly suggestive of an intentional and careful design by a past-eternal and purposeful entity. Many theories seek to work around this. But reality has a way of asserting itself.