I recently discovered a podcast called Radiolab, which is a series of hour long programs that focus on diverse scientific topics. In exploring some of the past offerings of Radiolab, I discovered this interview of Cambridge cosmologist Brian Greene regarding the implications of an infinite universe.
Here, Greene discusses the theory that nothing – and he does mean nothing – is unique in the universe.
Here is the concept:
1. The best data that is available today is that the universe is not “curved.” This means that, in theory, if you start traveling straight in one direction, and keep going that direction, you will keep going and going and going. You never end up – like you would on a globe – at the same place where you begin.
2. On the other hand, all conceivable patterns of matter are finite. He encourages us to think of Imelda Marcos. She may have many, many dresses and many, many shoes, but there are ultimately only so many combinations of the two that are possible.
3. Thus, while the universe itself is infinite, the potential arrangements of matter are finite. The number that describes all potential arrangements of matter is inconceivably large – but it must exist, and it must be finite, because matter only arranges itself in so many forms.
4. Thus, in an infinite universe, the finite patterns of matter must necessarily repeat themselves again and again and again.
Now…get ready for the weird part.
This means that, if you searched the universe long enough, you would eventually find an exact copy of yourself sitting in a room that is identical to where you are sitting right now, reading this exact blog post.. Except, maybe, the last sentence in the post didn’t include an extra period at the end.
But…if we kept searching, we could find yet ANOTHER person in an IDENTICAL place doing EXACTLY the same things reading EXACTLY the same post with the EXACT same typographical error.
Today, you might have exactly 100,000 hairs in your head. If we looked, we could find someone with the same number – or more, or less – who would otherwise be identical to you: right down to the color and style of your shirt.
You name it, you can find it. And you can find multiple copies of it.
…and why not, Greene argues? The universe has literally all of the space, matter, and energy it needs to randomly reproduce things – like you – again and again and again.
My sophomoric question – which I don’t think was answered in the podcast – is how we can know that the universe contains infinite quantities of matter and energy. It strikes me that this should not be a given, though I’m sure people much smarter than me have asked (and answered) the question already.
This cosmology leaves us with at least two potential configurations:
#1: One creator/One unique universe
#2: One Infinite universe
Option 2 does not eliminate the existence of God, but it does call into question the idea of a “Creator” God in the sense that “creation” brings about something that is unique or one-of-a-kind. Instead, if this cosmological view were to ever become widely accepted, theology would have to conceive of a God who brought about all possibilities at once and in infinite quantities.
Furthermore, Option 2 puts us in a serious existential crisis. I can no longer think of myself, my home, my loved ones, my planet, or my talents as unique. All of these things are, in fact, on a cosmological scale, quite common and thus – mundane.
I am reminded of the poem of Qoheleth – found in the first Chapter of Ecclesiastes:
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
If Greene is right – we can add: “It is also in the universe right now, in infinite quantities, and will exist in the same quantities in the future.”
Now…before we get carried away, lets be clear that this view is NOT, so far as I can tell, universally embraced amongst cosmologists. Even in this podcast, there is some discussion of a multi universe theory that is slightly different from this one, though it also holds the the existence of all possibilities.
Nevertheless, I think this viewpoint could inform the development of Christian theology in two important ways:
First, it provides a promising framework for a discussion on the issue of the existence of evil. If God did, in fact, allow for all possibilities to exist at once, as a part of the act of “creation” – then inevitably evil is going to spring up in that creation. Before creation can become what it was intended, all of the evil possibilities have to be identified and eradicated, in the same way that a novel must be edited or a script must be re-drafted. This explanation, I think, could help to move forward a discussion that has puzzled believers for centuries. [It could also serve as a great plot for a science fiction novel: imagine someone from a “perfect” – but largely identical part of the universe – coming into our own or vice versa…]
Second, it serves as an important reminder that our eschatology must deal with the basic existential crisis that was expressed by Qoheleth. If humans are, in fact, destined for immortality – how, then, can we avoid falling into Qoheleth’s despair? On the one hand, it could be argued that hell is nothing more than immortality in a universe with finite possibilities. On the other hand, it could be argued that God’s project of “new creation” is just that – to bring into existence, for example, infinite combinations of matter, or to introduce new combinations infinitely over time. This would free the universe from finite possibilities and open up something entirely new.