Qoheleth, the Infinite Universe, and New Creation

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.



8 Responses to Qoheleth, the Infinite Universe, and New Creation

  1. I don’t see how Greene comes up with the many near identical selves for each of us. There is no warrant for it. It seems to me that God’s creation is unfolding/evolving to produce a cosmos of self-conscious selves that are steadily more complex, more interesting, and higher in consciousness with capacities deeper in feeling and sensitivity and characterized by ever greater freedom. The writer of Ecclesiastes was experiencing a moment of depression, something we all deserve and should experience at some time or other. The solution is to do something for someone else or others, read a book, go for a jog, and make/listen to music.

  2. Steve says:

    This reminds me of my college math class where we studied Non-Euclidean geometries…including one in which parallel lines intersected.

  3. nena says:

    God is infinite. Man is finite. God created the universe and man. I agree with Steve that Greene’s claims are not warrented. BUT, should it be true then God made it so for His own purposes. One thing of which we can be certain is that such order is not mentioned within the Holy Scriptures. One can fantasize about our world being reflected, as it were, in other world orders. But does it matter? The Bible also tells us that now we “see through a glass darkly”. I trust that God has given me the information which I need. Just as He has given me instructions in how to be whole and happy. If I needed more information then He would have given it. Solomon asked for much wisdom and was given his request. But much learning appeared to just make him sad. God knows what we need. So, I will settle for my life in this world right now. Let the other worlds, should they exist, take care to please Him who is the creator!

  4. Matt says:

    I don’t know why everyone finds this so difficult. This is pretty standard “mid-aged lawyer tries to tie incomprehensibly complex cosmological theory into ancient Hebrew texts and 21st century Christian theology” fare. Pretty simple, really.

    (If my self-depreciating sarcasm didn’t come through, please be assured that I’m just kidding; thanks to all who – somehow – managed to trudge through the post – for the comments)

  5. nena says:

    I think you just told me to “lighten up”. 🙂 Point taken. Thanks for the trip.

  6. Chris says:

    I’ll have to digest this a bit more later. Here is one thought in the meantime:

    With respect to the “infinite vs. finite selves” configurations, the dilemma becomes less apparent if you decouple physical states (e.g. mass, hair, or even inanimate states of matter/energy (such as the electrons which convey information about the extra period at the end of a sentence)) from those metaphysical (e.g. a soul, Spirit, etc.). Thus, one might argue that even though my Doppelganger counts the same number of hairs on his head while reading this same blog, our souls (psyches, whatever) might still be singularities. This does open other avenues for debate – specifically what IS IT that defines the mind, is there a soul, etc. However, it also maintains the potential for each “self” to be distinct and, thus, have a unique interaction with God.

    Just to complicate things, the dilemma (as stated) implies that Creation occurred instantaneously, that all things were created simultaneously, and that the “rest of the story” has proceeded in a linear fashion in all places and times; I hypothesize that this limit would not be valid for such a universe as described by Greene (my thoughts, not his).

    Thanks for the great post!


  7. Gregor says:

    it is also for me interesting to take in account that simply our perception is limited or finite. eveyrthing we perceive appears finite. we calculate the infinity from finite perception. Sure, human being is not limited to perception. So the above has also its limitation. Thus we assume infinity. and the game goes on 🙂

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