Theology and the New Physics [5] | Many Worlds

paralleluNew Physics [1] | New Physics [2] | New Physics [3] | New Physics [4]

The idea that an external observer was required to ‘collapse the wavefunction’ of reality obviously didn’t sit well with physics, as it seemed to require a ‘big’ external observer to make the universe real. Physicists didn’t like that one bit, and eventually salvation came in the form of Hugh Everett III, a brilliant theoretical physicist (and father to E of the band Eels) whose ‘multiverse’ thesis had lain gathering dust for years…until it was rediscovered and embraced by the quantum community. It proposed that each quantum event precipitated a split – a new universe was created. Thus the ‘objective reality of wavefunction collapse is denied.’ And the script for Sliding Doors was born. And the need for an ‘external observer’ is removed.

This ‘Many Worlds Interpretation‘ is not without its problems though. One major theoretical obstacle is that it appears to make us eternal. At the point of our death a ‘quantum event’ occurs, and in one universe we die, while in a parallel one we continue to live. In this parallel universe where we are still alive, we may then again come to death, and once again there is a quantum event, and we continue to live in one universe and die in another. Thus, the MWI has major theological implications, and were it able to be proven true – rather than just mathematically water-tight as a theory – it would be a genuine deal-breaker for pretty much the whole of orthodox theology.

However, physicists are still undecided as to whether MWI is a good theory or not. What is clear is that the development of quantum theory and the new physics has led science into a very strange place, which requires some serious leaps of faith into very hard to believe areas: near-infinite parallel universe, constantly splitting apart and being created because of hard-to-pin-down quantum events.

They have then, perhaps, come full circle to stand with us theologians. As we both seek to understand this strange world, using all the faculties that we have, we end up in places of faith and doubt and apparent miracle. It is no good for the theologians to dismiss science as cold reason, nor for scientists to dismiss theology as untestable nonsense. We need to work and think together, to probe this strange world for its truths, while humbly accepting that we will never see the whole truth clearly.


5 responses to “Theology and the New Physics [5] | Many Worlds”

  1. i’ve REALLY enjoyed this series (actually i hope it continues) although my scientific or philosophical self can’t seem to keep pace with you i hearing the truths that you’re expressing.
    i just wanted say that i’m reading and enjoying. thanks.

  2. “humbly accepting that we will never see the whole truth clearly”

    This reminds me of Paul in 1 Cor 13:12

  3. I am not sure if I am understanding all that I am reading about the MWI (perhaps we can all say that) but some of the conclusions from it strike me as hilarious. I’ve heard it said that due to universe splitting occurring infinitely, all possible worlds are in existence. So, then, I ask Mr. Scientist, it would be logical to assume that somewhere out there there is a universe where the biblical story happened exactly as it was written, with Adams and Eves and snakes and floods! Just not here! 🙂 Is it that, within the realm of infinity, all things that could possibly exist, do?

    Some of what I read makes me wonder if MWI isn’t a way of escaping the notion of a greater consciousness or creator. Obviously as a believer I have to admit my bias, but I am more compelled by ideas like Consciousness Causes Collapse (check wikipedia under Quantum Mysticism). Here, peers of Einstein like Eugene Wigner held that the only way that things make sense in physics is if there is one great “observer” whose observation of us brings us into existence (Wigner personally liked the Hindu idea of Vedanta consciousness). Of course in this age of scientific adolescence, it’s rare to find a scientist who is comfortable to even discuss such an idea. Michio Kaku in Physics of the Impossible notes that this is a minority view, but I wonder if that isn’t due to a hundred years of vicious theist/atheist debate. As we grow up a little, my bet is this will shift.

    Another great podcast along these lines is “Oxford Time” from the CBC show Ideas. In it, an Oxford physicist talks about the problem of time – how there is no reason why it should flow as it does. He suggests that the only solution is a consciousness that orders time. Actually, that whole podcast series is awesome.

    Anyway, great post. Love thinking about this stuff.

  4. KB,

    This subject is an interesting one, one I was lucky enough to study during my undergraduate days as a budding theoretician. I am not sure if you have come across the following, but a very interesting extension or fix if you will, to Everett’s many world theory is Albert and Loewer’s many minds formulation of quantum mechanics (1988?). This theory essentially provides another means of interpretation of Everett’s relative-state formulation of quantum mechanics. Everett’s many minds formulation was said by Everett to be “objectively continuous and causal, while being subjectively discontinuous and probabilistic”. The many minds formulation captures these two aspects whilst providing a totally different interpretation of the theory – the new theory again is both mathematically sound (like the many worlds formulation), and one that cannot be disproved from a physical stand point (i.e. the continual splitting of a multiverse conflicting with relativity).

    The many minds formulation captures the above two aspects of the many worlds theory by distinguishing between an observer’s physical and mental states; the physical state being continuous and causal, and the mental state being discontinuous and probabilistic. This is a type of so-called ‘hidden variable’ theory where extra ‘quantum variables’ are added to the standard quantum mechanical system which correspond to the observers quantum mechanical mind state.

    Essentially, Albert and Loewer assocated with each observer, a continuous infinity of potential mind states which deal with the quantum effects (e.g. the mind would split into two distinct states for some simple system like that involved with the measurement problem). Whereas, the physical “real” state deals with the classical physics in each mind state, these physical states progressing in the usual deterministic way.

    Within the many minds theory, the mind states do not supervene that of the physical states, rather the physical state having ‘control’ of the system evolution. This means that upon a split, the separate minds must evolve transtemporally, which I think introduces all sorts of philosophical implications – mind body dualism or some such fluffy debate. But it is this mind body dualism which is at the heart of the theory, the physical state coupled to the quantum mind states.

    The so called many minds theory is one of the few formulations of quantum mechanics that can resolve the infamous measurement problem and doesn’t douse the ferocious flames of physics (i.e. break our beloved relativity).

    I still have the book: J. Barrett, The Quantum Mechanics of Minds and Worlds (199?)/ Which is fantastic if a little deep…

    Sorry to ramble, all the best,


  5. Camus, you’re a G. Always were. I’d love to have a look at the book – though I know I’ll be way out of my depth by the 2nd paragraph! May be bring it with you if you come down to London and let’s have a beer. Sounds like a very good theory… something I’d like to throw at some better philosophers than I. Without doubt, philosophy/theology really hasn’t caught up with the implications of the quantum world. And it’s going to have to. With some serious repercussions I think. Good to hear from you.