Note: This essay is the last of a series from Gerald Cleaver’s chapter in the book Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church, edited by Deborah Haarsma & Scott Hoezee and published by the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Another version of the essay appeared at the Ministry Theorem, as part of their “What I Wish My Pastor Knew About. . .” series.
In previous posts Cleaver described his own path to science through the Church and suggested that fellow Christians should seek to reconcile science and the Scriptures. Then he gave a brief history our changing views of cosmology, including the relationships between the very small and the very large aspects of the cosmos, ending last week with an introduction to string theory. This week he concludes that discussion and asks us to consider anew the awesome scope of God’s creativity.
Eleven Dimensions and Multiple Universes
Last week’s introduction to string theory ended by pointing out that an underlying nagging issue of string theory in its first decade was that it wasn’t actually a single theory, but five alternative theories. In each theory, the energy string possessed slightly different properties. Was one theory better than the other four? No one could determine the answer, so string theorists investigated all five theories—that is, until 1994-95, during which a small group of string theorists proved that all five theories were actually identical, with equivalent physics expressed by different mathematics. This was like finding five copies of the same book, but written in five vastly different languages, such as English, Russian, Hebrew, Mandarin, and Swahili. If a person couldn’t read more than one of the five languages, he or she would likely assume all five books were different. But one who knows all five languages would instantly recognize that all five books tell the same story. And so it was with the five “different” string theories.
Around 1995, a mathematical “Rosetta Stone” was found that translated between the five theories. This discovery had an unexpected implication: it revealed that the fundamental particle of the theory wasn’t energy trapped in the shape of a string, but actually energy trapped in the shape of a torus (or donut)—which is a closed string with thickness (Fig. 13). Replacing a string with a torus required for mathematical consistency of the theory an increase in the number of spatial directions from nine to ten. And increasing the number of spatial dimensions came with even further unexpected and more profound implications.
First, the number of possible shapes of compact dimensions to be investigated increased from a “mere” 100 trillion to at least 10500 (that is a one followed by five hundred zeros). This meant that finding the one shape that exactly describes our universe became exceedingly more difficult (essentially impossible). But that was trivial compared to a second discovery that carried deep philosophical and theological impact. While the original 9+1 dimensional string theory was consistent with the existence of a single universe (that was initiated by a standard Big Bang), the enlarged 10+1 dimensional theory is not. Instead, the 10+1 dimensional enlarged theory implies that not just one universe is created at a time, but that on the order of at least 10500 universes will likely be created simultaneously, each with different, distinct physical laws. Our universe, enormous as it is, is likely merely one of a vast, almost uncountable, number of universes.
Instead of a standard Big Bang producing one universe, about once every hundred billion to trillion years a new set of around 10500 universes is likely generated by simultaneous Big Bangs. The new universes would take the place of earlier, preceding, universes, which likely reached either a Big Freeze or Big Burn conclusion. The set of all such universes over all time has been named the multiverse. The multiverse renewal process could continue indefinitely. The earliest models of the multiverse suggested the multiverse would be infinitely old, rather than have a distinct beginning. More recently, physicists have concluded that the multiverse cannot continue infinitely into the past. (Leaders in the field showed this discovery in a series of peer-reviewed publications.) Thus, the multiverse likely has an overall starting time, albeit hundreds of trillions of years ago. The time of the Big Bang of our universe is not the same as the starting time for the whole multiverse. Rather, the multiverse would have begun hundreds of trillions of years earlier.
If string theory in its extended 10+1 dimensional form is true, the universe in which we exist is likely not the only universe that arose 13.7 billion years ago. Rather, at the beginning of our universe, God also likely created far more universes than we could have imagined before. Many of these other universes might support life, but perhaps in vastly different forms than our atomic-based variety.
Theological Implications of the Multiverse
Some find the multiverse picture to be troubling, but I believe that string theory and its implied multiverse provide a much deeper understanding of the whole story of creation. With the multiverse, the human perception of reality has expanded by previously unimaginable orders of magnitude. With the dawning of the multiverse paradigm, Christians are thus able to perceive the creative nature of God on a scale and vastness as never before. The emerging story also has profound implications for theological views of God, including the meaning of God’s transcendence and immanence.
The historic Christian understanding of transcendence is that God is separate from his creation, this universe (including everything in it). That is, as Creator, he is beyond the spacetime of the universe. As St. Augustine described, God must in some sense “view” this universe in a four-dimensional block form, with all spacetime events appearing “simultaneously” in the same “picture.” On the other hand, immanence implies that God is infinitesimally close to his creation and, further, through the second and third persons of the Trinity, is present within his creation.
To understand transcendence in the context of a multiverse, we must consider the concept of time within the multiverse. Each universe results from its own individual Big Bang and thus has its own concept of time as measured from within, independent and uncorrelated to the respective times measured within all other universes. Transcendence implies that God, as the Creator, must be beyond the spacetime of each universe within the multiverse. Further, there must also be some sense of overall global time in a multiverse frame from which specific times can be assigned for the series of Big Bangs. Thus, transcendence also implies that, as Creator of the multiverse as a whole, God must be outside of the space and global time of the multiverse. That it, God is necessarily beyond the block multiverse.
God’s immanence within the multiverse also requires further theological contemplation, especially with regard to our understanding of the nature of the second person of the Trinity. What if God communicates with his sentient creatures in each universe through the advent of the second person of the Trinity in the physical form of the sentient creatures? Such theological considerations are not unique to the multiverse. Rather, the possibility of life within other universes in the multiverse and the theological implications are essentially many orders-of-magnitude extensions of the possibility of extra-terrestrial life within this universe and its theological implications. The Catholic Church in particular has contemplated the latter for several centuries. In fact, in the 1300s, it was declared a heresy to state that other worlds like earth could not exist elsewhere in the universe. By the 1600s, some Catholic priests proposed life elsewhere in the universe and contemplated the theological issues it raises. Pope Benedict XVI recently held an international conference at the Vatican on the existence of extra-terrestrial life, to which both leading scientists and theologians were invited. According to Brother Guy Consolmagno, who holds a M.S. from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in planetary science, if new forms of life were to be discovered, it would not mean “everything we believe [theologically] in is wrong,” rather, “we’re going to find out that everything is truer in ways we couldn’t even yet have imagined.”
If string theory is proven correct, we may be nearing the next step in understanding the beauty, splendor, complexity, and vastness of God’s creation—far beyond anything we could have imagined before. This multiverse paradigm shift would truly be of far greater magnitude and vastly more comprehensive than all of the preceding paradigm shifts. The science of today and tomorrow can, indeed, instill further awe and reverence for God, likely in ways unimaginable even a few decades ago.