This is a "re-run" of a post that originally ran on June 1, 2016.
The other day, while searching the web for something regarding the history of astronomy, I happened upon the strangest video. In it were what appeared to be Philips Lansbergen and Johann Georg Locher (featured in recent blog posts). They were debating the idea of the multiverse and the idea of invoking the infinite in science. Also present were Thomas Digges and Giovanni Battista Riccioli. And with these four late-sixteenth/early-seventeenth century figures were four others from entirely different times: the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, the twentieth-century historian of science Alexandre Koyré, and physicists Brian Greene and Max Tegmark, from today! The conversation was most remarkable. I would include a link, but the video crashed my laptop, I had been too absorbed in watching it to think to copy and save the address, and now for some reason I can’t find the video again. Fortunately, along with the video was a transcript of the discussion, a section of which I downloaded because the audio quality was poor and I needed the transcript to follow along. So I am posting that here.
The section I downloaded followed a lengthy round of general introductions, in which there seemed to be some bafflement among the men about what they were doing, how they came to be together, and how they all happened to be speaking one language. But then Locher, who was young, charismatic, and brash, and who said that he had been working hard to get up to speed on modern ideas and terminology, seized control of the conversation and brought it around to the subject of the multiverse, going directly at Lucretius. This is where the section of transcript that I managed to copy begins:
LOCHER: Mr. Lucretius, you seem to have been an early adopter of this multiverse idea — this idea of an infinitude of universes contained within a larger structure from which those universes emerge and into which they eventually dissolve. And this all happens through the undirected chaos of the particles within the larger structure? LUCRETIUS: Yes, for Off to all regions round, on either side, Above, beneath, throughout the universe End is there none — as I have taught, as too The very thing of itself declares aloud, And as from nature of the unbottomed deep Shines clearly forth. Nor can we once suppose In any way 'tis likely, (seeing that space To all sides stretches infinite and free, And seeds, innumerable in number, in sum Bottomless, there in many a manner fly, Bestirred in everlasting motion there), That only this one earth and sky of ours Has been created.
DIGGES: Infinite to all sides and free, yes, but it is the realm of stars of our own universe that extends infinitely, not a realm of universes as Lucretius supposes. And this realm indeed has been created by God as the palace of felicity, garnished with innumerable perpetual shining glorious lights — stars that far excel our sun both in quantity and quality — it is the very court of celestial angels, devoid of grief and replenished with perfect endless joy, the habitacle for the Elect! LUCRETIUS: No, not so — this world too has been By nature fashioned, even as seeds of things By innate motion chanced to clash and cling — After they'd been in many a manner driven Together at random, without design, in vain. LANSBERGEN: A great poet but a heathen. LOCHER: My point is not theological. I want to talk about evidence as relates to an infinite multiverse, and about reason, and about how compelling Lucretius’s idea should be, in the absence of data to support or contradict it. GREENE: This subject is highly speculative. I’m not convinced — and, generally speaking, no one should be convinced — of anything not supported by hard data. But I find it curious and compelling that numerous developments in physics, if followed sufficiently far, bump into some variation on the multiverse theme. What you have been describing here so far might be considered some variation on what I call a Quilted Multiverse. LOCHER: And you think within such a multiverse there are other versions of ourselves out there? GREENE: Yes, in — LUCRETIUS: Yes! as at last those seeds together dwelt, Which, when together of a sudden thrown, Should always furnish the commencements fit Of mighty things — the earth, the sea, the sky, And race of living creatures. Thus, I say, Again, again, 'tmust be confessed there are Such congregations of matter otherwhere, Like this our world which vasty ether holds In huge embrace. GREENE: Exactly. To those who will watch our conversation on video, I would add to what Lucretius says by pointing out that in an infinite cosmos, there’s a galaxy that looks just like the Milky Way, with a solar system that’s the spitting image of ours — DIGGES: Ah, an infinite cosmos! Truly, we can never sufficiently admire this wonderful and incomprehensible huge frame of God’s work put before our senses! We may easily consider what little portion of God’s frame our little corruptible world is, but never can we sufficiently consider that fixed realm garnished with lights innumerable and reaching up in spherical altitude without end! GREENE: As I was saying — DIGGES: And this may well be thought of us to be the glorious court of the great God, whose unsearchable works invisible, we partly by these his visible, conjecture! To whose infinite power and majesty, such an infinite place, surmounting all other both in quantity and quality, only is convenient! GREENE: As I was saying, a galaxy that looks just like the Milky Way, with a solar system that’s the spitting image of ours, with a planet that’s a dead ringer for earth, with a house that’s indistinguishable from yours, inhabited by someone who looks just like you, who is right now watching this very discussion and imagining you, in a distant galaxy, just hearing the end of this sentence. DIGGES: Oh, this cannot be. LOCHER: Oh, it certainly can be, if all is part of an infinitude. Please continue, Mr. Greene. GREENE: Thank you, Johann. And there’s not just one such copy, there are infinitely many. In some, your doppelgänger is now hearing this sentence, along with you. In others, he or she has skipped ahead in the video, or feels in need of a snack and has hit pause. In others still, he or she has, well, a less than felicitous disposition and is someone you’d rather not meet in a dark alley. Thomas, you are not alone in whatever reaction you are now having to this view of reality. There are many perfect copies of you out there, feeling exactly the same way. And there’s no way to say which is really you. All versions are physically and hence mentally identical. LANSBERGEN: They would not have the same soul. GREENE: I remain open to the possibility of souls, but I have never encountered any evidence to support it. RICCIOLI (aside to LOCHER): Was this man not fully educated? Has he no access to books? GREENE: Excuse me? RICCIOLI: A matter for later. Continue. GREENE: The position that makes the most sense to me is that one’s physical and mental characteristics are nothing but a manifestation of how the particles in one’s body are arranged. Specify the particle arrangement and you have specified everything. Look, most of us wouldn’t expect worlds to repeat; most of us wouldn’t expect, every so often, to encounter versions of ourselves, our friends, our families. But if we could journey sufficiently far, that’s what we would find. LOCHER: But, Mr. Greene, this assertion is predicated on an infinite multiverse, yes? GREENE: Yes. LOCHER: I have shown in my Disquisitions that a physical infinitude cannot exist. Do you disagree with my reasoning there? (A pause.) KOYRÉ: It would seem none of them has ever so much as looked at your book. They just know it because they read Galileo. LOCHER: Well, a physical infinitude cannot exist. DIGGES: The power and majesty of God are infinite. For him an infinite place is fitting. LANSBERGEN: God may bring about anything he will. God made the stars impossibly giant — far excelling the sun, as Mr. Digges has said — and unimaginably distant. Through such immensity God is more correctly perceived to be immense, even infinite. And also more correctly perceived is that light in which He dwells! For if the light of one sun may be so excellent that the eyes cannot view it without injury, how much stronger will be the light of the so many and so much brighter Bodies which are gathered together in the starry heaven? How right was the Apostle to say God dwells in unapproachable light. For if the splendor of the stars — the veritable Atrium of the Divine Palace — may be so illustrious, how strong and unapproachable will be the radiance of the Habitacle of the Divine Majesty itself? LOCHER: God is not a physical infinitude. A physical infinitude cannot exist, or at least is contrary to mathematical reasoning and therefore beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry. In my Mathematical Disquisitions I have illustrated the mathematical contradictions inherent in such an infinitude. GREENE: Hmmm. Multiverse proposals rely on a belief that mathematics is tightly stitched into the fabric of reality. They arise because we assume that mathematical theorizing can guide us toward hidden truths. Only time will tell if this assumption takes the underlying mathematical theories too seriously, or perhaps not seriously enough. LOCHER: Both too seriously and not seriously enough. Let me illustrate four cases of consequences of Lucretius’s idea of a multiverse, regarding technology, natural ability, physics, and catastrophe. The basic idea here is that within an infinitude, whatever can happen, must happen, and must happen infinitely often. Atoms can only be arranged in so many ways, so it is possible for there to be exact copies of you and your family members out there in the multiverse, and therefore there are exact copies, and infinitely many, if I follow Mr. Greene correctly. And, Mr. Greene, you said earlier that there are also infinitely many inexact copies of you out there — those who skip ahead, those in need of snacks, and those you would rather not meet in a dark alley, correct? GREENE: Yes... LOCHER: Let us consider the inexact copies a bit more. How inexact can they be? As inexact as the laws of physics will allow, no? These inexact copies will be the subject of my four specific cases. First, consider one of those inexact copies of you that you would rather not meet in a dark alley. You are all intelligent men. Is there no probability that a sinister copy of you might be able to develop some technology that enables him to conquer the world? Such as, for example, robot dinosaurs (I’ve been doing some reading on robots and dinosaurs, you know — catching up on the time in which we seem to find ourselves, so to speak). Can we think of any reason why a sinister copy of yourself is prohibited by the laws of physics from building an army of robot dinosaurs and conquering his world? RICCIOLI (wryly): Would this be before or after my sinister copy had opted for the Dominican order? LOCHER: Of course this is highly improbable, but if it is possible that a sinister copy of you could build an army of robot dinosaurs and conquer his world (and there does not seem to be anything in the laws of physics to make that impossible), then it must happen, and infinitely often. Yes, in the infinite multiverse, there is a sinister you, ruling the world through robot dinosaurs! Infinitely many. How cool is that? Of course, in some universes, sinister you has run into a difficulty: a benevolent genius who has created another army of robot dinosaurs to battle you and your army. You might have thought that battles between armies of mechanical monsters were the stuff of pure fantasy, but no! In an infinite multiverse they must be reality. TEGMARK: Yes, infinitely many copies of you far away in our infinite space, obtaining each physically possible outcome. LOCHER: Second, while each of you is an intelligent man, might there not be an inexact copy of you who is more intelligent than you? Of course. Well then, how much more intelligent? How high can your IQ go in these inexact copies? Where is the limit to your IQ allowed by the laws of physics across the possible universes within an infinite multiverse? Moving beyond IQ, where is the limit to your strength? To your longevity? To your beauty? Might not one of those inexact copies of you be so brilliant, so strong, so long-lived, and so stunningly handsome as to be a veritable god? To be Thor? Is not Thor-you also a reality in an infinite multiverse? In fact, must there not be a full pantheon of gods and goddesses? And, granted that “the gods” must exist, some of whom are as brilliant, strong, long-lived, beautiful, and powerful as the laws of physics allow across infinite universes, should we consider building temples and offering sacrifices? Should we root for and seek to ally ourselves with the good gods against the inevitable bad ones? LANSBERGEN: Have you joined our heathen poet?! LOCHER: Of course not — I studied under Jesuits. But a pantheon of “gods” seems an inevitable consequence of a multiverse. LUCRETIUS: What breast recoils not with the dread of gods like these? LOCHER: Let’s not get too distracted here by the gods. My third case: Might there not be an inexact copy of you who experiences a remarkable string of possible but unlikely events? For example, a you who has always won every lottery ticket or game of chance he has played? Or, a you for whom heat has always happened to flow from cold objects to hot objects? As I understand from my reading, the flow of heat is a function of strong chance, not of physical necessity. Just as it is possible, but most unlikely, to shuffle a deck of cards and find that the shuffle results in a deck arranged Ace-to-King by suits (although this, too, must happen infinitely often in an infinite multiverse), it is possible, but even more unlikely, for a hot cup of coffee to absorb heat from the surrounding cooler air, thus growing warmer while the air cools (but again, even this must happen infinitely often in an infinite multiverse). Fourth, might there not be an inexact copy of you who is experiencing a catastrophe of some sort right now? A tornado? A tremendous volcanic explosion? An asteroid hit? A nearby supernova? Are there not, out there in the infinitude, copies of you experiencing every catastrophe possible? Has not every possible catastrophe always been occurring at some point in the multiverse? And, as with IQ, exactly how destructive of a catastrophe is possible, according to the laws of physics across the possible universes within an infinite multiverse? There must be quite the variety of catastrophes, many entirely beyond imagination, yet it seems that there is a limit on catastrophes. There is one catastrophe that is actually not possible. The catastrophe that is not possible is that catastrophe that actually destroys the multiverse. We are here, after all. Apparently the infinite multiverse cannot be destroyed, even by an infinitude of catastrophes.
TEGMARK: I don’t think that there’s anything truly infinite in our physical world. DIGGES: The power of God is infinite. RICCIOLI: No one can deny the power of God. Nevertheless, some ideas, while perhaps we cannot say they are absolutely impossible, nevertheless fail to satisfy the prudent. LOCHER: And we should look for alternatives to those ideas. Mr. Lansbergen, you once explicitly invoked the infinitude of God to solve the problem the Copernican theory had with all stars being so giant as to dwarf the sun. The giant stars were, you said, God’s army of star-warriors. RICCIOLI: Truly an idea that fails to satisfy the prudent. LANSBERGEN: Isaiah 40:26: “Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these: He leads out their army and numbers them, calling them all by name.” RICCIOLI: And what is the sun, then, if you invoke Holy Writ to justify your turning every last star into a behemoth that dwarfs it, just to fix the scientific absurdities that arise from Copernicus’s bogus theory? Does not the Psalmist describe the sun as — LOCHER: Fr. Riccioli, the Copernican theory is not bogus. (pause, Riccioli clearly taken aback) RICCIOLI: I beg your pardon, Johann. You yourself supported Tycho in your Disquisitions (I read some of it, Mr. Koyré). You stated the problem of star sizes as elegantly as anyone. LOCHER: Yes, Father, but that is part of my point with Mr. Lansbergen. For as I have since learned, the measured sizes of the stars turned out to be spurious, a phenomenon of light. RICCIOLI: Horrocks. DIGGES: Excuse me? RICCIOLI: Jeremiah Horrocks. He observed the moon passing in front of stars. Decades after Horrocks died, Hevelius published his observations. I read that book. The stars disappeared suddenly — too rapidly for any measured size. LANSBERGEN: Which means they are not giant. LOCHER: Right. They are greater or lesser suns, nothing more — apparently most stars are actually lesser than the sun. My point, Mr. Lansbergen, is that you appealed to the might of God — to the infinite — to something really cool — to explain a scientific problem. That problem turned out to be simple and basic and boring, namely that there was something yet to be learned about the nature of light and telescopes. RICCIOLI: Lansbergen was hardly alone among Copernicans in that. LOCHER: And the thing is, Mr. Lansgbergen’s star-warriors were fascinating to think about — they were cool — in the same way as are doppelgängers and the multiverse. What I say — my whole point here — is that our famed poet’s multiverse is of a piece with Mr. Lansbergen’s going to infinitudes to answer a scientific question. Are star-warriors any more removed from reason than the infinite multiverse with its robot dinosaurs? Is anything more removed from reason? Would not just one finite universe, even if we must invoke heathen magic to explain its existence, be more reasonable than the infinitude, the robot dinosaurs, and so on? And on a more practical level, it seems that among those people to whom Mr. Greene refers, those who are watching our discussion, there is a fascination with extraterrestrial beings living on the moon — RICCIOLI: No men dwell on the moon! LOCHER: — and it is supposed by some of those people that astronomers know of these beings and yet hide the fact! How could anyone convince the populace that such an idea is utterly fantastical when at the same time doppelgängers and the multiverse feature in real scientific discussion? Especially when both moon beings and doppelgängers are cool? Would not the sense of the populace regarding science be better if there were more emphasis on the basics of science, and on its problems and limits, and less on the doppelgängers? TEGMARK: We will ultimately discover some mathematical description of the Universe which is infinity-free and find that all this infinite math that we’re using today is just a really convenient approximation. LOCHER: So that infinities and doppelgängers will go the way of the star-warriors!
This marks the end of the transcript. I cannot imagine how this video was made, but I offer as a hypothesis* that within an infinite multiverse there can be found many doppelgängers of Locher, Lansbergen, and so forth, and likewise there can be found a civilization with the technological ability to travel, perhaps within a Quilted Multiverse through wormholes or other means, perhaps between other multiverses by other means, so as to bring these men together for a discussion. But even such technology must have its glitches, which is why I cannot find the video any more.
*An alternative hypothesis is that I succumbed to the urge to try out a little silliness on this blog, and that much of the content of this post is owed to my clever younger son and to my clever wife (whose names I omit, lest search engines forever connect them to “army of robot dinosaurs”)—and that the idea that a multiverse necessitates both robot dinosaurs and a pantheon of Norse-style gods is Younger Son’s, and that Wife remarked that the multiverse made the Copernican “giant-stars-as-palace-or-warriors-of-God” idea seem tame by comparison. Regardless of which hypothesis you prefer, it seems that the comments of these doppelgängers have much in common with the writings of Locher, Lansbergen, etc., mostly as found in Setting Aside All Authority. Exceptions are the Greene doppelgänger, whose comments seem similar to what can be found in the book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (pages 8-10, 34, 62, 321) by our universe’s Brian Greene; the Lucretius doppelgänger, whose comments seem to echo On the Nature of Things (II, 1055-1080; V, 1245); the Tegmark doppelgänger, whose comments do seem to echo comments by Tegmark that appear on the web; and the Koyré doppelgänger, “A Documentary History of the Problem of Fall [etc.]” (p. 331). Doppelgänger Locher’s comments, on the other hand, are not a clear echo of any known existing work; in particular, our universe’s Johann Georg Locher makes no reference to armies of robot dinosaurs in his Disquisitions of 1614.