Turtles all the Way Up

By | May 17, 2006

Because, hey — we believe in equal time:

Here’s how to build a universe. Step one: start at the beginning of time. Step two: apply the laws of physics. Step three: sit back and watch the universe evolve. Step four: cross your fingers and hope that it comes out looking something like the one we live in.

That’s the basic prescription for cosmology, the one physicists use to decipher the history of the universe. But according to Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge and Thomas Hertog of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the steps are all backward. According to these physicists, there is no history of the universe. There is no immutable past, no 13.7 billion years of evolution for cosmologists to retrace. Instead, there are many possible histories, and the universe has lived them all. And if that’s not strange enough, you and I get to play a role in determining the universe’s history. Like a reverse choose-your-own-adventure story, we, the observers, can choose the past.

Three things I like about this notion of the “flexiverse:”

1. It comes from Stephen Hawking

2. It suggests that time and space may be infinite. This is kind of a leap on my part; I don’t see Hawking addressing that issue directly. Of course, even if the flexiverse is infinite the model doesn’t necessarily make any provision for accessing space beyond the tiny playground with a diameter of 15-20 billion light years of which you can observe a small portion on any starry evening, nor does it provide any means of accessing time other than our plodding one-day-every-24-hours approach.

3. In this model, we get to be the turtles. High time, says Phil. High flippin’ time.

turtle.jpg

Going up?

On the inevitable question of the theological implications, Hawking does his standard coy thing

SUE: To oversimplify your theories hugely, and I hope you’ll forgive me for this, Stephen, you once believed, as I understand it, that there was a point of creation, a big bang, but you no longer believe that to be the case. You believe that there was no beginning and there is no end, that the universe is self-contained. Does that mean that there was no act of creation and therefore that there’s no place for God?

STEPHEN: Yes, you have oversimplified. I still believe the universe has a beginning in real time, at the big bang. But there’s another kind of time, imaginary time, at right angles to real time, in which the universe has no beginning or end. This would mean that the way the universe began would be determined by the laws of physics. One wouldn’t have to say that God chose to set the universe going in some arbitrary way that we couldn’t understand. It says nothing about whether or not God exists – just that He isn’t arbitrary.

With all due respect to “Sue,” I think she’s asking the wrong question. As Stephen (Gordon) has pointed out more than once, there is no model of the universe that conclusively eliminates the role of the Creator. So asking whether a particular model does that is kind of a waste of time.

It would be better, IMHO, to ask whether there is a suggestion of infinity here, and what a demonstrably infinite (as distinct from “finite and boundless”) universe has to say about what is or is not possible. Wouldn’t the ontological argument for the existence of God — especially Goedel’s formulation thereof — get a boost from the assertion that the universe is infinite?

And I’m just asking. One thing the ontological argument and this flexiverse model have in common — they both give me a headache.

  • MikeD

    Stephen: “But there’s another kind of time, imaginary time, at right angles to real time, in which the universe has no beginning or end. This would mean…”

    MikeD: … anything I want it to mean. Imaginary time? Right angles to real time? I can make up explanations for stuff nobody understands too. :) At the extreme edge of physics there are only a few egos driving in different directions. Hmm… OK, I’m just being harsh because of the gulf between Hawking and the people who seem so impressed by the aura surrounding him without understanding anything he’s talking about. It’s like the people who think Einstein was a genious simply because they’ve been told he was a genius – you know, ’cause of that E=mc2 thing.
    In our society there is a greater concern for who will be the next American Idol or what will happen on Desperate Housewives than for the impending Singularity – either technical or cosmological. Maybe if candidates for the Theory of Everything were to voted on by the public via text message, we would be able to arrive at a single Survivor for which the primary Inventor could become a Millionaire? So, Deal or No Deal?

    (I had a cogent point, but it was significantly dulled by a truckload of cultural memes)

  • http://www.blog.speculist.com Phil Bowermaster

    Hmmmm….American Cosmologist, perhaps? (I know Hawking’s a Brit, but these things have to have “American” in the title.) You start with a dozen of these guys and each week one gets voted off, after having his ideas subjected to withering commentary from a Simon character.

    Whoever is left standing at the end of the show has the true description of how the universe works.

  • http://beyondwordsworth.com Kathy

    MikeD, I feel like we should cut Stephen Hawking some slack. At least he’s not a fundamentalist “naturalist” who derides anyone who thinks there’s a remote possibility that God exists.

    I hope we discover the physics of eternity. I get a headache, too, Phil, when I try to understand equations and theorems, so I’ll have to leave that to someone else.

    When I was younger, I interpreted the definition of “universe” to mean “everything that possibly exists.” Infinity exists as a mathematical concept, but as reality, it’s unknowable. So, I’m wrestling with splitting turtle hairs, here. Eternity is infinite,and God as we have the chuzpah to define her/him must be infinite. So whether or not we assert an infinite universe or an infinite number of possible universes, or a flexiverse with infinite possibilities, God would have to be transcendent to all that. If we get to be turtles in Hawkings model, are we infinitely stackable? Would God have to transcend infinity? Ouch! My head hurts!!!!

  • http://www.blog.speculist.com Phil Bowermaster

    Kathy –

    At the top of the turtle heap — or utterly transcending it, however you prefer to look at it — we find the absolute infinite, which sounds redundant, but isn’t.

    (You’ll want some Advil handy before following the link.)

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  • http://www.blog.speculist.com Phil Bowermaster

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