YOU’VE READ THIS POST BEFORE!
Really. You have.
In fact, you’ve written this post before. And I’ve commented before on your witty style and clever application of science to theological thought.
That’s the implication of work by cosmologists like Max Tegmark, for which both popularized and technical summaries can be found here. Although much of that work is uncontroversial among scientists, I don’t know that many people in any branch of Mormonism are aware of it, or have considered its implications for particular Mormon belief systems. I think it’s time we did, because it may give an entirely new take to what are simultaneously some of the most troubling and the most attractive aspects of the Mormon religious tradition.
Tegmark’s work, when he isn’t analyzing cosmological models using data from the latest NASA deep sky instruments or getting the new Foundational Questions Institute off the ground involves fleshing out the scientific notions of parallel universes.
Parallel universes have been popping up as predictions of a variety of cosmological theories based on both of the key pillers of modern physics (general relativity and quantum mechanics) for decades. They show up from so many different mechanisms, in so many different competing cosmological models, that the prediction of the existence of some set of parallel universes is very “robust”. In other words, it’s hard to avoid – whatever observationally plausible model you imagine. There is now a jargon term, the “multiverse”, that has grown up to describe these parallel universe sets, although scientists who use the term in a given context may be referring to different sets or mechanisms, which confuses most everyone else.
Tegmark has even developed a typology of these multiverses to clarify discussion. In it, there are four levels, ordered according to the confidence we have in the level’s reality. These levels are not mutually exclusive; our universe can, in fact, belong to a multiverse encompassing all four levels.
The levels each come with their own theological wrinkles, but I’ll restrict myself to Level 1 in this post, because its existence and its implications for interpretations of Mormon scripture are the most intuitive to grasp.
A Level 1 parallel universe is a region of our own spacetime and is a prediction of the “standard” or “consensus” model that currently dominates cosmology. The use of the term consensus indicates the relative confidence cosmologists have in its predictions. These regions came out of the same Big Bang as ours did; in some of the consensus model’s most serious challengers, they also evolved through the Big Bang with us. So scientific confidence in their existence is very high.
Two such regions are regarded as parallel to each other (not necessarily to us) if within their boundaries they are identical according to some observer’s chosen standards of similarity and observational accuracy. This kind of definition is fuzzy, for reasons I’ll mention only in passing here, but not as fuzzy as it first appears.
So defined, parallel universes can be identical, or slight variations of each other — even variations much larger than the one in which you stopped reading two paragraphs ago or died as a young child — all simply by arbitrarily changing the standard of similarity.
Also, parallelism can be made to come or go under this definition simply by shifting the boundary being considered in space or time without changing the similarity standard. There are no sharp boundaries where one universe stops and you have to go through customs to enter the next one!
Finally, the definition means that things get trivial when the regions are microscopic; no one cares that one proton is identical to another. Such microscopic parallel universes are all over the place.
However, things do get theologically interesting in Level 1 when we start getting up to human and larger scales of reference, even with this permissive definition of the multiverse. This is because of two features that seem inescapable in the consensus model or in its major challengers.
First, general relativity, combined with observations of the movement of galaxies surrounding us in space, says that space is (at least remarkably close to) infinite in extent. That means space as a whole has infinite regions of any size we can observe.
Secondly, quantum mechanics, in turn, says that the number of ways any region can be organized is finite, even if, quite literally, astronomical. You can’t fill up an infinite spacetime with a finite number of “modules” without using the same modules over and over and over and over…
Obviously, the reality we experience in this part of spacetime is one such module. Thus, it’s been used many times in the “past”. It’s being used many times elsewhere in space “now”. It will be used many times in the “future”. Scientists have to talk about observations on cosmic scales in terms like “recurrence times” and deal with deep technical questions of the proper “measure” of probability in infinite sets. The whole concept messes with one’s ideas of what past, present, and future mean.
Much of Tegmark’s work has been concerned with calculating the average distance to our nearest copy. Measured in meters, the number of zeros in the answer is larger than the number of words so far in this post. Obviously, at this scale, the fuzzyness of how we define the boundary of the universe or how much variation in events we allow before describing the spacetime regions as unrelated rather than parallel doesn’t much matter.
But we can all easily imagine turning points each day, major or minor, where things might have gone differently. (Quantum mechanics measures things in Planck units: there are quadrillions of quadrillions of trillions of Planck times each day for each of us as turning points!) In an infinite universe, anything that can happen does, again over and over and over and over…
Its important to understand that these copies and variants of humanity stand on the same spiritual plane as we do, according to Christianity’s traditional understandings of the relationship between the body and the spirit. After all, those copies have as much right to claim they are the originals as we do, and they are busy debating whether we have spirits. They conceive of an afterlife, and have their various theologies about what it will be like. They struggle to understand right and wrong, and pray to the divine as their religions (which, by definition, must also be identical copies or variants) teach.
Some of them are LDS who take great hope in the idea of celestial glory and work to arrange the form of their family life on “earth” to prepare them to conceive spirit children in the world to come. Some are LDS who fear that their natures ill-fit them for such an eternity, yet have been taught all their lives that such an eternity is the Heavenly Father’s highest hope for them. They often find themselves marginalized within their own faith and earthly families, and are given no reason to think that will change in eternity itself.
Some of them are Community of Christ members who studiously are taught to concentrate on seeking peace and justice in this world, yet dare not hope they or their descendents will see such a peaceful and just world for generations to come. There is no “Next year in Zion!” ritual to sustain them over those long generations as it sustained the Jews, and the denomination has gone silent about its own theology of the afterlife.
The interesting (to put it mildly) question then becomes this: what is the relationship of their spirits to ours?
Both the Latter-day Saints and Community of Christ contain within their canons what the former calls “The Book of Moses” and publishes as a single document within the Pearl of Great Price. The CofChrist splits the same material into several component parts, which it includes within portions of Genesis in the “Inspired Version” (Joseph Smith Translation) of the Bible and/or as independent sections of its Doctrine & Covenants.
The material includes the following excerpts:
“…Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the Spirit of God. And he beheld … many lands; and each land was called earth and there were inhabitants on the face thereof. …And the Lord God said unto Moses: ‘For mine own purpose have I made these things …And worlds without number have I created. …For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them…The heavens they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine. And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.’”
So both modern cosmology and Restoration prophecy are converging on a notion of “worlds without number inhabited by humans”. I am not concerned here with arguing the extent to which this strengthens Joseph Smith’s credibility as a prophet. Indeed, prominent atheist Nietzsche’s philosophy of cyclic time, and even the ancient Kabbalah teachings contain similar ideas.
I am interested in examining whether Joseph was correctly understanding what he was being shown, or whether the “worlds without number” appear in the physical realm in a way he did not contemplate and that has led to painful theological misunderstandings. Have these misunderstandings carried into our own generation and thereby turned some of the most beautiful teachings for many in the faith tradition into something that can also bring pain and separation never intended?
Specifically, it is very strange that, if the only difference between us and our copies is our physical location in spacetime, why that difference matters in the spiritual realm at all. It is equally strange to place any focus on the “pre” in pre-existence or the “after” in afterlife when our copies now “are, were, and are to come”.
So here are some questions to consider:
What if the location in spacetime of our bodies does not matter at all to our spirits?
What if whatever “meta-time” that marks change in the spiritual realm we imagine does not match up with normal physical time in a “before and after” sequence, but in a much more complex way?
What if our spirit, not bound by physical constraints of space and time, is actually an emergent, collective property of all the copies and variants — the way the mind is an emergent collective property of the entire brain?
What if our eternal families and communities in the spiritual realm are being forged by the relationships all of our copies and variants are building (or marginalizing!) in their physical lives — and that is the only way the Heavenly Father has decreed they can be formed?
What if it is only the loving, Christ-like quality of the relationships in the physical realm and not the cultural forms (marital status, gender, cultural restrictions on priesthood, etc.) that seal our relationships in heaven?
What if we’ve marginalized or rejected members of our eternal family because of cultural norms we only thought were Divinely-inspired, because we’ve put together the relationship between spirit and element incorrectly, separating in our practices and thoughts things that truly are inseparably connected?
What if the “system” offers hope for all and is ultimately fair because in a reality in which everything happens we don’t always get it easy and we don’t always get it hard — if we are only expected to live the variant of the life we have with the integrity to follow faithfully the light God has given us?
Those questions ought to keep all of us busy — at least until we start talking about Level 2 parallel universes!
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