The title of Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s newest book is both enlightening and baroque and is worth reproducing in full:
Worlds without end: the many lives of the multiverse…in which are discussed pre-, early-, and postmodern multiple-worlds cosmologies; the sundry arguments for and against them; the striking peculiarities of their adherents and detractors; the shifting boundaries of science, philosophy and religion; and the stubbornly persistent question of whether creation has been “designed.”
Such is this impressive and graceful book in nuce, and so let us use the full title to crack this book open.
The lives of the multiverse. As Rubenstein notes in her Introduction, the multiverse, a term coined by William James, has become mainstream. To cite only a few examples, the multiverse has been depicted in television shows such as Community and Family Guy, presented in popular science books like Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality or Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, and even used a backdrop as in Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves’ Young Adult trilogy InterWorld. One may have even run across the meme of the ‘Darkest Timeline’, or suspect that one is currently within it. Yet long before twentieth-century cosmology, quantum mechanics, or string theory all came to propose in their own ways different multiverses, and even longer before its adaptations in entertainment, the provocative and startling idea of multiple or parallel universes has had a long pedigree.
The pre-, early-, and postmodern multiple-world cosmologies. Most of Rubenstein’s book is dedicated to tracing the proposals of (and reactions to) the multiverse, or a multiple-world cosmology, within western cosmology, philosophy, and theology, and Rubenstein shows herself to be an able and agreeable guide. The reader is led through the kosmoi of Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle’s de caelo and Metaphysics, the ancient Atomists, the Stoics, and Augustine and Origen make brief appearances as well (Chapter 1). We read about Thomas Aquinas’ cosmology and the stunning and radical cosmotheological visions of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno (Chapter 3). Despite the premature demise of the wayward Dominican Bruno, the seventeenth century witnessed a blossoming of interest in other worlds which was somewhat tempered by Kepler, Descartes, and Newton. Nevertheless even Newton’s more occasional and wilder suggestions and the early Kant’s Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens continued upon and expanded theorization/speculation regarding the multiverse (Chapter 4). We then leap into the twentieth century and the various reincarnations of the multiverse meditated to us through inflation and string theory run amok and through different cyclical models of the birth and demise of universes (Chapter 5). This bewildering carnival of multiverses is then ended with descriptions of quantum multiverses (provided by both the Copenhagen and Many-Worlds Interpretations of quantum mechanics), black holes, manufactured and virtual multiverses, and Max Tegmark’s impossibly daring ‘Mathematical Universe Hypothesis’. The reader can easily stagger not only before the cosmological speculations being offered, but also before the sheer time, effort, and erudition necessary on behalf of this book’s author to present so capably these speculations.
The sundry arguments for and against them; the striking peculiarities of their adherents and detractors. Why a multiverse? Why not? The arguments for and against the different multiverses come from every which way. The arguments, both for and against, run the gamut from the scientific (the empirical, deductive, and speculative), to the aesthetic, to the theological, and even to the existential. It is as fascinating to witness the entirely sympathetic reactions of some physicists to the more bewildering and admittedly terrifying implications of twentieth-century cosmology as it is to watch some others definitively rule out the existence of any creator. These brief reports of and looks into the responses, intuitions, and agendas behind the arguments for and against interject a refreshingly human element into the multiverse controversies.
The shifting boundaries of science, philosophy, and religion. That the boundaries between the scientific, philosophical, and religious are porous is clear throughout the book, but nowhere clearer than in ‘Unendings’, the book’s final chapter. Here we meet the likes of Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, who opposes the multiverse hypothesis not directly on behalf of God, but on behalf of reason (and here the Cardinal could potentially invoke some physicists as allies) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose God not of the gaps of our knowledge but of the center of our quotidian lives seems to resonate with Rubenstein. We are also given Friedrich Nietzche’s remarks on ‘the scientists’ from On the Genealogy of Moral, that third and last class of ascetics still within the thrall of Hume’s ‘monkish virtues’. Rubenstein nicely sums up these shifting boundaries when noting, ‘every multiverse hypothesis opens in one way or another onto uncannily metaphysical—even theological—terrain. Each scenario requires us to assent to worlds, gods, or generative principles that remain, in the words of an old English hymn, “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes”’ (220).
The stubbornly persistent question of whether the creation has been “designed”. The perennial question of universe, now multiverse’s ‘design’ also surfaces at various points throughout the book. Alongside the reflections on Hume, Kant, Paley, there is also discussion of what folk think is to be done about the staggering degree of our universe’s ‘fine-tuning’ and the anthropic principle (in both its Weak and Strong versions), which is arguably design come-of-age.
Worlds without end. What, then, of the phrase which begins the book’s title? Is this play on a doxology merely playful?1 Is it an amused rejoinder to the hymn or a spontaneous participation in awe before the starry skies above us? To whom or to what, for Rubenstein, might sung a hymn be sung?
As this all too brief reading of the book’s full title makes clear, Rubenstein’s has offered us much and much to learn and discuss. Nancy Frankenberry begins our symposium by boldly tackling the problem of fine-tuning, while Noreen Khawaja asks questions regarding the modern and recent shifts within science and between science and religion detailed in the book. Graham Ward considers the ‘scientific imagination’, and its subject, at work in these breathtaking cosmological discoveries and speculations. Oliver Davies returns to the question of the boundaries of science and religion and wonders what resources allowed medieval theologians to anticipate such a lively and enthralling cosmos. Ted Peters directly addresses the question of God in conversations about the multiverse, and ends by noting that more important than knowing whether God exists, is knowing whether God is a gracious God. A hearty thanks to Mary-Jane Rubenstein for writing such a wonderful book, for her participation, and to our panelists for their thoughtful contributions.
While ‘world without end’ is perhaps most famous as the final phrase of the Gloria Patri as rendered in Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, it also appeared in the slightly translation of Ephesians 3:21 given in “Cranmer’s Bible”, the Great Bible, although the phrase has been documented as early as the start of fourteenth century.↩