Wow, I got some great news after reading only two chapters in physicist Brian Greene's new book, "The Hidden Reality." I'm immortal!
Only catch is, the "me" who exists forever isn't really the same me who is typing out these words. Though maybe it is.
Just depends on how I look upon myself: (1) as a being with a unique essence peculiar to myself (I don't mean a smell, but a non-physical identity), or (2) as a configuration of atoms which could be almost exactly duplicated in another corner of the cosmos.
I've read Greene's previous books, enjoying them, but finding them a bit overly technical. He's used a different style in "The Hidden Reality," jumping directly into the scientific good stuff without feeling like he needs to go over the basics of quantum theory, cosmology, and such.
So, bingo, by pages 4-5 Greene has introduced the mind-boggling premise of his book: reality could well be a hell of a lot bigger and stranger than it appears from our earthly vantage point.
A striking fact (it's in part what propelled me to write this book) is that many of the major developments in fundamental theoretical physics -- relativistic physics, quantum physics, cosmological physics, unified physics, computational physics -- have led us to consider one or another variety of parallel universe.
Indeed, the chapters that follow trace a narrative through nine variations on the multiverse theme. Each envisions our universe as part of an unexpectedly larger whole, but the complexion of that whole and the nature of the member universes differ sharply among them.
In some, the parallel universes are separated from us by enormous stretches of space or time; in others, they're hovering millimeters away; in others still, the very notion of their location proves parochial, devoid of meaning. A similar range of possibility is manifest in the laws governing the parallel universes.
In some, the laws are the same as ours; in others, they appear different but have a shared heritage; in others still, the laws are of a form and structure unlike anything we've ever encountered. It's at once humbling and stirring to imagine just how expansive reality may be.
There's no better indication of how my current churchlessness differs from my prior true-believing self than what I read before my morning meditation (a habit for over forty years).
I still read some philosophy, usually of the Taoist/Buddhist mindfulness sort, but science books -- mostly neuroscience and physics -- are an equally common target for my yellow highlighter. Often I feel more inspired and energetic after learning a new scientific fact, than being exposed to some fresh philosophical wisdom.
Greene's discussion of infinity in his Endless Doppelgängers chapter had that sort of Wow! So cool! effect on me.
I had a sensation of being released from my usual preoccupation with myself and what is right around me -- which, of course, is a big reason why people are attracted to religions. Science, though, is even more effective at taking us out of ourselves, of putting our ego in its place, because it is real, while religiosity is fantasy.
Also, science is humble. Greene makes clear what modern science is confident about, and what is merely a hypothesis.
Our universe could be finite, like a spherical ball (except in this case, there is nothing the ball is resting in or on, so it is almost impossible to visualize the shape of the universe, as we have no familiarity with anything that isn't a separate "thing").
However, more likely the universe is infinite, for reasons I won't go into, but which have to do with the average amount of matter/energy in each cubic meter of the universe.
If this is true, infinity, not surprisingly, leads to some vastly interesting conclusions. One is that the big bang didn't result in the universe starting off in a teeny-tiny state, as I've visualized. Rather:
If space is truly infinite in size, then it always has been and always will be. When it shrinks, its contents are squeezed ever closer together, making the density of matter ever larger. But its overall extent remains infinite. After all, shrink an infinite tabletop by a factor of 2 and what do you get? Half of infinity, which is still infinite.
Religions speak of God as being infinitely this and that. Powerful. Knowing. Present. Loving. Yet there's no need to posit an other-worldly infinity; science finds evidence for infinity much closer to home. Right here, the universe where we live and breathe.
Which brings me to the most intriguing aha! in Greene's Endless Doppelgängers chapter. If the universe is infinite, then there are countless (maybe infinite) numbers of universes just like ours. Since that last sentence may sound weird, here's why a single universe could contain an infinite number of universes.
What we call the "universe" isn't all that there is.
Our knowledge of the universe is bounded by the speed of light, since information can't travel faster than this. Thus the maximum distance we can see is 41 billion light years -- more than the 13.7 billion year age of the universe, because space has been expanding since the big bang at faster than the speed of light. So distant galaxies are now much farther away than they were when light first left them.
Thus what we call the "universe" likely is just one patch of an infinite universe. Even though a patch with a radius of 41 billion light years is unimaginably huge, in an infinite universe there will be an infinite number of patches that size.
I won't go through all the arguments that Greene uses to reach his next conclusion. But trust me, they make good scientific sense. His most mind-boggling hypothesis is that in an infinite universe, each arrangement of particles in a particular "patch" of it will be repeated many times.
Since you and I are a particular arrangement of particles, this means that exact copies of us abound in other parts of the universe.
This means that if the universe is infinite in extent, 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 in the cosmos, feeling exactly the same way. And there's no way to say which is really you. All versions are physically and hence mentally identical.
Far out. In more ways than one. I'm blown away by this notion of countless me's existing elsewhere in the cosmos. And not just precise copies, but also variations on the Theme of Me.
Because not only will there be arrangements of particles that exactly mirror everything that's happened in my life, but there also will be universes where I did other things -- typed "stuff" rather than "things," for example. So it seems that in an infinite universe, everything that can happen, does happen.
Which can be interpreted to mean, "I'm immortal," since the arrangement of particles that I call "me" will be repeated countless times. However, note that Greene said "there's no way to say which is really you." Thus the whole idea of "me" as a unique individual falls away.
I find this possibility both disconcerting and appealing.
It's sort of like worrying that you've lost your car keys, then realizing that you don't have a car. Yes, it'd be nice to possess a car, but it's also pleasant to be relieved of the worries that come with having one.
Likewise, sometime I think that it'd be great if I had an immortal soul. However, if I had one, I'd worry about what was going to become of it after I die. No soul, no worries.
Brian Greene, sharp guy that he is, recognizes that his whole doppelgängers thing is founded on the assumption that we humans are arrangements of physical matter/energy, nothing more. If there is some unique something else (soul, spirit) that makes us who we are, then exact copies of you or me couldn't exist.
In interpreting the implications of this statement [that arrangements of particles in patches of the universe must be duplicated an infinite number of times], I should declare my bias. I believe that a physical system is completely determined by the arrangement of its particles.
Tell me how the particles making up the earth, the sun, the galaxy, and everything else are arranged, and you've fully articulated reality. This reductionist view is common among physicists, but there are certainly people who think otherwise.
Especially when it comes to life, some believe that an essential nonphysical aspect (spirit, soul, life force, chi, and so on) is required to animate the physical. Although I remain open to the possibility, I've never encountered any evidence to support it.
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've specified everything.
Hard to disagree with. Bad news: we aren't special. Good news: we aren't special, so in an infinite universe the arrangement of particles I call "me' lives on... and on... and on.