But What If? Hopeful in the Face of Reality

Poverty. War. Hunger. Climate change. Justice in freedom. Illiteracy. Overpopulation. The income gap… On many a day, I take stock of the state of the world and panic. Given the reality of these inextricable challenges, I sometimes wonder if it has to be this way, by necessity. Must this be our social paradigm because, like a law of physics, it is an underlying, fundamental principle of our world?

Thus I was struck with inspiration when I read Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, where the author-physicist explains that the universe in which we live may in fact be only one of infinitely many alternate universes. Indeed, the same fundamental principles of physics from which the laws of nature derive may lead to many different, self-consistent universes with significantly different properties of matter and energy from our own:

“The situation could be likened to a school of intelligent fish who one day began wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then, a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves.  Maybe there are,  they suggest,  many other worlds, some of them completely dry,  and everything in between.”

This “multiverse” concept is revolutionary for theoretical physicists, and the chapter reads a bit like science-fiction, teetering on the edges of philosophy, religion and science. The implications of this theory (if it turns out to be true) are enormous:

“If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here."

I read this with a mixture of mind-blowing awe and great relief. The fundamental principles of our universe may not be as fundamental as we believe them to be. It is possible that the underlying tenets of our economy and culture remain fixed (competition is good, capitalism is sacred, individualism is revered, etc.) and that a social paradigm drastically different than our current one exists within this axiomatic system.

If it does not have to be this way, how else can it be? I don’t know. But simply knowing that an alternative reality is plausible, I am hopeful.