ESSAY ONE: From Universe to Multiverse

(READER's NOTE: Officially, the word multiverse means several universes existing simultaneously. It is sometimes used to refer to the possibility that other universes existed before the present one, and others may succeed it. I use the term with BOTH meanings in mind).

Galileo was hammered by the Catholic Church for endorsing the Copernican theory  that the Earth revolved around the Sun, putting the Sun and not the Earth at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. We were awakening to a new expansive view of the universe, although it would take almost another 400 years before we would break the firm grip of ecclesiastical control and scientific reductionism. In 1650, the noted Biblical scholar, Archbishop James Ussher calculated that the creation of the world took place on Oct. 23rd, 4004 BCE, and that the end of the world would occur at noon on Oct 23rd., 1997. That became standard Catechetical teaching in many parts of the Christian world up to about 1960.

 Meanwhile, a mind-shift had happened in the early 1900s with Einstein’s theories of Relativity and the formulation of the Quantum Theory. It was no longer the Earth that engaged the searching mind but the universe at large, now so complex and mysterious that talk about its beginning or end seemed short-sighted and even irrelevant. 

Towards the Big Bang

With the Hubble discoveries of the late 1920s and the pioneering work of the Belgian priest-astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, the seeds were sown for the leading theory of 20th. Century science: The Big Bang. The term was coined by Fred Hoyle in the 1940s but only became a formal theory after the discovery of the cosmic background radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1963. From a single point of energy, 13-15 billion years ago, everything we know in creation today began to unfold, including Planet Earth which first evolved about 4.0 billion years ago.

That which gave us the evidence for the Big Bang threw up other imponderables, particularly the discovery of powerful gravity in the distant horizons of time-space. The strength of the gravity waves suggests that great quantities of matter exist out there somewhere. Its nature and location we know nothing about as yet, but scientists are forced to the bewildering conclusion that the observable world comprises at most 10% of the known universe, which means we know nothing about 90% of the created universe.

It has taken discoveries of this nature to challenge the arrogance with which we humans study and propose theorise about the created universe. The real issue of course is neither discovery nor study, but POWER. We feel we have the right to be in control, absolute control and this is still the driving force behind a great deal of modern science, and sadly behind a good deal of religious dogmatism as well.

Another Quantum Leap ?

Finally we come to the real big stuff: the multiverse. The story can be traced back to 1957 when an American doctoral student, Hugh Everett (supervised by the Princeton professor, John A. Wheeler), proposed the possible existence of several rather than one universe. His argument is based on mathematical equations derived from Quantum Theory which also leads to the notion that the universe is self-creating and poised for indefinite growth and expansion.

In the 1981, the idea of a multiverse got an added boost from Alan Guth’s inflationary theory. Quantum theory postulates the existence of an original empty space (hence, the quantum vacuum), consisting of energy movements (fluctuations) from which all matter is shaped and formed. Guth proposes that the fluctuations initially manifest like bubbles in a foam, and shortly after the big bang, these bubbles expanded (inflated) each becoming a mini-universe in its own right. A great deal of experimental evidence supports this proposal. And it is strongly endorsed by leading scientists of our time including Andri Linde (Moscow & Stanford), Marin Rees (Cambridge), Brian Green (Columbia), Paul Davies (Sydney).

I find the adoption of fractal geometry particularly inspiring: “Recent versions of inflationary theory assert that instead of being a ball of fire, the universe is a huge growing fractal.” (Andrei Linde). Fractals are revolutionary new mathematical image-like concepts, in which we find repeated patterns buried deeper and deeper (a bit like a Russian doll). The more we unravel the observable pattern (through computer simulations) the more we find it repeated in the subsistent layers. It is a wonderful exposition of the leading principle of the new physics: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, yet the whole is contained in each part. (for more on fractals see my book, Quantum Theology, 2004, pp.51-53). 

Theological Implications.

For those who wish to delve deeper, the web pages I cite at the end will provide additional information on these complex ideas. How do we relate these discoveries to the realm of faith, Christian or otherwise? I offer a few thoughts.

1. Long before religion ever evolved, humans believed that the divine was intimately involved in creation. All the religions support this idea. Is creation then a kind of primary revelation of God to us? If so, we need to attend carefully to how we understand creation.

2. Our human tendency especially in the past 2000 years is to reduce creation to a human artefact, one we can use and subdue to our advantage; all the major religions, to one degree or another, endorse this orientation. Consequently, we can no longer assume that the religious understandings of creation are in any way adequate - spiritually or theologically.

3. Although scientists also embrace the addictive preoccupation with power and control, many of their intuitions into cosmic and planetary life may be much more spiritually informed than the insights of formalised religions. On the other hand, several of these scientific insights are congruent with those of great mystics from all the religious traditions of humankind.

4. Christian theologians exhibit strong concern about the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing). They wish to retain this belief in order to safeguard divine initiative, and presumably their understanding of divine power. Today, we understand the primordial nothingness as a substratum of seething creativity. Perhaps, for God, the notion of a beginning-point is of no significance. Might it not be another anthropocentric fascination!

5. Scriptures of all traditions allude to the end of the world. It is very explicit in the
Christian and Muslim traditions. Contemporary science is rapidly moving towards the notion of a world without beginning or end. Might this not be a stronger indicator of truth, rather than the anti-world stance that underpins some of the major religions?

6. The big fear – scientifically and religiously – generated by many of these new ideas  concerns our human place and role in the plan of creation. It is abundantly clear that we are not in charge, that we are not the ultimate species in any sense, that we rely on many other aspects of creation to survive on earth, that we are one small organism among so many others, and disturbingly, not as wise as we would like to think. So what is our purpose? Of all the responses to this question the one I find most challenging and inspiring is the proposal that we are creation becoming aware of itself. Our unique vocation – and contribution to creation – is to enhance the growth in consciousness. An awesome responsibility! (Perhaps, this is what all the great mystics were, and are, about!)

7. Theologically, the crucial issue is around the notion of revelation. If the divine has been disclosing creativity and meaning in the entire story of creation, throughout these billions of years, why restrict the empowerment of the divine to religiously-validated time and culture boundaries? Somehow, it does not seem to make sense anymore!

Useful Source material:

For a useful overview of current thinking on the Multiverse, see: George Ellis, "Does the Multiverse Really Exist?" Scientific American, Vol 305 (Aug 2011), 18-23.
John Gribbin (2009), In Search of the Multiverse.
Joel Primack & Nancy Abrams (2006), The View from the Center of the Universe.

WEB Pages: edited by John Brockman,engages leading scientists in ongoing dialogue.


ESSAY TWO: Discerning The Meaning of Earthquakes

 In late February, 2010, northern Chile was rocked by an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the richter scale, one of the most severe ever recorded. It happened around 3.00am, in the dead of night, with people at their most vulnerable. It left about 1,000 people dead and caused extensive damage to property. 

In January 2010, the island of Haiti experienced a major earthquake, 7.0 in magnitude. Nowhere near as strong as that of Chile, yet resulted in the death of 230,000 people.  In 2005, a quake measuring 7.6 hit Kashmir in Pakistan, resulting in the death of an estimated 100,000 people; a quake of similar strength hit Northern Japan around the same time, with no known human casualities. Finally, in 1991 the island of Guam was rocked by a violent tremor, 8.0 on the richter scale; quite a lot of property was damaged but there were NO human casualities.

The Crucial Issue

How does one make sense of these figures - and ultimately make sense of earthquake activity? What is the logic whereby 230,000 die as a result of a 7.0 strength earthquake (Haiti), but only 1,000 die from a shock of 8.8 (Chile), and the latter struck in the dead of night when everybody was much more vulnerable. Some earthquakes happen deep underground, while others vibrate more on the surface, leaving behind different degrees of destruction. But there is one factor, which more than any other, makes a difference: the quality of buildings. We know how to construct earthquake resistant buidings - they had them in the island of Guam in 1991 - and that can make all the difference when it comes to human casualities.

The Question of Meaning

Both Haiti and Chile are strongly religious countries, in which people turn to religion for answers when faced with calamity. Why is God doing this to us? Is God punishing us for some sin or waywardness (voiced by Indoesian Muslims after the 2004 Tsunami)? Or is it more a case of God allowing the earthquake without intentionally wishing it? In which case, why couldn't an all-powerful, omnipotent God choose another option? What kind of God are we dealing with? A strangely capricious Divine figurehead?

Scientifically, an earthquake is described as a shifting of the tectonic plates. These are large plates of rock, beneath the earth's mantle, forever changing, and in that process, shaping (and reshaping) the earth we know today. Tectonic literally means "pertaining to building." The shaping or building however has implications for the evolution of every life-form that exists on earth today. 

As the plates move, they clear way cluttered debris and reconfigure earth's potential for new possibilities of creative evolution. Earthquakes are ESSENTIAL to the healthy functioning of the earth body. In fact, without earthquakes no life at all would exist on earth; ours would be a dead inert planet.

The Quandry

So, earthquakes are essential to the earth's well-being and becoming, and yet can be incredibly destructive. How do we make sense of this apparent contradiction? Or is it right that we should call it a contradiction? Would it not be more accurate and intelligent to see it as one manifestation of the great paradox of creation-and-destruction which features throughout the whole of creation? It can also be named as the paradox of birth-death-rebirth.

We cannot - and must not - get rid of this paradox. If we do, we get rid of life itself. So, is God responsible for the paradox? I will answer YES, and go on to suggest that this is a timely reminder to us humans that we must cease trying to create God in our own image and likeness. The divine creativity is paradoxical and it needs to be that way to uphold the novelty and freedom upon which all life flourishes. Otherwise ours would be a deterministic universe; many among us would like it that way because WE would know where exactly we stood with things, but we would lack the freedom and creativity upon which "the fullness of life" flourishes.

Without an appreciation of this paradox, and its central role in the becoming and flourishing of all creation - we will not be able to make sense of suffering at any level - including that of the human. Suffering belongs to the paradox. The discerning question then becomes: how do we differeniate between meaningful and meaningless suffering. What is the suffering that is necessary to the paradox, and what is not? And to what extent do we humans contribute to meaningless suffering, precisley because we don't take the paradox seriously?Many of our religious theories - especially around sin, salvation, and redemption - are attempts to get rid of suffering instead of cultivating a spirituality in which we learn how to befriend suffering in a more meaningful way. For many of us - Christians included - that is quite a daunting task. 

 Contemplative Justice

I conclude by highlighting two aspects of the different spirituality we will need if we are to make sense of earthquakes, and live more meaningfully amidst  the several forms of suffering that affect our lives today. We need to change our awareness - our consciousness - in quite a drastic way. This will impact significantly on our understanding of faith. And secondly, we need to take justice-making far more seriously; in fact, it will need to become a core element of our daily faith.

Firstly, the contemplative awareness: This I will illustrate by a well known story of the Morgan fisher-folk, living on the South West coast of Thailand, who on the morning of Dec.26th. 2004 noticed that the familiar sea-waters had receded far beyond their usual limits. Things felt off kilter. Nature was not at ease.

These primitive people – with no formal schooling or education - spend their entire time fishing and live in simple hovels along the coastline. Fish is their daily diet; fishing their life-long occupation. They looked intently upon those receding waters and upon the fishes leaping anxiously. They consulted their elders and in union with them quickly reached a collective decision: within hours they intuitively knew that massive waves would break upon their shoreline.

They gathered their meagre possessions and headed for the hills. One the way they met a group of Western tourists, some of whom ridiculed their story. But a few took them seriously and accompanied them to further heights. Thanks to those Westerners we have inherited this amazing story. Those who dismissed and ridiculed their silly tale walked right into the eye of the storm and lost their lives. The fisher-folk and
their accompanying visitors were totally safe!

By any set of standards this was a brilliant piece of discernment -and I use the term discernment in it's full Ignatian meaning. What a different world it would be if more people would use this gift of the contemplative gaze!

Which readily brings me to the second point of the commitment to justice-making. Japan frequently experiences quite severe earthquakes, yet we rarely hear of human casualities. Why not? Because Japanese law requires all city buildings to be earthquake-resistant. And the Japanese have the technology, money and resources to implement this legal directive.

The people of Kashmir (2005) and Haiti (2010) do not have earthquake resistant buildings. Why not? Because they are too poor to afford them. And why are they so poor? Ultimately, because we humans have devised international systems of politics, power and economics that insist on dividing humanity into rich and poor. In a world of justice and equality, the people of Kashmir and Haiti have every bit as much a right to earthquake resistant buildings as the people of Japan or the Island of Guam. The central problem is that our world-system is fundamentally corrupt when it comes to justice and equality.

Question which will not go away

 All of which brings us back to the religious questions: Who or what killed 230,000 people in Haiti in January 2010? It was NOT the earthquake, and it was NOT God. It was GREEDY HUMAN BEINGS - who refuse to share justly and equally the resources of God's creation. It was humans blinded by power and self-aggrandizement who could not see as the Morgan fisherfolk could see, and could not deliver justice because they are trapped in destructive power games.

The people of Haiti cry out to God, but God is not the problem; greedy humans are the problem! And its not up to God to resolve the dilemma. Humans have been endowed with the wherewithal to befriend the earthquake. We can do it in USA, Canada, Japan, Malasyia, and even in the Island of Guam (a colony of the USA). And we have the economics and technological wisdom to do it all over the planet - in the name of divine justice.

It is a HUMAN responsibility - not a DIVINE one. The divine rescuer is a delusionary myth. We have all the graces and resources to rescue ourselves. Let's face that reality and get on with it.

© 2010 Diarmuid