All stories are true.
On its face, this is a preposterous statement. By definition fiction is false. The tourists who for decades sought out 221B Baker Street in hopes of glimpsing Sherlock Holmes were barking up an imaginary tree after fictional prey: neither the address nor the sleuth existed. Since then, the address has come into existence as the Sherlock Holmes Museum and the story has been updated, but the man remains a myth. Benedict Cumberbatch only plays Holmes. There is no such person. The lawyer's familiar disclaimer, "Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental," guarantees it. Right?
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes (Creative Commons)
Well, as physicist Sean Carroll likes to remind us, we live in a preposterous universe. If, as many cosmologists now argue, we occupy a dot in an endless multiverse, then all stories that can be true must be true. Somewhere out there, the real Sherlock pursues the real Moriarty. Somewhere out there Dudley Do-Right rescues Nell. Somewhere, Huck Finn and Jim really are drifting down the big river.
How can that be the case? As it appears, lots of ways. If the Totalitarian Principle holds, it cannot be otherwise. That principle of quantum mechanics, enunciated by Nobel laureate physicist Murray Gell-Mann, tells us "Everything not forbidden is compulsory."
In Our Mathematical Universe, physicist Max Tegmark points out that if the universe simply goes on forever, then just as a deck of cards endlessly shuffled and dealt will produce every possible hand, we must expect to find every possible combination of particles, including arrangements called Sherlock, Dudley, and Huck.
But Tegmark adds that the same result arrives if eternal inflation proves true. Inflation, the fantastically rapid swelling of the universe after the Big Bang, followed by a much slower local expansion, is the best explanation we have for the observable bubble around us. It, too, yields endless bubbles of every variety.
Brian Greene, in his book The Hidden Reality, concurs. Like Tegmark, he admits that multiverse ideas, though mathematically sound, are speculative. But Greene points with confidence to yet another route to everythingness: the Many Worlds understanding of quantum mechanics. In contrast to the multiverse, quantum weirdness is observable and undeniable. But explaining what goes on when a particle drops out of superposition has been, to say the least, a challenge.
Many Worlds is now the most widely accepted explanation -- among physicists, anyway. For the rest of us it is a jaw-dropping, "say whut, now?" kind of story. Quantum mechanics tells us that when a particle such as an electron decoheres out of the vagaries of superposition it could be anywhere -- though it is more likely to be "here" rather than "there."
Many Worlds tells us that what happens is the Universe, complete with a copy of you, me, and the electron, splits into many copies with outcomes proportional to the odds regarding "here" and "there." Most of the time you end up in the copy with high odds. Once in awhile you get a surprise. Seen from "above", everything happens. Including "fiction."
Well, not all fiction. Stories of the impossible -- say, Noah's flood or Harry Potter -- don't happen anywhere. Or do they? Tegmark and others encourage us to think about yet more universes, ones where the laws of physics themselves vary. Hah, you say. When pigs fly!
But why not? An endless multiverse need not have uniform laws. If the rules that govern the behavior of everything can take every possible form, then what's left on the forbidden list?
Mount your brooms! Bring on the flying pigs! Expecto Patronum!
Curiously, though, something is excluded. It comes not from science but from religion. That something is God. Traditional theism holds that God is supremely perfect in three ways: power, knowledge, and goodness.
A longstanding objection to this claim is the Problem of Evil. How, it asks, can a perfect being allow evil to exist? A body of apologetics devoted to staving off the Problem of Evil has followed, with answers that range from blaming Eve to disputing the existence of a best of all possible worlds.
In the teeth of an infinite multiverse, all these defenses collapse. A God who allows everything to happen makes no choices at all, and therefore cannot be a theistic God in any meaningful sense. At most, he can be a Creator, but that's hardly better. If all outcomes are realized, then there's no difference between a personal creator and an impersonal creative force.
This realization makes a paradox of the biblical claim "with God, all things are possible." If that dismays you, here are some comforting thoughts. Consider: if the more radical of multiverse scenarios is true, then somewhere must be a happy place called heaven where, the moment your earthly consciousness comes to an end, an identical copy of it will continue to exist. Sadly, however, the same must be true for an unpleasant place called hell.
Greater comfort, I think, is to be found in the realization that infinity is as problematic for science as it is for religion. Much as an infinitely perfect God leads to logical clashes with reality, an infinite multiverse bedevils attempts to apply tools such as probabilities to our understanding of the world. If everyone who buys a lottery ticket is a winner in some universe, why don't we all feel like winners? All those copies, including the one with the winning ticket, are genuinely us. What does it mean to hew to the average in an infinity of outcomes?
Of course, the world may be preposterous. Perhaps, like infinities, ultimate answers are unattainable or meaningless. But it's also possible that a more modest, elegant, and satisfying penultimate answer exists. The only way to know is to have faith in the future and to move ahead with an open-minded, rigorous search for as much of the truth as can be grasped -- the search we call science.
Follow Clay Farris Naff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/claynaff