Saturday, February 12, 2022

Multiple Universes and Alternate Realities

As readers of the blog might recall, there is a bit of thinking around at the moment at the nexus between theoretical physics and philosophy regarding multiple universes. I have read a bit about this so far, and my fundamental question remains: where does the energy come from?

The practical question I pose does not seem to have been addressed. If universes are popping into existence all the time, or much of it, or even occasionally, then the energy for their creation must come from somewhere. If the universe which comes into existence is an almost exact copy of this one, then it must have the same quantity of energy in it. We cannot abstract that energy from this universe, and it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that the energy could come from the same quantum fluctuation which create the universe in at the same time. After all, the Heisenberg principle argues that while we can borrow energy, it must be paid back

The more energy you borrow, the faster it has to be paid back. In terms of our universe, these universes cannot last that long if this route is followed.

There is also a trend at the moment to get excited about alternate realities. This sort of thing is the computer-generated version of the world. We even see it in advertisements for new kitchens these days, where the people buying a new kitchen get to see what it would look like by donning a headset with some sort of ‘immersive’ experience, so they can look this way and that and ‘see’ the new cooker and so on.

This is, perhaps, just fun, and is certainly marketing puff. But there is a serious point here: the information we take in does sort of define the universe we construct. That universe does have its limits, of course. We cannot construct a universe in which we can defy gravity. But, as we see depressingly often on the (serious) media, people are developing habits of constructing reality, or some parts of it, according to their taste, or the taste and expectations of some social media company, or marketing company attempting to sell them stuff. This leads to the plethora of conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine protesters and other denizens of alternate realities who increasingly clog our screens and cities.

The existence of increasingly fast computers and distributed systems, and the capacities of the Internet have sparked people’s imaginations. We have started to think of these networks of computers as an alternate world, a different reality where things are, perhaps, less mundane, less safe or less worrying than our ordinary lives. Advances in technology will, some hope, or expect, mean our virtual lives will be more interesting and fulfilling than our real ones.

Beyond that, it seems that some argue that our ordinary lives are as sort of virtual reality. Of course, this is an argument as old as the hills, or at least as old as Plato. Is what we perceive reality? How can I tell if what I am seeing, smelling, hearing and so on bears any resemblance to what is ‘out there’?

Various responses have been suggested over the centuries. Descartes thought that the truth of his perceptions was guaranteed by God. Hume thought it was just a habit of ours to think that effect followed cause. Kant thought we constructed phenomena and could not know the noumena. In a sense, virtual reality is a technology enabled version of Kant’s thought: we fill our senses with generated phenomena and have no idea as to whether there is an underlying ‘thing’ there at all.

Is virtual reality a real reality? There are some obvious tests. Firstly, we can see what remains when all the technology is switched off. Anything we cannot switch off is clearly outside the domain of any human generated technology, and so we had better perceive that as being real. Secondly, reality is that to which we have to return on order to eat and breathe. Failure to do so will, presumably, result in the end of any sort of perceived reality, virtual or real. We can attempt to live in a fantasy world all the time: we can, if we choose, decide that the world is run by a group of disguised alien reptile-rabbits, and act accordingly. Sometimes, however, we might run into reality, as defined by the rest of the human race, and be labelled insane, or get arrested for attempting to expose the alien conspiracy. This may not matter much to us, of course, if we are so committed to our ‘reality’ that any and every piece of evidence to the contrary gets ignored or re-interpreted to accord with it.

Underlying all this is the motives of the technology companies. They are hard nosed businesses, who aim to make money. The question is then ‘who owns these virtual realities’ and how are the people who enter them exploited. We all know that apparently free internet services make their money by mining the user’s data for targeting advertising and selling the information. The advertisers then use that information to extract money from the user, and feed that user information that accords with their world view. Nothing happens, necessarily, to disturb the world view, so long as the user responds to the advertising and stimuli.

There might be doomsday scenarios here. The zombie apocalypse might be around the corner, consisting not of the dead rising the consume the living but of living humans unable to resist clicking on tempting links dangled before them by a company to make even more money. The failure here is not the dead outnumbering the living but of the living being unable to think critically and coherently as to why something some other human is in control of is happening. Constant stimulation provokes constant lack of critical reflection. The real threat of virtual reality might not be a failure to distinguish reality from fantasy, but a failure to think at all, just to react.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...