Book Review: Worlds Without End -- By Mary-Jane Rubenstein

By Derrick Peterson

I first encountered the work of Rubenstein as I was researching the Christian apophatic and mystical tradition.  She has written several articles on ps. Dionysius, especially his history of ressourcement by figures like Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Jean-Luc Marion, and Jacques Derrida (at the recommendation of my friend Adam, I read another earlier work of hers called Strange Wonder, on the place of wonder in the history of philosophy and theology, which is also excellent).  

It was much to my surprise, then, that I saw she had published a book on the philosophical and theological history of the multiverse.   And what a book it is.  Initially skeptical (interdisciplinary works are fantastic opportunities both to stretch our horizons, and for embarrassing dilettantism), I was delighted to find how engaging and learned this book was.  Her prose remains whimsical to the end, even as it is ornamented by hundreds of footnotes.  And the learned journey she takes us on starts with the pre-Socratics, through Patristic and Medieval literature, into Renaissance, Reformation, Romanticism, up through the current maelstrom of scientific discussion regarding things with fabulously cryptic names like 11-dimensional Minkowski space-time, the cyclical ekpyrotic universes of Steinhardt and Turok, to Lee Smolin's idea that black holes are like terrifying Russian Nesting dolls, with new universes tucked inside their omnivorous bellies. (Lets get the elephant in the room out of the way: yes, it is deliciously ironic that someone named "Mary-Jane" would be the one to lead us on this delirious journey).

 I will focus in this review particularly on the history, for this is (to my mind) the most wonderful aspect of how she frames her tale. Regardless of how outlandish the current science seems, its options in other ways fall more or less neatly into spectrums anticipated by traditional philosophical and theological discussion.  She begins her journey by using Plato as a jumping-off point.  

Alfred North Whitehead's bon mot that Western Philosophy is merely a footnote to Plato applies as well to many forms of current multi-verse theory, it seems.  Looking at Plato's Timaeus (a creation account that has incidentally been used to great effect in Christian theology) she wants to point out that though Plato explicitly emphasized the unity of the world, and is pained to prove that there could only be one world, multiplicity keeps slipping by Plato's bouncers to show up to the party.  This unity/multiplicity schema is of course not new; anyone who has taken a Philosophy 101 course will have no doubt encountered the usual fare of comparing and contrasting Parmenides and Heraclitus. 

While these two seminal figures appear, the primary contrast in Rubenstein's narrative falls more to the proprietary conflicts between Atomists and Stoics.  Said much too simply: these two groups represent whether multiple worlds are "external" to one another ("external cosmic multiplicity", as Rubenstein names the Atomist menagerie) or whether, more akin to the Stoics, there is a single world repeated in endless cycles.  Later we will see that this same dichotomy is repeated in the discussions regarding whether one picks up on the three types of Multiple-World Hypotheses (imaginatively named type One, Two, and Three), or whether one prefers their universes like they do their castles: bouncy, (though one might want to keep the endless cycle of inflation and collapse away from the castle, because won't somebody think of the children?).  The game of pick-your-infinite has been going on for quite some time, it seems.

While Augustine would later reject Atomist cosmology of multiple external worlds (his effective strategy amounting to little more than never talking about it again after raising the point that yes, some do, in fact, believe in said position), Augustine spends most of his energy refuting the cosmic cycles of the Stoics.  His horror at the notion of cosmogonic "do-overs" is palpable; it would both "reset" eternal salvation, as it were, and cause Christ to be re-crucified God knows how many times.  

Rubenstein humorously notes as such that his argument against the Stoics is not so much a (theo-)logical refutation as it is "an extended expression of discomfort."  "Who could listen to this?" asks Augustine, and one can almost hear the anxiety in his voice as he pens De Civitate Dei.  "Who could believe it?  Who could even tolerate it?" The next 1300 years of virtual silence on Stoic cosmology seems to indicate the Western tradition had the good sense to understand that his questions were, in fact, rhetorical.

We should certainly cut Augustine some slack, though, for--putting aside the fact that Rubenstein has obviously exaggerated the lack of argument in Augustine--if Augustine was horrified, even the Stoics themselves were often embarrassed by the ekpyrotic (literally "from the fire") cycling of the universe that their theory implied.  Cicero mentions it once, only to never bring it up again.  Why?  Following the work of Mircea Eliade, Rubenstein theorizes that such an eternal "undoing" would not go over well with the political elites of Rome.  For the mythos of an "eternal city" would be hard to maintain if one's cosmology said otherwise.  

On the other hand, as the story goes, when Alexander the Great heard the Atomist theory of an infinite plurality of worlds, he is reputed to have fallen on his knees and wept "for he had not yet conquered even one."  Our cosmological imaginations have political upshot, says Rubenstein.  And if I had a complaint about this book it is that she does not follow her own fabulous insight more fully.  Soul-City-Cosmos-God; these have always been mutually implicating in the history of thought.  The denigration of theology in our current secular society (and perhaps the denigration of reason itself) is that precisely because we imagine ourselves to be secular we hide the still all-too-real connections between what we believe (or disbelieve, as is increasingly common) regarding one or more of these entities.

Discussion of multiple worlds became en vogue again in the Medieval tradition, not so much because either Stoicism or Atomism revived, but with the rediscovery of Aristotle's texts his opponents (themselves encoded in Aristotle's texts) became ghostly figures demanding exorcism.  Many worlds became a thinkable position despite this, especially with the rejection of Aristotelianism (which followed their master in arguing vehemently--though not consistently, as Rubenstein points out--against the possibility of multiple worlds on the basis of Aristotle's physics) in the "Condemnation of 1277" which rendered anathema anyone who said that God could not make multiple (even infinite) worlds.  

It was God's absolute omnipotence that was at stake: whereas for Aristotle it was deemed a physical impossibility that multiple worlds could exist, such physical constraint should hardly bother an omnipotent God, reasoned Etienne Tempier, the Bishop of Paris responsible for the condemnatory list.  Such reasoning was followed famously by Nicole Oresme and Jean Buriden, who used such reasoning to create the entire genre of the scientific use of counterfactual reasoning (such as imagining a frictionless plane) which even led to the suggestion that the earth was not the center of the solar system (gasp!) and rotated on its axis (which to them seemed more elegant than saying, with Ptolemy and Aristotle, that the whole universe made an ungainly revolution around the earth in a 24-hour period).  For an in-depth exposition on this check out Amos Funkenstein's groundbreaking work on "Theology and the Scientific Imagination."  Few, however, ever asserted the reality of multiple worlds; it remained a curious experiment of thought which opened pathways to vistas the Stagirite's physics had slapped "dead end" signs all over.

In fact with Nicholas of Cusa and Giordanno Bruno, if God did not create an infinite number of worlds, this would be a denigration of God's glory and power.  (Cusa has, incidentally, garnered quite a bit of discussion recently because he is such a fascinating figure. I've had the pleasure of reading Johannes Hoff's The Analogical Turn and Michael Moore's Nicholas of Cusa and the Kairos of Modernity, and will "rapid review" them in the coming days.  In the meantime head over to Syndicate Theology's absolutely fantastic symposium on Hoff's book, in which Moore also participates).  

Here with Cusa and Bruno comes the true "Copernican revolution"; for though the geo-centric cosmos had been ousted from its firm position where Aristotle and Ptolemy had staked it, for Copernicus the universe remained irreducibly finite. Its far edges were still impassably bound by the circulature of fixed stars.  From here Rubenstein discusses many others like Descartes, including a previously unknown manuscript by Immanuel Kant called Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (Kant wrote this when he was just 31, but as soon as it was finished the publisher went bankrupt and held on to all the copies). "It had to wait for more than a century for its true greatness to be appreciated." 

Kant is in fact startlingly prescient with many of his theories--envisioning something akin to the "Nebular hypothesis" of solar-system formation, for example.  Kant envisions an infinite amount of galaxies that are themselves like "stars" entwining and forming a sublimely enormous superstructure  or "meta-galaxy."  In a startling profusion of images and ideas (which thoroughly contradicts his later and much more famous work in the three Critiques) Rubenstein notes that this early forgotten work of Kant tries to combine all the elements of both Atomism and Stoicism.  Whereas in his later critiques he will warn others that they should not try to leave the tight confines of the "islands of reason" to set forth into the misty twilight world that lay beyond, here Kant is quite confident in his own powers of inquiry as they are wedded to Isaac Newton, and that his "dangerous journey" through the cosmos has led him to see the "promontories of new lands."

But we are threatening here to lengthen this "short review" too far.  This is a fantastic work on the history of ideas, and Rubenstein does an excellent job demonstrating both how old ideas (however much we forget this) still shape even the most cutting-edge scientific projects, but also that the way we envision the cosmos is not neutral, but has political ramifications.  

This is important--and will be our parting thought--for Rubenstein in the final chapter elaborates how many of the theoretical speculations of modern science--however much they also have mathematical and possibly even empirical correlates--share a fuzzy borderland with philosophy and theology.  For of course in part the Many-World's hypothesis (MWH) was born out of an urgent need to explain the so-called "Cosmological Constant," which appeared so incredibly fine-tuned one needed a "Get-out-of-Theism" free card.  Augustine's "who could believe it?  Who could even stand it?" is perhaps the rallying cry of many who now see the MWH as the only possible recourse (as the atheist Richard Lewontin said a while back--my paraphrase--we accept the conclusions of naturalism, no matter how absurd, for me mustn't allow a divine foot in the door.)  

And yet, as Rubenstein shows, the MWH has antecedents in theological and philosophical history.  This is not to collapse the distinction between doing theology and doing mathematics or empirical work in science (may it never be!); it is rather to show that speculation on many worlds has never been alien to Christian thought--it was in certain forms even promoted by it.  For just as there are many worlds that we have yet to see, the rich worlds of theological history lay behind us, waiting to uncover the lost histories that texture our thought even now.