Why a Multiverse Shouldn’t Make You Feel Small (or should it?)

In a column today describing his new book, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality renowned physicist Max Tegmark says:

… our universe isn’t just described by math … it is math in the sense that we’re all parts of a giant mathematical object, which in turn is part of a multiverse so huge that it makes the other multiverses debated in recent years seem puny in comparison.

The good news is the promise this holds for human knowledge:

If I’m right and this is true, then it’s good news for physics, because all properties of our universe can in principle be understood if we’re intelligent and creative enough. For example, this challenges the common assumption that we can never understand consciousness. Instead, it optimistically suggests that consciousness can one day be understood as a form of matter…

The bad news is that reality would be vastly larger than we have ever imagined, potentially making us feel extraordinarily small in comparison. Clearly, Tegmark has something in mind like Pascal’s lament from the Pensees:

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then.

But Tegmark rejects existential angst. Yes, reality is inconceivably large but he finds this discovery “empowering … because we’ve repeatedly underestimated not only the size of our cosmos, but also the power of our human mind to understand it.” This is reminiscent of Bertrand Russell’s conclusion when discussing the value of philosophy: “through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”

I am sympathetic to these types of views and believe they point to something profound. The mind increasingly understands reality and is rendered great in the process; humans transcend themselves. But will our knowledge continue to increase? Will we even survive? For the moment, I still feel exceedingly small.

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