Certain scientific concepts can capture the public’s imagination and develop a life of their own. This is common in science fiction, where time travel, the endless potential of black holes, and travel at the speed of light seem normal. Often these stories do not go into scientific detail and are more “fiction” than “science”. They even inspire new generations to scientific careers.
A current theoretical concept causes Peter Parker to exclaim in blinded amazement: “The multiverse is real?!” in Spider-Man: No Way Home. This multiverse sensation isn’t limited to comic book movies, but has also featured in popular art-house films such as Everything everywhere at once. Without delving too deeply into the science, the idea of multiple coexisting universes with infinite possibilities and iterations has intrigued writers and filmmakers. And it’s done something always elusive – sold movie tickets!
The visually stunning potential is undeniable. Whatever a filmmaker can envision, from grandiose to offensive, is fair game when every possibility is a reality anywhere in any universe. Whether Doctor Strange is being chased through spiraling portal after spiraling portal by Scarlet Witch, glimpsing distant universes, or Evelyn Wang leaping from one version of herself to another in a match-cut tunnel of flashing lights, the visual results are stunning , as the filmmakers try imagine something completely new. Many people may simply be drawn to this baroque spectacle that borders on visual gluttony. Others are drawn to something else, to a new potential that speaks of a deeper longing or unfulfilled hope. But what is that?
Before we dive headlong into the cultural reception of the concept of a multiverse, it may be helpful to get a little familiar with the theoretical concept itself. For non-scientists like many of us with an interest in new discoveries and perhaps a fascination with the counter-intuitive world of particle physics, the multiverse can be as intriguing as black holes or dark matter.
A good introduction to this rare world of research and speculation is the extraordinary documentary particle fever, which follows physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, in their search for the elusive Higgs boson. While this may sound overly detailed and refined (which it is), the filmmakers do an excellent job of finding physicists who can translate their theories into a common language. Years of research and experimentation have reached a point where finding this possible “last piece” in the Standard Model of subatomic particles and understanding its properties will either confirm a theory known as “supersymmetry” or point in the direction of a multiverse. Physicists in the film equate supersymmetry with “beauty, harmony, and order,” providing a broader context into which the Standard Model fits.
The Multiverse, on the other hand, proposes “chaos and randomness on a much larger scale” where everything is a “random coincidence”. Significantly, they found that the discovery of the Higgs boson raised other unexpected questions and did not provide easy answers to their theories. Interestingly, the Large Hadron Collider has recently been restarted after several years of upgrades, so the search for answers to big questions continues.
As you can probably see, this research is a far cry from Doctor Strange jumping through portals and is more about understanding the basic building blocks of nature and the conditions of the universe just after the Big Bang. Still, the idea that particles could interact with other universes captures the imagination and opens a torrent of speculation, many of which are highly philosophical.
Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God.
But as so often, no matter how fascinating theories and ideas are, experience and emotion provide the deeper motivation. Underneath all this universe appearing in movies and popular media, there may be less physics and more psychology. As Scarlet Witch Doctor Strange simply asks, “If you knew there was a universe where you were happy, wouldn’t you want to go there?” Even amidst the chaos and nihilism of Everything everywhere at once is the idea that access to other universes can lead us to a better version of ourselves where “happiness” is attainable.
Of course, what constitutes happiness then becomes the actual question. Is it the attainment of wealth, power and prestige? Is it access to endless novelty and excitement? In this way, the multiverse presents nothing new in these stories. It shows us people who are looking for happiness and fulfillment beyond this universe because they cannot find it here. St. Augustine probably wouldn’t be surprised. His quest for happiness and fulfillment took him in every direction before he came to his famous conclusion: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God.”
This is in no way meant to dismiss human longings or curiosity about the mysteries of the universe or even the universes that surround us. Scientific discoveries can be fascinating and lead in all sorts of directions. What will the particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider reveal about nature? So many of us are excited to find out! But whether it’s particle physics, philosophy, or theology, we should be careful not to be too sure of our conclusions. Scientists often propose larger conceptual frameworks for their discoveries and then say, “That’s it, no more.” Philosophers and theologians can do the same. Not only do we make humanity small, we make God small.
Every discovery reveals something about God’s imagination, and we have yet to discover a small fraction of this universe. I suspect how great and far-reaching God’s imagination is will be a source of infinite wonder. If multiple universes exist, there will be no shortage of theories and speculation about them. Without an actual study of these other universes, we would be speaking beyond the data to make definitive statements and conclusions about their nature. For theologians, multiple universes can have the wonderfully humbling effect of exclaiming, “God is greater than we thought!” And indeed, God is always wonderfully much greater than we imagine.
This article also appears in the October 2022 issue of US Catholics (Vol. 87, No. 10, pages 36-37). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.