The Singular Whiteness of the Multiverse

Worlds without End is its own multiverse of multiverses. Probable, possible, and profoundly unlikely universes multiply across its pages, splitting off from one another in infinite trouser-legs of time, bubbling up from one another’s surfaces, emerging from the queer turns of those that precede them, branching genealogically upwards and outwards, and exploding outwards from the ruins of their predecessors. This unruly menagerie of possible worlds can be sorted, Rubenstein tells us, into a fourfold taxonomy: worlds that are spatially multiple, existing alongside one another in monadic isolation or chaotically colliding like cosmic dodgems; worlds that are temporally multiple, phoenix-universes born from one another’s ashes, rising from the dead either changed or unchanged by their descent into the hell of nothingness; worlds that make free will not the rupture internal to an inconsistent order of being but the sliding-door birthing-points of new and parallel universes where everything is the same but for that one decision; or modal universes in which everything that could exist, does exist, over and over again, unendingly.
Yet for all this multiplicity, the multiverse whose contours emerge as the frame of Worlds without End is ultimately one of the eternal return of the same; a cosmology which – Rubenstein tells us – Nietzsche inherited from the Stoics, and which surfaces partially in Kant, then is reborn once again in the new ekpyrotic model of Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok. MaryJaneRubenstein-WorldsWithoutEnd-coverJust as for Epicurus there may be ‘an infinite number of atoms’ yet only ‘a finite number of types of atoms’ which ‘means that any given configuration is bound not only to occur, but also to recur – infinitely’, so too for Rubenstein we can trace back even the most speculative and secular of contemporary multiverse theories through that old familiar history which runs from Kant to Newton, to Kepler, to Descartes, to Galileo, to Nicholas of Cusa, to Thomas Aquinas to Augustine, to the Stoics, to the Atomists, to Aristotle and finally, in the beginning, to Plato. This particular phoenix universe is one that runs, as S Sayyid would say, ‘from Plato to Nato’ – with, of course, a crucial passage through Christendom. Rubenstein sets out to uncover a ‘more complicated story’ from beneath the hegemonic belief in the uniqueness of the cosmos, exploring at the margins of the line which runs ‘from Plato to Einstein’ in search of traces of ‘bold openings, frightened foreclosures and radical retrievals of cosmic multiplicity’ that undermine this ‘linear reign of singularity’. Yet her own narrative remains within the linear reign of a singular history of a single world brought into being by the first mover of Greek philosopher, running from classical Hellenic philosophy to Christian-Platonic theology to the emergence of secular science. There is no way to think the multiverse, it seems, which does not ultimately recall the Greek origins of the Western tradition, which does not ultimately keep open the possibility of the Christian creator God.

Or is there? Contemporary researchers of the Cosmic Microwave Background seek to find evidence of other worlds in the fuzzy interference which forms the backdrop to our cosmic observations. Specifically, they look for evidence that our universe has collided with other universes; for ‘“bruises” in the form of “inhomogeneities in the inner-bubble cosmology”’, for ‘scars’, for signs of ‘entanglement’, for hints which they describe as the ‘dark flow’. Perhaps we can detect such hints of other worlds in the margins of Rubenstein’s own narrative. For our world too, the world of white Western hegemony ‘is the product of and the material for other worlds’, is ‘constitutively bound up with an untold number of others.’ If we know where to look, we can glimpse them. They are there in the gap between chapters 2, which ends with the ashes of Stoic thinking, cast into the furnace of ignominy by Augustine’s fiery denunciation, and chapter 3, which sees the question of multiple worlds arising ‘from the ashes of the mid-thirteenth century.’ What has changed, says Rubenstein, in this millennium of silence on the question of the multiverse, is the ‘rediscovery’ of Aristotle, the ‘return of the “same”’. And yet, of course, the Aristotle who returns is not quite the same; not quite unchanged by his sojourn in the dark flow of history which takes place outside the light of Christendom; not quite untouched by his passage through the hands of Ibn Sina and Moshe ben Maimon. What other lives of the multiverse leave their mark in this crack in Rubenstein’s narrative?

There are glimpses, too, in the background hum of chapter 4’s exploration of ‘An Extraterrestrial Age’, which emerged, Rubenstein tells us, not only from the possibilities which unfolded through the lens of Galileo’s telescope but also from ‘Europe’s “discovery” of the Americas’. The ‘unfolding extraterrestrial debate opened a number of anthropological and theological questions that were remarkably similar to those concerning non-European humans’; what might these other worlds, these other creatures like, but not quite like us, be like? What indeed? Later on in Rubenstein’s narrative, the 20th century ‘oscillating model’ of the universe ‘collided head on with Hindu cosmology’. Yet this collision opens up no new worlds to explore but, instead, ‘perhaps even a tacit confirmation of the cyclical model’s transhistorical, cross-cultural truth.’ There is even, Rubenstein points out, a chasm, an inhomogeneity, between ‘the God of the philosophers’ and ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Yet these momentary glimmers of other worlds go, for the most part, unexplored.

What holds Western science, philosophy and religion together, Rubenstein suggests, is their common participation in the aesthetic ideals which are, for Nietzsche at least, ‘Europe’s Christian inheritance’. All three hold to the belief that there is a truth outside of us, a truth which we might gain access too if only we pursue it unconditionally. Yet this aesthetic pursuit of transcendence is also, for Nietzsche, profoundly nihilistic, ‘reducing the whole world to nothing.’ But it is not this world which is reduced to nothing in the quest for other worlds whose genealogy Rubenstein traces. Instead, in the pursuit of other worlds which Rubenstein finds at the heart of the Western metaphysical tradition, it is, paradoxically, precisely those worlds outside of our own which are cast onto the fire. We can imagine ourselves as the computer simulations of alien experimenters and yet not, it seems, as entangled in any worlds outside the hegemony of whiteness. Perhaps, like Plato, we believe that the ‘oneness of the cosmos ensures the permanence of the cosmos’, and seek to ensure that no other universes can survive, so that we might. Perhaps, like all creationist cosmologists, we begin from ‘the false premise that our world is particularly well suited for human flourishing’, unable to contemplate the Lucretian assertion that it is, in fact, ‘profoundly flawed’. Perhaps, like the Scholastics after 1277, we believe in our hearts that ‘although God could create worlds other than this one, he never would.’ Whatever the cause, it would seem that we have still to come to terms with what the physicist Lawrence Krauss described as ‘the ultimate Copernican Revolution’: the discovery of dark energy; the discovery that darkness matters.

What are we to make of a world, our world, which affirms the possible existence of multiple universes like and unlike our own, real and simulated, close and far away, and yet cannot recognise the existence of other worlds already present on earth, already crashing against the limits of our imaginary universe, already visible in the cracks within our history? Worlds without End closes with the discovery of hope in the ‘persistence of chaos amid anything that looks like order’, with the opening of a possibility of ‘a theology that asks more interesting and more pressing questions than whether the universe has been “designed” by an anthropomorphic, extracosmic deity.’ The last line of Words without End urges, ‘So let us begin again…’ Perhaps we might embark on this new beginning with the words of Aimé Césaire ringing in our ears:

‘What can you do?’
‘Start what?’
‘The only thing in the world worth starting: the end of the world, of course.’’

21 thoughts on “The Singular Whiteness of the Multiverse

  1. Does this book get the whole way through without really considering either Hindu or Buddhist cosmologies? At the risk of sounding like a broken record on the comment threads here when this sort of book is discussed, it seems an incredible omission.

  2. I’ve just discovered a footnote in which Rubenstein says that she decided to focus on the Western tradition because 1) it ‘tends to provide the metaphoric registers on which contemporary Western-based scientists (many of whom are not Western born) tend, for better or worse, to draw’ and 2) she has ‘neither the historical nor the linguistic training to offer careful readings of Hindu or Buddhist texts’, though she hopes her book might contribute to other scholarly discussions that do.

  3. I think that footnote is a valid qualification, on both points. It can’t be invalid as such to write a history of the Western tradition, and I don’t think that many of us here have the competence to work responsibly with non-Western materials. I personally am just dipping into Islam, and I still wouldn’t dare presume to put anything forward for publication. If we assume good faith — and I’m not sure why we wouldn’t — then we can read Rubenstein’s hesitation to venture into those waters as a form of humility rather than a reinscription of Western hegemony.

  4. “If we assume good faith — and I’m not sure why we wouldn’t — then we can read Rubenstein’s hesitation to venture into those waters as a form of humility rather than a reinscription of Western hegemony.”

    That would involve not asking why such a “humility” is necessary, which grounds right back in the notion that the West is enough in itself and everything outside is optional, unnecessary. Isn’t her “hesitation to venture into those waters” and yet still venture reasonably pure Westernism when it comes to reconstituting “the” tradition wholly inscribed within Western hegemony? And why is that not itself reinscription of those conditioned limitations? How does a footnote get her out of this?

  5. I don’t mean to suggest intentional bad faith on the part of the author, but I do mean to point to how high a bar mauvaise foi really is to clear. Nor, to be clear, do I want to suggest (any more than Marika did) that the project is itself wrong or bad for having these limitations. A book like this is a kind of heroic labor in itself; there is no shortage of Western and appropriated material to sift for such a thoroughgoing interpretation, and lines have to be drawn somewhere even to begin. But how one draws those lines is a justifiable object of critique, and reinscribing hegemony doesn’t need to be a conscious act.

  6. Yeah, the prima facie answer to deny this selection of materials with its bias and adopt another as superior in validity is not the correct answer either. The solution to bad faith is not self-abandonment, any more than it is self-assertion, because the hegemonic self is likely to appropriate a new false consciousness and call it justice. We don’t get to stop being Westerners. The question is how to be a good Westerner in the world that has resulted from this hegemony.

  7. I think it’s a lot about how we frame what we’re doing, too, and one of the things I don’t think Rubenstein does outside of the footnotes is explain how she’s decided what to include and what to exclude.

  8. The question is how to be a good Westerner in the world that has resulted from this hegemony.

    Yes, and I get a little tired of people acting like they already know the answer to that and can pass judgment on that basis.

  9. I think her selection is pretty intuitive — she’s doing an immanent critique of the Western tradition. The genealogy starting at the pre-Socratics is the one that Western science itself uses. She’s showing how all these scientists are “rediscovering” previous ideas from the philosophy and theology they presume to overcome, but at no point is she making a move like “and therefore we just need to go back to being regular Christians instead of being in denial.” In fact, in the end she’s gesturing toward a totally different configuration of the problem. Maybe that configuration is anticipated or even surpassed in other intellectual traditions — she’s not making a claim one way or another in that regard.

  10. I guess it seems to me like – as I’ve tried to point out in my post – there are moments in the narrative when it becomes clear that it’s not a self-contained tradition. And when those other encounters and influences get relegated to footnotes, doesn’t that re-inscribe a narration of Western history that’s kind of a problem?

  11. Yes, but in the service of a counterreading. The narrative of modern science is a triumphalist, progressivist one — we’re getting closer and closer to the theory of everything, not based in tradition or religion, but sheer empirical investigation! And then it turns out that for all the fine-grained data they’ve collected, they’re no better off than the pre-Socratics conceptually, and meanwhile many of the most significant conceptual advances took place precisely within the theological tradition that modern science views as retrograde and ignorant.

    Meanwhile, I certainly don’t take her to be an advocate of the Western tradition or to be satisfied with any of the options it offers.

  12. But doesn’t that very claim – that nothing has really changed since the pre-Socratics – feed into the idea that the West is the true inheritor of Greek philosophy? And that we haven’t really learned anything or been changed in any meaningful way by our encounters with other cultures?

  13. Okay, maybe this gets more at the root of why I’m responding in this way: I am becoming increasingly suspicious of academic critiques that amount to an open-ended demand for more labor. Rubenstein has already undertaken a huge amount of work gaining interdisciplinary competence in some pretty difficult scientific material. Now we learn that she also needed to master medieval Islam and Buddhism to do it in a way that would satisfy you? Or else she shouldn’t have done it at all, or is doing more harm than good?

  14. I was going to respond to this prior to Adam’s last set of rhetorical questions, which strikes me as being less helpful. After all, what if the answer is “yes, I wouldn’t be satisfied unless there was more than the West”? Are those who are unsatisfied now at fault for their lack of satisfaction? Would the author even really care? Let’s keep in mind too that demands require power. Why is dissatisfaction with narrative from Plato to NATO a demand for more work? Are the dissatisfied the bosses and publishers of the authors work?

    But before that it seemed like Adam and Marika were getting at a real problem. I would assume (though I’m not one for good faith and charity) you two share a great much in common. Indebtedness to a tradition and awareness of that very tradition’s problems. I think Marika’s question is actually a good one. How does one evaluate work done in the tradition? Why is that not taken more seriously even within a generally appreciate view of texts like the one under discussion here?

  15. I still feel like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Incorporating a wide range of traditions leaves you open to charges of eclecticism or lack of rigor — at best. The problem isn’t with one particular book, it’s with the very structure of academia.

  16. I think I’d say three things. One is that it’s not just a question of how much work we’ve done as it is about *which* work we’ve done. How do we decide what’s worthy of inclusion in our work and what isn’t? Second is that the problem with objecting to the suggestion that people working primarily within the white, Western, male tradition need to do more work is that we already expect people outside of that tradition to do more work: to know their own context but also to know ours. And then the third thing is that it’s not so the fact of working within that white Western male tradition that bothers me – like Anthony says, that’s mostly the tradition I work with – it’s the question of how we undermine that tradition’s claim to universality, how we acknowledge its particularity. I probably should have done more work in reading through the footnotes to find Rubenstein’s qualifying statements about the limits of her expertise, but there really isn’t much, if any, explicit discussion in the main body of the text that acknowledges the particularity of her work, its locatedness, its necessary incompleteness.

  17. First off, I think an author from outside of a given tradition of thought can carefully and throughly examine other material. While they have to keep their guard for all the dangers of this, but it is plausible.

    Second, I don’t think this is an open ended ask for more work it is a view about which materials that are appropriate. Had she said “this is a book about the Western response to such things and an immanent critique” explicitly, which she doesn’t seem to have done, this wouldn’t be such a clear point, though the idea that the West is a free standing and hermetically sealed thing would need to be examined.

    But this book seems to be about what it means for humans to seriously embrace the idea of multiple universes intellectually. To not consider the fact that large groups of humans have done so at a place much more central to their cultures is a large omission. I feel a similar way about works that discuss things like interconnectedness (particularly!), or even societies that lack of a creator deity, but don’t bring up the whole cultures shaped by such ideas that have existed for many thousands of years. As I have said here ad nauseam. If scientists are ignoring the fact theology has considered some of these ideas, it seems Rubenstein might be repeating this with regard to other cosmologies. It just doesn’t seem enough to footnote it, to me. Maybe this is a demand (?) for only slightly more work in the end than learning your Pāli Canon!

    We don’t have the book where the whole world of cosmologies is discussed. I am sure like all academic work it would be flawed, insufficient and (particularly) annoying to total specialists in the given subjects. We would be writing different blog posts. An expert on Buddhist cosmologies would be saying she hasn’t embraced the breadth of the tradition on this or that point, I guarantee it. This is fine. People are always going to say something damning about a book! Criticism is the core of what academics do! I am not sure if speculatively talking about the flaws of such a project is as useful as talking about the flaws of the actual empirical book.

Comments are closed.