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Ethical Episodes

Nonsense on Stilts

by Joel Marks

“So good to see you again. How long has it been?”

“Well, Uncle Barry, we haven’t been back to the States since 2001, and we always visit you when we’re here; so it’s been 12 years!”

“That is sinful. That is impossible to believe.”

“I think we can offer you the living proof. Do you remember Alyssa?”

“Of course I remember Alyssa. The brightest little person I’ve ever met. Didn’t she come along this time?”

“Hello, Uncle Barry.”

“No, it cannot be. Who is this young lady?”

“It’s me, Uncle Barry – Alyssa.”

“I guess it has been 12 years then … or 22! How old are you now, Alyssa?”


“And she’s headed for Oxford in the fall.”

“I can certainly believe that. Come sit down – Peter, Regina, Alyssa – I went out and bought Earl Grey and crumpets just to make you feel right at home – in your adopted home, that is. And I am sure I shall feel transported there myself once I hear Alyssa speak some more. Tell me, Peter, Regina, is it strange to have an Englishwoman growing up in your midst?”

“More strange to have a genius in our midst. Not to give her a big head, but she’s planning to study cosmology – not your typical first degree course.”

“Oh yes, I believe Alyssa and I were discussing something astronomical on your last visit. Do you mind if she and I resume our discussion?”

“Go right ahead, Uncle Barry. We’ve actually been rather looking forward to another one-on between you two. We still remember the last time.”

“Let’s hear it, then, Alyssa. What’s going on with the universe?”

“Well, Uncle Barry, I’d say, in the first instance, that the universe is infinite.”

“Infinite? What do you mean: in space? in time?”


“But what about the Big Bang? Isn’t that supposed to be the beginning? Can the infinite have a beginning?”

“Well, yes. The positive integers begin with 1, but they are infinite. But, to really address your question, I do believe that the universe is infinite backwards as well as forwards. The Big Bang was not the beginning of the universe, but only of our part of it.”

“Oh, you must be talking about the multiverse, is that right?”

“That’s it. I was using ‘universe’ in the sense of ‘everything that exists’. But I will switch to your usage. So I think that the multiverse consists of an infinite number of universes.”

“Well, I know from my casual reading that a lot of physicists agree with you. But I can’t help but be skeptical. For one thing, this multiverse concept seems to have some highly counterintuitive implications.”

“What do you have in mind, Uncle Barry?”

“I have in mind that an infinite collection of universes would probably contain an exact duplicate of our own. You and I could be having this very same conversation in another universe too!”

“That’s true. Why is that counterintuitive? It seems quite natural to me.”

“Oh, I suppose intuition is only a matter of what one is used to. I can grant that general point. I am used to thinking of ‘our’ universe as the universe; but you’ve grown up on the multiverse with your mother’s milk – pardon me, Regina.”

“Oh that’s quite all right, Uncle Barry. But I rather suspect she got it with her father’s pipe smoke.”

“That’s why you moved to England in the first place, isn’t it, Peter?”

“Seeking employment in my field also had a bit to do with it! But, yes, there was also the attraction of having the society of pipe-smokers. Unfortunately, since our last visit to you they’ve stopped awarding the Pipe Smoker of the Year because of the bloody ban on tobacco advertising!”

“Sounding a bit English yourself there, Peter. But tell me, Alyssa, would there also be a universe where your famous father could still be in the running for Pipe Smoker of the Year in Britain?”

“Yes, certainly. Infinity is a rather large concern, you see, so there would not only be an exact duplicate of this universe – indeed, an infinite number of them! – but also universes that were very similar to this one but not exactly the same. I am sure my father is in fact this year’s Pipe Smoker of the Year somewhere.”

“Jolly good for him. But let me tell you what is really bothering me about your infinite multiverse, aside from its seeming simply absurd to my metaphysical intuition. I object to it on epistemic grounds – that is, I don’t think there is any conceivable way we could know if there were other universes. And if something is beyond both proof and disproof, then as far as I’m concerned, it can’t be true.”

“Oh, but it could certainly be put to the test …”

“Excuse me for interrupting, Barry and Alyssa. But I know that your debate, although having begun at a particular moment in time, could go on forever. Meanwhile our stay is finite, and there is something we were hoping to do today … with you along, Uncle Barry, if at all possible. Ever since we last came to visit you in lower Manhattan, when we had even less time, Alyssa has been yearning to take in the view from the top of one of the twin towers. Do you suppose we could do that today?”

“What a splendid idea! I’m one of those typical New Yorkers who have traveled the world but never been to some of the feature attractions of their own home town – the Top of the World being one of them. So let’s do it! And on the walk over, Alyssa, I will attempt to prove to you in no uncertain terms that the notion of parallel universes is poppycock!”

© Prof. Joel Marks 2013

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. His website is www.docsoc.com. His previous sci-fi – or phi-fi – story can be found at http://www.scifidimensions.com/Oct05/teleporter.htm.

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