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On the Genealogy of Cosmology Hectics in Some Sense or Other In the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche marvels at the persistence of what he calls “ascetic ideals.”100 These ideals include humility, restraint, poverty, chastity, meekness—that “whole train” of what David Hume calls the “monkish virtues”101—and are enforced through various practices of self-denial, such as fasting, flagellation, and sleep deprivation. For Nietzsche, the ascetic sees the physical world as some kind of mistake. Setting herself against everything that is life giving, which is to say everything that is, she is a literal nihilist, reducing the whole world to nothing. As Nietzsche explains it, these ascetic ideals are Europe’s Christian inheritance. It was Christianity, he says, that globalized the allegedly “Jewish” values of “poverty,” “impotence,” and “wretchedness,” spreading these values through the parts of the world that it conquered. By now, what Nietzsche calls “slave morality” has become the foundation of Western political and cultural systems to such an extent that “we no longer see it because it—has been victorious” (1.7).102 (“The same evolutionary course,” he says in a long parenthetical paragraph, has been followed “in India,” where “five centuries before the beginning of the European calendar,” the Buddha taught the ascetic ideal that would spread itself throughout the “Eastern” world as effectively as the Christians spread their asceticism throughout the “West” [3.27].) The point is that wherever and whatever we might call ourselves, “we” are not finished with asceticism just because we claim to be free from religion. Almost no one escapes Nietzsche’s charge of asceticism, but the third essay of the Genealogy focuses on three particularly guilty classes of people. The first class, unsurprisingly, comprises priests, who “heal” their flocks (or “herds”) by making them sick in the first place, prescribing them a set of self-destructive practices to keep them docile and numb (3.15–18).103 The next class of ascetics is a bit less obvious: philosophers, Nietzsche claims, are subject to the same ascetic ideal. Although he initially offers the less than compelling evidence that real philosophers never marry (Socrates, he says, is the only exception, and he “married ironically, just to demonstrate this proposition” [3.7, emphasis in original]), his lasting charge is that philosophers are ascetics because, like priests, they believe in a world beyond this one: an eternal realm of Forms or Ideas or things-in-themselves, of which this world is at best a pale reflection. Insofar as philosophers declare 229


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that “there is a realm of truth and being, but reason is excluded from it!” (3.12, emphasis in original), they are no different qualitatively from the priests who proclaim the eternal, mysterious providence of a God before whom we must abase ourselves. And then finally, Nietzsche intones, there are “scientists,” a broad category denoting scholars of what we might consider the human, social, and natural sciences—any discipline one might study at a secular university. Of course, Nietzsche says, “modern science” thinks itself “a genuine philosophy of reality,” having “up to now survived well enough without God, the beyond, and the virtues of the eternal” (3.23). In other words, modern science believes that it has liberated itself completely from religious delusions. And yet, he insists, “such noisy agitators’ chatter . . . does not impress me: these trumpeters of reality are bad musicians. . . . [S]cience today . . . is not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather the latest and noblest form of it. Does that sound strange to you?” (3.23, emphasis in original). Assuming the answer is yes, Nietzsche goes on to explain that “science today” remains ascetic (and even excels at asceticism) for two interrelated reasons. First, scientists believe that there is a truth outside themselves, and, second, they devote themselves to the unconditional pursuit of that unconditioned truth. Here we might begin to think of all those hours at the computer, in the archives, in the lab; the ritualistic precision over methods, materials, data, results; the caffeine that stands in for both sleep and food: What is all this if not asceticism? And so, as Nietzsche inimitably explains the asceticism of science, these hard, severe, abstinent, heroic spirits who constitute the honor of our age; all these pale atheists, anti-Christians, immoralists, nihilists; these skeptics, ephectics, hectics of the spirit (they are all hectics in some sense or other), they certainly believe they are as completely liberated from the ascetic ideal as possible, these “free, very free spirits”; and yet, to disclose to them what they themselves cannot see—for they are too close to themselves: this ideal is precisely their ideal, too . . . they themselves are its most spiritualized product, its most advanced front-line troops and scouts. . . . [I]f I have guessed any riddles, I wish that this proposition might show it!—They are far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth. (3.24, emphasis in original)

From this perspective—and, for Nietzsche, it is perspective all the way down—science becomes indistinguishable from religion precisely at the 230


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point that it thinks itself most free: in its pursuit of a purportedly objective, singular “truth.” In a similar vein, physicist Marcelo Gleiser calls modern science “monotheistic.” In its quest for a grand unified theory, a single explanation for every last physical phenomenon, science, Gleiser argues, remains “under the mythic spell of the One.”104

Asceticosmologies Part of what makes the field of cosmology such a fascinating case study for this Nietzschean hypothesis is that until very recently, cosmology was not considered a “real science.”105 The reason was not only that cosmology has traditionally been the purview of philosophy and mythology (after all, every field has traditionally been the purview of philosophy and mythology), but also that cosmology, unlike the other disciplines that branched off in the early modern period, was not considered objective. The problem is that whereas every other secular discipline studies objects within the universe, cosmology studies the universe itself. This means that cosmology, unlike every other discipline, remains hopelessly internal to that which it studies. Unlike the biologist, the anthropologist, the economist, and even the astronomer, the cosmologist cannot even pretend to stand as a knowing subject over against her known object. Rather, she is inescapably caught within and irreducibly constituted by the very thing she is trying to measure and observe. There is also the problem of repeatability. For a hypothesis to hold water, it has to be tested again and again on a vast number of specimens. But cosmology’s specimen is the uni-verse, which is to say that cosmology’s specimen is all there is. Where might cosmologists find another “all there is”—much less hundreds of them—to make sure they get the same results each time? Here we might recall Philo’s battery of questions to Cleanthes: “Have worlds ever been formed under your eye? And have you had leisure to observe the whole progress of the phenomenon, from the first appearance of order to its final consummation? If you have, then cite your appearance and deliver your theory.”106 So from the seventeenth century onward, cosmology was accused of subjectivism, imprecision, speculation—in short, of sounding more like philosophy or religion than science. But then, as the legend usually goes, this scrappy little discipline finally came into its own with the accidental discovery of the CMB in 1965. The story is remarkable. Two radio astronomers at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New 231


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Jersey, kept hearing interference hissing through their high-powered antennas. When they climbed up to the roof to see what the problem was, they found piles of pigeon droppings congealed around the equipment. So they power-washed the roof and climbed back down to the lab, only to keep getting the interference. Then, in consultation with some colleagues, they eventually realized that the hissing was not a result of pigeon droppings at all; it was the remnant of the big bang.107 The Cosmic Microwave Background, as it has come to be called, is a snapshot of the temperature and density variations of the universe when it was just a few hundred thousand years old. Subsequent developments in telescopic and satellite technology led to the release in early 2003 of the Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe’s ovoid image of the CMB (see figure 5.1; and a brandnew image was released from the Planck satellite in March 2013),108 which suddenly became the Object that cosmology had needed. It is, in fact, an object that cosmologists can measure and observe as often as they like. Granted, this object is rather grainily compiled by inexorably situated satellites; like everything else, the CMB is produced by means of specific and perspectival material configurations. Nevertheless, it seems to have done the work of disaggregating the subject of cosmology from something said subject can regard as an “object,” because the field has come into wide acceptance as a “proper, quantitative science.”109 Staying tuned with our Nietzschean antennas, however, we might notice that the moment cosmology entered the domain of “objective science,” it also collided head on with Christian creation theology. After all, it was the CMB that confirmed that the universe had a beginning, that it began in a burst of light, and that it came out of something like “nothing”— all ideas that Jews, Christians, and Muslims had been teaching for centuries (see chap. 5, sec. “Let There Be Light”). Although this “big bang” hypothesis scandalized decades of physicists (Georges Lemaître says that upon hearing the idea, Einstein shot back, “No, not that, that sounds too much like creation”),110 the resemblance is not all that surprising if we, alongside Nietzsche, think of “science today” as the “latest and noblest form” of the ascetic ideal. In fact, it is a remarkable sign of the entanglement of Western science and religion that when science finally had a creation story to tell, it told such a familiar one. What, then, of modern multiverse cosmologies? Have these extraordinary revisions to the big bang hypothesis finally delivered the scientific enterprise from its ascetic past? Based on the foregoing discussion of physics as metaphysics, it is probably clear that my ultimate answer to the 232


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question is no. But one can certainly make the contrary argument, citing three major pieces of evidence. First, multiverse scenarios promise a genuinely “objective” view of our universe. The moment a model claims, for example, that “from the outside” our universe looks finite, or that from the outside it looks like a membrane flying down the throat of a Calabi–Yau manifold, or that from the outside the wave function progresses “smoothly” and never collapses, such a model is claiming an extraworldly perspective through which the subject can finally transcend the very universe that embodies him and see “all that is” as an object. Second, the multiverse finally does away with the necessity of a designer-god. Although, as we have seen, it will always be possible to tag such a god onto any cosmology, the multiverse is said—often with elation on the author’s part—to render that god a useless appendage. And third, the multiverse finally gives cosmology all those “other specimens” it needed in order to understand this one. Once the cyclic model is confirmed or inflation is better understood or the landscape is populated, we will be able to understand this one universe in relation to all the other universes—botched, bungled, and otherwise— that emerged before or alongside it, and those that are still to come. In promising a view from nowhere that gets rid of God and accounts for every possible everything, the multiverse seems to promise the ultimate scientific vision of reality. The early modern scientist attempted to transcend his senses, his socioeconomic positioning, his historical location, his dressing gown. But the twenty-first-century multiverse theorist goes further: past the planet, the solar system, the galaxy, the supercluster; past the plasmic CMB and the cosmic horizon that even light cannot reach; up through the hierarchical ranks of increasingly unfamiliar kosmoi until he gains a god’s-eye view of all worlds bubbling out of the sea or bursting out of black holes or simulated by posthuman tweens or populating the 10500 types of universe on the landscape—keeping his eye on the sky until his gaze finally opens onto all possible worlds, actually existing, outside time and space. At this point, it once again becomes very hard to argue that any of these visions of reality genuinely frees modern science from philosophy and religion—not least because they all seek the ultimate, objective truth of creation. From the perspective of these visions’ critics, this inexorable collision with the metaphysical and even mystical has the effect of invalidating multiverse cosmologies. Or at least, they claim, it should have this effect because such theories represent a total violation of the principles of falsifiability, testability, and, above all, economy that undergird the scientific 233


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project. But here again, I find myself tuning back in to Nietzsche: “What, in all strictness, has really conquered the Christian God?” he asks in On the Genealogy of Morals (3.27, emphasis in original). Citing another of his own books (The Gay Science), Nietzsche tells us that the answer is not science and its attendant “atheism.” Rather, the Christian God has been conquered by “Christian morality itself, the concept of truthfulness taken more and more strictly, the confessional subtlety of the Christian conscience translated and sublimated into the scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price” (3.27, emphasis added). Christianity told its adherents to “view nature as if it were a proof of the goodness and providence of a God” (3.27) and therefore to study it with reverential attentiveness. Christianity told the world to go out and seek the truth, the objective truth, and when the world found the truth, it finally realized that “belief in God” was a lie (3.27). But even after the death of God, the devotion to some purportedly eternal, extraworldly truth has not disappeared; to the contrary, the search for it has only intensified in the hands of these extravagant new ascetics. From this (particular) perspective, modern science can therefore be seen as what Nietzsche calls “the self-overcoming of Christianity.” Put more simply, Christianity produces modern science, in a staggering gesture of self-sabotage, as its consummation and its destruction. Nietzsche concludes the Genealogy by expanding this vision, promising that “all great things bring about their own destruction through an act of self-overcoming” (3.27, emphasis added). This promise, then, has me wondering. If science can be regarded as the self-overcoming of a particular form of religion, might multiverse cosmologies be something like the selfovercoming of science? Might they mark the end of the fantasy that “science” has wrested itself free from “religion,” “objectivity” free from subjectivity, and matter free from meaning?111 After all, we have seen each of these multiverse cosmologies open onto metaphysics and mythology not in moments of lapse or weakness, but precisely where they are scientifically most compelling. I would like to be clear here: by pointing out this confluence, I do not intend to say that philosophers have already solved all these scientific riddles or that any particular theology can account ahead of time for the tiger-striped/zebra-streaked being of the multiverse. To the contrary, by revealing the persistent entanglement of all these disciplines, multiple-worlds cosmologies condition and even necessitate a renewed engagement among them.

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Unscientific Postscribble “Okay . . . ,” you might be wondering, “but does the multiverse exist? And if so, which model is the right one?” In the face of such questions, I find myself wanting to hide behind someone like Johannes Climacus, a character that Søren Kierkegaard dreamed up to write something that he could not quite write. In Philosophical Fragments, or a Fragment of Philosophy, Climacus presents himself as a trifler, a “loafer out of indolence,” totally unqualified to contribute to serious philosophy. The tone of the preface gets increasingly cranky until finally Climacus responds to an imagined interlocutor, “But what is my opinion? Do not ask me about that. Next to the question of whether or not I have an opinion, nothing can be of less interest to someone else than what my opinion is. To have an opinion is both too much and too little; it presupposes a security and well-being in existence akin to having a wife and children.”112 A security and well-being in existence, not to mention a degree in physics, a relationship with the angels, and a telescope that travels faster than the speed of light—I imagine that one would need all these things in order to construct an opinion about the existence of the multiverse. So, no, on this matter I have no opinion. But I do have a hunch. To be sure, a hunch is hardly the basis on which serious scholarship ought to be conducted,113 and so I offer mine as an afterthought, a possibility opened by the foregoing analysis—not at all as its foundation. My hunch is that “everything” probably works the same way as anything does. Just as light will behave as a wave or a particle, depending on the question you ask it, and just as chemical and biological and psychological experiments help produce the phenomena they measure, so will the universe appear to be one or many, or linear or cyclical, or infinite or finite, depending on the theoretical and experimental configuration that examines it. In other words, the shape, number, and character of the cosmos might well depend on the question we ask it. Of course, this is not to say that every theory is right ; some will be more internally coherent, mathematically reliable, and observationally demonstrable than others—and those coherent, reliable, and demonstrable models, I imagine, will be the ones that survive the decades ahead. But I doubt very much that we will or should emerge with only one of these theories. Would it even make sense to have a single account of cosmic multiplicity? To arrive at the one truth of the multiple ways worlds can be multiple? 235


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In the meantime, what this cosmic loafer finds promising is not so much the answers, but the processes that produce and undo them: those endless cosmogonic efforts to derive all this from that, efforts whose very multiplicity signal a persistence of chaos amid anything that looks like order. And such persistence, I think, is the real promise of the multiverse. Tuned in to the background noise of many-worlds cosmologies—of their failure to disentangle physics from metaphysics from religion from science— one can pick up the faint but unmistakable signals of an ontology that entangles the one and the many; of an “order” constituted, dismantled, and renewed by an ever-roiling chaos; of a “truth” that remains provisional, multiple, and perspectival; and, perhaps, of a theology that asks more interesting and more pressing questions than whether the universe has been “designed” by an anthropomorphic, extracosmic deity. So let us begin again . . .

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On the Geneaology of Cosmology/Unscientific Postscribble  

Beginning with ancient Atomist and Stoic philosophies, Mary-Jane Rubenstein links contemporary models of the multiverse to their forerunners...

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