Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have been fascinated by a theory called Parallel Universes. This theory postulates that there are infinite universes constantly being created which are nearly parallel to our universe, and different things are happening in each one without the ability for one to communicate with the other.
Are you familiar with this theory, and how does it mesh (or clash) with Jewish thought?
— Margie Z.
It is important to understand briefly the source of this theory before considering if it jibes with Torah.
This theory was contrived by an American physicist, Hugh Everett, in 1957 to attempt to solve a conundrum in physics known as “Schrödinger’s Cat.” This is a thought experiment in quantum physics, where a particle such as an electron manifests dual properties: that of a particle and of a wave. It behaves as a wave until it is observed as a particle; the observation itself causes the wave to “collapse” into a particle. At that point, it was, retroactively, always a particle!
This dual-property situation would seem to apply to macroscopic objects. So if a cat were trapped in a box containing a small amount of radioactive material which may or may not emit a photon, if it does it would be read by a Geiger counter on the other side of the box, which would release a hammer which would shatter a flask containing cyanide, which would kill the cat. (All theoretically!) At any moment the cat could be dead or alive, but nobody knows because the door is closed, and the objects in the box could be treated as a quantum wave. Like a quantum wave which must incorporate all possibilities, there now exist dual possibilities that the “wave” killed the cat, and that it didn’t. It must be both dead and alive!
A number of answers have been offered to resolve this conundrum, the most dramatic solution being what you mentioned, the parallel- or many-universes or alternative-histories theory. In this theory, rather than the wave collapsing when observed, the wave continues to exist, in its own universe, and at that moment it becomes a particle in the universe of the observer; that universe has split into two.
This would be going on infinitely with the so-called collapse of every quantum particle, spinning off an infinite number of parallel universes, each with its own reality. Although this sounds like science fiction, it is supported by several leading theoretical physicists. (It also has many problems raised by its detractors.)
This theory fascinates me as it is, in a physical sense, very close to the Torah concept that God is constantly recreating the universe. The deeper sources explain this with the Kabbalistic idea that God is continuously recombining the different letters of His Names to recreate the universe with unique spiritual qualities and opportunities. Every instant contains within it spiritual possibilities which never did, and never will, exist again.
I have always wondered: What happens to the previous worlds if God recreates the world anew?
Perhaps this theory of physics lends an insight to understanding that there are infinite parallel universes which continue to coexist, although one can’t communicate with the other because they exist in a different realm.
This viewpoint would obviously raise numerous deep philosophical and moral questions which we would have to deal with.
We see however, once again, how with the advance of modern science the truth of the world and its inner workings gets closer to the timeless truths of Torah.