Funding the multiverse

Economics – like art – is being slowly influenced by big money

Author: David Orrell
September 14, 2015

An enduring philosophical question relates to the number of universes. In the 14th century, the French philosopher Nicolas Oresme demonstrated the theoretical possibility of multiple universes, but ultimately decided to stick with the Aristotelian principle of a single cosmos. Today, some physicists such as Lee Smolin – co-author of The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time – argue for a single universe, while multiverse theorists think there is more than one – a lot more, maybe 10,500 – or even an infinite number.

What, you may ask, are the implications of multiverse theory for the economy? Probably none, except for the knowledge that if it is right, and there are unquestionably many universes of every sort and description in existence all running in parallel, then purely by chance there has to be at least one in which economists’ predictions are consistently accurate. However, there is certainly a connection with theories of the economy.

Multiverse theory is not based on empirical observations. Barring any future discovery at the Large Hadron Collider of a portal to a parallel universe, there is no reason to believe that such things exist. Instead, the theory is motivated by the desire to provide a unified mathematical description of the physical laws that govern the universe. And this in turn is based like art, and economics, on aesthetics.

The similarity between modern cosmology, art, and economics goes beyond a shared interest in aesthetics

The art of physics
The quest for a unified model has been a longstanding goal of physics, and many physicists believe that the most promising candidate is string theory. This theory, which dates to the 1970s, models particles such as electrons as not being particles at all, but instead as very small strings oscillating in a 10 dimensional space.

The model’s predictions – such as the existence of new ‘super-symmetric’ particles – have never been verified (this has been blamed on not having a large enough accelerator). However, the main motivation for the theory seems to have less to do with predictions than with the desire to build an elegant, unified model of reality, based on aesthetic principles such as unity and symmetry.

As physicists investigated further, they found that string theory did not describe a single universe, but an entire landscape of universes, only a small fraction of which would be stable, let alone suitable for life. The multiverse is a random collection of universes, all running different versions of string theory. Our universe is a kind of cosmic accident – a physics version of a Jackson Pollock painting.

Multiverse theory and string theory therefore have a symbiotic relationship. Together, they also provide a perfect excuse for the failure to make any useful predictions. Multiverse theory is justified by string theory, but if the particular version of string theory assumed to govern our universe is just a random choice, then that makes it inherently untestable as well. They therefore perform a similar function as the Efficient Market Hypothesis in economics, which says that markets are unpredictable because they are random – therfore providing a perfect excuse for the failure of economic models to make predictions. When theories cannot be falsified, aesthetics takes over: as with works of art, they are valued more for their beauty and cultural meaning than for their utility.

The science market
The similarity between modern cosmology, art, and economics goes beyond a shared interest in aesthetics. Just as the Medicis funded both Leonardo da Vinci and later Galileo, so money plays an important role in the markets for science and art.

Consider for example the Templeton Foundation, which is responsible for a substantial and growing proportion of funding for fundamental research in physics. Provided by the estate of the famed investment manager John Templeton, it has an endowment of about $3bn, from which it doles out grants worth over $100m per year, with a significant portion going towards physics, and in particular supporters of string and multiverse theory.

On a more modest scale, the hedge fund Winton Capital recently funded an investigation into Dark Matter. It seems that investment managers (or their foundations) are buying up scientific theories the same way they buy art.

Any source of funding for science should probably be welcomed, but it is disconcerting to think that wealthy individuals may end up having the same effect on the science market as they already do on the art market, which is to distort it out of any recognisable shape. Instead of splashing out $120m for a version of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, as Leon Black (Founder of Apollo Global Management) did in 2012, they can direct similar quantities of money to scientists promising to paint them a portrait of other universes. And of course, economics departments at universities have long been receiving funding from banks and investment companies, which may explain the mainstream view of the economy as a beautifully rational and efficient creation.

Time will tell if these funds are as successful at picking winners in science as they are in finance. Now, if I can just interest one of them in my unified theory of economics. It will look great on the wall.