Death, Physics and Wishful Thinking

Death, Physics and Wishful Thinking
Credit: Klaus Vedfelt Getty Images

Fear of mortality might underlie physicists’ fondness for the anthropic principle, multiverses, superdeterminism and other shaky ideas

By John Horgan 

Our quirky minds thwart psychologists’ efforts to find durable theories. But terror-management theory has held up quite well since three psychologists proposed it more than 30 years ago. It holds that fear of death underpins many of our actions and convictions. We cling to our beliefs more tightly when reminded of our mortality, especially if those beliefs connect us to something transcending our puny mortal selves.

Terror-management theory can account for puzzling political trends, such as our attraction to outlandish conspiracies and authoritarian leaders. Last year I invoked the theory to explain why Donald Trump’s popularity surged at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently I have begun to wonder whether terror-management theory can explain trends in physics, too.

Physicists pride themselves on their rationality, yet they are as prone to existential dread as the rest of us, if not more so. Their investigations force them to confront infinity and eternity in their day jobs, not just in the dead of night. Moreover, physicists’ equations describe particles pushed and pulled by impersonal forces. There is no place for love, friendship, beauty, justice—the things that make life worth living. From this chilly perspective, the entirety of human existence, let alone an individual life, can seem terrifyingly ephemeral and pointless.

Steven Weinberg, arguably the greatest physicist of the last half-century, urged us to accept the soul-crushing implications of physics, and he rejected attempts to turn it into a substitute for religion. In Dreams of a Final Theory, Weinberg said science cannot replace “the consolations that have been offered by religion in facing death.” Weinberg, who died in July, was unusually resistant to wishful thinking (except for his thinking about a final theory). Other physicists, I suspect, cling to certain hypotheses precisely because they make mortality more bearable. Below are examples.


There is a whole class of conjectures that, like religion, give us a privileged position in the cosmic scheme of things. Call them we-were-meant-to-be-here theories. They imply that we are not an accidental, incidental part of nature; our existence is somehow necessary. Without us, the universe might not exist. One example is the anthropic principle, which dates back to the 1960s. The anthropic principle suggests that the laws of nature must take the form that we observe because otherwise we would not be here to observe them.

The anthropic principle is a tautology masquerading as a truth, but it has proved remarkably resilient. Stephen Hawking took it seriously, as did Weinberg. A major reason for the endurance of the anthropic principle is the proliferation of multiverse theories, which hold that our universe is just one of many. If you buy multiverses (to which I will return below), the anthropic principle can help explain why we find ourselves in this particular universe with these particular laws.

Quantum mechanics has inspired lots of we-were-meant-to-be-here proposals because it suggests that what we observe depends on how we observe it. Look at an electron this way, it behaves like a particle; that way, it resembles a wave. Physicists, notably Eugene Wigner and John Wheeler, have speculated that consciousness, far from being a mere epiphenomenon of matter, is an essential component of reality. Your individual consciousness might not endure, but consciousness of some kind will last for as long as the universe does. I critique these we-were-meant-to-be-here propositions here and here.


A more subtle source of consolation is what Richard Feynman, in The Character of Physical Law, calls “the great conservation principles.” According to these laws, certain features of nature remain constant, no matter how much nature changes. The best-known conservation law involves energy. Energy can take many forms—kinetic, potential, electrical, thermal, gravitational, nuclear—and it can change from one form into another. Matter can become energy, and vice versa, as Einstein revealed with his famous equation E = mc2. But if you add up all the kinds of energy at any given instant, that sum remains constant.

Other conservation laws apply to angular momentum and charge. In what way are these laws consoling? Because to be human is to know loss. When we look at the world—and at our own faces in the mirror—we see the terrible transience of things. What we love will vanish sooner or later. It is reassuring to know that, on some level, things stay the same. According to conservation laws, there are no endings or beginnings, only transformations…


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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