Medieval Scholars Believed in the Possibility of Parallel Universes

A 13th-century conflict between faith and science ultimately led to a surprising outcome: a medieval multiverse theory.

So many universes are possible.
So many universes are possible. NASA/ESA

Etienne Tempier had a problem. In 1277, he was bishop of Paris, and there was talk that, at the Sorbonne, members of the arts faculty—the professors on the non-theological side of the school—were teaching heretical ideas, mostly derived from Aristotle’s writings. The pope himself, a former Sorbonne theology professor, had written to ask Tempier to look into these rumors.

The bishop responded with a list: 219 propositions that he condemned as heretical. Any arts faculty who taught them would be excommunicated from the church and would lose their livelihoods as professors.

To the modern mind, this doesn’t look great: a religious thinker overruling one of the Western canon’s heavy-hitting philosophers. In the 21st century, it’s common to think of Europe’s medieval era as an occluded one in terms of intellectual history, a time when religion ruled and artistic and scientific progress stalled out. But this 13th century disagreement between two university departments, arts and theology, would prompt medieval thinkers to consider ideas that might seem surprisingly modern. By rejecting a key Aristotelian principle, Tempier inspired later medieval scholars to develop a multiverse theory and to consider the possibilities of faraway planets and alien beings.

“You can think it’s luck or insight, but from knocking out of scientific dogma, new ideas began to grow and enliven the whole thing,” says Christopher Clemens, an astronomy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who’s been studying “medieval ideas of the multiverse,” as he titled a recent talk.

A 1519 illustration of the Aristotelian universe.
A 1519 illustration of the Aristotelian universe. Public domain

Clemens, a stellar astrophysicist, officially studies white dwarf stars, but about a decade ago he started reading about medieval scientific thought as part of a university effort to create classes that crossed disciplines. His gateway to this world was Pierre Duhem, a scientist and historian who fascinated him. In the 19th century, Duhem re-examined the history of medieval scientific thought and came up with a controversial thesis: there was, essentially, no “scientific revolution” during the Renaissance, only a continuation of work that was already happening in the “dark ages” of medieval thought. In particular, Duhem thought that Tempier’s 1277 condemnations liberated Europe’s Christian thinkers from Aristotle and opened up the way to the development of modern science.

Conventional historians sometimes take a skeptical view of Duhem, but Clemens thinks he was onto something. In the case of medieval multiverses, at least, it’s possible to follow a trail from one of Tempier’s condemnations to ideas that emerged more than a century later about infinite worlds, full of alien creatures.

Among the ideas that Tempier condemned was a principle of Aristotelian thought that held that the “first cause” (or, as medieval scholars would have said, God) could not have made more than one world. The logic went something like this: Earth was among the world’s four key elements, and one of its principles was that it moved towards the center of the world. If there were a neighboring world to ours, though, with earth at its center, that earth wouldn’t be moving towards the center of our world. Since that violated the rules of how earth behaved, there could only be one world.

To Tempier, though, this idea went against a key theological principle: God was all-powerful and could accomplish whatever he willed. Since there couldn’t be limits on God’s power, there could be multiple worlds, if he wanted to make them.

Some medieval thinkers took this as a challenge. “Immediately they started to say, ‘Let’s look harder at what Aristotle said,’” says Clemens. They started to look more closely, for instance, at previous Aramaic comments on Aristotle and considered what else might be possible. “They found new ideas that were outside the bounds of the Aristotelian physics of the day,” Clemens says.

The edge of the universe, as depicted in a 19th century book.
The edge of the universe, as depicted in a 19th century book. Public domain

Richard of Middleton, for instance, who lived in the second half of the 13th century, responded to Tempier by affirming that it could be possible to have more than one universe: “God could have and could still now create another universe.” He tried to reconcile this with Aristotelian thought by arguing that the matter of a second world would stay in its own separate universe, and earth elements would gather at the center of each.

A later scholar, William of Ware, developed this idea further. What did it mean to talk about another world, he wondered? He didn’t think it was possible to have two neighboring universes: by definition, the universe should include all the creatures ever made. So how could there be more than one? He argued instead that multiple worlds would have to be entirely separate, with no way of interacting—what today we might think of as parallel universes.

“That’s the way we think of multiverses today,” Clemens says in his talk. “We think, in the modern parlance, that they’re causally disconnected spaces that cannot interact.”

By the 15th century, medieval ideas about the universe had spun far from Aristotle’s idea of a single world, with earth concentrating at the center. The theologian and astronomer Nicholas of Cusa, who lived from 1401 to 1464, believed that if you were able to leave the earth, you would find multiple luminous bodies existing alongside our own world—far-off stars, planets, and moons. He even went so far as to imagine that these planets might be inhabited: he thought the sun might have bright, intellectual inhabitants, whereas the moon might have a “lunatic” population. This was still about a century before Galileo would famously reject the idea of a geocentric world and put the sun in the middle of the universe.

These medieval thinkers were working from a religious idea about divine power. But this line of inquiry prompted a scientific openness, too, to different ideas about the physical world and how it might work. Following Tempier’s prompt led medieval scholars to some surprisingly modern ideas about parallel universes and exoplanets that Aristotle, at least, would have scoffed at.