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Parallel Universes

I haven’t had the will to write about politics these days, but last night I watched an episode of “The Universe” about parallel universes that generated enough thought for a quick philosophical post.

Image from Sciencephoto.com 

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve contemplated the concept of infinity. If existence is infinite, it logically follows that everything that could possibly be, is, at some point in space and time in some universe. For every event with different potential results, there is a universe in which each of those results is the one that occurred. For every decision you could make at any given juncture in your life, there is a universe in which each one of those decisions is the one you made. There’s a universe where you never gave up playing the guitar and you’ve become a huge rock star, a universe in which you had the guts to talk to that girl all those years ago and now you’re happily married, a universe in which you weren’t smart enough to avoid dangerous drugs and now you’ve died, and so on.

This is all highly speculative, of course. In fact, the idea is in a sense offensive to our whole outlook on reality. We like to believe that we are beings with free will and that our lives are a result of the choices we’ve made. But if there are an infinite number of universes in which every possibility is a reality, we are—every one of us—an inevitability. You exist as you currently do in the life situation you’re currently in because of logical necessity, because given an infinite amount of universes there had to be at least one in which you are the way you are.

The episode of “The Universe” that rekindled these thoughts in me surprised me by claiming that cosmologists have recently been conducting experiments that actually support this hypothesis—that quantum mechanics is leading the world’s leading scientists to believe that such a scheme of things is not only possible but perhaps even probable. I couldn’t possibly explain all of the science behind it (and the show itself didn’t go in-depth about the details as like most TV entertainment it tries to appeal to a low common denominator), so as a layman I’ll just have to take Michio Kaku’s word for it.

And what a horrifying possibility it is! To think that everything that can happen does happen is almost too much to bear, as it would mean there’s no reason to care about anything. For every single human being, there are universes in which they die of old age as well as universes in which they tragically die young. All of us die every single day in some universe (and hopefully you’re not in one of those universes today), so why even care about death? Your friend only died in this universe—there are plenty of universes where that friendship is still going strong.

And why bother fighting for a cause? There’s a universe in which Nazism prevailed in spite of the Allies’ best efforts to fight it, a universe in which the United States is still a British colony, a universe in which the Indians are still flourishing in the Americas, and on and on and on. There’s even a universe in which corporations don’t have an obscene amount of power which they use to funnel wealth from the masses of the world to consolidate even more of it. So what if we live in one of the universes in which they do?

There are only three ways to avoid falling into this sort of “cosmic apathy”, the first being what you’re already doing by default: just don’t think about it. There may be an infinite number of universes out there but as long as you maintain your focus on just this one, you won’t have to be bothered by the fact that there may very well be an infinite amount of you’s living vastly better or worse lives than the one you’re living now.

The second way is to just reject the premise of the whole infinity-argument altogether. Isn’t it philosophically possible to have infinite existence without universes repeating themselves? There may be an infinite number of universes, but we could imagine that none of them resemble each other. If the only requirement of infinity is that God go on creating things forever, why couldn’t God just keep creating different things without resorting to creating every possible version of the same things? (I’m only using God in a figurative sense here—there’s no need to posit an intelligent creator at all, just some force whereby potentialities become realities.)

The third way is one I came up with a long time ago but which is extremely difficult to wrap your head around and might just lead to the same problem. We may posit that there really are an infinite number of universes in which every possibility is realized, but if we separate consciousness from those universes we could imagine that only a finite number of those universes are experienced. We’d have to be dualists, asserting that mind and matter are two entirely separate phenomena, and we’d have to imagine that mind exists in a fundamentally different way than matter. Mind would have to have the ability to continuously shift from universe to universe depending on the conscious decisions it makes.

We can imagine it as a line drifting upwards through an endless sea of parallel platelets, each platelet representing one possible universe. With every decision, this line moves from one platelet to just one of the infinite number of platelets representing the next instant in time. This way, there are an infinite number of potential lives that exist for us but we only experience one (or perhaps a few, if we have the option of going back and trying again).

Where this theory runs into some very real conceptual difficulty is when we consider other minds. As our minds influence others, we may draw other lines with us into our chosen universe for awhile, and they may eventually drift away again. If each “soul” (and again I use this term figuratively) chooses its own path through the sea of potential universes and not all potentialities are experienced by each soul, then you could have universes in which you are the only conscious person because no other souls have chosen a path that led them to your universe. You might have chosen to marry that girl, but the soul that was in her when you made that decision might have taken a different path and now you’re married to a mindless zombie that only acts like she would have acted if her soul had chosen that path.

So that idea turns out not to be any more comforting than the idea that everyone experiences everything in every conceivable way. We are still in danger of slipping into cosmic apathy, as we could imagine that those who appear to be suffering might not actually be suffering because no soul would have chosen to be conscious as them.

These disturbing possibilities exist, unfortunately, and there’s currently no way to disprove them. All we can do is hope that the grand scheme of things is not as senseless as it would be if they were true. And if we want to live in a world where our actions do have meaning and the decisions we make actually do matter, we have to treat our lives as though they really are unique, and treat the world as though there’s only one.

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