The many worlds interpretation is a startling and sometimes comforting concept of modern physics. Barely fifty years old it provides a near infinite number of what ifs for you and the universe (okay, I know near infinite is very non-specific, I mean something like “more than 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 what ifs, though that is just an estimate). Faced with a decision, you may find yourself choosing the wrong soup, the wrong shoes, the wrong wire to cut, or the wrong partner. Perhaps you can find some solace in the concept provided by quantum physics that you also made the right decision – the soup is delicious, the shoes are a hit, the medal you win for bomb disposal is not posthumous and the tea your spouse brings you doesn’t seem to taste of bitter almonds. And if that’s not enough, in the majority of worlds your parents never met, you were never born and no form of life exists whatsoever (one of the world’s you might be the slave of an Orang Utan but you’re not, so stop worrying). So if you are finding life a struggle, take comfort in the concept that in the majority of worlds you’re not having to go through any sort of life at all.
I hanker for a satnav that, if I place my current decision in, could then calculate all the possible destinations from that one decision alone. Whether free will is an illusion or not, and frankly I don’t care, imagining the near infinite numbers of other yous can wile away the hours and you are safer in the knowledge that another former you has splintered off to not waste the day mulling over what can never be much more than fictions in this world.
The one place these possibilities are real is in our own imagination. The things we can conjure up, the possibilities we can daydream of, can momentarily create as much joy when imagined as if they were happening to you there and then. When creating a piece of work, I hear people excited by the finished product, then they are disappointed when the chair they have made is not as good as the one they thought they were capable of (bloody Plato). I think the best moment is imagining what might be and never will be. When I started working on a film, I knew that my imagination of what it would be and the awards we would win and the invites we would receive would probably not really happen – but briefly it was real in my imagination, and that was fine. I don’t get too bogged down with reality disappointing me. When I was asked to host a TV pilot I turned it down for a couple of months, honestly and as it turned out presciently, pointing out that when push came to shove Channel 4 wouldn’t really want me for a series whatever they imagined at the non broadcast pilot stage. Once piloted, and surrounded by excitement, I reminded the production team that it wouldn’t be me for the series and we could still go for a drink when a TV name had been chosen and there would be no animosity. As it was, Griff Rhys Jones presented the pickle jar offspring that the show eventually became. I didn’t mind. I had imagined the plaudits and cultural chaos that occurred when I presented Channel 4’s biggest panel show hit, and that was far more fun than what would have actually happened.
This is not true of all things, fortunately the occasional poverty of imagination can mean reality is better – both fatherhood and Jarvis Cocker singing I Believe in Father Christmas were far better than I’d hoped for.
The many worlds moments are most often experienced when a phone rings or a door opens. It is then that I get a brief sneak view of the perhaps that is somewhere else. Unfortunately, in these off guard moments of perhaps, the haunting and the ghastly more often come to mind. When the toilet door slides open on a late night train, for a split second I see a corpse slumped on the bowl. When the phone rings, despite the likelihood it’s another case of missold PPI, I know it must be a call of doom. Why on earth would anyone ring me on the home phone at 8am/11pm/4ish unless it was news of a dash to hospital, a horrible accident, the end of life?
When someone shouts out, “cheer up! It might never happen!” , smile and reply, “it has or it will, but thank you for your concern. And be aware that in another world I was carrying a crossbow when you shouted that and thinks didn’t turn out so well”
A physicist once told me that many worlds interpretation is definitely true as it works on paper. I don’t know because I can’t do the maths, but I do know that some of them definitely exist in our minds as things to toy with. Occasionally, after a choking fit on some unexpected spice that had startled my epiglottis, drinking the water afterwards I think, “oh good, I’m the one that survived, pity the poor bugger that now lies in the other Punjab Brasserie making a scene with a sheet and an ambulance”.
Don’t live your life perturbed by “if only I had” accept that you did, just not here, and remember that in other places the decisions you made were far far worse – that’s you with that horrible beard spattered with dried and badly chosen soup, standing on the freshly nailed floorboards with your partner down below in some other world.
HAPPINESS THROUGH SCIENCE TOUR CONTINUES HERE
Fans of physics and Eels will enjoy this film in which Mark Everett going in search of his father’s ideas
I find the multiple worlds theory simultaneously fascinating and very disturbing. If there are, literally, infinite multiple universes, then, equally literally, every single thing you do is pointless. Regardless of what you decided to do when you woke up this morning in this universe, you (or versions of you) also made every other possible decision in various branching universes. Therefore every possible outcome happens, regardless of your decision, and there is no real ‘you’. Your existence is merely an infinitesimally small thread in an infinitely large ‘everything-happened’ tapestry. You are irrelevant. We all are. This depresses me.
On the other hand, if the multiverse is NOT infinite, even if it’s unimaginably massive, then the odds of there being an exact duplicate of you that does exactly everything you do except for one significant thing where you part ways are virtually non-existent. So you’re not irrelevant.
You may now resume trying to change the world for the better, or just give up, depending on which you believe to be most likely.
I like reading your ruminations.
Am I right in understanding that you are proposing that people who don’t get what they need emotionally from spiritual or religious ideas take comfort in the many worlds theory? *wince*
Any comfort found in the many worlds theory is the same as Christianity’s or Islam’s promise of the reward of heaven for a miserable but virtuous life. It’s also like saying, “This life may suck, but eventually I will reincarnate as a brilliant hottie so I’ll just coast until then.” The many worlds theory has mathematics to back up its theorized existence but that doesn’t mean it is a good thing to guide your life by.
Regardless of whether there are infinite other versions of the world –this is the one– this is the only world that matters.
Also, what is Deepak’s quantum leap? He quantums everything, so I’m fuzzy on this reference. I did try Google.
heck no, more “stop worrying, you did that thing you did, now move on”, there’s no religious succor, it is only meant to be a light bit of nonsense. and there is no reason to use it to guide your life – surely you still want to make the best decisions in this life as it seems to be – you are you and there’s no way of getting into those other worlds – there is no depth to this post
Dear Mr Ince,
I recently discovered your blog, and have enjoyed many of your posts. It’s particularly refreshing to hear calls for more charitable and productive debates between atheists and religionists (I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that the widespread stereotyping about these groups has got very stale).
However, as a working scientist, I’m all about the peer review, and couldn’t help noticing that you’d made a fairly big mistake in one of your earlier posts:
Contra Sagan, Hypatia was not actually the chief librarian of Alexandria at the time of her death, and the famous Library was not destroyed by St. Cyril (the source of this myth seems to be he did in fact destroy another building in Alexandria, the Serapeum, which may have contained a separate, smaller library). Recent historical research seems to suggest that a lot of what we “know” about Hypatia and the circumstances of her death may have originated from questionable modern sources. Much like the historical Jesus, she has been the victim of numerous interpolations by later writers. You can find plenty of links and references to the original sources for this information in this well-written series of blog posts by a medieval history graduate:
Much like in the sciences, it turns out that the truths of history are almost invariably even more fascinating and complex than the myths! I suppose it’s too much to hope for that, now that science stand-up has become more popular, we might one day see a popular comedy show debunking pseudo-history…
thank you for this. another handy myth in tatters
Happy to help! Sometimes I think that dodgy history is so widespread (even in schools sometimes) that it’s hard for even the most sceptical of us to avoid accidentally swallowing one or two myths as we come up for air.
A particularly pernicious example is the myth that everyone thought the earth was flat until Columbus (which does great disservice to the many naturalists and philosophers who had already proved it was spherical centuries earlier):
I think that unfortunately, because history has less a direct effect on our daily lives than the sciences do, it can sometimes be seen as a less important battleground, and hence it gets less help from defenders of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning than the sciences do (even though good quality history requires those disciplines just as much as the best physics does).
Which is doubly problematic, because I suspect that if we tallied up the numbers, on an international scale pseudo-history (especially of the nationalist variety) has been used to enable and justify even more bigotry and violence than pseudo-science.
My mum always says this, she read a book by Dean Koontz (fiction) and decided that this theory is correct so whenever I talk to her when things go wrong she says “well in another world you’re probably really happy” it’s a nice thought but it doesn’t really help as I’m living in this world not that one.
One could, if so minded, turn it into a competition; “There’s no way that jerk over in reality 183.998.090.7g9 survived crossing THAT street! I WIN AGAIN!”
It’s even better than that – the whole thing already exists, but the limitations of the physics of consciousness (whatever they may be) only allow us to perceive one path at a time. So you can imagine your life as navigation through an infinite “Choose Your Own Adventure” book that is sitting on some celestial shelf somewhere.