Recently I’ve been thinking quite a bit about alternate realities, possible because the fall is coming so I end up becoming unhealthily obsessed with Donnie Darko and I recently did another quick watch-through of Primer.
You may be thinking right now that this whole thought process is useless, because alternate realities are just an invention of science fiction or fantasy. However, they are founded in actual science. In quantum mechanics, any action undertaken by a particle is one of multiple paths. Physicist Richard Feynam was instrumental in what is called the Path Integral Formulation or Sum over Histories. Basically this says that for an electron to move from point A to point B, it takes an infinite amount of paths but eventually ends up at point B. Some scientists have taken this interpretation to mean that there are multiple pathways that particles travel and due to the uncertainty principle, not all make it to point B. Some permutations of the particle will move to point C, in essence creating an alternate reality. Some cosmological physicist have extrapolated this principle to develop the principle of the multiverse, which basically says that our universe is but one of many alternate universe co-existing in space-time.
Even if you are not completely sold on the theory, alternate realities still posit an interesting thought experiment. All of us have made choices that we wish we would not have made, and the idea of alternate realities promises us the concept that somewhere in space-time exists a version of us that did not make that decision. In the multiverse theory, every decision that we make creates multiple alternate existences accounting for all of the possible permutations of our actions.
I really enjoy thinking about these ideas. Of course, when thinking about outcomes of decisions we have made, we usually think of the big ones. For me, I wonder what happened to an alternate-me that didn’t go to BYU-Idaho, or an alternate-me who decided not to serve a mission. I also idly wonder how many alternate-me’s are dating the girls who have shot me down, and I wonder if they are happy or if things went badly.
Of course these big actions are easy to see the difference of our lives. But what about the little or insignificant actions. For instance, what if an alternate-me did not read Catch-22 his sophomore year. I wonder what would have happened. I wonder if this alternate-me would have read any classic books, I wonder if he would be staunchly Republican, I wonder if he would consider joining the military. I could never know the exact outcome derived from this seemingly insignificant action.
Alternate realities are somewhat unsettling though. Although it is comforting to think that somewhere in space-time, and alternate-me got to date some of the girls I have met, alternate realities seem to make our existence a little less significant. For instance, how can I be sure that I am the original me? Of course this question is purely theoretical, but it does bring up an unsettling point. If you accept that alternate versions of you exist, then you also accept that you may not be the original “you” but an alternate reality version. Extrapolating this idea can cause many severe headaches. This may not even be a reasonable distinction to make, since we are dealing with quantum outcomes. These sorts of events are so far removed from our daily experience that we can not really apply our distinctions to them. In a quantum world, the idea of the “original” version of yourself may be completely irrelevant.
Perhaps alternate realities are something that are better left to idle speculation. Since we have no direct evidence of them, it is possible that they don’t even exist. If alternate quantum versions of our particles do exist, there is no telling whether or not they are configured in the same way that we are. Thus, alternate realities can be best used to muse about how different your life would be if you made slightly different choices. If we ever find existence of these realities though, we will have to confront the most unsettling religious and ethical question brought up by this theory:
If all of the outcomes of our choices occur, then do any of our choices truly matter?