Thursday, July 13, 2017
The history of the idea of parallel universes begins in mysty mythology. The worlds joined by the World Tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, connects what might be considered parallel universes. In some of the Hindus sacred texts, the Puranas, there are many universes, each with its own gods. More recently, Jose Luis Borges foreshadowed one of the mathematical speculative theories of multi-verses in his story "The Garden of Forking Paths'. One might also suggest that Leignitz made mathematical multiple universes plausible with his theory of monads. By the late twentieth century, multiple or parallel universes had become common in speculation and story if not in demonstrable reality. They cropped up frequently in the Star Trek series, and many mainstream mathematicians and physicists--if a mainstream can be discerned--have come to accept the theory of simulltaneous realities that Erwin Schrodinger had suggested in 1952 or in branching realities that Hugh Everett proposed in 1957.
There is no shortage of theories of multiple realities or universes or time lines., but little widespread acceptance of any one of them. I tend to find Max Tegmark as convincing and comprehensible as anyone, Tegmark outlines four possible 'levels' of multiple universes. For my meandering considerations as I approach my 71st birthday, however, the complexities of possibilities reduce to two: there might exist parallel universe or universes about which we have no certain method of knowledge; or, the universe may be a branching thing in which every choice results in two or more branches, in which I and we live different lives in different times. I don't expect to drop into Al Capone's Chicago like a Star Trek character, but the branching idea intrigues me. I have serious difficulties understanding the physics of such a universe. It seems very difficult to square with Einstein's General Relativity Theory, although perhaps we live in a world of repetitive Big Bangs and just don't notice it. Or maybe I'm hung upon particles and the permutations work more smoothly in wave fields Still, I wonder if there is an I--indeed many I's--who made different decisions and are living different lives. What if?
What if I had managed to accept the offer of a full scholarship to Stanford despite my father's objections? (The offer came in May or June, and I was not 18 until August.) What if when the woman who was to become my wife said to chose between my orange hunting cap and her I had chosen the cap and remained my wilder self? What if when my father died I had moved to New York and The New School instead of Chicago? You get the idea.
I confess to find it comforting in a insubstantial way to think that there are other 'I's who made the other decisions, although I also wonder whether the I who was wild and crazy and kept the orange hat and went to New York and the New School died of AIDS. (I like to think that the I who went to Stanford developed an insight into the basic nature of the universe, something that the I who is writing this blog still finds elusive.)
I also confess that I strongly suspect that there are multiple universes. The one we live in is so fractal that I would be seriously surprised if the larger reality were not also fractal. Again and again we folk have thought that our understanding was all there is, only to be surprised. The Navajo thought that they were the only people. Astronomers before Galileo thought our Moon was singular. Before Edwin Hubble we though we lived in the only galaxy. Christians and Muslims still today persist in believing they know the one true religion.
What I find insubstantially comforting in the idea of multiple universes is that it makes what happens in any one of them less important. I recently met a man who was planting 70 of some sort of tree on some land he had just bought, land on which that species of tree had never grown before. It seemed to me that he would have been wiser to have planted ten of seven different species of trees. A branching, multiple universe seems wiser than one in which all the eggs are in one basket, to mix metaphors a bit. It also reduces our singular importance. We humans seem to tend to hubris 'bigly'. I suspect that in the larger scheme of the universe(s)--if there is a scheme--we don't matter diddly squat.
I would find it more comforting if more people accepted the notion that it is not necessarily the most friendly action to impose their concept of the universe on others by force. I kinda like the notion of the universe in which, when Constantine invited bishops to Nicea, they said 'you've got to be kidding.', or one in which when the prophet told his wife that god was talking to him, she had said 'there, there, you're just tired' and had not bought him a horse and a sword.
Meanwhile, it is good to consider that bishops, prophets, wives and presidents don't matter diddly squat. Whether there is another universe or not, this one will pass, and we with it.