On Monday morning, The Atlantic published a peculiar essay arguing multiverse theory is definitively, unquestionably bad for people. At the very least, it was making our world worse.
This makes little sense to anyone who doesn’t have at least a loose grasp of what multiverse theory is in the context of quantum physics, so here’s a short primer. The multiverse hypothesis suggests there’s a set of parallel universes — perhaps finitely numbered, but more probably running to infinity — that exist alongside the one we know and love (or loathe). They are contained within the “multiverse,” which is more-or-less just an abstract term that refers to all the parallel universes collectively.
In quantum physics, the multiverse is explained through the behavior of “wave functions.” Basically, all particles in the universe are said to be represented by individual wave functions, which describe different things like the particle’s position and velocity. The wave function illustrates all the probable outcomes of the particle’s system and attaches a likelihood that each of those things may or may not happen.
Of course, we only observe particles fulfilling one of those possible futures. But what if all of those possible futures actually did happen — not in this universe, but in other universes? That’s essentially what multiverse theory is about: a reality in which the wave function doesn’t collapse upon itself to produce one single future, but a situation in which each future actually does happen, in alternate universes.
What does this have to do with the human imagination? According to Sam Kriss, the UK-based writer who wrote The Atlantic’s piece, the multiverse is a pox on our ability to take responsibility for our own lives.
Kriss starts his essay out with a strange introduction that taunts skeptical readers with a garish depiction of a multiverse where one has already taken “revenge.” He writes:
“Somewhere in all the possible worlds you’re skipping about in a luxury yacht, while I’m chained, terrified, to the bow, gasping through mouthfuls of seawater. Somewhere your band of riders burned my village to the ground, and you’re drinking a toast to the gods from my jewel-encrusted skull. You can want all of this, and there’s no need to feel guilty: it could happen, so it happened; that’s all.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the number of Atlantic readers who might fantasize about violence after reading an essay about multiverse and culture is extremely low. But that’s irrelevant. Kriss’s introduction sets up a notion of multiverse theory in which literally anything is possible. If there is an infinite number of parallel universes, then every single possible thing that could ever happen can … right?
No. That’s not the case at all. Because the laws of physics still apply in all of those infinite worlds. The reason there are infinite worlds is not because a particle itself can behave in an infinite number of ways. A particle can’t teleport to the other side of the universe in an instant. It cannot move faster than the speed of light. It cannot suddenly balloon into a star.
The reason, really, that there is an infinite number of parallel universes within multiverse theory is because as time moves forward, the number of possible outcomes increases infinitely. Think of a particle as a piece of a fractal. The initial pattern evolves in, say, three ways, but each of those resulting expansions propagate into three more evolutions, and so on.
Particles in the universe work the same way. The laws of physics constrict exactly what the near-future of a particle will be, and so there’s only a finite number of possible outcomes. But in multiverse theory, each of those outcomes occur, and beget their own set of possible outcomes. So the number of possible outcomes expands infinitely over time.
But that doesn’t mean just about anything can happen, including a potential future where a disgruntled reader is bludgeoning Kriss to death. Everything has to fall under a set of conditions which are physically possible.
Kriss acknowledges early in his essay that he’s “not really interested in the science of multiverse theory so much as its impact on the way we think about ourselves.” He’s obsessed with what happens when you pursue multiverse theory to what he calls “our shapeless foam of worlds.”
He cites a 2014 New Scientist article that portrayed a group of people as living lonely, sorry lives under a belief that a different version of them was an embodiment of carpe diem. He says there are “tens of thousands of people” who subscribe to what’s referred to as The Mandela Effect: the belief that people can accidentally slip through cracks in parallel universes and will not notice something is different until something big happens, like former South African President Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013. This would occur even though you may be from a reality where Mandela died in the ‘80s. Essentially, you would exist in a world where justice was enacted.
In other words, multiverse theory permits you to behave in whatever way you want, because you can be sure that in some other reality, everything turned out right — even you.
I get where Kriss is coming from. To peg your happiness and fulfillment to the prospects of an alternate version is neither practical nor ethical. The problem is, to believe multiverse theory is responsible for such a problematic set of beliefs is to fundamentally misunderstand or ignore or perhaps even willfully distort the science behind the multiverse. Quantum physics does not care about the moral and ethical standards of human beings. As a field of science, it operates similarly to math — dispassionately, without regard for any notions of free will and choice.
In the quantum world, a person is not someone who makes decisions based on their own understanding and interpretation of a given situation. In the quantum world, a person is a summation of individual particles that are bound together, and simply exist and move around until they don’t. Physicists don’t prop up and promote multiverse theory because it supports an idea that at least something good is happening somewhere — they discuss it because it fits into the theoretical models of how the world works, which the entire community has contributed to (be it through providing supporting or contradictory evidence).
Multiverse doesn’t argue that there are multiple “good” versions of you and multiple “bad” versions of you. It posits that the collection of particles that make up you are doing this in one version, and this in another. That’s all. Under the science of quantum theory, this is all that multiverse means. To attach moral or ethical underpinnings is unfair to the point of being unreasonable.
To entertain the argument that the multiverse is “rotting culture” requires someone to run with an obscenely superficial notion of what the multiverse hypothesis is. Perhaps Kriss is right and there are people who have done exactly that. If that’s the case, the solution is not to set aside the science of multiverse, but instead to embrace it and better explain what it is to non-scientists. It’s foolish to think, as Kriss writes, “the multiverse excuses every injustice.” The multiverse has no part in justice because justice is anthropological — as is the perversion of what the multiverse is.