Aside from Doctor Strange, is the multiverse good for anything?
There’s no good reason to believe the multiverse exists. Marcelo and I have consistently addressed this theme here at 13.8. Marcelo is a theoretical particle physicist, and I am a theoretical astrophysicist, and we have both argued that the idea of infinite, parallel universes has no experimental or observational support. Indeed, even the theoretical basis of the multiverse is tenuous. This turns out to be more of a bug than a useful feature in theories. So what is the multiverse for?
A lot, it turns out.
The Wonderful Multiverse
This weekend I took advantage of Father’s Day to force my son to attend Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with me. While I raised my son on Marvel comics and he was a big fan of the Marvel Comics universe for the first few years, he doesn’t feel much affinity for it anymore. I’m still a big fan and luckily we both liked the movie.
Since I was the science advisor to the first Doctor Strange movie, I was really looking forward to seeing where they were going with this episode. I was also interested to see how they handled the idea of the multiverse, which is a big part of the story in the actual comics. Marvel Comics product.
But why, if I’m not a fan of the Multiverse in science, would I be so interested in it as fiction?
This question leads to a simple but important point. The idea of a multiverse—of parallel versions of ourselves, our lives, and our world—predates all of its modern incarnations in science. Earlier examples of the idea proliferate through fiction and mythology. Makes sense. As a device, the multiverse allows us to explore a central question of being human: the stubborn power of chance.
How many examples can you think of in your life where a small detail could have changed your destiny? If you hadn’t missed that flight, you would never have met the love of your life. If you had gotten off the sidewalk a second earlier, you would have been hit by that bus. Some examples are less straightforward: If you had attended this university instead of that one, how would your life trajectory have changed?
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Push this line of questioning on the scale of history and we end up with worlds where Hitler was killed in one of many plans for murder him, or worlds where Kennedy’s assassin missed his shot. Turn it up again, and the fate of the entire planet changes as the comet that would wipe out the dinosaurs is pulled just a millimeter to the left near Jupiter, diverting its course and sparing Earth. No dino apocalypse, no humans.
A deeply human concern
Every day, all of our lives hover over a long menu of possibilities. We can never understand why we only end up experiencing those who show up for us. Standing helpless before the ruthless gods of chance, we turn to stories of how “it was meant to be so” or “that’s how God (or the gods) intended it to be.” But somewhere, deep inside me, those answers are never fully satisfying. Why did the gods choose this path, and not the others? Did they know all the others?
Hence the multiverse. Hence the fictional dream, the narrative exploration of all these paths not taken and their consequences. Some versions of the multiverse have been with us in myth or fiction for a long time because we need them. We need it not as a reality, but as a story to explore – a story that helps us make sense of the real story we are living.
Hindu cosmology gives us Indra’s net, a cosmic web of possibilities with a jewel at the intersection of each thread and a universe nestled within each jewel. Science fiction is modern literature’s main vehicle for exploring the possibilities of other universes and parallel universes. The idea has germinated since the origin of the genre more than a century ago. HG Wells explored versions of it, as did Fredrik Pohl, Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein. These authors explored their multiverses long before the modern version of the multiverse began to appear in science, and particularly in cosmology. Versions of the parallel universe idea have also appeared outside the genre, in films such as Sliding doors (1998), About time (2013), or the remarkable groundhog day (1993).
The point to consider here is that there is a deep emotional appeal to thinking about all these other versions of us. That’s why the multiverse is like catnip for novelists and screenwriters. As crazy as the idea may seem, it is rooted in a deeply human concern. It’s worth noting that in Marvel’s Multiverse, each of these other versions are given labels. (We live on Earth #616, in case you’re interested.)
So, yes, the multiverse is an important idea – for fiction. We need it. It helps us explore and understand the intersections of fate and chance in our lives. If a story needs the multiverse and wants to pretend there’s science to back it up, I’m okay with that. The idea of the “multiverse as science”, used for fictional purposes, is a good one. But when that fiction is embraced by science as if it were real, that’s a problem.