There’s nothing wrong with faith, but if it’s not recognized for what it is then monsters start to spawn, not in some distant reality, but right here. No religion is complete without a moral code, but how do you live ethically in our shapeless foam of worlds, invisible to telescopes but throbbing close at the moment of every decision? In 2014, the New Scientist published an article called “Multiverse Me,” revealing that various lonely boffins take succor from the fact that alternate versions of themselves are leading fun lives full of emotional and sexual fulfillment, instead of solitudinous slogs through the stupid infinity of high-level algebra.
They’re not jealous; they want the best for their alternate selves, they want them to be happy. How can you help? The answers given are all cop-outs; the scientists have decided to keep on living as if the multiverse didn’t exist (“The multiverse,” one says, “tells us that we should behave as if we were valuing the risks according to probabilities in a classical universe”), because if it does exist the implications are horrifying. Right now, infinite versions of yourself are dying in really horrible ways, not in spite of the fact that you’re lazily giving answers to a New Scientist reporter, but because of it. Every second you live, their suffering increases. If you stand on a cliff-edge and decide not to die, how many billions are smashed on the rocks? Jump now, and save them all.
But as much as I might think these calculations are faulty, the multiverse is on the side of its believers; just invent another universe for you to be right in, and you never need to be wrong again. It’s a fringe community, but there are tens of thousands of people who subscribe to something called the ‘Mandela Effect,’ a new name for the phenomenon previously known as “being wrong about things.” The theory posits small quantum fluctuations that allow people to slip through the cracks between universes, arriving in a world where everything looks so similar that they don’t realize this is not their real home and these people are not their real friends. It’s not until something big happens—Nelson Mandela’s funeral, for instance—that they notice. But didn’t he die in prison in the 1980s? Surely I can’t have been wrong about that. There must be a simpler explanation. I’m a voyager from another world. Don’t laugh; it might have happened to you too. What kind of color is chartreuse? Red, right? Wrong. In this universe it’s green, and you’re a long, long way from home.
The Mandela Effect is silly, but is has its roots in the philosophical precursors to multiverse theory. What looks at first glance like an opening up of possibilities is actually an organized assault on the unreal: the delicate networks of falsehood, the boundlessness of counterfactuals, the imagination as such. It goes back to Leibniz, who got analytical philosophers talking about contingency in terms of ‘possible worlds’ for tedious centuries—actually, it goes back to Democritus, twenty-five centuries ago—but there’s no purer instance than the ‘modal realism’ of David Lewis. In a series of books, the Princeton philosopher argued that counterfactual statements (‘There is a possible world in which ‘chartreuse’ describes a shade of red,’ ‘If the author-electrocuting button existed, I’d be dead now’) could not be intelligible unless they refer to an actually existing state of affairs. If the author-murdering button doesn’t exist here, it must necessarily exist in another universe. What this means is that the human capacity to imagine a different world is really nothing of the sort. It’s all just the same washed-out reality, and your hopes and dreams are as drearily physical as a sack of potatoes. Want to write fiction? Want to build a better life? Don’t bother. Everything that could happen has already happened, and nothing can ever change.