The Multiverse Idea Is Rotting Culture

What looks at first glance like an opening up of possibilities is actually an attack on the human imagination.

An artwork included in Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Obsession” exhibition. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters)

You might not like what I’m about to say about the multiverse. But don’t worry; you’ve already had your revenge. If there are an infinite number of parallel universes, there will be any number of terrible dictatorships, places where life has become very difficult for people who like to string words together. Somewhere out there, there’s a society in which every desperate little essay like this one comes with a tiny, unremarkable button: push it, and the author will be immediately electrocuted to death.

Maybe your hate is more visceral—you already know I’ll die some day, but you want to see it happen; you need to see me groveling. You can if you want. Fly upwards from the plane of our solar system, keep on going, through the endless huddles of galaxies, never forgetting your purpose, until space and time run out altogether. Eventually you’ll find yourself in another universe, on a damp patch of grass and broken concrete, unwatched by whatever local gang or galactic empire rules the city rising in foggy shapes beyond the marshes. There, you’ll see a creature strangely similar to yourself, beating me to death with whatever bits of scrap are lying around.

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.

Most interpretations of quantum physics tend not to leave many cultural ripples. They’re strange and complex, and there’s too much algebra; it’s just not very sexy. For the vast dim hordes of lay people, myself included, all you need to know is that it has something to do with putting cats in boxes. For a few devoted mystics, the main lesson is that you can get whatever you want if you wish for it hard enough. The many-worlds interpretation is different. It’s everywhere; it bubbles like universes through pop culture—because it taps into something very basic.

Unlike all the others, it seems to approach us not as ungainly lumps of seething quanta but as human beings. Everyone has regrets, everyone has done things they wish they hadn’t, everyone wonders what might have happened if things had gone another way. The many-worlds interpretation consoles us and wards us off all at the same time. Everything really did go the other way. You really can be happy. But not here; never here.

It might be true. I’m not really interested in the science of multiverse theory so much as its impact on the way we think about ourselves, but it helps to state the problem. That problem is wave function collapse. At a quantum level, particles don’t exist as solid objects in space but as probability waves describing the various positions that could potentially be occupied. This is demonstrated by the famous double-slit experiment: set up a laser to fire electrons one by one at a screen through a metal plate with two slits, and then see where they land. If each electron were to pass through one slit or another, you’d get two straight bands of light; instead, you get a pattern of rippling bands. Interference—as if rather than one particle, there had been two waves. The electrons have passed through both slits, simultaneously. However, if you set up a recording device to monitor the slits themselves, the wave function collapses back into solidity: all that’s observed is one electron passing through one slit.

The hidden question: who decides which slit?

In his 1951 book Der evangelische Glaube und das Denken der Gegenwart, the German academic Karl Heim gave us a perfectly workable answer: God did it. The Almighty, in His infinite benevolence, carefully tends to the waveform collapse of every particle, working on the tiniest levels to create a world kinder to human life.

Heim’s work has been enormously influential in the field of theology, but for some reason it’s generally rejected by the scientific community. Instead, thousands of physicists—big names like Stephen Hawking (who called it ‘trivially true’), Brian Greene, and Neil deGrasse Tyson included—pay lip service to the many-worlds interpretation: the particle still passed through both slits; one here, and one in another universe, created especially for the occasion. It certainly sounds more scientific than Heim’s theory, which tries to shoehorn a Bronze Age concept into an increasingly inhospitable reality. The only snag is that there’s actually very little difference. There’s no way we could ever carry out any experiment to test for the multiverse’s existence in the world, because it’s not in our world. It’s an article of faith, and not a very secure one. What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?

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.

The multiverse is a prop, a way to explain away things that can’t otherwise be explained. It’s supposed to induce a Copernican vertigo, your own tininess in a hall of mirrors where every reflection can strut around asserting its primacy, but in fact it’s a strangely comforting doctrine. Go back to the double-slit experiment. What the ‘God did it’ theory of waveform collapse and the many-worlds interpretation both do is cut out all the uncomfortable messiness of life, the contingency, that spectral ‘could have’ trembling on the other side of ‘is.’ If there’s a divine hand that chooses, or a cleavage in the universe that delivers both results, then there’s some kind of order in the universe. The multiverse excuses every injustice; it’s all been made good somewhere else, in the static infinity of the possible. Leibniz was right when he said that we live in the best of all possible worlds; his only mistake was the axiom that there’s only one of them. Drop that, and his theodicy becomes a limpid tautology. We live in the best of all possible multiverses, because by definition no other multiverse could ever exist.

All wrongs are balanced out, and all things happen for a reason; we live in a sensible world and not a wild one, a meaningful world and not a stupid one. But look around you, at whatever strange world you happen to be in, with its death by audience feedback, its arbitrary empires, or its close and sweaty tents humid with blood. Is that really true?