Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Problem With Parallel Universes

Television has recently given me reason to think about the idea of alternate dimensions. These slightly tweaked planes of existence have been central to both of J.J. Abrams’s current shows this season, Lost and Fringe. In both, a parallel universe offers a take on the “regular” one in which things are basically the same, only with a few minor modifications. In Lost’s sideways universe, Kate is still a fugitive but she maybe didn’t kill her father. And Sawyer is a cop, not a con, but he’s still interacting with the same scuzzy elements of society. But let’s put aside Lost for a moment, mostly because I’m not sure its alternate reality is a true one — that is, one that has existed and developed alongside the main one — so much as a wish-fulfillment fantasy land that may or may not be a form of the afterlife. (Heaven? Hell? That’s one for a separate post.)

Fringe’s “over there” is a more richly developed world. Sure, protagonist Olivia Dunham is an FBI agent specializing in paranormal events in both the main universe and the alternate one, with her most significant difference so far being a different hairdo — kind of an obvious signifier of otherness, really, but it spares viewers from having to wonder which Olivia they’re looking at. An aside: Olivialternate’s hair is more flattering. See?

standard olivia the left, olivialternate on the right

More strikingly in the Fringe over there, the Twin Towers never fell, the Empire State Building was and still is used as a mooring point for zeppelins, and Antonio Guadi’s never-realized hotel exists was built on the bank of the Hudson. In last Thursday’s episode, we also glimpsed a map of the alternate universe’s United States, which features the State of Midland instead of Oklahoma and Kansas, the Louisiana Territory instead of plain old Louisiana, the District of Virginia instead of the District of Columbia and a California that is presumably underwater. But for all these differences, much is still the same. Nixon was still a president, Obama is the current president, and The West Wing was still a TV show — it’s just now in its eleventh season. And, of course, all the Fringe characters we know and love have alternate versions of themselves running around.

This is where I have a problem. Now, I’m sure this is a notion that has previously been arrived at by theoretical physicians and science fiction buffs alike, but the way we often think about parallel dimensions and especially how they’re often portrayed in fiction implies a degree of spirituality if not outright religion. Otherwise, they’re just plain wrong.

Think about it this way: Let’s say we have a universe parallel to this one, that has existed as long as ours has but in which things happened differently. Following the grand tradition of naming parallel universes, we’ll call in Universe X. People living here have over the course of history made different decisions than they did in our version of history. If this is the case, the odds that any of us would have Universe X versions of ourselves are slim at best and likely nonexistent. Any single person exists as a result of the fact that every one of their ancestors existed long enough to procreate with one other special person. Furthermore, the conditions of that act of procreation had to be such that one sperm hit the egg instead of any of its competitors, otherwise the child conceived would have had a different combination of genes. Even if this male and female ancestor happened to have still lived in the same place and interacted long enough to conceive a child together, the act of sex itself seems like it would have happened in the exact same way — same bed, same position, same time of day, same moment of climax — otherwise a different sperm might have reached the egg and created a different person. Had that person been male instead of female, for example, an entire line of subsequent humans would be wiped out or at least replaced with a different group of people. When you really think about it on a biological level, the odds that any of us got the chance to exist are staggering, as the slightest variation in great-great-great-grandpa romancing great-great-great-grandma could have prevented us from being born at all. (Thanks for never getting kicked in the balls by a goat, great-great-great-grandpa!)

So take that into account alongside the fact that people having the opportunity to make other decisions and sometimes acting on those options would make for drastically different history. I mean, World War II resulted from many people making many decisions over time. So too did many other things result this way, but if World War II had occurred differently or not at all, then most people alive today would most likely not exist. I say this because it seems plausible that this globally significant event did a lot to put young people in places they might not have been otherwise, and those people then fell in love, got married and raised children who subsequently fell in love, got married and raised more children, all of whom wouldn’t have had the chance to do that if World War II hadn’t happened. So, awful though it was, maybe we should all be thankful that World War II happened? I guess? Maybe?

This all because irrelevant if you think about the alternate universe as branching off from the main timeline more recently. If that happened ten years ago, then yeah — we’d all theoretically have alternate versions of ourselves. But that’s often not the case they way such realities are depicted in fiction. As far as we know, Fringe’s alternate universe is a twin to the main one — born at the same time and running parallel the whole time. So, then, how can we account for the fact that this reality is only slightly different rather than completely different aside from the geography of the planet it exists on? I can’t think of a explanation that doesn’t refer to God, souls or destiny. And that sounds weird, seeing as how the conversation up to this point as been purely scientific. But given that most of us seemingly lucked into existence, the only way it could be that we would have done so in parallel dimension would be that some higher power demanded that we be born and that our soul was pre-planned and destined to walk the earth. Or both earths, I guess.

If that’s the case, it would seem that every one of our ancestors didn’t have the free will they might have thought they did. Sure, they could have dyed their hair red and gotten bangs, as Olivialternate did, but they still had to get from Point A to Point B, especially if that latter spot in time was conceiving the child they were destined to have, so he too got his chance to exist. That’s destiny right there — or at least destiny with a little wiggle room.

Personally speaking, my religious beliefs waver. I’m not an atheist but I’ve yet to hear any religion offer an explanation for existence that makes sense. And I’m not saying that any form of speculative fiction that features a parallel dimension is tacitly endorsing one idea of God or another. However, it’s interesting that we have this fiction tradition of characters interacting with their alternate dimension version of themselves a la Spock and the goateed Evil Spock that is so prevalent that most people contemplating Universe X imagine a different version of themselves who married the one that got away, who divorced when they had the chance, who went abroad, who stayed abroad, who did buy that boat, who didn’t lose his hand in the factory accident, who sprung for the perm, who saved instead of spending, who kept trying instead of giving up, who waited, who moved on, who got the dog instead of the cat. Because those alternate selves probably don’t exist — unless of course they’re destined to.

I, for one, am choosing to be happy that I beat overwhelming odds and therefore got to exist in any one dimension, whether I was meant to or not.

5 comments:

  1. Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen talk about this in "The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch". It seems that the current thinking is that all the little choices wouldn't make a lot of difference in a parallel universe - WWII would still happen, the US would still exist, etc.

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  2. Anonymous11:44 PM

    I know bollocks to all about Fringe--how many alternate universes are there? I mean, other than this one?

    Because if there are an infinite number of alternate universes, well, that's alright. In that case, there are an infinite number of possibilities. As long as events are simply improbable instead of impossible, any combination of them must have happened in at least one universe--

    But knowing my luck Fringe deals with alternate universes totally differently and I've only managed to make an ass out of myself. Ah well.

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  3. Of course, a anthropic handwavey explanation could go something like this:

    Sure, there are infinite universes, most of which are different from each other.

    But, Walter's intentional universe crossing efforts worked in a way that could only bridge to a spacetime volume whose conscious inhabitants were similar to those in his own universe.

    Cue quantum physics inspired handwaving and tie-ins to the Observers and whatnot.

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  4. Personally, the far quicker answer is just... the writers needed a setting with recognisable characters but lots of things being very different so they just say it's a parallel universe and don't care less about the implications. Heck, mirror worlds in fiction are even worse, assuming that every single individual is the opposite but assume all the events that led to the existance of said individuals are relatively the same. How that works out I don't know.

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  5. Anonymous8:42 AM

    I prefer my explanations Watsonian.

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