Many Worlds

A Reflection by Paul O'Brien

Imagine this: what if everything in the known universe was to double in size one night while you slept. Can you imagine that? You would be twice as tall and twice as heavy as you were the night before. But tell me: when you woke up, how would you know that everything doubled in size? You may be twice as big, but so is your bed and the rest of your bedroom. You could measure your height, but the ruler would also be twice as large; you could measure your weight, but the scale would be proportionate in size to you as well. After all, the double-sized sun would look no larger in the double-sized sky as you looked through the double-sized window with your double-sized eyes. Even with a microscope, the very molecules inside all things would be twice their size as before.

If everything doubles in size --literally all things-- we wouldn't be able to tell, would we? All points of reference would have matched the change and everything would appear the same; everything would literally seem unchanged. My question, though, is no longer how we would know if this were to happen. I wonder... how do we know it didn't happen to us all last night?

Frankly, I don't think anyone reading this will be terribly pressed by the issue. Nonetheless, just a simple case leaves us asking the most important of philosophical questions: How do we know? If I may, I would like to offer a reflection on the subject of knowledge and truth, but a reflection based not so much on an argument or evidence, but on imagination.

I have a passionate conviction that the imagination is one of philosophy's greatest tools. Maybe it's because I was once an avid comic book collector, or maybe it's because my older brother and I have loved science fiction and fantasy films all our lives, but for as long as I can remember, I have dreamt of other worlds. As a young boy, my action figures were denizens of such worlds; as a young man, I still find characters springing to life in my imagination to inhabit fictional worlds I write about.

Though it may sound silly, and maybe even strange, I've taken these imaginary worlds rather seriously. First of all, they require their own special logic, order, and consistency. We expect no less from the movies we watch, after all; we know it's just fiction and we're know they're just actors, but even one simple inconsistency can dispel the cinematic illusion and distract us. Even if one day I see that the incredible Hulk now has purple skin, or that Superman is no longer affected by green kryptonite, I think I'm justified in snickering at the writers. These worlds don't need to obey the rules of our everyday world, but they should at least obey their own.

Secondly, there are important lessons to be learned from fiction. It's almost too obvious to point out, but literature, poetry, and plays count as some of the most meaningful, moving elements of our culture. It doesn't matter that they're made-up worlds if their themes and characters touch us, whether by their complexity and challenge, or by their humane gentility. We're perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief in order to enter a world that may enliven or enrich our own.

But speaking of worlds, we can't forget to consider our own; more specifically, what exactly is this everyday universe of ours like? All these imaginary, alternate worlds seem to come back to this everyday world. This is the world where you're reading this right now, where authors are eating breakfast before they sit down to create fictional worlds, where audiences enter movie theaters before the film begins, and where we were born and where we will die. Even the most outlandish of our nighttime dreams awaken to this everyday world.

Or so it seems, at least. But anyway...

There is a general belief that there is this everyday, shared world that we all live in. Scientists devote their efforts to experiment and explore this common world (they couldn't care less about Metropolis or Narnia). And they aren't the only ones: philosophers look at this world too. For most people, seeking truth or the meaning of life undoubtedly means finding out what this world is all about and how we can find meaning in it.

But I can't stop my imagination from wandering, and I can't help thinking about other worlds. It's not that I think we live in many worlds or literally travel to these fictitious worlds; I'm just not sure what kind of world I'm living in, quite literally. If I cannot tell the difference between the world I think I am in and a world that I am imagining, then I have to wonder how I know which is real and which isn't. If I can't tell, I just don't think I can know one way or the other.

We can make this discussion easier by defining some terms. Let's call these many worlds --be they speculative, hypothetical, or imaginary-- "possible" worlds. They must at the very least be logically possible. What I mean is, they can't completely contradict themselves or they're too nonsensical to interest us. If you tell me of a universe where triangles have no sides, or of a universe filled with bachelors but which contains no unmarried men, you're talking about logically contradictory worlds; they make no sense, and they couldn't even begin to work.

What about logically possible worlds that are physically impossible? They may not entail any logical absurdities, but maybe they break fundamental laws of physics. Can a world exist where objects float up when we let go of them instead of fall down, or where ships can fly faster than the speed of light even though nothing is supposed to be able to even match the speed of light?

I don't know... I hesitate to rule such worlds out. Why? Because my knowledge of physical laws comes to me through my senses, and to trust those laws, I must first trust those senses. Why wouldn't I trust them, though, when "seeing is believing"? Because I can imagine two worlds: one is a world where everything I see accurately correlates to something real, so that when I see a red sign, there really is a red sign being seen; but another is a world where I have these experiences of sensing things (getting sense-datum), but they correlate to nothing in reality, or they are inaccurate, or they are illusions (Descartes's brain-in-vats illustration comes to mind). If I lived in either of these worlds, how would I know which one was the accurate one and which one was the illusion? I really don't think I could tell... which leads me to say that I don't know if my senses are accurate for certain. Physical laws, because they are based upon observations made with these potentially dubious senses, are not certain either.

So back to my original point... I hesitate to rule out physically impossible worlds. Only logical impossible worlds seem to get kicked out, because they violate all rational sense (If they can literally exist, then such a fact would slap our sense of logic so painfully hard that we would be completely ill-equipped to consider anything at all.)

As you can tell, I'm setting the range of possible worlds -- even if just speculative and imaginary-- rather broadly. I just don't want to rule anything out prematurely, that's all (and this lets the imagination roam more freely anyway). Now, despite all these possible worlds, there is something we can call the "actual" world. We can talk of many possible worlds, but we think of the actual world --the real world-- as singular.

Perhaps a way to illustrate this is to imagine that you and I are playing a simple game: we are asked to guess a number between 1 and 100, and in a few seconds, one such number will be randomly drawn from a hat. I'll guess 27 (it's as good a number as any), and in a childlike manner, I can imagine that the number I guessed is the one that will actually get drawn. Can you imagine that? Well, it's easy to imagine, really, even if it doesn't turn out that way. The chances of 27 getting drawn are quite possible; hence, we can say that a world where 27 gets drawn is a possible world. The problem is, this is just one of a hundred similarly possible worlds, one for each number that might get drawn.

Guess any number you like: As long as you stick to something between 1 and 100, you've chosen a possible outcome. In a few seconds, though, when a number gets drawn, one of these one hundred possible worlds will no longer be merely possible; it will be actual. Let's say 27 gets drawn. What luck! My guess was once just a poke at a possibility, but as it turns out, I was lucky enough to hit upon an actuality. For all our guesses, possibilities, and chances, there came a result which confirmed or affirmed one of those competing possibilities and showed it was actual.

The same form can be used for something less trivial, like a scientific experiment. What happens when I drop a 10 pound bag and a 50 pound bag from the same height at the same time? Which will hit the ground first, or will they hit at the same time? Say someone guesses that since the second bag is heavier, it will hit the ground before the lighter bag; so far, this seems quite possible. Someone else guesses that they'll hit the ground simultaneously; this too seems possible. After all, we don't know until we test it. So with guesses in mind, we drop the bags and discover that they land on the ground at the same time. One possibility is ruled out, and the other one is confirmed; one turns out to be actual, the other fictional, and all is revealed through a simple test.

The human arena is not so different than the number game or the experiment with gravity. We makes guesses all the time: that there will be life after death, that justice has an objective standard, that God exists, that we have free will, and so on and so forth. The problem is... when do we ever find out what's actual and what's not actual? It's not like the game of guessing numbers, because in these philosophical issues, no such result is ever clearly drawn. It's not like the experiment of falling objects either, because there isn't always a clear test or clear result that would convince us of one way or the other.

It seems quite possible that God exists. Even though it strikes me personally as counterintuitive, it's still quite possible that God actually exists and has existed this whole time, regardless of my silly intuitions and strange doubts. But it also seems quite possible that God does not exist. This possibility doesn't contradict itself logically at all, so therefore it may be actual. Well, we have two possibilities (out of many), but they can't both be right, and by "right," I mean that out of these two competing possible worlds, they cannot both be actual. Where does that leave us? How will we find out which is actual and which is not? Until we have a religious experience? Until we study enough history and science? Until we have faith? Until we die?

The price is too high to wait until death, especially when even that may settle nothing. We have a life to lead in the meantime. So what do we do in the face of these many worlds?

I have only my personal ideas about the matter to offer, and like any of the things I say, you're free to take them or leave them. I would still like to offer these thoughts anyway.

First of all, I don't see how we could, in all philosophical integrity and honesty, ever claim to understand the actual world with any certain accuracy or dogmatic objectivity. I can't rule out that such an understanding is impossible; maybe it is, and I'm just too dumb to see it. But if I can't find ironclad criteria for whether the actual world has, for instance, a God or not a God, then I can't claim to know either way for certain. It leaves us agnostic, but not just about God; about issues of afterlife, morality, and general philosophy as well.

I don't believe that this is an excuse to give up trying, however. Some people hear about the uncertainty of these ideas, about the agnosticism and complexities of competing possibilities, and they think it's a sign of philosophy's weakness as a method, not of any weakness on the part of their ideas. These are the kind of people who think that it's virtually pointless to discuss issues like God because philosophers have been discussing them for millennia with no clear, substantive results. These are the people who assume that when a philosophical debate gets down, deep, and dirty with abstract terms, subtle arguments, and complex possibilities, that it's all just a silly mind-game; never reflecting, though, on the possibility that their dismissal itself may be the next move in a game they don't themselves don't even know they're playing.

I'm not advocating lazy ambivalence, but ambivalence, if there is to be any, grounded in serious efforts to consider competing worlds as clearly and deeply as possible. Why? Because you never know when you might finally find that criteria for actuality. You can't just fail a few times and conclude that it's all unknowable. That is too cheap an unknowingness. I think that if you really want to pursue any truth about the actual world, you must seek to know it even if it leads you deeper and deeper into unknowingness. Even if this all, in all actuality, is just a game, you still should play it out in the hopes that one day you will find that fact out.

If you don't know --if you can't know-- you should be able to give some good reasons why. Cheap unknowingness comes when someone claims not to know, but doesn't know why they don't know. If a group of people was looking for a restaurant in a town, they could seek it out by travelling down every street. The person who goes up one street or two and gives up can't really say with any certainty or conviction that the restaurant isn't there; they've left too many avenues unsearched. But the one who treks up and down every street, even the alleys and backroads, is the one who will be in a much better position to say whether or not what they seek is really there or not. You'll never find out whether you know or don't know unless you try to know.

And what if this effort leads to no substantive results? What if it only makes us more confused and uncertain than before? I wonder if that would be so bad. I wonder if we are so fearful of life and the pursuit of truth that we would prefer blissful ignorance to conscious confusion. Or would we agree with David Hume when said that "it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied"?

And as so many people have asked me, what tools can you possibly use if truth is so uncertain? I've gone to some lengths to explain what some of these tools might be in other articles, but I think we can keep Occam's razor handy (and in my case, a few tomes of William James). We aren't completely naked when we traverse these possible worlds in our minds. There are some signs and tools to work with, else the endeavor would become as pointless to pursue as catching a gust of wind.

But I would much rather finish my reflection by stepping out of this philosophical discussion and entering a more humanistic one. I think that for whatever world may actually exist and for whatever possible worlds we consider, we each end up living our mental lives in one such possible world, whether we want to or not. Out of such possible worlds as one with God existing or one with God not existing, we end up choosing one possibility over the other anyway, even though there's no ironclad reason why one should be chosen over the other. Maybe faith and personal sentiments makes one person lean one way; maybe intuition makes someone else lean another.

We end up inhabiting these mentally perceived worlds, each of us having our own private, unique spins on the various aspects of our lives. Maybe we all really live in the same actual world in some ontologically objective sense, but internally and subjectively, we nonetheless have our private lenses through which we see and personal landscapes that mold our thoughts. The question is, will we let culture and tradition form these worlds for us, or will we consciously choose which possible worlds we will live in? It may not matter in the ultimate scheme of things, just as it may not matter whether you choose the numbers in lottery or have a computer pick them for you randomly. But which would you prefer? Would you rather steer this plane through the clouds yourself, or let the auto-pilot handle it? You decide.

There will always be pragmatism to help us choose among possibilities, too, of course, but I would refer you to my other writings to expound those ideas.

For now, we come full circle. If I was convinced that this world I seem to perceive was the only one, the actual one, I would become a critical scientist and devote myself to observation. But since it is so uncertain to me, since so many worlds might be the actual one, my imagination flies to consider all these possibilities. Although I can't back this intuition up, I suspect that naive realism is exactly that: naive, and not disastrously, but simplistically. I cannot help but feel it's time to stop asking "What is?" and "Why?" so much as "What if?" and "Why not?"

Also, if we can not ascertain which world is most likely to be actual, then we will be left to choose among possible worlds that are best blind stabs. But shouldn't this choice be conscious and creative? In such a situation, why not unleash the imagination and construct a personal world-view that, after well-grounded in pragmatism, becomes a comfortable home for our everyday lives? If we're going to end up disbelieving in the knowability of the actual world, and if we're going to have to live within our own world anyway, we should suspend our disbelief consciously. Maybe it's all just a lie; but it's a conscious lie.

Why bother? Why be conscious? There is no concrete reason. The fact that it would make this life of mine interesting, creative, and ever-changing --and at the same time, try its hardest to seek truth just in case truth can be found-- is sufficient for me. It wouldn't be anarchic wish-fulfillment but creative, pragmatic living.

If I am shown to be wrong about these possible worlds, then I will gladly admit it and follow the singular one. Who knows? I could very well be way off. For all I know, I could wake up any day now and realize this was all just a dream... as I flutter my wings to join the other butterflies.

It would just turn out to be one world of many...

[Note: The scenario of the double-sized world was first made known to me by reading William Poundstone's Labyrinths of Reason. As he cites, the scenario was first posed by Jules Poincaré. Poundstone's book is highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy rational confusion.]