In the introductory chapter to physicist Brian Greene’s new book, The Hidden Reality, he offers a very brief list of parallel worlds from literature, television, and film:
- The Wizard of Oz.
- It’s a Wonderful Life.
- “The City on the Edge of Forever” (a Star Trek episode).
- “The Garden of Forking Paths” (a short story by Jorge Luis Borges).
- Sliding Doors.
- Run Lola Run.
And here are a few that I would add to such a list:
- “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge.” This is a short story by Ambrose Bierce, written in 1891, in which a man dangling by the neck at the gallows experiences a curious hallucination in which his rope actually breaks and he escapes (instead of dying). I choose this story because, if we live in a multiverse of some sort, reality may well undergo splits like this into different trajectories (this is most obviously the case if the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics holds—a subject Greene addresses in chapter 8 of his book).
- Alice in Wonderland.
- Jacob’s Ladder.
- The Blair Witch Project.
- “Five in Search of an Exit” (a Twilight Zone episode from its third season).
- I Can See You.
- Franz Kafka’s little parable, “Give It Up.”
- Nietzsche’s speculations on eternal return (found in The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
- Freud’s The Uncanny. (I think of Freud’s writings, like Nietzsche’s, as forms of creative writing).
- “The Circular Ruins” (a short story by Jorge Luis Borges).
- Being John Malkovich.
And really, literature, television, and film all present, as it were, parallel worlds to your own—worlds that are not yours. The arts, after all, are characterized by the following:
- multiplicity of perspective;
- defamiliarization; and
- imaginatively leaving your own mental world to inhabit the mental worlds of others; to walk, as it were, in other people’s shoes.
In fact, when you think about it, your consciousness—when it first winked on for you as a child—might well have been accompanied by the following startling realization:
Your reality is the sole reality. You are alone. Your consciousness is all there is.
But that’s not what happened, was it? Instead, you discovered rather quickly that you were not alone, nor were you alone in possessing a mental world. There were other mental worlds outside of yours. Your mom had one, your dad had one, and your kitty appeared to have one. In short, your consciousness and will were not central to existence, you were not the fountainhead for the origination of things, and you were definitely not alone.
These were your first movements from innocence to experience.
And other revelations followed: there have been other times before your own, and there are other towns beside your own. And dinosaurs once roamed the earth! There are also other countries than yours, and other religions. Not everyone thinks like you.
And it gets worse.
Your consciousness is accompanied by an unconscious. And the body that you experience is accompanied by hidden systems—such as your nervous system and organ systems—and by ever tinier worlds of cells, molecules, atoms, quanta, and, ultimately, vibrating strings.
There are also other planets than Earth, and other suns. And ours is not the only galaxy—there are billions of them. You are embedded in multiplicity, and (to echo Emily Dickinson) you “dwell in possibility”.
So it follows that maybe even our cosmos is not the whole shebang; not singular. Maybe the universe within our event horizon (the distance light has travelled since the Big Bang) is embedded in a multiverse. There might even be more ways than just one that the multiverse multiverses!
Perhaps, for example, the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct and the inflationary model of parallel universes is correct and the vast number of worlds implied by string theory mathematics is also correct!
Talk about embracing diversity with a vengeance! That’s quite a rabbit hole to drop down into, but nothing in logic prohibits it. If God exists, it would seem that God is the ultimate “let a thousand flowers bloom” liberal hippie. This is what, in any event, Brian Greene’s new book suggests to me.