The Garden of Forking Paths




There is this theory in quantum mechanics called the "many-worlds" interpretation. To my (limited) understanding--not to attempt to claim that I know practically anything about quantum mechanics--it theorizes that there is no "waveform collapse" when two potential futures are reconciled. Instead of one reality, and only one reality, progressing continuously through each and every decision in your life (and everyone’s lives), one world line path becomes two (or more) at every possibility point, separating into alternate, parallel universes, and this branching happens every time a choice is made. While this description may not be the one a trained quantum physicist would try and explain to you, I’ve gotten the impression that this is the general idea when applied to the everyday world around us. So I’ll just run with that; whether or not this understanding is technically accurate and true, it’s incredibly interesting nonetheless.

The most striking disturbance I have with this idea is…what exactly determines when a timeline branches? Does this occur at any conscious decision? Or just those that exceed some somehow-determined boundary of significance? If it's the former there would of course be a truly unfathomable number of such universes, infinite in all practical meaning. And even with the latter, unless the boundary was extremely high, there would be an enormous number of realities still, perhaps virtually infinite as well. There must either be a line or not, and if so, then where is it and how is it determined? And then I wonder, is there a branch for every possible decision one could have made? For instance, if I am asked to pick a number between one and ten, and I pick five, is there a branch for each other answer I could have given, or only one for considering a true-false scenario (I either picked five or didn't play the game)? Technically I could have said anything--one, zero, ten, fifty, rhinoceros… I might not even have spoken a response; maybe I nodded or decided to dance. The Universe shouldn’t know whether or not some potential answer was actually valid within the scope of the question, so I'm intrigued to wonder whether the branching is only done when a choice is made or not made, or if there truly is a branch for every possibility.

My other most striking concern with the theory is that none of this is tangible in any way. Even if one exists in five hundred billion parallel universes, all branched from various moments in one's own and in others' universes, it will go completely and utterly unrealized by each. So does it even matter? Does something you can't possibly hope to demonstrably verify have any meaning whatsoever? While the thoughts of all this bring me some comfort, thinking that there might possibly be versions of myself who made so many of the “right” decisions in life which I only later came to realize in this reality, the impossibility of confirmation prevents most of the comfort I wish I could feel. The excitement mostly fizzles out when I grasp that no possible branching can actually provide any true objective meaning.

Still, I can't help but imagine what this all can imply in the mind, if nothing else, at least at the most significant turning points of my life. I suppose inspiration for self-reflection is worth something, if this theory provides us nothing else to glean. Because there is a garden in your mind, a rich, fertile ground from which any combination of possible thoughts can be planted and grown to whatever lengths and however many branchings you might take them to. All it takes is a thought, a seed, and then some consideration, some nourishment, and your mind is free to wander to your flooded heart’s content, if you just let it bloom. Enjoy the fruits of imagination.

Perhaps the most significant factor of all for the ways in which a person’s world lines might have branched furthest is in the environment one grows up with. Every time my family moved (my mother was active duty Air Force) was certainly a very significant "choice-point." I was born in Maryland and then lived in Washington D.C., Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming, and then Missouri again. Any one of these could have ended up being my family's permanent residence under other circumstances. If there is an alternate universe for each of these possibilities, in which I've grown up in a completely different environment, surrounded by utterly unfamiliar landscapes and cityscapes and circles of friends and acquaintances, they would of course have progressed in radically different ways from this one and from each other. I would have grown up with strange people and likely done things I never even dreamed of in this reality. In an alternate universe there could be a version of myself, doing whatever it is he might do, who has lived in Maryland his whole life, who never moved away in the first place. He’s been there all his life. How bizarre that idea is! I mean, I’m trying to imagine and I just don't know…I am utterly biased towards the life I have actually led. It's very difficult to imagine a life that progressed completely differently since a point before I was even two years old. But it could exist, and how interesting would it be to meet him? I wonder what he’s made of his life up to now, what friends he’s chosen, what pursuits he’s held on to, what successes he’s enjoyed, what failures he’s endured and learned from. I wonder what he’s like, how good of a person he is. I wonder if we would be best friends.

This also means that there could be a version of me who never moved from Cheyenne, Wyoming so many years ago. Cheyenne, where I grew up during my most formative years and have retained, even to this day, some of the most powerful friendly bonds I’ve ever made. This is the thought that hits home most of all--that in some unreachable parallel universe may be a version of me who didn't miss out on the Cheyenne life during all these long years since my family moved away. He was there all along, oblivious to the suffering of the “me” who wasn't. Of course, this version wouldn’t have it all good. He would never have met so many of the incredible friends I’ve made since my family moved to Kansas City. For all the memories that I could possibly imagine might have had the chance to have been made if I had been there in Cheyenne all along, there are a comparable number of experiences that I actually did make here where I’ve been. Of course there are pros and cons at every point, which I guess is why I am so struck by this whole idea, but it’s so completely fascinating regardless. This is not regret or despair, but awe and wonder at simple possibilities my mind can fathom.
I just wish I could communicate with him, if he somehow truly exists in some parallel realm. I wish I could ask this incarnation of me how those… wow, eight years, now, as of summer 2012, have been. Were they as wonderful and blissful and full of nonstop joy and appreciation as they've played out in my head countless times? Did the friendships last and stand the test of time even better than they have through my occasional visits? Are we having the time of our lives together anywhere near like we’ve had in so many of my dreams manifested in the deepest sleep? Am I on a bright career path? Did I fall in love? Has it lasted? Am I better off?

I would ask him about all my friends over there. How did things go when I was around all along, as opposed to only briefly during some select summer or winter vacations? Are things as great as I have always imagined they would have been, or have I perhaps been over-projecting my guilt of leaving? Is everyone still good friends with each other? Did I help to provide some sort of social adhesive to people who otherwise would have drifted apart? Do we all still have as much fun in this world as we have when I come to visit from my own? Or are things largely the same, on the grand scale of things, minimally affected by whether I’m actually there or not? It wouldn’t even truly matter what the realities may be, because they are all ruthlessly interesting regardless, no matter how much positive influence I might be projecting into such a reality where I might have actually had a role to play in its overall “success.” Of course I want to have had, and may see myself as having, such an impact. But actually knowing the full truth is its own joy altogether.

I would then ask him about Dave, unquestionably the deepest, most profound, intertwined and enjoyable friendship I have ever had. How is Dave? What is he like, having had me there all this time? As things are, Dave and I have taken, in some ways, very different paths since we parted ways in 2004. There are some things that we don't quite see eye to eye on now, but many, many that we still do… but these differences are trivial, and the floodgates inevitably open so wide when we reunite. And all the long years and all the daunting miles that have haunted our separation are swept away as all the memories and all the connections we have ever formed come flooding back in like a raging river, unstoppable and undeniable. Then it's almost as if those years and miles were never even in the way to begin with, and we can enjoy the shared glory of our friendship for whatever time we have. At best, usually, I get this for two weeks of each year. But how different might it have been if we had remained neighbors perpetually? How much positive influence might I have had for him and him for me? It's difficult to say, to say the obvious. I get chilled just putting serious thought to it. My mind gets a bit cloudy; there are far too many variables. But I imagine, with all the honesty I can muster, that it would be an incredibly beautiful thing, for each of us and in each other. I feel like it would outshine any downside to having remained there all along by enormous degree. Such is this single connection.

So it ends up being a little awkward, this longing to be in both places at once. If it were somehow possible to combine the best of both worlds it would solve so much. If only I could just cut Cheyenne out of the earth (people, power, plumbing, everything) and fly it over to Missouri and lay it down in some nearby open area, some already-prepared jigsaw puzzle piece of an empty space to drop it in. If I could incorporate the friends from both sides into my current everyday life, if I could have all of my deepest friendships right here, each and every one of them within the reasonable means of each and every other one of them to connect with, I would be hard-pressed to desire anything else in this world.

And then I wonder what if each romantic relationship had not ended? This is another huge significance, assuming that each relationship was aimed at the long run, if it had gotten far enough to be established as such, as they should be. Inside alternate branching realities, based on different sums of decisions and factors, each case could have progressed onto some wildly different path. So perhaps these are still going strong in some alternate universes, where whatever it is that messed them up was somehow avoided by some pivotal decision unrealized in this one. The ability to observe the results would be most interesting in these cases, as well. How far would they have gone by now? Would there be a marriage on the way? Might I have a family yet? Could things have been worked out effectively, or was it doomed no matter what? Was the outcome I’m familiar with inevitable? These curiosities are impossible to determine, ultimately, sitting here surrounded by the perpetual flow of a single course of history… and that frustrates me. Unknowns are so frustrating, and I now realize this is one of the reasons why this whole theory is so captivating to my mind. It provides for me a means to ponder on what could possibly have gone differently, and produce an outcome entirely separate from the one which I’m so fundamentally familiar with. It doesn’t need to imply that you wish this imagined outcome to have been the case, it only means that the alternative is interesting in that it never came to be but you know it had even the slightest chance to. Because the willful mind is such an incredibly wondrous thing, providing for us the limitless possibilities to imagine countless realities as suits our whim, and consider what certain outcomes might have come about given alternate circumstances. And perhaps we might even learn something useful for this objective reality which we actually have control over.

What if my father had not left ten years ago? That would be another extremely different reality, another one I can hardly comprehend--the impact would be huge and profound. It’s amazing how some things become so normalized, so ingrained into our minds simply because it’s all we know, because we can only experience one single timespan, because that’s how the world around us works, apparently. It becomes hard to imagine things any other way. And when you try, you get this vague idea that it would have been so nice, but…getting more than that out of it seems difficult. It's hazy, like there is some general sense of how things would be, but... the data is just simply insufficient. There are far too many variables, again. You can only wonder, and imagine what that version of you is experiencing in the world that you project for them in your mind.

And what if I had picked a different college, or a different degree program, or not moved out with my brother several years ago, or even not written this? There are so many possibilities for things to have gone differently. And of course there would be unfavorable parallel universes, as well. There would be one in which I dropped out of high school (since the thought crossed my mind), or never went to college, or never bought my current vehicle, or never had that very first conversation with Dave, or for that matter any other person who’s ever been in my life.

The fascinating thing is that any, or, really, all, of these twists and turns throughout the garden of forking paths might be true realities of other representations of me. And of you, and of everyone, with some details changed. I suppose this is why they say the past is so dangerous. Not completely, of course--everything can be seen favorably, at least constructively, in some way. The good memories are, of course, positive reinforcements, and the more the better. The bad ones, however, are useful in their own ways—they can be warnings, lessons, and points of comparison. They can be things to avoid, experience to pass on. Optimism is a very, very powerful thing.

So it's all a profoundly interesting thought experiment, really, this little introspective here. It’s a daydream session, a trip down nostalgia lane with a fun twist. I'm sure everybody is aware of various moments where their lives took a decisive turn in some direction. Does it interest others that those choices might have spawned their own realities? Even if you can only ever attempt to imagine their implications, this can still provide some valuable insight for you if you can relate to it effectively. And hopefully you can shape those insights into positive applications for what you actually do have knowledge and control over.

I'll say this: if I could somehow verify that these alternate realities do indeed exist, and if I could somehow determine their locations in space-time, I would do everything in my power to tear a wormhole in the fabric of space-time right here in front of me with my bare hands. I would figure out how to navigate myself through them in any direction that I choose and give myself free reign to visit some of these other possibilities. Just to see for myself. I wonder how some of those other realities have turned out. And even if I come across a particularly beautiful one, I'll come back, for sure…

at least to say goodbye.



Posted by Eli Stanley | at 10:15 PM

4 comments:

LDswims said...

I often wonder how my life choices, those I made as well as those my parents made for me - or for themselves, have changed my path. I can see very distinct forks in my past that have put this person right here and right now.

I often feel that dreams are a way for the various realities to reunite. I know, through that feeling, that where I am is where this person is meant to be. That is truly odd. Not one of my choices was right or wrong. But for this person who is right here, right now, the choices were made as they should have been.

Christopher Dos Santos said...

Namaste brother Eli,

the point of physics which best gives rise to the multiple universe theory is 'non locality of the atom'.
In Quantum Mechanics, there is something called entanglement. No, not the kind you had with Becky under the bleachers in high school. This kind of entanglement says that particles that once "interacted" are forever entangled, whereby their properties are reflected in each other's behavior. For example, take 2 particles that came from the same reaction and separate them by galactic distances. Continued observation will prove both particles are entangled, whereas when one changes direction the other will as well. In 1964, physicist John Bell developed a mathematical proof that non local theory can account for all of Quantum Mechanics experimental results. WOW we mathematically can predict the behaviour of all matter, any given particle of matter can be found to exist in an infinite possible positions of physically manifested particles. Almost fifty years after John Bell's proof, scientists are coming to terms with the idea that the world is non-local.

Given the exciting nature of the revelations, there are more than a few clever paradigms being proposed to define the nature of the universe. In one, our old friend the "Many Worlds" theory, zillions of parallel universes are spawned every second, which account for the seeming non-locality of reality. In the other, "history plays itself out not in the three-dimensional spacetime of special relativity but rather this gigantic and unfamiliar configuration space, out of which the illusion of three-dimensionality somehow emerges."

I believe that time, space and all manifest expressions of what we deem physical reality are merely illusion. If the atom is non local then it stands to reason that there is truly no point of separation. Conversely any single point of physical expression becomes the center of the known universe.

Our true identity is not the corporeal body we apparently inhabit, verily we are signatures of light energy, expressed as potential wavelengths of light, or if you will, love. Physicists for over three hundred years argued that light could be a wave or a particle. In the end mankind came to realise (via advances in the double slit experiment) that the photon is a wave pattern which expresses itself as a particle upon observation. The nut was cracked.....

We are consciousness acting as the essential observer needed to manifest physical reality from the non local potential of a standing light wave. AWESOME!!!! Now we come to the point, if we define ourselves as consciousness (not a body named Eli) then we discover the true nature of self as a singular expression. WE ARE ONE BEING, WE ARE CONSCIOUSNESS.... MOST AWESOME....

Now the big jump, you were never born, you will never die, you are me, I am you, we are an expression of singularity, wavelengths of energy, light potential realised by divine consciousness. To define the true self we can use many terms other than human; light, energy, unresolved potential, love or my favorite GOD. God I am = God you are.

Consciousness is an eternal omnipotent expression. Time, space, separation, birth, death, physicality are all illusions. Einstein said it best. "Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent illusion."

Great evocative post, thank you for sharing your perspectives. I would like to invite you to follow my blog so that we may enjoy your unique perspectives.

In Lak'ech, prosper in truth live in love...

Christopher Dos Santos said...

Aha, I missed noting you are the author of the forward backward post I liked so much. Nice to have you join my site, I knew I would like your way of thinking.

Eli Stanley said...

LDswims, I am glad for your interest. I agree that the concepts are extremely interesting and thought-provoking. I think everyone probably probes the thoughts of what alternate courses might have played out by different choices. I hope that it doesn't come off as regretful, that is certainly not the idea. Just as a way to wonder, and be in awe of how many possibilities -could- have played out throughout the course of a life. And yes, of course, each of us right here, here and now, and it is what it is. That should be its own comfort. We must make the best of it always!

Christopher, your comment is very interesting! I read a lot of physics and theories in my spare time, and am somewhat familiar with the experiments you mention. It's all so fascinating! This many-worlds idea has always been one of the highest interests. I'm always eager for the newest breakthroughs, hoping they shed further light on our understanding of how everything works and fits together. That concept of entanglement is also one of the most intriguing. Ahhh, I wish there were more hours in the days to just study up on it all!

I am excited that you recognize me from an earlier post. I hope you will explore some of the other essays on here. I'm working on revising them all, and to have a finalized collection. It's so nice to finally have people stopping by and sharing their own thoughts about all this! It's always enjoyable, and I absolutely adore such conversations about such interesting things. Oh the world is so fascinating!!

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