Wondering what could have been is quintessentially human. It is common to ponder how your life might be different had you chosen a different path.
The idea of the multiverse allows us to explore alternate realities. Hollywood has certainly has embraced the concept from Loki to Russian Doll and the Spider-Verse.
These stories may be inspired in part by speculative ideas from modern physics, but are closer in spirit to a philosophical idea, that of “possible worlds” according to Sean Carroll, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.
He says each of us carries our own version of the multiverse in our heads.
“Whether or not other possible worlds exist in reality, they certainly exist in our imaginations. Every time we wistfully contemplate the past, or dream of the future to come, we cannot help but compare actuality to alternative possibilities.”
Hollywood has latched onto a way to make this space of possibilities tangible and employ fantasy as a way of making us think about the reality of our lives in a new way.
This idea is less grandiose than it sounds, Carroll argues. We all invoke possible worlds in everyday speech, even if we don’t always realize it. When you explain, “I was late because of traffic,” you really mean, ‘In possible worlds that are similar to ours except for the traffic being bad, I would have been on time.
“It is natural for us to extend empathy to people we know, those nearby, and those like us. It’s harder to do the same for people and events far away, geographically or culturally. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we care less about deaths in parallel realities.”— Sean Carroll
“The ability to reason counterfactually — to ask not just what has happened, what will happen, and what should happen, but also to contemplate all the things that might have happened — is quintessentially human,” he says.
“It lies at the heart of our capacity to imagine possible futures and work to bring them about. And it opens up the possibility of regret and dwelling on what might have been.”
In Everything Everywhere All At Once, the lead character is informed that she is literally the worst version of herself in all the universes. One reason for the popularity of this film among audiences is that we’ve all occasionally worried that something along those lines might be the case.
“Connecting directly with other versions helps Evelyn both recognize the strength within herself, and regain control over a life that had been sliding downhill.”
READ MORE: Complete Chaos Theory: Building the (Messy) Multiverse of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (NAB Amplify)
And it’s not just our own decisions. We can’t help but wonder about how the state of the world as a whole might have been different. This is especially vivid in the current moment, where technology has given us a faster and more intimate-seeming connection to events around the globe, without necessarily increasing our ability to affect what happens.
WATCH THIS: A Brief History of the Multiverse
Welsh astrophysicist Geraint F. Lewis, co-writer of Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions, explains the multiverse theory, including its origins and milestone developments, as well as what might come next.
“There are new universes born beyond our cosmic horizon,” he says. “Multiverse theories have proliferated, hoping to answer the deepest questions about what we, and the entire cosmos is.”
The hour-long video is separated into five parts: How Big is the Universe?, The Bubble Multiverse, The Cyclical Multiverse, Branes in the Bulk, and Many Worlds.
By thoroughly examining the history of the multiverse and what we know about it today, Lewis makes a complex topic easier to understand:
“It can lead to an impression of powerlessness, where we feel as if our lives are governed by forces and institutions well beyond our control. In such circumstances, alternate-universe scenarios offer a way to think about possibilities that we aren’t able to literally bring about.”
There is a darker aspect of multiverse storytelling, Carroll says. Almost inevitably, a story will begin in a single well-established world, and branch out from there. And with almost equal inevitability, what happens in those other universes will matter less to us than what happens in the first one. Superhero movies are likely to kill off alternate versions of our favorite heroes.
“The emotional impact of these tragedies is lessened by the feeling that they are somehow less real, and therefore don’t matter in the same way.”
Is that similar to how we feel about human lives lived in other parts of the world where there but for the grace of God go I?
“It is natural for us to extend empathy to people we know, those nearby, and those like us. It’s harder to do the same for people and events far away, geographically or culturally,” says Carroll. “So perhaps it’s no surprise that we care less about deaths in parallel realities.”
But if the stories we are watching are to be believed, all the universes are equally real. Perhaps that should inspire us to work on extending our empathy more widely.