A little while back, when I complained about the treatment of the multiverse in Anathem, a number of people commented to say that it wasn’t all that bad. And, indeed, they were right. Compared to last night’s History Channel program on “Parallel Universes,” Stephenson’s book is a miracle of subtle nuance, teasing out the crucial distinctions between different theories, and making them clear to the reader.
Yeesh. That was so actively irritating that I don’t know where to start. So I won’t– you can read what I wrote in the earlier post, and apply it to the History Channel, ten times over.
Instead, I’ll take this opportunity to complain about something else that bugs me whenever the subject of Many-Worlds or multiverses comes up: the attempt to claim that it has moral implications. There were at least two different points at which they made the argument that there must exist universes containing versions of ourselves in which all possible actions are explored. Then the narrator, or one of the talking heads, would come in with some breathless exclamation about how this has profound ethical implications, because there’s some universe out there in which you break the law and get away with it.
The claim that an infinite universe, parallel universes, or the Many-World Interpretation of quantum theory have something to say about ethics is not quite as stupid as the “Atheism is evil because without God there is no morality” argument. It comes pretty close, though.
Sadly, this sort of thing is distressingly popular. It’s rare for Many-Worlds to come up in a science fiction context without somebody dredging up the old Larry Niven story in which somebody proves that Many-Worlds is true, and then the researchers all commit suicide as a result. I don’t think the reasoning is exactly “It must happen in some universe, so it might as well be this one,” but it’s not a whole lot less dumb.
Let me be clear: There is absolutely no moral or ethical content in Many-Worlds, multiverse cosmology, or the massive infinite-universe inflationary scenario. None whatsoever. Zip, zero, nada.
Ethics is about determining right action. This is not a calculation that is affected by the existence of alternate universes. Knowing that some alternate-universe version of me will kick a puppy doesn’t make it all right for me to kick puppies, any more than knowing that George Bush is down with waterboarding makes it all right to torture prisoners. The right thing to do is the right thing to do, regardless of what anybody else does or doesn’t do, in this universe or any other.
To the extent that we have free will, or believe that we have free will, it is incumbent upon us to choose to do the right thing. If some sort of quantum fluctuation causes some alternate-universe version of you to do the wrong thing, that does not reflect poorly upon your character, and noble deeds in an alternate universe do not mitigate discreditable actions in this universe. It’s up to us to do the right thing, whatever that may be.
The morality of multiple universes is a wonderful topic for dorm-room stoner bullshit (and crap television documentaries, more’s the pity), but absent a great deal of marijuana, I just don’t see any way to take this nonsense seriously. It’s not science. It’s not even philosophy.