There is this crazy theory that’s been rolling around in my head for quite some time. It’s the idea that, given enough time and space, all fictions are non-fiction. Take your favorite book or movie, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars. Somewhere, at some point in time, these things must have happened. I know I know, call the men with the white jackets, but hear me out for a sec.
A growing number of astrophysicists have been arguing in favor of the multiverse theory, which states that there may be more than one universe, and in all likelihood, an infinite number of them. Neil deGrasse Tyson has stated that every time humanity thought there was only one of something, one Earth, one solar system, one galaxy, we were wrong. So why stop at one universe? The multiverse theory helps to explain a number of astronomical enigmas, including the origin of the Big Bang, the identities of dark matter and dark energy, and the inexplicably rapid expansion of space. One needs only ask, if our universe banged into existence, from where did it originate, if not some nether region beyond itself? If it is expanding, like a balloon, what space is it expanding into, if not some outer-outer space? What is perhaps still more interesting, if there is in fact more than one universe, astrophysicists argue, it is very well possible that each of these are governed by physical laws different from our own. If the gravitational constant deviated to the slightest degree during the early formation of the cosmos, stars may not have formed, and without stars you cannot have planets, or life. Life may be unique not just to our planet but to our universe as well. But if the multiverse has no boundaries, there would have to exist an infinite number of universes containing life, and in every conceivable form. Consider the limitless ways in which subatomic particles can come together, and the possible arrangement of atoms that follow, and the DNA strands constituent of those atoms. If these quantities are infinite—and only if they are infinite—some random Big Bang would create the right conditions for some random planet to randomly form Westeros from Game of Thrones, and the myriad details those books contain. Not only that, but we would also have a Westeros where things are slightly skewed, where Ned Stark doesn’t get beheaded, even one where everyone lives happily ever after. There would exist so many possible Westeroses, that finding the one you are look for would be as impossible as finding any Westeros, and by impossible, I mean it would take you an infinite number of years. This is the problem with the number infinity. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, even for mathematicians, and it makes for some profound if not absurd proofs. There are several other problems with this theory as well:
- There may NOT be a multiverse at all. According to Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, one universe is all we need, and everything about the Big Bang and its consequent expansion can be explained by our current understanding of physics.
- If the multiverse does exist, it may not be infinite.
- The only number that can mathematically affect infinity is infinity itself. So all the kids at the playground one-upping you with, “infinity +1” are wrong in thinking their number is bigger. Infinity +1 = Infinity. Infinity -1 = Infinity. Heck, Infinity minus a googolplex is still Infinity. I bring this up only because, in the previous paragraph, I made the assumption that where time and space are infinite, variation is not. Imagine I left you alone with a certain number of LEGO blocks, and I gave you until forever to arrange those blocks any way you wanted. Eventually, every car, house or boat you could possibly make, you would. However, if I were to give you an infinite number of LEGOs, you could not arrange them in every way possible, no matter how long you tried, as these two infinities would cancel each other out. Infinity – Infinity = 0. Now, replace LEGO blocks with atoms, and you get the same result. Given a limitless number of ways a universe could exist, we might never, ever produce Westeros.
Now let’s assume, for the sake of this thought experiment, that a multiverse definitely exists, time and space are indeed infinite, but there are just so many ways atoms can be ordered. Given these statements, we still run into the problem of infinity itself, because, as stated before, even if there is a Westeros somewhere, or a Middle Earth or a Hogwarts, we most likely could never, ever find it. Even after a million years of technological and biological evolution, having built starships to make the Enterprise look like a wheelbarrow, we still would never be able to find our favorite fictional world out there, though we might be able to prove, mathematically at least, that those worlds exist.
In his short story, The Library of Babel, Argentinian Sci-Fi author Jorge Borges imagines an infinitely-sized library, containing not just every book ever written, but every book that could ever be written. The people perusing the library seek to find books containing a record of their own lives, but given the nature of large numbers, they never do.
The Library of Babel
From a pragmatic standpoint, such metaphysical-mathematical musings are a waste of time. If we can never know, why bother? We could make the same case for a much more plausible scenario. At this very moment, as you are reading this, some alien being is reading a near identical theory, in a thriving civilization on the opposite side of the universe, some 13 billion light years away. Even if we could freeze ourselves in a starship, to travel for that length of time, the alien civilization would certainly fizzle out by the time we got there. In fact, after 13 billion years, entropy would eliminate all trace of any such civilization having ever existed. Its star could go supernova and the gases surrounding it could reform into a new star and a new system before our arrival. If that weren’t enough, after 13 billion years, the rate of the expanding universe will exceed the speed of light, so even if we were to travel as fast as any particle can go, we would still never, ever meet our alien neighbors on the opposite side of our universe, or even find evidence of their existence. They would be as elusive to us as non-fictional Westeros. William James, founder of pragmatism, would likely argue that, if no evidence can ever be presented of something being true, it is equivalently untrue.
Not so fast, William James, because here is where art comes in, to exceed the limits of math and science and philosophy. For while we may never be able to literally travel to our favorite fictional worlds, we can get there instantaneously, using the vessel that is the human mind. This is what we do whenever we think. Or use our imaginations to create worlds. Authors, painters, video game developers, and the like, are all in effect explorers, and the space in which they explore is that of probability (in Sci-Fi) and possibility (via fantasy). Now it may appear that I have made a kind of logical fallacy, an argument from semantics. Fiction is something we consider to be untrue, because we can’t ever really know if it’s untrue, or, in other words, we believe something is false only because we can’t know whether it’s true. For a writer, however, this need not be a matter of contention. Writers do not seek absolutes, after all, but uncertainties, and to some extent, falsehoods. By entertaining metaphorical realities, we give fodder to those seeking literal realities. And even then, what exists solely in the mind possesses its own inherent value. At the very least, this thought experiment can help us rethink and reassess the purpose of creativity, and how it can play a larger role in the big questions posed by science and philosophy.
The realm of possibility and probability, where fiction and non-fiction dance around one another, is a place I like to call The Hub of All Worlds. It is an imaginary center, similar to Cosmos’ spaceship of the imagination, from which we can traverse the multiverse. And, while the theory that everything is true, given sufficient time and space, may not have any real-world applications, it makes for good storytelling.