September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
In “All the Myriad Ways,” Larry Niven poses the interesting question of the social impact of the discovery and application of the existence of infinite alternate universes. In the story, he theorizes that this discovery leads to mass suicides; it takes away people’s senses of uniqueness and free will. I think this is an interesting and realistic idea that brings into question the role of science in society.
People’s senses of “free will,” or “mastery” in social science terminology—one’s sense of personal efficacy or the feeling that you are capable of willingly changing aspects of your life or environment—are significant predictors for mental health. Specifically, mastery is negatively correlated with depression, which by extension affects suicide rates. Most people assume that we live in a rational universe where particular actions have particular predictable consequences; we are capable both of making choices and of predicting their consequences. If it was suddenly proven that this is not the case, it would be very disconcerting and completely disrupt our social fabric. Any belief in mastery would be impossible to maintain if every possible choice and outcome in fact actually happens; we would seemingly have no control over our lives or destinies.
Niven also suggests that people value their sense of uniqueness within the universe. This is not unreasonable; the idea that we were specially created by a personal God, for example, is an attractive part of many popular religions. The existence of an infinite number of “you”s and “us”es would deprive us of any sense of individuality or uniqueness; it would make people feel small and irrelevant. This lack of self-importance would almost certainly lead to suicides.
If mass suicides are the result of mass conscious deliberation of this idea, then the question is whether this or similar ideas should be shared with the public. Scientists could, conceivably, attempt to keep the idea quiet, within the confines of the scientific community. However, other potentially dangerous scientific ideas are presently available to the public, and little harm has been done. For example, physics and biology tell us that we are nothing but cells and atoms; our “souls” are nothing more than a collection of electrical impulses within our bodies. Where, then, is the particular value in human life? However, I, for one, do not think in terms of this idea in my everyday life, which I believe is typical of most people.
Perhaps the discovery of infinite alternate universes and its implications would not, then, enter into society’s everyday consciousness and decision-making. It would be far easier to ignore the idea on a day-to-day basis, after all. In either case, it is an interesting “what-if” question.