Can Free Will Exist in a Multiverse?

September 16, 2011 § 3 Comments

Sometimes, the order of events in your life just happen so perfectly that you wonder if they were meant to be that way.

I read the short story “All the Myriad Ways,” by Larry Niven, on Wednesday afternoon.  Its topic of quantum mechanics and multiple universes was fascinating.  But it was nothing compared to Donnie Darko, which I watched that very night.

Both stories involve the multiverse.  Both stories involve an aspect of parallel, alternate timelines.  And both stories are extremely unsettling.  The bevy of suicide, murder, and rape in “All the Myriad Ways” shows an extreme lack of security in a world where people realize that in an alternate universe, they have not chosen this path, they have chosen the path of security and happiness and safety.  At the same time, Donnie Darko tells us that if we are living in a tangent universe, nothing we do matters, since there is either a primary universe which contains our real self or the tangent universe is a loop which will continue to repeat until it is destroyed.

The question is, can free will exist in such places?

Think about it.  If multiple universes exist, then multiple versions of ourselves exist in each universe where our parents chose to marry and conceive our exact being.  Technically, the ego becomes infinite, making an infinite amount of choices in an infinite amount of worlds.  But what really bothers me is that no matter what I do, in a different universe, I am doing the exact opposite.  And since both “I”s are me, I am essentially not making a choice.  It’s like I am at a fork in the road and simultaneously taking all possible paths.  I have no choice but to go forward in time.  Is that all that free will consists of, going forward in time?  Because if I’m not really making a choice with my multiple ego, then free will is reduced to nil and I simply become a guided existence with many pre-determined ends, much the way Gene Trimble sees himself in “All the Myriad Ways.”

Take the case of Donnie Darko.  If you watch the movie closely, you see clues showing that the tangent universe is an infinite time loop; that is, Donnie has already been through the events of the movie in infinite previous existences.  And in each of these existences, he makes a slightly different series of choices that results in the same end: the end of the tangent universe and the resetting of time to October 2, 1988, when a new unexplained jet engine falls from the sky and crushes his empty room.  But in the end, he finally realizes that to stop this endless loop, he must stay in bed and die so that there is not a time paradox created.

Did Donnie ever really have a choice?

He was going to have to end up staying in bed at some point, if time is determined to continue forward.  And whether he realized that this choice would save Gretchen (his girlfriend in the last tangent universe who tragically doesn’t remember him in the end) or that it was necessary for him to die to save time, the fact remains that in the end, he HAD to stay in bed and get crushed.  It’s an interesting thing to consider.  In an alternate universe, maybe I’m not writing this blog, maybe the Chinese have just nuked Nashville and I’m dead, maybe I’ve just produced a platinum album.  But time keeps moving forward, and I don’t have a choice in that matter.

Wow, my head is starting to spin.  I think I’ll be done, write some more, get a drink of water, go on a mission to the moon.

-Zach Blumenfeld


§ 3 Responses to Can Free Will Exist in a Multiverse?

  • starnejr says:

    I’ve also been thinking a lot about how time travel and the multiverse affects free will, and I think you have a lot of good insights in this post. I think another option to consider though is the definition of the self. I don’t know if you have read the story from Axiomatic for this week, but I think it might shape your opinion on the issue of free will. Either way, it poses an interesting question: if there really are an infinite number of “yous” out there, which ones are actually yourself? And how can you possibly feel significant if “you” are making every possible decision at every possible moment?


  • bombastic191 says:

    Naturally of all places, the Chinese pick Nashville.


  • kt says:

    thanks for writing this….if the multiverse theory is correct, and all of my choices (and non-choices) are existing simultaneously, then free will is an illusion, is it not?


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