Getting a Grip on Reality

A particularly dangerous alternative reality.  Published by Panther Books 1977.  Cover illustration by Peter Gudynas.

A particularly dangerous alternative reality. Published by Panther Books 1977. Cover illustration by Peter Gudynas.

The concept of the multiverse has emerged as a significant – perhaps the most likely – solution to some of the current issues facing cosmology.  In his 2014 book The Perfect Theory, Pedro Ferreira describes how, if it does indeed exist, “universes are breaking out into existence, growing to cosmic proportions, each one at its own pace and made up in its own particular way.”

It’s one of the relatively few occasions when it’s fair to say that the true scale of something is genuinely beyond our imagination.  The endless creation of infinities upon infinities inevitably boggles the mind.  But Professor Ferreira observes that “the multiverse is a wild, immense realm of what is ultimately stasis: a steady state of creation and destruction.”  It’s something that we can try to grasp, but there will always be an underlying question of whether any given feasible universe, in all this scope for seemingly limitless possibilities, necessarily exists in reality.

We’re back to that tricky consequence of quantum physics that whether or not something is “real”, in the everyday sense, is not the best way of thinking about the behaviour of fundamental particles; Schrödinger’s cat and all that.  And it’s that behaviour which may be at the root of the “many worlds” interpretation that leads to our current conception of a multiverse.

One of the most surreal series in science fiction must be the ‘Q’ novels of Trevor Hoyle.  As explained in Seeking the Mythical Future from 1977, Myth Technologists may travel to “an infinite series of alternative futures, a multiplicity of universes, each one existing in its own unique spacetime continuum.”  In a previous webpost – Outside the Job Description – I talked about their role, a key aspect of which is knowing that the alternate future universes being investigated may be imaginary or not.  But the difference between the two may not be as significant as first appears – as the main character Chris Queghan asks: “Could the universe sustain itself as a figment of the imagination?”

The question of universes which are known to exist, or not to exist, at one and the same time, is critical in the second novel Through the Eye of Time.  The Anglo-German forces are facing defeat in the Second World War (no, that’s not our reality) but Hitler has developed atomic weapons.  Danger comes in the possibility of the threat transferring through to what we might consider to be our own reality.  But even then, is ours the only true objective one?  In Myth Technology, one can “never state definitively that an event has or will take place, only the probable likelihood of it taking place.”

At one point in the original novel, Queghan maintains that he is dealing with real-world situations, not an abstract hypothesis, but he is asked the key question: “How do you know that your version of reality isn’t an abstract hypothesis too?”  There’s the crunch – are we inventing our own reality?  The uncomfortable thought is summed up in the phrase: “Reality is in the eye of the beholder.”

All of this is reminiscent of the philosophy of George Berkeley, from the early eighteenth century, which argues that the material world around us is only there because we are perceiving it.  James Boswell, in The Life of Samuel Johnson, described an occasion in 1763 when he suggested to Doctor Johnson that it was impossible to refute Berkeley’s doctrine.  Johnson, in his usual forthright manner, gave a heavy kick to a large stone and rebounded from it, declaring, “I refute it thus!”

Such an argument, known to philosophy students as the “argumentum ad lapidem” (from the Latin “to the stone”) may well be a fallacy since something isn’t necessarily absurd just because common sense suggests that it is.  But it’s the only effective way of getting on with everyday life in the face of the peculiarities of quantum physics and the question of what actually constitutes reality.  Probably.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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