Unintended Consequences & Infinite Worlds

  • A popular idea in Quantum Mechanics is the Multiple-Worlds Interpretation (MWI), stating that many worlds exist in the same time and space as our own.
  • A similar concept is the Multiverse, in which there are multiple universes, but they are not in the same "space." However, there are so many universes that there are some nearly identical to our own.
  • The Law of Unintended Consequences is that in complex systems, every decision or distinct path has differences that are unknown at the point of the deviation in the path.
  • Combining these ideas, every different result of an action in our own world creates infinite numbers of worlds that are just as real as our own.
The history of Western philosophy is mostly a history of cause and effect. For most early philosophers, the ultimate "cause" is God, an unmovable mover. But after that first cause, actions have effects which continue a chain events until the end of time. Whether or not those cause and effects are results of free-will, any decision or result of "random" chance causes a chain of events to continue.

Looking forward, we tend to see these chains in a single line. Every action that we take will continue to progress towards our ultimate future. Looking backwards, it is easier to imagine a world where we made a different choice, or some different result occurred. I can imagine some alternate timeline of my own life if I had spelled "bantamweight" correctly in the eighth-grade spelling bee. That world might be drastically different, with a change no more extreme than a flap of a butterfly's wings.

In the world of quantum mechanics, those alternate timelines exist together in the same spacetime. Considering the Schrödinger's cat experiment, this interpretation is that both timelines, one where the cat in the box is alive and the alternative where the cat is dead, exist at the same time. MWI does not put significance into the observer. We as observers will continue to only see one timeline, but the other has split off and is just as real. There is an independent version of us as observers of the cat that are just is real as we are. There are now two timelines which are no longer dependent and will not remerge.

The astronomic concept of the multiverse is similar, but not the same. This is the idea that there are so many infinitely large universes, the mathematics indicate that there would be worlds identical to our own, as well as those that only slightly deviate from our own and those which are drastically different.1 Any easy way to imagine this is to consider rolling a million sided die an infinite number of times. Eventually, there will be more than one time we get the same face of the die.

Considering both theories, it makes imagining alternate cause-and-effect chains of our lives feel that much more real. This is where the Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play. The economic idea, normally applied to governmental decisions, is equally as interesting considering the choices that we make every day. The concept is that in complex systems (like our lives), one decision has immeasurable unintended consequences. I like to imagine that two different worlds diverge every time I decide on some open question. When I decide to skip a workout or put off some task until tomorrow, I have not only affected myself in the short run. I now live in a different universe where those decisions will have consequences across perpetuity. To be fair, making a choice which I feel is positive still could have long term negative outcomes, but those are not possible to predict.

Why are does this matter? We will continue to feel that we exist in a single world on only one chain of events. However, the theoretical reality is that every action or decision has an infinite number of impacts on the rest of the world and that each one of those differences creates a new world unto itself.

Considering this, it helps me try to be the Levi Palmer living a world where I made the right choices, rather than allowing a similar Levi Palmer in an alternate timeline to reap the rewards of good decision making.

I sincerely hope that this doesn’t cause stress and keep anyone awake thinking about all of the unintended positive consequences that befell their alternative self, especially the worlds where hadn’t fallen out in the last round of a middle school spelling bee.

1 As an aside, this makes the Fermi Paradox even more interesting. This is the paradox that even though the mathematics would indicate that there are enough planets and that some are old enough that they would have had sufficient time to progress towards space travel, no alien civilization has made contact with us. It is slightly more disturbing to consider that the aliens we are imagine are actually our own slightly different timeline just set back far enough that our civilizations have discovered the sufficient space travel to make contact.

This post is originally based on an essay that I published in May of 2018, which I have since expanded with more recent research. To learn more, check out the following source material: