In 1957, a Princeton physics graduate student named Hugh Everett showed that the consistency of quantum mechanics required the existence of an infinity of universes parallel to our universe. That is, there has to be a person identical to you reading this identical article right now in a universe identical to ours. Further, there have to be an infinite number of universes, and thus an infinite number of people identical to you in them.
Most physicists, at least most physicists who apply quantum mechanics to cosmology, accept Everett’s argument. So obvious is Everett’s proof for the existence of these parallel universes, that Steve Hawking once told me that he considered the existence of these parallel universes “trivially true.” Everett’s insight is the greatest expansion of reality since Copernicus showed us that our star was just one of many. Yet few people have even heard of the parallel universes, or thought about the philosophical and ethical implications of their existence. Kepler and Galileo emphasized that the Copernican Revolution implied that humans and their planet Earth are important in the cosmos, rather than being merely the “dump heap of the filth and dregs of the universe,” to use Galileo’s description of our standing in the Ptolemaic universe.
I’ll mention only two implications of the existence of parallel universes which should be of general interest: the implications for the free will debate, and the implications for answering the question of why there is evil in the world.
The free will question arises because the equations of physics are deterministic. Everything that you do today was determined by the initial state of all the universes at the beginning of time. But the equations of quantum mechanics say that although the future behavior of all the universes are determined exactly, it is also determined that in the various universes, the identical yous will make different choices at each instant, and thus the universes will differentiate over time. Say you are in an ice cream shop, trying to choose between vanilla and strawberry. What is determined is that in one world you will choose vanilla and in another you will choose strawberry. But before the two yous make the choice, you two are exactly identical. The laws of physics assert it makes no sense to say which one of you will choose vanilla and which strawberry. So before the choice is made, which universe you will be in after the choice is unknowable in the sense that it is meaningless to ask.
To me, this analysis shows that we indeed have free will, even though the evolution of the universe is totally deterministic. Even if you think my analysis has been too facile—entire books can and have been written on the free will problem—nevertheless, my simple analysis shows that these books are themselves too facile, because they never consider the implications of the existence of the parallel universes for the free will question.
Another philosophical problem with ethical implications is the Problem of Evil: Why is there evil in the universe we see? We can imagine a universe in which we experienced nothing bad, so why is this evil-free universe not the universe we actually see? The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz argued that we are actually in the best of all possible worlds, but this seems unlikely. If Hitler had never taken power in Germany, there would have been no Holocaust. Is it plausible that a universe with Hitler is better than a universe without him? The medieval philosopher Abelard claimed that existence was a good in itself, so that in order to maximize the good in reality, all universes, both those with evil in them and those without evil, have to be actualized. Remarkably, quantum mechanics says that the maximization of good as Abelard suggested is in fact realized.
Is this the solution of the Problem of Evil? I do know that many wonder “why Hitler?” but no analysis considers the fact that—if quantum mechanics is correct—there is a universe out there in which he remained a house painter. No analysis of why evil exists can be considered reasonable unless it takes into account the existence of the parallel universes of quantum mechanics.
Everyone should know about the parallel universes of quantum mechanics!