Multiverse and Nihilism

There is a paradox to mortal life: We are eternal beings trapped in the tyranny of time.

In this life, we cannot outrun Father Time’s iron sickle. At best, we can speculate on how it would be to slip the chain of time, to visit the future, change the past, revoke irrevocable decisions, take the path not taken.

As oddly often happens, two films dealing with the selfsame theme have appeared in the theaters at the same time, neither one copying the other. In this case, both are multiverse stories. One I have not seen and one I have.

The first is DOCTOR STRANGE AND THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and the second is EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, ALL AT ONCE starring Michelle Yeoh.

I recall  DARK CITY and THE MATRIX, both gnostic paranoia parables, being released simultaneously. There are other examples of such coincidental pairs. When this happens, usually one film is good, and the other one is popular. Go figure.

But whether good or popular, any film in a science fictional setting where man can escape from the rigor of time, like it or not, no matter how poorly, addresses the paradox of man.

We imagine two ways to slip the rigor of time: travel in time, and travel sideways-in-time, called paratime. Time travel stories are fundamentally illogical; but paratime stories are fundamentally nihilistic.

Let us examine how.

The concept of time travel is a speculation that the past and future are just as real as the present time, but somehow hidden or separated from us, and could be visited or revisited at any point along any given chain of cause and effect or continuum of events.

If revisiting the past, out present time would be as the future from that point of view, fluid and subject to change; if prematurely visiting the future, our present time would be as the past, fixed and unchanging. No one point is the current point, the moment of “now” after which all time is fixed, and before which all time is fluid. No one point in the continuum of cause and effect is the privileged frame of reference.

The concept of a multiverse is a speculation found not only in science fiction, but also in the sober talk of physicists wishing to explain (or, perhaps, to explain away) some of the metaphysical conundrums introduced by quantum mechanics.

The concept is that any potential event is actual in another continuum of events, from whose vantagepoint our actuality is merely one potential among many. Potential and actual are interchangeable. Reality and unreality become a matter of frame of reference, and no one continuum is privileged over any other.

The paradox is that, if we could do these things in reality, travel in time or paratime, reality would not be real, since life would not be life. It would be existence without meaning.

To see why, contemplate what is required for drama to be drama.

Drama can be used as a thought experiment. Drama is a picture of life. It is legitimate to conclude that if a missing element robs drama of meaning, the same element if missing in life would rob life of meaning.

In the film DOCTOR STRANGE AND THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, the plot driver is that the villainess seeks a happy family life her current continuum does not allow. She wishes to find, kill, and replace a happier doppelganger of herself, that is, a parallel version in another world living the life she craves.

I have not seen the film, and so make no comment about how the plot was executed, but I do insist that, for the drama to be dramatic, there must be a reason mentioned to the audience to explain why the villainess could not find a world where her children were recently orphaned, so that she could find the family life she craved without the need for murder.

Or, better yet, one where the technology existed to combine her with the existing mother merely by sharing memories, or something of the sort, so that she could assume all the benefits of motherhood without conflict with the current mother.

Because in the movie EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, ALL AT ONCE, that is exactly the technology that exists, allowing a paratime-traveler and his doppelganger to occupy the same body, sharing memories as one being.

Please note that in both movies, there is a severe limit to paratime travel. In MADNESS, the mere act of moving anything anywhere from one continuum to the next threatens destruction to both; and likewise, in EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE the swapping of memories between continua threatens madness.

Why so?  In drama, in order to be dramatic, decisions must involve cost if not sacrifice, actions must have consequences. In a science fiction story where the limitations of time are escaped, writers must invent other limitations to come into play, in order for actions to have costs and consequences.

In a true time travel story, that is, one were the future can be truly known and the past can be truly changed, no drama is possible, since the time traveler, forewarned of any possible problem, can alleviate it before it arises.

More to the point, the time traveler, by grace of his future self, could arrange already to have had retroactively alleviated any possible problem beforehand, making even the disturbance of any action to elude unwanted consequences unnecessary. He exists in nirvana, the state of perfect non-drama.

To make a time travel story dramatic, the author by sleight of hand must skew the time travel, imposing limits on it, so that some future events can be known, but not the ones crucial to the plot, and some past events can be changed, but not the ones crucial to the plot.

Writers can invent myriad ways to skew things. The time machine must break at a crucial point; or time must reject repeated revision; or the timeline must split; or the events unfold differently than foretold because crucial information was hidden; or attempts to elude the future bring it about; or somesuch clever folderol.

Whatever the limit, it has to be one time traveler, who escaped the tyranny of time, now cannot escape. This limit, whatever it is, becomes the new tyrant.

Likewise, and for the same reason, in a true multiverse, that is, one where every possibility, no matter how unlikely, can freely be found, finding the best solution to any problem is just a matter of identifying the continuum where that solution occurred, and going there.

No matter how unlikely the best solution may be, a true multiverse makes all unlikely outcomes equally actual.

If all unlikely outcomes are equally actual, than whatever cost or sacrifice events demand, one can always find another continuum where events are different, so that little or no sacrifice is needed for the same result. Success is inevitable. Failure is impossible.

In a story where failure is impossible, drama is impossible.

Stated another way: Drama is impossible whenever the paradox of human nature is not addressed, namely, that we are eternal beings trapped in time, and our choices all have costs. That paradox is what all drama is about.

In a true multiverse, we escape the paradox. We escape the tyranny of time insofar as all decisions are reversible: the other fork in the crossroad can always be walked.

The world springing from the decision we did not make is real, and can be entered. Hence, no decision has a cost, hence, no decision matters. Hence, no drama.

No drama exists in a true multiverse story because human nature is excluded by the story premise. Life lacks meaning. And yet there are perfectly dramatic multiverse stories, with plots and conflicts and character development and everything needed for a story. How is it done?

As with the time travel tales, it is done by sleight of hand.

In a dramatic science fiction story set in a multiverse background, the multiverse is limited or otherwise skewed, so that not all continua of possible events is available. The continuum containing with the cost-free happy ending is not found. The continuum where we escape the paradox of human existence is not found. It is not a possibility.

Of these two movies, the one called MADNESS proposes a very simple limit: the paratime traveler, a woman with the improbable name of America Chavez, cannot control her power. She cannot simply select and enter a timeline where whatever tools, skills, and abilities easily to overcome the villainess are ready at hand. She cannot simply find and step into the timeline where a benevolent version of Galactus is standing by, Infinity Gauntlet on his fist, able to solve everything with a fingersnap.

The other movie, EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE proposes no such simple limit, but deals with a madness caused by the overcrowding of all parallel memories into one’s mind.

EVERYTHING,  EVERYWHERE is particularly clever, and particularly insightful, because the madness may not be madness at all, but a sane and simple assessment of fact: In a world where every unreal possibility is a reality, nothing is real.

In a true multiverse, that is to say, one not skewed with some artificial limitation invented for the sake of drama, nihilism erects an obvious challenge: For everything you have suffered or have done, if there is another you, equally real and present, who did not suffer or did not do those things, thus nothing you do nor suffer matters. Nothing matters.

Let me hasten to add that the  2010 animated superhero film JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS raises the same issue, and issues the same challenge.

Specifically, Owl Man, the evil doppelganger of Bat Man, seeks to annihilate the entire multiverse at once, on the grounds that this alone is the only choice that has meaning, hence the only action worth doing.

He reasons that no alternative version will exist where multiverse-wide annihilation did not happen, once all alternative versions evaporate into nonbeing. There are infinite universes within the multiverse, but only one multiverse.

Owl Man gives an eerie speech justifying his madness, but, of course, he is not entirely wrong. No other action aside from this has meaning.

Except, of course, Bat Man proves him wrong, because the action of thwarting the destruction of the multiverse also has no alternatives. If destroying everything has meaning, so does saving everything.

Likewise, if I may comment without spoiling the ending, in EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, a mother’s love, prompted and supported by her husband’s love for her, is sufficient, even when the concept of nihilism threatens to draw all reality into the hole in the zero, to pull a meaningful family life out of the pull of that vacuum.

But notice a parallel between the melodrama of EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE and the super-heroics of TWO EARTHS. In both cases, nihilism is the reasonable response to the despair of being in a multiverse, but only the villains bow to it. Fearless heroism, on the one hand, and fearless maternal love, on the other hand, is found sufficient to answer.

It is a sufficient answer. Either movie, or any story, which faces the issue squarely, if it is honest, will come to the same conclusion: fortitude born of love is the answer to nihilism.

And yet, while this is a sufficient answer, and both films offer it, it is not a complete or satisfactory answer, because it fails to specify the source of fortitude born of love.

If fortitude born of love is merely a natural thing, once choice you make when you could have chosen the opposite, then the multiverse mocks your choice: because for every Bat Man, fearless crimefighter, there is a sequence of events where Bruce Wayne instead became Owl Man, audacious criminal. For every mother whose love overcomes the threat to her Joy, is the version of her whose love fails.

The answer must rest beyond the realm of nature. Either there is something beyond nature, a supernatural, or not.

If we say nothing is beyond nature, if we say nature is all that exists, the answer comes back that to escape time is to enter the realm of death and oblivion. Beyond earthly life is nonbeing.

If we say something is beyond nature, we speak of supernatural things, unlimited by our limits here. The answer comes back that in the supernatural alone are found the eternal things without which we cannot live our lives on earth. We enter an eternal and timeless realm.

If this answer seems strange, let us ponder the paradox of man once more:

Time, for us, brings death and oblivion, the downfall of nations, the extinction of worlds, the nightfall of the universe. All monuments crumble at last to dust. And yet we live as if life were meaningful and wonderful.

Another way to state the paradox of man is this: We do not live eternally, but we live for eternity.

We live for eternity because we live the sake of  eternal truth, sublime beauty, sacred virtue, perfect justice. Without these, life is meaningless. These form the ends at which mortal decisions aim, as well as the first cause and motive of mortal actions.

We seek the eternal things eternally, and are eternally denied. Justice is not found on earth. Beauty fades. Life dies. Truth is lost in a haze of darkness and maze of deception.

The paradox, to put it simply, is that man is a creature with a moral nature incompatible with his mortal nature.

Our mortal nature would have us act as beasts, rustling, raping and robbing as we like, when we like, with small concern for tomorrow, since tomorrow we die. Death not only mocks all ambition, it places us beyond any human retaliation for any wrongs we do others. Cooperation in the short term with other members of one’s tribe may be prudent; but, then again, the prudent as well as the imprudent, sober or drunk, kind or cruel, noble or craven, all men enter the same oblivion, and all memory or record of their acts of charity or malice return to dust not long after. Such is natural life on earth, if nature is all that there is.

Our moral nature rebels.

We yearn for justice, for purity, for beauty, for bliss. We yearn for eternal truth and infinite joy. We yearn for meaning above and beyond what is found in nature.

A speculative fiction story of time travel or paratime travel can form an adroit thought experiment to use to explore the ramifications of what it would mean to escape this paradox of mortal nature and moral nature. And yet, strangely enough, neither in the science fiction films of this season, nor in the novels and stories of decades past, has any author answered the challenge of nihilism by driving the speculation to its logical conclusion.

I have heard that Professor Tolkien once began a time travel tale, called THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS, and, in some timeline other than this one, he might have called forth a satisfactory answer to the challenge of nihilism. In our timeline, I cannot bring to mind a tale of multiverse which answers the challenge of nihilism fully.

Again, let me emphasize, that in a paratime story, if it is a true multiverse and not a skewed multiverse, nature consists not just of this continuum, but of all possible continua, where every possible combination of events played out in every variation. Cause and effect become meaningless, because every cause produces all possible results regardless of unlikelihood.

The world where you flipped one coin a million times in a row, all landing heads, is just as real as one where it landed heads only once. Neither is a one in a million. Both are inevitable.

Every possible combination of throws is inevitable, because all potentials are actual: all are laid out end to end in shiny parallel lines of pennies containing every combination of heads and tails, including the one that spell out pi in base ten to twenty thousand digits.

So far all decisions. The world where Priscilla married Miles Standish rather than John Alden is just as real, no matter how unlikely, as one where she married Ichabod Crane, Squanto, or Pocahontas, or the talking Willow Tree. All are inevitable.

This means every sinner, in a parallel continuum, is a saint, and every saint is a sinner. Eve both ate the apple and did not; Mary both said “Be it done to me according to thy word” and did not. Everyone who died and goes to heaven also died and goes to hell. No decisions have any meaning.

Steadfast love sounds as if it can answer the dark challenge of nihilism. But if, for example, Bat Man overcomes Owl Man in this continuum, then the opposite is true in the next. If love conquers the threat here, it fails to do so next door. If the villainess rescues her own orphans and lives happily ever after, her doppelganger one world over does not.

Nothing inside the multiverse can answer the nihilist challenge presented by the existence of a multiverse. Only something able to change the whole multiverse at once, only something outside the whole of nature, can answer.

Eternal things are true in every world. Metaphysical truths likewise are those things that are necessarily true, that is, true in every world. Physics are those things that happen to be true in the continuum you currently inhabit, but which may or may not differ in other continua, depending on what observed regularities seen in nature are necessary, and cannot be different, and what are contingent, and could be different.

In the Alphaverse, strict and severe grandpa Gonggong may be pitiless to the point of murder, and in Earth Three, the heroic Bruce Wayne may be the murderous Owl Man, but in every continuum regardless, murder is still a sin. Laws change from land to land; the moral order does not.

Likewise, anything a chain of cause and effect can bring about is contingent, for it depends on the continuum of events; but anything true regardless of events, true in all events, is necessary. It is an eternal truth.

If there is no supernatural realm, there are no eternal truths.

If there are no eternal truths, there is only opinion. There is no right and wrong, only pleasure and displeasure. All things are matters of taste, preference, or prejudice. So says our mortal nature.

A man should be willing to die for a love, or for an ideal, he justly regards as greater than himself: cross, flag, family, honor, true love. So says our moral nature.

But to die for a pleasure, or to die for an opinion, is illogical: as a matter of logic, if the only value a thing has is the value you yourself grant it, that value departs from it the moment you revoke that grant. It cannot be a greater thing than you, nor can you serve it, for you made it. It is, at best, an idol. Why die for such a thing? You can make another.

If there are no eternal truths, there is nothing worth living for, nor worth dying for.

If there are no eternal truths, nihilism is unanswerable. If death is the sole reality beyond nature, human aspirations are all in vain.

From time to time, virtuous pagans, and those accounted wise in the eyes of the world, attempt to answer the challenge of the nihilist. Their answers fall into one of several broad categories.

The stoic answer is that since death is inevitable, we should neither fear nor welcome it. A sense of duty, and an ironclad self control will allow the virtuous man to restrict his desires to those things within his power to achieve, such as conformity to moral self-worth, and eliminate desire of any thing not within his power, worldly wealth, women, fame, long life, health.

In short, the stoic takes nature as an absolute, and attempts to conform his desires and impulses to nature.

He does not seek perfect justice, for it is not to be found on earth, but only to be just himself. If others treat him unjustly, he is indifferent, accepting the wound without complaint. If he sees injustice done to others, he will fight if such is his duty, albeit with no expectation of victory, or will stand by, letting the vision of cruel not disturb his inner tranquility. But this requires some idea of eternal justice, otherwise there is no basis for determining one’s duty.

The irony here is that the stoic must keep his eyes on the very eternal things logic says are beyond nature, perfections he has no hope of reaching. The stoic attempts to live without hope, by sheer discipline, by sheer willpower.

The hedonistic answer is to eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. For details on the drawbacks of this lifestyle, please consult the current generation, and the world you see around you now: it is a madhouse. The sad fact is that the pursuit of pleasure leads to frustration, which leads to pain and misery, hate and violence, and the mere opposite of all pleasing divertissements.

The mystic answer is to posit supernaturalism, but not monotheism. This calls for the dissolution of the self into the greater and transcendental being, indistinguishable from nonbeing, which is itself a type of despair. Or perhaps this posits reincarnation back into this life, or another life, but if so the same difficulties arise again.

And the nihilist answer to nihilism, of course, is to accept as true the idea that there are no truths, hence no answer to nihilism.

These four general answers have endless variations, overlaps, and nuances. But in general, without hope of heaven, whether in a multiverse or no, the only answer to a meaningless life is monotheism. Any other answer leads either to melancholy, or wrath, to quietism, or nothingness.

Of the two films, one has a villainess willing to destroy whole worlds, and kill doppelgangers of herself, to achieve an imaginary family life; the other has a family torn by the accumulation of ordinary problems, tax audits, sexual misconduct, estranged parents, until the all-destroying answer of suicide begins to tempt.

In one film, the unhappy villainess, wishing for family life, commits suicide. In the other, the unhappy suicide, renouncing her villainy, returns to her family life.

But in both films, nothing in the infinite probabilities of the multiverse offers hope of happiness for the unhappy.

Both films are wise enough to say so. They give the satisfactory answer that since love is all, love conquers all-consuming nihilism. Neither gives the complete answer, nor says why love is all, nor where love is born, nor what is His name.