According to General Relativity, our experience of space and time is a bit like seeing shadows in a higher-order, four-dimensional space-time. This is probably not news to many of you; the basics of Relativity have become almost common knowledge, which is no doubt a good thing. But many people may not realize that the tenets of General Relativity and Special Relativity, with their abolition of simultaneity or any privileged point of view in space-time also imply that the entire past, and the entire future, of every point in space and every moment in time, already or still exist, permanently. I’m not going to get too much into the how’s of this—I refer you to, and heartily recommend, Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which has an excellent explication of this notion.
The upshot of this principle is that, in a very real sense, our past is never gone, but is still there, just where it was when we lived it. Similarly, the future is also already in existence (applying time-specific terms to such things is a little iffy, but we use the words we have I suppose, even though we must accept them as metaphors). In this sense, a human life is not an isolated, ever-changing pattern in some greater, flowing stream so much as a pre-existing rope of pattern in a higher-dimensional block of space-time, like a vein of gold running through a fissure in a rock formation. Its beginning is as permanent as its end.
We know that General Relativity cannot be absolutely and completely correct—its mathematics breaks down at singularities such as those in the center of black holes, for instance. But within its bailiwick, it seems to be spectacularly accurate, so it’s not unreasonable to conclude that it’s accurate in the above description of a human life—indeed, of all events in the universe.
But what does this mean for us? How does it impact the fact that we experience our lives as though the sands of the future are flowing through the narrow aperture of the present to fall into the receiving chamber of the past? How does General Relativity interact with consciousness? We seem to experience the present moment only as an epiphenomenon of the way fundamental principles translate themselves into chemistry and biology as measured along some fourth-dimensional axis. We can’t decide to reel ourselves backward and reexperience the past, or fast-forward into the future, even though it seems that our existence has much in common with the permanently-encoded data on a digital video file. We cannot choose to rewind or lives any more than can the characters within a movie we are watching.
Similarly, according to this implication of General Relativity, we could not, even in principle, have lived our past differently. Were we to rewind and then replay events, they would work out exactly as they had before, just as a movie follows the same course no matter how many times you watch it. The characters in a movie might learn later in the film that they had made some tragic error, yet when you rewind the show, they revert to their previous selves, ignorant of what they are always ignorant of at that point in time, subject to the same story arc, unable to change anything that they did before. Likewise, it’s conceivable that, when our lives end—when we reach the point where our pattern decomposes, diffuses, and fades—we may go back to the start and reexperience life again from the beginning. (This depends heavily on what the nature of consciousness is). Indeed, we may be constantly reexperiencing it, infinitely many times.
Though this seems to be a kind of immortality, it’s not a particularly rewarding one, as we wouldn’t gain anything no matter how many times we replayed our lives. For those of us with regrets it would be a mixed blessing, at best. For those who have endured lives of terrible suffering, it seems almost too much to bear. But, of course, reality isn’t optional. It is what it is, and there is no complaint department.
Ah, but here’s the rub. We know, as I said, that General Relativity cannot be quite right; crucially, it does not allow for the implications of the Uncertainty Principle, that apparently inescapable fact at the bedrock of Quantum Mechanics. Quantum Mechanics is, if anything, even more strongly supported by experiment and observation than is General Relativity; I’m aware of no serious physicists who don’t think that General Relativity will have to be Quantized before it can ever be complete.
But of course, as the name implies, the Uncertainty Principle says that things are—at the fundamental level—uncertain. How this comes about is the subject of much debate, with the two main views being the “interaction is everything, the wave-function just collapses and probabilities turn into actualities and there’s no point in asking how” that is the Copenhagen Interpretation, and the Many Worlds Interpretation, originated by Hugh Everett, in which, at every instance where more than one possible outcome of a quantum interaction exists, the universe splits into appropriately weighted numbers of alternate versions, in each of which some version of the possible outcomes occurs. It’s hard to say which of these is right, of if both are wrong—though David Deutsch does a convincing job of describing how, among other things, quantum interference and superposition implies the many-worlds hypothesis (see his books The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity).
But what does the Everettian picture imply for our higher-dimensional block space-time that is at once all of space and time, already and permanently existing? Are there separate, divergent blocks for every possible quantum divergence? Or does the space-time block just have a much higher dimensionality that merely four, instantiating not just one but every possible form of space-time at once?
If this is the case, why do we conscious beings each seem to experience only one path through space-time? Countless quantum events are happening within and around us, with every passing Planck Time (about 10-43 seconds). The vast majority of these events wouldn’t make any noticeable difference to our experiences of our lives, but a small minority of them would.
This is the new thought that occurred to me today. It’s thoroughly and entirely speculative, and I make no claims about its veracity, but it’s interesting. What if, whenever we die, we start over again, as if running the DVD of our lives from the beginning yet again, but with this important difference: Each time it’s rerun, we follow a different course among the functionally limitless possible paths that split off at each quantum event? Even though most of these alterations would surely lead to lives indistinguishable one from another, everything that is possible in such a multiverse is, somewhere (so to speak) instantiated. Reversion to the mean being what it is, this notion would be hopeful for those who have suffered terribly in a given life, but rather worrisome for those who’ve had lives of exceptional happiness. At the very least, it implies that there would be no sense in which a person is trapped in the inevitable outcome of a given life. You can’t decide to behave differently next time around, but you can at least hope that you might (while reminding yourself that you may do even worse).
Of course, all this is beyond even science fiction—well, the earlier parts aren’t, just the notions of a person’s consciousness reexperiencing life, either the same or different, over again. But it was and is an interesting thought to have on a lazy, early Sunday afternoon in the spring of the year, and I thought I would share it with you.