With the nation reeling from the abortion decision at the Supreme Court, there has been much discussion about what could have been different. Had Justice Antonin Scalia or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived, or Justice Anthony Kennedy waited to retire, would the Supreme Court have overturned Roe v. Wade?
We think about these what-if scenarios often with tragedy. What if police officers responded sooner in Uvalde, Texas? Would more lives have been saved? If the nation had passed more gun control laws after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, could Uvalde have been prevented last month? Sometimes, the matters aren't as weighty but still spark the imagination and furious debate. Would the Golden State Warriors be celebrating more than four NBA championship rings if Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry hadn't been hurt the past few seasons?
When big things happen, we think back to the facts that might have been pivotal to their occurrence. We want to understand how and why things unfold the way they do. There’s a deep psychological need to feel like we’re in control, and understanding what causes what is one way to begin to feel in control.
This need also explains why the multiverse theory – a collection of universes – is becoming popular as a narrative technique in popular culture. The Marvel Cinematic Universe famously adopted the multiverse as its storytelling backbone, and "Everything Everywhere All at Once" also made adept use of the multiverse. Loosely based on the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics, the multiverse theory says there is a world corresponding to each way the world could have been.
The multiverse first appeared in DC Comics in 1961 when Barry Allen, The Flash, met his predecessor from a parallel reality. Being able to utilize multiple worlds allowed DC to try out different conceptions of well-loved characters “without fitting a round peg into a continuity square," as Inverse magazine put it. The multiverse also allowed writers to bring back favorite characters to new stories – a good way to please fans.
In academic philosophy, which is my field of research, multiverses or “possible worlds" are used to make sense of possibility. When I say I could have made some other choice, what I’m saying is there is a nearby possible world in which I did in fact make that choice.
The multiverse also gives us a concrete way to engage in counterfactual reasoning. We want to know which decisions are impactful, and we need to know whether our choices matter. Seeing how disparate choices lead – and don’t lead – to disparate outcomes lets us see what’s unavoidable, and therefore out of our control. Multiverses, which lets us see characters in parallel worlds where different choices have been made, lets us see what’s unchangeably so and what can be changed.
This last bit also applies to individuals and their identities: What aspect of me is enduringly true across every world? In philosophy, we say some fact is "necessary" if it is constant throughout every world. If some feature of me is constant throughout every world, then it is a necessary and essential part of what makes me, me.
In "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," for instance, we see every version of Spiderman suffer a loss (so early loss is a necessary part of that character). Other features, such as appearance, tend to be different across multiverses – Spider“men” across the multiverse differ in style, race and even gender – so appearance is better thought to be “contingent” and not necessary, to who someone is.
Helping us understand who we are
When we’re inundated with choices about who to be and become, it is helpful l – if not existentially rewarding – to know which parts of us are necessary and essential to who we are. I don’t think we have latent “true” selves within us whom we are somehow supposed to mature toward, but the multiverse lets us see what aspect of ourselves are common across all different versions of us, not because we were “meant to be” those things, but because we in fact became those things in different worlds.
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In "Everything Everywhere," for instance, many worlds feature Evelyn and Joy, the mom-daughter duo, together, even as inanimate objects sometimes. It’s as if they’re always meant to be, something about being Evelyn and something about being Joy necessarily requiring each other’s presence. But the bond is earned, something that was created through their ongoing decisions.
At a time when our environmental, social and political future is unclear, it is tempting to imagine a world where we get to see how each of our decisions pan out. Some say that if nothing had changed after Sandy Hook, nothing would change now. But we refuse to believe that we live in a world where school shootings are a necessary part of all future worlds. Such events should not be considered written, so we agitate for change.
We want to understand causation, know who we are and make sense of what we’re willing and unwilling to accept – and these psychological needs, perhaps best met by engaging with stories, might explain the recent popularity of multiverses. I expect we’ll continue to see more and more stories making use of it.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Abortion and Supreme Court in the multiverse: What could have changed?