“This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. . . . In the present one, which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost. . . . Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures.”
Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths” 1941
Yesterday, unwittingly attempting to share what appeared to be empty space with another car, and pulling back into my lane in time to avoid the crash, I’m reminded of all of the near misses in my life. In these situations, I’m often tempted to experience the other reality, in this case, a crash, with powerful sensations of sight, sound and shudder. I remind myself that there isn’t simply one alternate reality, there are perhaps infinite other paths and it is seemingly possible, to me, that we follow them all, only appear to be stuck in a single narrative.
Then I was reminded of the Borges story, which invariably fills me with wonder. Did this outrageously brilliant man know, in the 1940s, that physicists would be describing alternative universes in the 21st century? Or are physicists simply following his lead?
<<Not meaning to disregard the words of Robert Frost here or the role of poetry in understanding philosophy and physics.>>
I am currently reading How to Survive in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu, a clever little novel that explores the physics of time in an allegory that describes time travel as a metaphor for grammatical tenses—past-imperfect, future, future-imperfect, etc. (somewhere I’ve even heard of a past-continuous). Yu says, a novel is a form of time travel. Yu says, each person exists within her own personal time machine. If you stop and think about it, you can’t help asking: what the hell is time, anyway?
I read somewhere that the first use of the term multiverse can be attributed to William James, in his philosophical writings in the early years of the 20th century. We can time travel backwards to meet Borges and James and Frost by reading their writings. Perhaps if we dare, we can even follow the fork that leads us back to them with ours.