Life in the garden of forking paths

by Charlie Huenemann

We primates of the homo sapiens variety are very clever when it comes to making maps and plotting courses over dodgy terrain, so it comes as no surprise that we are prone to think of possible actions over time as akin to different paths across a landscape. A choice that comes to me in time can be seen easily as the choice between one path or another, even when geography really has nothing to do with it. My decision to emit one string of words rather than another, or to slip into one attitude or another, or to roll my eyes or stare stolidly ahead, can all be described as taking the path on the right instead the path on the left. And because we primates of the homo sapiens variety are notably bad at forecasting the consequences of our decisions, the decision to choose one path and lose access to the other, forever, can be momentous and frightening. It’s often better to stay in bed.

Indeed, because every decision cuts the future in half, the space of possibilities is carved rapidly into strange and unexpected shapes, causing us to gaze at one another imploringly and ask, “How ever did such a state of things come to pass?” And the answer, you see, is that we and our compatriots made one decision, and then another, and then another, and before long we found ourselves in this fresh hot mess. And we truly need not ascribe “evil” intentions to anyone in the decision chain, as much as we would like to, since our own futuromyopia supplies all the explanation that is needed. We stumble along in the forever blurry present, bitching as we go, like an ill-tempered Mr. Magoo.

(Hegelian World Spirit as Mr. Magoo, the philosopher writes in his notebook.)

In 1941 Jorge Luis Borges published his short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, which suffers the injustice of being a work many of us reference without reading. As “everyone knows”, the story is an imaginative exploration of the idea that every choice we make is a selection of one path in an infinite garden of paths. But it is easy to forget that Borges’s story falls loosely in the genre of spy thrillers, as it features a Chinese professor who spies for the Germans in the first world war, is found out, and finds a clever way to broadcast a message to his masters just before he is captured. The spy, Yu Tsun, just happens to be a descendent of Ts’ui Pên, a learned and accomplished governor who gave up his day job to close himself up within a “Pavilion of Limpid Solitude” with the twin aims of composing an infinite novel and constructing an infinite labyrinth. Much to the shame of Ts’ui Pên’s descendants, nothing came of these efforts but a heap of chaotic, incoherent manuscripts.

It is the contention of the man Yu Tsun just happens to murder that Ts’ui Pên’s infinite novel and infinite labyrinth were in fact achieved in the heap of contradictory manuscripts. The manuscripts describe a tiny but infinite subregion of the universal garden of forking paths that includes all of the possible ways history could have been. And so we find one way events unfolded, and a different way, and another; we find the same battles both won and lost, the same people both murdered and rescued, and the same events issuing from very different histories. It truly is a novel without end, as the plotlines multiply with every decision made, and it is a labyrinth without end, as there never is any escape from its twists and turns. Ts’ui Pên’s great work was “unending” not along a single dimension of time, nor in some neverending repetition of itself, but rather over the space of possibility.

David Lewis was a recent philosopher who maintained that every way a world could be is the way some world is. And he meant it: to say that some state of affairs is possible, for Lewis, meant that that state of affairs is actual in some other universe. Actual, he said, means only that it is a fact in this world; in another world, very different facts are actual. Lewis’s grand collection of all possible worlds models every claim we can make about what is possible (is true in some world), or necessary (is true in all worlds), or necessarily false (is true in no world). We can portion off regions of this dizzying collection if we wish to focus only on the worlds that share our own laws of nature, or on the worlds that share our history up to June 28, 1914, or on the worlds in which someone named Borges publishes a story entitled “The Garden of Forking Paths”. We restrict our attention, depending on the questions of possibility we are asking. But that does not mean we are merely imagining the facts of those worlds or that they are fictions. They are all really out there, Lewis believed, each just as real or “concrete” as our own possible world. 

But Lewis did not see his plurality of worlds as forking, the process by which one becomes two and two become four, and four become eight, etc. For Lewis, they all exist “at once”, so to speak (though just whose “once” we’re talking about is not an answerable question). The forking process is present in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which maintains that at every “quantum event” there is a splitting of the world, one branch for every possible way in which events could unfold. The branching is not the result of human decisions that could have been otherwise, but the result of something something wave function something. These quantum events happen many, many times every second. That’s right: while you have been reading this, the universe has doubled, tripled, quadrupled … polyupled, many many many times over.

Sean Carroll, an evangelist of the MWI, went so far as to indicate which version of his book Something Deeply Hidden was being published in this world, since many different versions of the book are published across all possible worlds. With 1,125,899,906,842,624 versions of his book in circulation across the multiverse (as he calculated), the one in our branch is version 756,132,390,815,553. (Meanwhile, version 756,132,390,815,554, I shall insist without argument, includes a promise on Carroll’s part to buy me a fancy martini. But alas, we are not in that branch.)

These accounts of other-worldly possibilities—Lewis’s plurality of worlds, Carroll’s many quantum worlds, Borges’s (or Ts’ui Pên’s) garden of forking paths—are all equally good at generating in us the uncanny feeling that the narrow path we are on is only one shaky scrawl lost within an infinitely tangled labyrinth of might-have-beens. Countless paths lead to this point; countless other paths lead away from it; all those paths leading to this point and leading from it have branches leading to other presents that might have been ours; or they lead to other futures we could have had but won’t, or to futures we will have someday but not by that route. Just as Pascal described the vertiginous thrill of being suspended between the twin infinities of the infinitely small and the infinitely large, these accounts cause us to feel the thrill of being lost in a fathomless ocean of possibilities. 

There ought to be a word for this, oughtn’t there? Well there is, now, as my friend Rick Krause informs me, writing from his own Pavilion of Limpid Solitude. John Koenig, in his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

aftersomeadj. astonished to think back on the bizarre sequence of accidents that brought you to where you are today—as if you’d spent years bouncing down a Plinko pegboard, passing through a million harmless decision points, any one of which might’ve changed everything—which makes your long and winding path feel fated from the start, yet so unlikely as to be virtually impossible.

Just as luck would have it, some of the forking paths contain curious coincidences. That Yu Tsun for independent reasons is led to murder a man who just happens to be a scholar of the work of his ancestor, Ts’ui Pên, is one of those coincidences. But indeed every fact is a curious coincidence in the garden of forking paths; each event is a one-in-a-gazillion chance, a near-to-impossible long-shot, even if it is not one we feel moved to remark upon. For anything that happens is extremely unlikely, and yet, it happens. Think of it this way: every moment has won the lottery. This is just another thing to think about when you are waiting in line at the post office.