The Problem with Infinite Timelines



14 thoughts on “The Problem with Infinite Timelines

  1. I read Jorge Luis-Borges’ “Garden of Forked Paths” as a college freshman in 1976. One of my favorite stories. But you know now that I’m 57, I really like your interpretation! At this point in life, I am a sculptor and I still have a lot of that stone to work on. Let’s see what I make between now and then. Thanks for the cartoon!

  2. I’m busily searching the Internet for the cartoon-post where you take the other fork and accept the infinite timelines… so far though no luck.

  3. Michelangelo suggested that the sculptor liberates the forms living in the stone, removing what is extraneous.

    The photon travels every path simultaneously.

    And I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

  4. There is simultaneously so much wrong and right wrapped up in this post that it’s a bit hard to know where to begin. Shall we begin at the beginning? Buckle up.

    The response to the initial question (“You know the idea of infinite timelines?”) begins by stating that *one version* of “infinite timelines” is as presented. As a sequence of decision points and wasted opportunities, and this ONE version is then rejected. Okay. Let’s now go back to look at some other versions of infinite timelines.

    First there is the fact that no one person follows their timeline in isolation. Even one of the given examples, “thank a friend”, refers to someone else. Our paths are entwined with others. Perhaps in not thanking that friend, you sent them off on a very different path, owing to something not entirely within their control (much like a coin flip is not entirely under your control).

    Once we accept that not everything is a choice you make personally, we can end up with a different model of infinite timelines, ones that come together, break apart and interweave. And we may even come to the somewhat horrifying realization that people who have certain privileges in society get more branching points; they have more options available to them. I do not think I want to reject that model out of hand.

    Second, back to the single individual, I reject the idea that everything you do is necessarily going to create branching points. Half infinity is still infinity. Whether you burn your meal or not is unlikely to drastically affect your health. (Unless perhaps that meal was all you could afford… see above.) If we visualize the timeline you are presently on as a river, it will still flow downhill, you will still end up at your destination.

    Part of this is how granular we make our timeline. Is the fork “I burned a meal”? Or (zooming out) is the fork “I burned one of the meals I cooked this week”? We end the week with six good meals. Did that path where you “burned a meal” wither and die? No, it was incorporated into the whole. The burning was never really a choice (the oven is old, you are easily distracted, the river of time had to a detour around a tree); ultimately all those tiny forking paths led to the same place.

    While there is an element of fatalism to that, this timeline CAN still fork, if the event is large enough – or if you (emotionally?) make it large enough – to dam the river. And the size of a branching event such as this would seem to relate to the prior branching points that brought you there. Is it time for a change?

    Even when a fork reincorporates, leading you to the same destination, the smaller items (choice or not!) might have coloured your arrival. Was this a good week, or a bad week? It’s all perspective. I was debating this comment. Ben tweeted at me to do it. Perhaps I would have commented anyway, so we’re in the same place – but in this branch, I feel like I have his permission?

    Am I choosing? Am I simply doing?

    If there are any video game fans out there, you may know of the game “Until Dawn”. Some choices you make are incidental to the gameplay (will this character end up removing their shirt?) while others are more critical (this character is now dead). There’s the whole notion of “Butterfly Effect”, and “paths not taken”, and of course that’s handy for repeated gameplay (humans DO love to play with “What If”) but does this mean I am concerned about an “opportunity wasted” on another path? Not necessarily. And it’s not merely because I can restart the game. It depends on the opportunity.

    If I wanted to change where I am, right now? I know precisely the year and month to target. It led to not only my interest in computers, but ultimately, set me on a course where I met my wife. Might I have met my wife anyway, through other means? It’s possible. Regardless, I do see the particular choices made at that time in my life to have a certain “resonance”, and as such I see no reason to reject the “garden of forking paths” model out of hand. I reject that rejection. There are possibly even more varieties to the model than I have considered here.

    I write a serial about time travel, can you tell? In my next comment, I’ll delve into the “block of stone” alternative model.

    1. Hello again. So, the future as a block of soft stone. What are we carving this with? What tools have your privilege given you, a hammer and chisel? A pickaxe? No tool at all, merely the availability of running water? The potential choices no longer feel so vast. The possibilities may reside in the sculptor, yes, but the reality that we get in the end may be quite different from their intent. Can the sculptor really do it alone throughout their entire life?

      I bring that up as an alternative perspective to the “block” model as presented, the same way we were only given a single version of the infinite timelines model. This alternative is intentionally in line with my first timeline objection, above, about the number of branches we have available. Indeed, at the heart of it, my rejection may stem from the idea that we need to pin this down to a particular “model” at all.

      What if I see myself as a bad sculptor? Or, perhaps worse, what if I am truly a GOOD sculptor, but I have terrible publicity skills, and people never see my art… and I die alone? And where am I even getting my inspiration from, only the wilderness? No, I assert that we cannot exist in isolation this way.

      It was claimed: There is “no path at all”. Truly? The wilderness that is society has rules. There’s no way the other sculptures out there might be stacked against you? (See, here’s where it’s rather easier for me to see timelines intermingling than sculptures…)

      It was claimed: We should not mourn the “lost” figures, the ones never sculpted. No! No, no, we should mourn them precisely BECAUSE they in no meaningful sense ever existed! The possibilities that were in another’s life, too short cut down. The possibilities in our own life, wherein we might have made a difference, and did not. Because in so mourning, we can help to ensure that in the path forwards (or in the rest of the sculpting, to adopt that model), such errors can be corrected! Even if it’s too late for us, we can provide something better for the next generation.

      The next generation… so are there truly no possibilities already residing in the stone? If so, what was the point to the previous efforts, the previous choices? Will not easily avoidable miscalculations be repeated over and over?

      So yes, there is no other you pursuing some other path. But in my mind, there is so much more to it than a sculptor and a block of stone. Thanks for reading.

  5. After reading some of the argument against sculpting, with an insistence on “forks”, I must share a book that I read recently: Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch. He extensively explores what happens when there’s a lot of “forks” available to one person. Thanks for a fun exploration into how to perceive choice.

  6. I think a professional philosopher can help with rigorizing this argument and its counterarguments. Now I’ll just say something that probably helps with softening up this argument.

    This argument starts by saying that there are two ways to think about timelines. One with “actually existing” infinite branchings. Another with “merely potentially existing, but not actually existing” infinite branches such that only one is “real”. Then the argument claims that the first possibility is not right because there are so many possibilities that the external world can’t possibly contain all of them, therefore only one possible world exists and all the possibilities are contained in humans (or other thinking creatures).

    I thought about it a bit and realized that there’s a middle way to both of these ways. Consider a designer using a program to find an interesting sculpture shape to make. The program generates 50 random shapes, then the designer chooses one, then the program takes that and makes 50 random mutations of that shape, then the designer chooses one, and so on until the designer is satisfied with it.

    Here it’s clear that the program itself is doing some sort of the choosing. In fact it’s also conceivable that it has already computed the entirety of possible shapes it can generate, as well as the similarity relations between these shapes, and stored it in its harddrive. Then the designer is more of an explorer of the tree of designs than a maker, and the designs live as much in the machine as it is in the human.

    I wonder if this argument is more of a psychological one than a genuine scientific one, since it seems that there’s no way to experimentally tell how real are the other branches’ existence. I wonder if this argument will become less convincing upon seeing an actual, physical Library of Babel. It’s going to be huge, but definitely finite, so it’s conceivable that it can be built in a universe with enough stuff in it. In fact, it’s already been built electronically.

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