That “what if” question is probably a more personal one for most of us, at least compared to being one of literary (or even academic) consideration. “What if” my parents had been rich and famous? “What if” I were rich and famous? “What if” I had been born the opposite sex? “What if” I had been born 100 years earlier or later? “What if” I had married someone else, or had/hadn’t gone to university? The variations on “what if” in our personal lives are nearly endless, and I’m sure most of us have asked “what if” at some stage or other.
Science (well scientists) too have proposed lots of “what if” questions, some, maybe even most of which are today just footnotes in the history of science and have had no consequence(s). However, some “what if” questions have revolutionized our understanding and view of the universe and our place in it. Some of those “what if” questions were “what if” the sun were the centre of the solar system and not the earth; “what if” the earth were round and not flat; “what if” the speed of light were constant and the ultimate speed limit; or “what if” we were really star-stuff and “what if” we evolved from more primitive life forms?
The “what if” questions haven’t ceased just because we currently have a more sophisticated 21st Century science. Here are a few that buck today’s accepted world view, just like quantum mechanics bucked the classical physics’ world view early in the 20th Century.
CAUSALITY: “What if” there is no causality? If there is no causality at the most fundamental micro of all levels, virtual particles pop into and out of existence, atomic nuclei disintegrate (decay) for no reason at all. Then there can be no causality at the macro level. Macro causality is an illusion. It is only a statistical probability. Experiments are repeatable and verifiable only to a high degree of probability (because a typical experiment deals with trillions of micro fundamental bits at a go). But there can never be 100% certainty that the next identical experiment will produce identical results.
“What if” there is a total 100% causality? Then every event must eventually be traceable back to a specific cause, whether the event is the origin of our Universe, why one atomic nucleus out of thousands goes ‘poof’ and decays, why the vacuum energy is seething with those virtual particles.
REALITY: “What if” reality is real? Then what you see (hear, feel, taste and smell), albeit incomplete and not the total picture, a complete description of reality requires additional technological sensors, is the picture you get and is an accurate reflection of what is. You can get up and go about your business secure in the knowledge that the Sun will rise in the morning (although that’s an illusion of reality since the Sun doesn’t go around the Earth).
“What if” reality isn’t really reality at all? One scenario could be that your reality is all in your mind. You’re brain chemistry or mind is making your reality all up, either because you’re thinking of reality, or you could be imagining a reality while under the influence, or you’re just naturally dreaming up a reality. Although there might be a totally different reality waiting for you when you wake up or sober up, it might also be possible that there is no external reality, your brain or mind is the be all and end all of the entire universe. Another scenario is that your reality has been programmed into you by an external source, you are software; just part of a computer program or simulation or video game. You’re apparent reality, however real it may seem, has bugger-all to do with the reality the programmer lives in!
THE MULTIVERSE: “What if” there is a Multiverse, of any kind? That would prove to be an obvious affirmation of the Star Trek’s Vulcan philosophy of IDIC, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. It would probably also suggest infinite sameness as well, assuming a Multiverse containing an infinite number of universes.
“What if” there isn’t a Multiverse, of any kind? If there is no Multiverse, then lots of theoretical physics and theoretical cosmology will go down the scientific drain. But, our then own, our own one and only Universe is a big enough back yard for us to play in for eons to come.
THE MULTIPLE YOU: An infinite Multiverse can produce multiple copies of you, even an infinite number of copies, both identical and different in both minor and major ways. “What if” there are lots of copies of you in existence? If there are multiple, even infinite copies of you in existence, well it’s of academic interest only since you wouldn’t have any awareness of or be able to interact with your other selves. Still, you’d have to be curious!
“What if” you are the proverbial IT and there have never been and never will be another you. Then that just probably reflects what to you reality is and it’s what you probably believe and accept in your day-to-day worldview.
THE BIG BANG: “What if” the cosmological Big Bang event didn’t create space and time? Then something, some event, caused the origin of our Universe in existing space and time. There was a before the Big Bang. That opens a lot of cosmological worms.
“What if” the cosmological Big Bang event created space and time? Then it would appear that our cosmology can be summed up by the phrase that ‘in the beginning there was nothing; then there was something’. Cause and effect need not, and did not apply.
THE QUANTUM: Quantum interpretation #1: “What if” the Copenhagen interpretation is right? In a landscape of equal probabilities, what is the mechanism by which Mother Nature chooses one path over all others? If there is no mechanism, then there is no causality, shock, horror!! If there is a mechanism, then one could argue that everything from past to present to future is predetermined from first cause to final effect or last event. If there is predetermination or pre-destiny, then you have no free will, even though you have an illusion of such. Further, if there is a mechanism then that suggests there wasn’t really a level playing field to begin with, all probabilities weren’t equal.
Quantum interpretation #2: “What if” the Many Worlds interpretation is right? In a landscape of equal probability, all pathways are taken, and whole new universes are created for that other pathway or those other pathways. For example, if you pick a card at random from a standard 52 card deck, then 51 other universes get created to cater for all those other possibilities. Questions arise like where does the addition space, matter, and energy come from; why don’t we feel the splitting; why can’t we sense or detect these alternative worlds? The Many Worlds interpretation is another ideal example of IDIC, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. What’s disturbing is that if there are Many Worlds, there are many copies of you, and there is also no such thing as free will.
GRAVITY: “What if” gravity can eventually be reconciled with the other three quantum forces, and thus achieve a Theory of Everything (TOE), one sum total equation you can fit on a T-shirt. That would make 99.9% of professional physicists ecstatic and win one or more a Nobel Prize. It would also suggest that Mother Nature really isn’t a bitch!
“What if” gravity can not be reconciled with the other three quantum forces, and thus the quest for a Theory of Everything (TOE) is an exercise in futility? That would make 99.9% of professional physicists very unhappy; make Mother Nature a real bitch, and pose one hell of a major scientific puzzle to those physicists who haven’t either jumped off high cliffs or changed their profession as a result.
STRING THEORY: “What if” string theory is spot on, despite the lack of hands-on experimental results? Then, methinks that your concept of ultimate reality is absolutely and fundamentally flawed, it’s in fact downright wrong! The fertilizer hits the fan!
But “what if” string theory is absolutely and fundamentally flawed? Then it’s an unfortunate state of affairs that hundreds/thousands of careers have been wasted in the pursuit of a mathematical scenario of reality that’s ultimately a massive illusion; millions of dollars have been spent on a pipe dream; and thousands of trees have been cut down and turned into paper that printed a fantasy.
EXTRATERRESTRIALS: “What if” E.T. doesn’t exist? The consensus is that we are not alone as a technological civilization. Alas, we are the first and the only if E.T. doesn’t exist. One perspective is that there’s one hell of a lot of wasted space out there in the cosmos if we turn out to be the proverbial IT. The other perspective is that we have an extra duty of care to see to it that Planet Earth remains a pristine environment for the one example of life the Universe does have.
Of course “what if” E.T. does exist? Well, that would be the next logical nail in the coffin that has buried humanity’s ego as somehow mankind is the be-all-and-end-all of all of creation.
UNIDENTIFIED FLYING OBJECTS (UFOs): “What if” UFOs aren’t evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence? Then we still have major psychological and/or sociological phenomena to explain, why worldwide? Why so long in duration? Why the delusions, especially when it comes to apparently sane people claiming to have been abducted by aliens?
“What if” some UFOs prove to be an extraterrestrial technology? Then, IMHO, I’d conclude that at least we are laboratory rats; at worse, we’re property. That’s the alternative to either an alien invasion or a ‘take-me-to-your-leader scenario’.
CROP CIRCLES: “What if” crop circles have nothing to do with any form of intelligence? Then we have a major mystery with major implications for the existence of natural terrestrial and/or extraterrestrial forces far beyond our current understanding.
“What if” crop circles are the product of intelligence? Then the question must be answered, human intelligence, or non-human intelligence?
GOD: Turning from science to more philosophical matters, “what if” there is no God? Not now, not ever. If one were to sample the world’s population, the majority will confess to a believing in some sort of Supreme Being. However, in factual matters, majority doesn’t always rule. If a billion people believe in a foolish idea, it’s still a foolish idea. Anyway, if there is no God of any kind, then you’re on your own. There’s no one to blame for the bad; no one to thank for the good. Trillions of dollars and man-hours; millions of needless sufferings, have been all for naught.
So there is no God?
Then billions of people, over thousands of years, have spent trillions of ultimately wasted hours in prayer, attending church, observing/attending various religious rituals, spent in religious/Biblical study, door-knocking, preaching, discussing, arguing, going on pilgrimages, etc.
All those religious rituals, the do and do not rules that govern things regarding food, dress codes, ceremonies, relationships, sex, and etc. ultimately have been meaningless.
Millions of people have been tortured, murdered or executed, imprisoned, ridiculed, humiliated, exiled, and hated for no reason.
Billions of dollars have been spent on cathedrals instead of say hospitals; Bibles instead of textbooks; educating priests instead of medical doctors, nurses and scientists.
For those formally educated and qualified in religious studies, spending entire careers preaching, etc. they have wasted their lives in devotion to an invisible friend that has all the reality of Casper, the Friendly Ghost.
Multi-millions of animals have been sacrificed and offered up to a supernatural being that doesn’t exist.
Then you can’t blame all your aches and pains, your bad back and creaky joints, on some all-knowing great intelligent designer, who apparently bioengineered you (from dust or a rib) while simultaneously failing Bioengineering 101.
But “what if” there is a God. Well, I guess that depends on which one or which version. It all seems to boil down to any one of a multitude to pick and choose from. Go shopping!
THE AFTERLIFE: “What if” there is no life after death? Then you’d better enjoy your short lifespan while you have it!
“What if” there is an afterlife? I guess that depends on what sort of reality that will be. There are many scenarios or possibilities given in the literature, religious and otherwise.
Science librarian; retired.