Reality Checks

Twenty-five years ago, I got into the habit of competing in bicycle races in Prospect Park. On Sunday mornings, I would carpool along with two similarly cycling-besotted friends, leaving our homes at 5:00 or 5:30 AM in order to get to Brooklyn in time for our warmups and registration; then we would race and generally be back at our homes in Westchester County by 9:00 or 9:30. I loved the pounding-heart exhilaration that the races afforded me, and gradually learned something of the physics-driven complexity of bicycle racing strategies. It was great fun.   

I quit when I learned that cheating in the form of illegal doping was rampant among the most apparently successful of those with whom I was competing. Why should I dignify their “victories” with my honest – and immense –  efforts? The heck with that.

Since then, I have often thought about the pitiable senses of self that those who were (or are) cheating in such amateur contests must have – particularly where, as in the circumstances I’ve described, nobody who was in those “masters” (i.e., old-people) races had any hope of rising to the professional level. With professionals for whom cheating might mean the difference between penury and wealth, I can better understand why some would sell their souls.

Oh, I’m sure that the cheaters among my former competitors reveled in the admiration of their team-mates and spouses, and enjoyed the applause of the (tiny) race crowds. But when they were driving home, or maybe looking in the mirror after washing up, surely somewhere in the back of their minds lurked the knowledge that their glories were false. They knew about the EPO, or whatever else it was that they’d been taking, and they must have believed that if they hadn’t taken those drugs, somebody else would have won. Why else would they have taken them? So they knew that they had stolen what glory they were enjoying from somebody who was infinitely more deserving than they were.

At the risk of seeming glib: I think one has to worry about the soul of somebody whose ego is so dependent on the admiration of others that he cheats to create apparent victories that he knows are false. By effectively asserting that the best he is capable of is to deceive others, he does damage to his innermost sense of self. He’s like an addict whose “hit” is poison.


Maybe I have too much time on my hands: I keep stumbling across articles on the Internet and elsewhere that quote reputable scientists who espouse the idea popularized in sci-fi literature and film that there are many nearly-identical universes, and indeed that you and I might also exist in a parallel world, but make different decisions there than we make here:

“The theory is a spinoff of the many-worlds interpretation in quantum mechanics — an idea that posits that all possible alternative histories and futures are real, each representing an actual, though parallel, world.

“Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, supports the many-worlds theory. It’s the subject of his new book, “Something Deeply Hidden.”

‘”It’s absolutely possible that there are multiple worlds where you made different decisions. We’re just obeying the laws of physics,” says Carroll, Just how many versions of you might there be, asks NBC News. “We don’t know whether the number of worlds is finite or infinite, but it’s certainly a very large number,” Carroll says. “There’s no way it’s, like, five.”’


The illogicality of the many parallel worlds hypothesis, taken to the extreme of positing other worlds “where you made different decisions”, astonishes me. (I know, I know, quantum mechanics themselves, on which such theories are based, seem entirely illogical – and yet, quantum theory has been verified in experiment after experiment. I’m betting that eventually somebody will find the logic behind it, and thus render obsolete Richard Feynman’s statement, quoted in the same article, that “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”)

Think about the almost perfectly identical worlds scenario for just a minute: the premise has to be that there’s another world where everything else was the same, except that you made a decision to turn left instead of right at a point in time. But for everything else to have been the same at the moment when you made your decision, everybody else throughout history would have to have made the exact same decisions as they made in this world; what, are you the only one who gets to make different decisions?

For such a scenario to exist, the nearly infinite number of coincidences and decisions that brought our world to each particular decision point would have to be identical in the other world up to, but not beyond, the moment of your altered decision. Apparently, God (or, if you prefer, random matter) created that parallel world and brought it to the exact same point as ours just so that you could make a different decision. Huh.

But wait, if that’s the case for you, wouldn’t it also be the case for me? Maybe in that same parallel world I made a different decision than the one I had made in this one just before you made your different choice. And so on, ad infinitum.

In other words, the idea of a parallel world identical in all respects except for one decision that you, or any other individual, made, is nonsense, because for that particular parallel world to exist there would have to be an infinite number of other parallel worlds to accommodate everybody else’s theoretically alternative decisions, to say nothing of other decisions that you might have made differently. (The idea that there might be only one deterministically perfect parallel world but for one decision that you could make implicitly assumes that the other world has only one true decision maker – you.)

If there were such a world, there would presumably have to exist simultaneously (or in the future or have existed in the past) unlimited numbers of other worlds where other people’s decisions could have gone or did go the other way; so all decisions that anyone makes would be canceled out somewhere.

And what would be the point of that?


There may well be other planets much like ours, and other dimensions that we don’t yet understand. But even if there are, or have been or will be, otherworld people much like us, they aren’t actually us. They have different pasts, different presents and different futures.

Indeed if they made even only one decision differently than we did, or encountered one different circumstance, they’re not us for that reason alone, because in an important sense we are the sums of the circumstances we’ve experienced and the decisions we’ve made.

I’m pretty sure, then, that there is no alternative universe, other than in my imagination, in which I stuck with bicycle racing and somehow became an athletic superstar, just as I am that the decision to cheat did a lot more damage to the guys who made it than their decisions did to me.

We only get one shot at life, and our decisions – whether they’re small ones involving amateur athletic contests, or big ones like Truman dropping the bomb on Hiroshima – matter precisely because of that.

M.H. Johnston

4 comments to Reality Checks

  • Bill  says:

    Some insight regarding theoretical possibilities from Annie Hall:

    YOUNG ALVY: The universe is expanding.
    DR. FLICKER: The universe is expanding?
    YOUNG ALVY: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything!
    ALVY’S MOM: What is that your business? [to the doctor] He stopped doing his homework!
    YOUNG ALVY: What’s the point?
    ALVY’S MOM: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!

    • M Johnston  says:

      Back when Woody Allen was funny; good times.

  • Vivian Wadlin  says:

    I just read this after lying awake last night pondering the improbability of me. All the past generations of DNA that had to survive and intermix, the fact that my parents met, that I survived childhood, that I was born in the USA, that I have (so far) survived three deadly diseases–my universe may or may not be expanding. I, however, stay small, inconsequential, and entirely grateful.

    • M Johnston  says:

      Nice. I quibble only with the word “inconsequential” and suggest “humble” as an alternative. None of us knows the consequences that flow from our lives. Think: George Bailey.

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