WHO hasn’t wondered how our lives would have gone if THAT hadn’t happened or, perhaps, something else HAD? Throughout our lives we make decisions, or decisions are made for us, and our narrative unfolds. But in the arts and in science the idea that there could have been other lives lived has gained traction. As Vimes says in Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch: “I know all about that. Like, you make a decision in this universe and you made a different decision in another one.” The idea is front and centre in Matt Haig’s popular novel The Midnight Library (One library. Infinite lives) in which the protagonist Nora Seed is given the chance to ‘live as if she had done things differently’. Yanis Varoufakis uses the idea in his Another Now. Dispatches from an Alternative Present in an extraordinary mixture of fiction and non-fiction to envisage the creation of a ‘non-capitalist world in which work, money, land, digital networks and politics have been truly democratized’.
But it is, perhaps, best expressed in Robert Frost’s enigmatic poem The Road Not Taken. As it happens, it is this work that Andrew H. Miller takes as the starting point of his book On Not Being Someone Else – Tales of our Untold Lives. For Miller it is actually his sense of singularity that makes him think of ‘unled lives’. And he believes that it is the singularity created by neoliberalism that has generated this modern sensibility. “The main engine driving this modern experience has no doubt been market capitalism, with its isolation of individuals and its accelerating generation of choices and chances, moulding behaviour in ever increasing ways.”, he writes.
Apart from the deployment of Robert Frost, Miller also calls on an array of authors and artists ranging from Ian McEwan to Virginia Woolf, who often felt that her singularity felt like ‘solitary confinement’ and that she was both ‘prison and prisoner, trapped in this body and these habits’. Miller writes: “At such moments, the thought of being someone else seems an escape. But who would be escaping? And where would they go?” Where indeed? It is in fact quite hard to see how dreaming about an alternative but unattainable life makes any difference. And as Dr Alexandre Leskanich in issue 141 of Philosophy Now on the the possibility of being someone she’s not writes: “I know this, but I don’t know what it means.” One can imagine trying to imagine who one might have been had things happened differently being an interesting parlour game, but is it any more significant than that other than, perhaps, useful material for a book? Nietzsche uses his thought experiment of eternal recurrence to determine one’s commitment to life which only an ubermensch could achieve. But this, of course, is the affirmation of one life lived over and over again – not many lives.
To be sure, imagining the life not lived may help to define the life one does live, but might it not also lead to the dissolution of the Self.
Ruminating on the lives not lived can lead to a loosening of one’s singularity as one one realises just how contingent the life one does live actually is. It might lead to the break down of the Self as an indivisible individual into a divisible dividual constructed out of a loose bundle of emotions and character traits which, say, our executive function is constantly trying to corral into a more or less coherently functioning unit. If so, this is not necessarily a bad thing and would, of course, chime with the Buddhist notion of the non-self. But it is hard work to live such a life.
It is curious that Miller never ventures away from literature or art into the world of science where there is at least some credibility for alternative lives (if precious little evidence) – especially in the weird and wonderful world of quantum physics. As Pratchett points out quantum theory posits the idea of multiple universe – indeed, some argue that the truth of quantum physics entails multiverses. The idea of many worlds existed in ancient Greek philosophy but also gained traction among 20th century physicists. Among the most vociferous is Max Tegmark who proposes a taxonomy of four levels of multiverses in his book Our Mathematical Universe in which each level is arranged so that subsequent levels encompass the previous. It should be said, however, that this a highly contentious theory with some critics arguing that such a thesis cannot be tested, bears great resemblance to theological discussions and is just as ad hoc as the creation of an unseen creator.
Undoubtedly, the multiverse hypothesis is a highly contested field but it is, nevertheless, strange that Miller never engages with it in his entertaining book. Is it anything more than just entertaining? Probably not. It is fine to speculate whether one’s odd dreams, for example, are actually glimpses into alternative universes – but it’s not clear whether such speculation is anything more than an indulgence and one that can be hard work. As Miller himself writes: “All you can do is try to see the bright present truly, and in seeing, join it.”