The problem with parallel worlds

Fantasy writers like J. K. Rowling who want to interweave the magical with the ordinary face some serious challenges. As long as you stay purely within the world of magic at Hogwarts, you can create a self-contained world obeying its own rules. But there is clearly some added drama that accrues when you can contrast that world with the world we live in, because that helps readers to identify more with the characters. Having wizards live among Muggles opens up plenty of opportunities for both comedy and dramatic situations. It also enables us to imagine ourselves in the story, to think that there might be a parallel world that we get glimpses of but do not recognize because we do not know what to look for. Maybe our neighbors are witches and we don’t know it.

The situation faced by authors like Rowling in coming up with a realistic scenario that convincingly weaves the magic and ordinary worlds is not unlike the problem facing religious people who believe in a parallel world occupied by god, heaven, angels, etc. For this parallel religious world to have any tangible consequences for people in the normal world, the two worlds must overlap at least at a few points. But how can you make the intersections consistent? How can god, who presumably exists in the parallel universe, intervene in the natural world and yet remain undetected? In a previous posting, I discussed the difficult questions that need to be addressed in making these connections fit into a coherent worldview.

In Rowling’s world, one connecting point between the magical and normal worlds is the pub The Leaky Cauldron whose front door opens onto the normal world and whose back has a gate that opens onto Diagon Alley, a parallel magical world. Another connecting point is at Kings Cross railway station where the brick wall between platforms nine and ten is a secret doorway onto platform 9 ¾, where the students catch the train to Hogwarts. A third is the house at 12 Grimmauld Place, and so on.

But this plot device of having gateways connecting the two worlds, while amusing, creates problems if you try to analyze it too closely. (This is the curse of many, many years of scientific training, coupled with a determinedly rationalistic worldview. It makes me want to closely analyze everything, even fiction, for internal logical consistency.)

For example, although platform 9 ¾ is hidden from the Muggles in some kind of parallel world, the train to Hogwarts somehow seems to get back into the real world on its way to Hogwarts because it travels through the English countryside. I initially thought that this countryside might also be in the parallel world, except that in one book Ron and Harry catch up with the train in their flying car, and they started off in the normal world. In another book we are told that Hogwarts is also in the Muggle world but that it is charmed so that Muggles only see what looks like a ruined castle. We also see owls carrying mail between Hogwarts and the normal world. So clearly there must be many boundaries between the magic and Muggle worlds. What happens when people and owls cross these other boundaries?

When I read the books, such questions are for me just idle curiosity. I like to see how the author deals with these questions but the lack of logical consistency does not bother me or take anything away from my enjoyment of the books. Rowling is not sloppy. She respects her readers’ intelligence, and she gives the reader enough of a rationale for believing in her two-worlds model that we can be taken along for the ride. The logical inconsistencies she glosses over are, I think, inevitable consequences of trying to create this kind of parallel universe model. To her credit, she is skilful enough to provide enough plausibility so that the reader is not troubled (or even notices) unless he or she (like me) is actually looking for problems.

But the problems Rowling faces in constructing a two worlds model that is logically consistent is similar to that faced by people who want to believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with the physical world. Since Rowling is writing a work of fiction and nothing of importance rides on whether we accept the inconsistencies or not, we can just close our eyes to these minor flaws and enjoy the books.

But the same cannot be said for the similar problems that confront two-world models that underlies most religious beliefs that have a god, because we are now not dealing with fiction but presumably real life. And being able to construct a two-worlds model (with gateways between the spiritual and physical worlds) that is logically consistent is important because it may determine whether people believe or disbelieve in a god. It was my personal inability to do so that finally pushed me into atheism.


As usual, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow gets to the heart of the Judith Miller-New York Times-WMD story.


  1. says

    I don’t know much about brane theory, so I can’t answer your question. But physics, especially some areas of cosmology and quantum mechanics, does seem to provide some possibilities.

    There was a “many-worlds” model of quantum mechnaics that is now our of vogue but those worlds became created and did not intersect subsequently, so that would not help much

    There are the extra but unobservable dimensions of string theory that might be a possibilit of imagining another universe existing in the “hidden” dimensions.

    Of course, all these models are quite speculative and they need to conform to the usual requirements of causality and satisfy the laws.

  2. Andrew Witte says

    Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a trilogy of fantasy novels similar to Harry Potter in certain ways, addresses the issue of multiple universes in a unique way. Basically, there are an infinite number of universes, but to have a ‘connection’ or a way of traversing between the universes is unnatural and almost always leads to unforeseen, seemingly random consequences.
    A rather harsh parody of the Catholic Church is central to these books. If you think that might offend you, don’t read them.

  3. Paul Jarc says

    I’ve only seen the movies, not read the books, but it always seemed to me there was only one universe for Harry Potter. Things like platform 9 3/4 seemed to transport people to a location cloaked from the view of muggles, but still in the same universe. Do the books make the separate universes more explicit?

  4. Andrew Witte says

    Paul: You’re right. The magical world in Harry Potter is not supposed to be so much of an alternate universe as a hidden portion of our own. The fact that things like entire cities can be hidden, though, lends the feeling of an ‘alternate universe’. And the effect is much the same.

    Though it does solve the ‘why is the train crossing England?’ problem in a nice, consistent fashion.

  5. Audry says

    That hidden world outside of normal view seems to be a theme in a few series that I have read.
    That ordinary people are just to dense, or absorbed in their own lives to actually see what the world truly holds. I think this concept has been discussed in some of terry prattchets books.

    But what always bugged me was that there seemed to be plenty of wizards born to muggles. How on earth is the wizarding world supposed to keep themselves a secret when Muggles are constantly sending their children to Hogwarts for 7 years. What to hermione’s parents tell their friends?
    who knows. Maybe most of the muggle world already is aware of the wizarding world and they are just trying to will it away much like the dursleys do.

    also. I nearly died at the idea of lord voldemort = intelligent design creator. Thanks

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