Happy Valentine's Day, which, our culture has decided, means that all you people in relationships should be pulling together stressfully extravagant date nights and all you singles should feel left out and morose. It's a truly magical time.
But if you're uncoupled this year, I come bearing good news. You may think you don't have a partner, but there are countless people out there right now who are in love with you, specifically. They just don't live in our universe.
In a world…
That's the argument my friend and National University of Singapore philosopher Neil Sinhababu makes in his seminal paper "Possible Girls." All you need to do to buy it is endorse a fun little theory called "modal realism." Developed by the great American philosopher David Kellogg Lewis in various papers and the book On the Plurality of Worlds, modal realism holds that every possible world — every combination of events that could have ever transpired — is real. Every one of them is just as real, in fact, as the world we're in now.
So there are worlds where the South won the Civil War and worlds where Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford went through with their wacky plan to be co-presidents and worlds where La La Land really did beat Moonlight at last year's Oscars. Indeed, there are countless worlds of each. There's a world where La La Land beat Moonlight and I watched The Americans last night and a world where Beyoncé beat Beck and I watched Pretty Little Liars. Each of these worlds is equally real as the one we're in now.
The obvious thing to ask at this point is why anyone would believe this batshit crazy theory. The basic reason is that common sense says (there are some notable dissenting views) that for something to be true, it has to reflect something about reality. "Mont Blanc is 15,780 feet tall" is true if and only if there's a mountain called Mont Blanc that is, in fact, 15,780 feet tall.
That's easy enough for simple descriptive statements. But what about a statement like, "The Patriots could have won the Super Bowl"? We want to be able to say that that's true. It was a close game where each team got lucky a lot. Either side could have won. Similarly, we want to be able to say that "a team composed entirely of pigeons could have defeated the Eagles in the Super Bowl" is false, because of basic facts about pigeons' anatomy and proficiency with footballs.
But what parts of reality do these statements correspond to? In Lewis's view, they describe what life is like in other possible worlds. "The Patriots could have won the Super Bowl" means there's at least one possible world where they did. "A team composed entirely of pigeons could have defeated the Eagles in the Super Bowl" is false because it's difficult to imagine a possible world where creatures that could be described as "pigeons" are sufficiently dexterous to throw and catch touchdown passes.
What this means for your love life
Lots of philosophers like to talk about possible worlds, but most don't think they're actually real, forcing them to devise all kinds of complicated theories for how statements about the real world can be true in virtue of statements about made-up worlds. Lewis doesn't have that problem. He goes all in. The possible worlds are as real as anything.
This has benefits for your dating life, as Sinhababu explains:
There are many possible girls out there in worlds where modal realism is widely accepted. Some of the girls are single, and are pining for a boy in a world that isn’t their own. Some of them are pining for a boy who fits exactly my description, down to the smallest detail. Some worlds hold legions of girls who desire a boy from a world other than theirs, and who fits exactly my description.
You may have already anticipated the problem here: There are also tons of duplicates of you out there. How do you know these otherworldly suitors pining after someone matching your description are after you, and not one of your modal doppelgängers? Well, you just have to specify that the partner you're after has extremely particular requirements for a significant other:
For this to work, my girl needs to have an amazingly intricate desire. She wants the boy from a world that is exactly like mine, down to the last subatomic particle. On Lewis’ functionalism, it won’t be right to attribute such a complex desire to her unless she engages in some kind of activity that makes it clear that her desire has exactly this content. It might take a long time for her to finish the activity, but that can be provided for. Perhaps she’s immortal, with eternally youthful beauty, spending each day singing out every fact about my world that differs from hers.
What if you want to chat with your partner? Sinhababu has an answer for that one too:
There is a way to get love letters from your possible girlfriend … The way to do this is to include an extra stipulation when you choose your possible girlfriend. Stipulate that you want a girl who will write to you exactly those words which you write in a particular notebook. Then, when you want to hear from her, use the notebook to write the words that you want to hear from her. When you write responses to her, she’ll get them – she has knowledge of every feature of your world that is absent from hers, and hence knows what you wrote.
Of course, as successful as your possible relationship is, you may want to end it at some point to date an actual-world person. This may seem cruel. But as Sinhababu explains, your love won't be too hurt. They saw it coming all along:
Since all the facts about my doings will be in my possible girlfriend’s song – they’re ways that my world differs from hers – the fact that I’m destined to break up with her will be something she knows from the outset. She could’ve chosen a more permanent boyfriend from among my counterparts. It’s mysterious why she still chose me. But actual girls are mysterious to me in many ways, and there’s no reason why possible girls would be any different.
So go ahead, lonely hearts. Find yourself a possible partner. They're waiting for you.