Thursday, May 10, 2012

Quantum Immortality and Everett's Paradox

Yesterday, after a day of sociology and anthropology, I motored over to my in-laws on the SuperBee (what my little guy thinks I should call the Suzuki).

There, I chatted a bit with the mother-in-law about life and class.  Then, over a beer or two, I talked about waveform collapse and quantum mechanics with my physicist father in law.  It was a followon to a conversation with someone who kindly agreed to provide input to my writing, and it was...helpful.

Though temporarily sidetracked by writing and preparation for my D.Min. classes, the drafted manuscript for the Believer's Guide to the Multiverse continues to burble away happily on the back burner.   A few souls have read it so far, and feedback has been...well...the way feedback is when you put out that first draft of anything.

It's always a bit daunting, exposing the first tender shoots of a manuscript to outside inputs.   It's your baby, this tender delicate interweaving of ideas and hopes and concepts.  You've pored over it, loved it, struggled with it, and reached a point where you and your muse are almost content with it.

And then reality intrudes.  It's necessary.  It's a good thing.  A critical read over something is vital, and particularly a critical read from an expert eye.   For my little exploration of the implications of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the expert eye needed was from someone with a Ph.D. in physics...and, being Presbyterian, finding such a soul in my congregation was achievable.  

The inputs were both significant and useful, and will strengthen the manuscript, once I've stopped quietly sobbing to myself.  One particularly helpful insight was that in plowing through the works of contemporary "popularized" physics that gave my layman's mind insight into the multiverse, I'd managed to truck right past the physicist who came up with the idea in the first place.  Not a mention.  Not a peep.   A good catch, that.

The physicist in question was Hugh Everett, whose 1957 dissertation provides much of the conceptual foundation for the Many Worlds hypothesis/interpretation in quantum theory.    Everett was an interesting fish on many fronts, and some more exploration of his thinking will be plugged into the manuscript once time allows.

Today I found myself ruminating on one of the more peculiar elements of Everett's personal thought: his belief in what was subsequently called "quantum immortality," which arises from an odd variant of the Shroedinger's Cat thought experiment, from the perspective of the cat.  The "quantum suicide" thought experiment involves a weapon pointed at a tester.  The weapon is triggered by a quantum event, which is essentially random.  If it occurs, the weapon goes off, and the tester dies.  If does not, the weapon does not discharge.   In the Many Worlds approach to quantum events, the tester...or some iteration of the tester...will always survive.  The termination of consciousness will never occur.   It's interesting to think about, but it got me going in another direction.

The obvious limitation of this thought experiment is that the Many Worlds interpretation does not suggest a binary set of options.  It suggests, instead, that from every moment arise a functionally infinite set of variant realities.

For some reason, this got me thinking of Zeno's Paradox.  That classical brain bender, if you recall, notes that in order to travel a distance, you must first travel half that distance.  As any distance can be halved, the number of "halves" you'd have to travel would be infinite...meaning, technically, you shouldn't ever be able to get anywhere.

If the multiverse is as Everett suggests...what is the self?  That's always a fuddler, of course, even in our linear time and space.  Where is the "I" that exists in the flow of time?

But what is self if quantum splits occur from instant to instant?  If from every instant comes not just one but infinite iterations of every possible variant of probability, which one of the umpty-bazillion variants of ourself that pours from the prior moment is the "real" one?

On the one hand, that's an easy one.  Why, we are, of course.

Yet it makes the reality of our being...that we are, that we cohere, that we somehow have integrity as selves...feel even more astounding.  Miraculous, even.


  1. "But what is self if quantum splits occur from instant to instant? If from every instant comes not just one but infinite iterations of every possible variant of probability, which one of the umpty-bazillion variants of ourself that pours from the prior moment is the "real" one?"

    Yes, exactly. This is the question I was trying to get at in one of our exchanges some time ago. I think it's [one of] the fatal flaw[s] in your interesting theology.

    Which holds [I think] that we are given free will by "the Maker" when He created a Multiverse in which choices can have alternative consequences on a quantum level. Therefore every possibe choice is laid out in advance by the Maker, including the sins. Therefore avatars of our self that zag towards sin instead of zigging towards grace are required to do so by the Maker who made the world this way. In short, every choice is determined, and authored ultimately by the Maker.

    I think this reflects poorly on the benelvolence of the Maker, and on the justice of the Multiverse. It means that every sin is necessary according to his divine plan. And all the sinful variants of our selves are made sick, commanded to be well, but, according to the laws of nature, incapable of doing so. Which ones are we though? The blessed or the damned?

    "On the one hand, that's an easy one. Why, we are, of course [all of them]."

    Easy is one word for it. Facile is another. If we are all of them, then we are, literally, made to be all of them, which again puts the resposibility of every horror in the multiverse back at the feet of the Maker.

    This is a problem for your philosophy, I think.

  2. Always looking on the briiiight side of life, aren't you, mon frere?

    Given that our free will is an irreducible part of the process of a multiverse creation in a way that it is arguably not in a linear deterministic space-time, I just don't see the problem in quite the same light.

    Your insistence on determinism reads from this end like an artifact of a well worn path of polemic. We're not "free" by your definition, but given that you appear to define "here is creation, do as you will" as being deterministically enslaved by an abusive Creator, I'm not quite sure what you even mean by agency, responsibility, or freedom.

    The primary difference, I suppose, is that God exists for you only as a delusional abstraction. I understand my engagement with the Creator in very different terms, ones that are mystic, ontological and existential in character. That sense of hegemonic oppression just isn't there on this side of the theist veil. Instead, there is only the awareness of the radical potential for grace, a deep aversion to the potential for horror, and the knowledge that as we etch ourselves into being, our intentionality matters.

    Finally, your fourth editorial bracket shows a misunderstanding of the core point I'm making in this post. I was being cute/obscure, so I'll restate. I am the self that is writing this. This "self" is not any of the other countless variants of "me." As a sentience, I do not inhabit those unactualized realities in any meaningful way, which is why the quantum suicide thought exercise is so very silly. I inhabit only this one, which I find singularly remarkable given the dizzying generativity of creation.

  3. I am continually mystified at your apparent inability to understand my critique of your quantum theology. Accusing me of pessimism for pointing out the dark implications of your scheme is not a very cogent defense, mon frere.

    Free will might make sense in a linear singular non-deterministic universe intuitively understood by the human authors of your religion. That may be described as "here is creation, do as you will."

    But that is not what happens in your new theology. In that scenario, it is "here is creation which I have made in such a way that you there will do this, and you there will do that." In this multiverse it is NECESSARY that every possible sin WILL BE committed, by the design of the Maker.

    Or do I misunderstand what you mean? Do you imagine an incomplete multiverse, in which some sinful iterations of possibility never become real? Can we finite creatures do that, by force of will? Cause certain branches of the Tree to never sprout? And if we cannot -- if they MUST sprout -- then who is the maker of those inevitable branches? It seems to me that it MUST be the Maker.

    I think I understand now that you were NOT claiming identity with those iterations of your selves that made other choices. Were you using the editorial we? (Or the royal? We are amused.) If I may translate:

    "Which one of the umpty-bazillion variants of ourself that pours from the prior moment is the "real" one? [...] Why, I am, of course. Yet it makes the reality of my being...that I am, that I cohere, that I somehow have integrity as myself...feel even more astounding. Miraculous, even."

    I guess that makes a kind of sense -- more sense to me actually than identifying completely with all the other me's. The "me" that beats my children is decidedly not me. Though that seems far less revelatory than my original reading -- less worthy of that "miraculous."

    The problem with this for me is that, in this understanding of the world, every right choice I make means that somewhere in the multiverse some other me/not-me is making the wrong one, and there is NOTHING I can do, or ever could do, to prevent that. And if I can do nothing to prevent that real suffering, then it stands to reason that neither could the wretch who made the wrong choice either. It's like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, but it still has an omnipotent Author who wrote every scene, gracious and horrific, and that means that my choice to turn to page 87 instead of 43 does not cause page 43 to cease to exist, nor does it excuse the Author for writing it.

    It is determined that both choices will be actualized by none other than the Maker.

    If there is a Maker. In a multiverse such as this though, there needn't be. Which I actually see as a good thing. So... not pessimistic.

    (By the way, I just want to make sure you understand that I applaud your interest and dedication to thinking about there things. I am first in line to read your book, and I find our arguments about these matters to be a tremendous pleasure, and an invaluable resource for my own philosophizing. I hope you feel the same. Offered with sincerest and warmest bonhommie.)

  4. The "we" I was using was not royal, but more "you and I, dear reader." Like I said, your misreading was entirely comprehensible, even if it might not have been as facile a point as you'd thought. ;0)

    As I see it, what other iterations of me-but-not-me do is not related to my own moral agency. I am empowered by my Creator to act in such a way that my identity is defined by grace, mercy, kindness, and justice. I perceive this ontological orientation both rationally and intuitively as the best possible purpose for being.

    Am I disturbed that somewhere in the multiverse, I might be "evil me?" Not particularly. Again, that has nothing to do with my own agency or capacity to stand in relationship with others. Those beings have similar agency, though they would be as "other" from me as you and I are other.

    Those beings would, however, be as free as you and I to choose. Child-beater Browning could change. Or not. But he would always be free to zig towards grace. Always. Should he choose not to...who is responsible for that choice, in a functionally nondeterministic creation?

    And yes, these conversations are both interesting and useful. When the book is done...following more expert eyes over it, in both the hard sciences and'll be among the first to know.

  5. @ Browning,
    Something you need to understand, and something the good "pastor" will probably never tell you...

    All men deserve Hell.

    Yet God has chosen an elect people for His glory. Though no man has the ability to repent and believe, God gives this gift to his sheep.

    He does so to demonstrate His mercy and justice.

    And's scriptural (our creator's divine revelation to man) and Dave may not agree but it is.

    We are commanded to be holy...yet we cannot. We are commanded to not sin...yet only ONE was sinless, we are sinful.

    Bottom line - The Truth is indeed certain, and revealed in God's word and it must be believed to avoid God's promised judgement for sin. Gathering around a system of "life principles' or a system of "morality" even if one calls themselves "Christian" is still rank unbelief. And what one believes has eternal consequences. All men are created for eternity; some will be gloried and covered in the righteousness of Christ, others will stand one their own righteousness - a "eternal death" sentence. Either way, God will be gloried.

    Repent and believe.

  6. @Mark.

    Thanks, but no thanks. I appreciate your concern, but I'm actually already quite familiar with that particular flavor of theology, and you are welcome to believe that pernicious, ridiculous nonsense if you like, but you can leave me out of it. All best wishes though.

  7. @David

    Yeah, I get what you meant by "we." (I was kidding about the royal we.) I do think it's overstating it though to say that a multiverse iterations of myself that made different choices is no more my self than, say, you are, or any other random bloke. Some of them share all my same memories, talents, shortcomings, hopes, and all of them share some of these things. If M-theory is real, this is an amazing thing to contemplate. And terrifying. It means for example that in a real sense somewhere in the multiverse I beat my children, that there is nothing I can do to prevent this from happening, and that this is God's plan for the universe that this be so. I agree that I am not morally responsible for the bad things that I personally, subjectively, don't do. But in your scheme, as I see it, the Maker is. (If he existed.)

    It don't think I am "insisting" on determinism in a polemical way. I think I am taking your quantum theology on its own terms. In it, unless I am mistaken, all possibilities are actual. It doesn't so much banish determinism as it makes it conceivably compatible with free will. In it, all possibilities are literally inevitable. In a sense, nothing is determined, because everything is. I may have the free will to refrain from murdering an old lady with an ax, but, according to God's will, she will be murdered regardless. And much worse besides. According to the Maker's plan, every horror is visited on everyone. In fact, in your theology, if I understand it, the reality of her murder in some section of the multiverse is necessary for my freedom to refrain from doing so. Meaning that if it is God's will that we should have free will, then it is God's will that every possible sin be actually committed. This strikes me as one of the fatal paradoxes for you. It makes the problem of theodicy infinitely worse, because every possible evil is actual, inevitable, and all part of the plan.

    Your only response to date to this conundrum has been to accuse me of seeing the glass half full, suggesting that God's plan for a multiverse that includes the senseless eternal torture of everyone is somehow mitigated by the fact that there also necessarily exist a luckier fraction of sentient beings who have better experiences. Which I think is akin to saying it is unfair to criticize gross inequality of wealth on the grounds that the suffering of the abjectly poor is offset by the pleasures of the fabulously rich.

    I think there is a corollary paradox regarding free will in such a universe. If the actualization of all sins is necessary -- indeed of all choices, and accidents -- then I think it makes sense to say that nothing we do is of any consequence to anyone except ourselves. We can't prevent anything from happening, even our own sins. All we can do is to avoid the subjective experience of their consequences. (And not even that if your vision of the afterlife holds true as well.)

  8. @ Browning: I concur that we're a bit stuck on this one. Perhaps a different tack is necessary.

    For a moment, let's decouple the theology from the cosmology. Assuming a non-theistic multiverse, one that meets every criteria we've discussed with the exception of that pesky stick-in-yer-craw Creator, would free will be a meaningful category?

    Does our will...our existence as moral agents...have any meaning in a non-theistic multiverse? Or does it simply mean we have moved from the pointlessness of inescapable mechanistic destiny to the pointlessness of a churning, impossibly complex chaos? You seem to be articulating something resembling the latter, but I'd like to hear more.

  9. @David. That's an interesting question.

    To be clear, we're assuming for the sake of argument that (1) we live in a complete multiverse, (2) that it is has no creator, and that (3) we do have free will -- that is, the power to choose our own adventure by the choices that we make. Let me also make it clear, that this is no sense what I believe in. This is merely a variation on what you claim to believe in, or hope to believe in. It's just a thought experiment that you've posed, presumably to make some point in defense of your quantum theology. But I'll play along.

    The way I see it, in the creatorless variation of your quantum theology, we can only choose our subjective experience. We can prevent no evil from occurring. Everything literally happens, but we can only choose, imperfectly, to avoid subjectively experiencing the consequences of some of some vanishingly small fraction of it. And this might not even be in our own selfish best interest, since there is no supernatural justice -- no system of rewards or punishments -- to insure that we might fare better by doing good rather than by than by doing ill. There are the usual worldly motivations -- fear of illness, fear of jail, etc. And positive incentives -- the warm, fuzzy feeling of having done something nice for someone. But ultimately there is only the evolved psychological phenomenon of our subjective conscience (assuming we have one) to motivate our moral choices. I don't want to live in the world in which I have beaten my children, but those worlds actually exist, and my decision to avoid them affects no one but myself. Thanks to the "design" of the universe -- which is "churning impossibly complex chaos" -- I know my children will be beaten and worse no matter what I decide. My decision has no other weight in the multiverse at large. Only to me.

    But even so, it seems to me that my desire to do good for the sake of my own conscience, no matter how subjective, is still not nothing. My wish to avoid those universes where I beat my children derives from my sense of empathy towards them, and in a way from my empathy towards everyone else who also has the capacity for empathy. You asked "Does our will...our existence as moral agents...have any meaning in a non-theistic multiverse?" The answer I think is: Yes, but not to the multiverse at large. It has a subjective meaning to me. I am glad that I don't have to live with the knowledge that I beat my children on my subjective conscience. And because it means this to me, I can guess that others like me can find their own subjective moral meanings, and this gives me a sense of moral solidarity with them (also evolved), which makes my moral choices seem somehow less purely subjective. I and my fellow sentient beings are all in this together. So, yes, it has a kind of collective subjective meaning to sentient beings, who, like me, are capable of empathy and solidarity. But nothing more.

    Nothing more, because the multiverse at large is pitilessly indifferent to us, its sentient inhabitants. It just "is what it is," as the kids say. Like a godless classical universe, only moreso. Wouldn't you agree?

  10. If we've set it aside, we've set it aside. I'm sure we'll get back into it later, but for this thread of conversation, those will be the parameters. So for the sake of clarity, perhaps considering this not as “the creatorless version of [my] quantum theology,” and simply describing it as “the multiverse” would be more accurate.

    Two reflections: Empathy and compassion do give the warm fuzzies, sure. But they are not simply an emotive choice. Choosing to act in ways that empathically transcend both the existential divide between us and the cultural divides between us is an act of reason as well. Beyond fear of punishment and desire for material gain, being guided by compassion is a rational decision, based on the analytic realization that compassion is objectively superior to self-interest.

    It is also not an act that only speaks to our own subjectivity. Acting in a particular way increases the probability of certain results. Given that kwazy churn of being, those may or may not occur, but we deepen the probability of a certain outcome with our choices.

    You treat your kids with kindness and are open with them about how you delight in their creativity, for example. They, then, are more likely to engage those around them with that as an understanding. Meaning, as you rightly state, our interaction with and recognition of other self-aware beings does have weight beyond our own solipsistic navel-gazing. It influences the probability of justice, and of the spread of compassion, and of the deepening of mutual understanding. Or not, if we decide wrongly.

    As for the indifference of the universe, on one level, sure. The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, as they say. But in those places where the stuff of the universe has become aware of itself, that is no longer the case. I can look at a storm, and say “it is what it is.” I cannot look at my own actions in that light.

  11. 1. I'm not so sure that the "multiverse" you imagine in your quantum theology accurately describes the multiverse described in M-theory. And the creator is not, I think, the only additive you've stirred into it. I think you've imagined a scenario that sort of resembles M-theory, but makes certain dubious assumptions for the purposes of trying to make Anselm's ontological proof sound scientifically valid, and for finding compatibility between free will and determinism. And then, to make your point, you are asking me to erase God from your imaginative construction. But that doesn't leave us things as they are. As I said before, this is not a description of the multiverse that I find persuasive. But it's an interesting thought experiment.

    2. I agree completely that morality has a rational component. I guess I don't think of empathy as being purely emotional in the first place. It's partly a bit of inductive reasoning, reinforced by evolved emotions. The Golden Rule and the categorical imperative.

    3. But in your godless multiverse, the same reasoning tells me that no one's moral choices make any difference to anyone but the person making the choice. If I refrain from beating my children, that means that my subjective consciousness gets to enjoy the universe in which I did not beat my children, but there are no fewer beaten children in the multiverse. Nor would there be any more if I did beat them. It would mean merely that I had to experience subjectively that universe instead of the other more pleasant one. I am powerless to do anything about this, beyond controlling what I subjectively experience, but nothing I do makes any difference to what happens. Everything happens.

    4. I was speaking of the pitiless indifference of the multiverse at large. But it is interesting to ask whether the existence of sentient, empathetic creatures such as we within that multiverse some how make it less pitiless and indifferent. If this is true, then it seems to me to erode one of the emotional needs to believe in God. A world sans God still has us to care for each other. And that can be enough. It's no longer true --never was true -- that without God "nothing really matters." We matter to each other.

  12. I'm reasonably confident that I'm not misrepresenting that cosmology, dear Browning, but there, I've relied not on my own classical mysticism or the opinions of antitheist poet/raconteurs, but on inputs from and conversations with physicists. Seems like a better source for validation, in my humble opinion. ;0)

    There seems a tension between the solipsistic assumptions in point 3 and the assertion of empathy in point 2. Would there be no interplay, then, between your subjectivity and that of the child you did not beat? Your foundation for empathy is the rational/emotional awareness of sentience in beings around you. If that is the case, then point three seems an unnecessary ethical regression. Care to either rephrase or expand on that?

  13. Yes, well, I think if you were to put your Anselm 2.0 in front of Stephen Hawking, he would be better able to explain your error to you than I. But if we presume that he understands M-theory better than either of us, it is interesting that he drew the opposite conclusion. Not to argue from authority or anything. ;0)

    Basically, my dim understanding of M-theory suggests that the multiverse would not be quite as complete as you imagine. And it's also telling that most of the relevant cosmologists, include Deutsch, are dubious about free will in the conventional theological sense. (I think you misunderstood what he said in the TED talk.) So I am dubious about two of your main premises. But open to persuasion too.

    It's not that relevant to our current conversation, because I am trying to point out the problems with your theology even if I take it on its own terms.

    The tension you mention is an illusion. I don't think my point #3 is solipsistic. I acknowledge that other people exist, even other versions of myself in the multiverse, and I can imperfectly imagine what is must be like to be them, through my powers of empathy. I find that I feel love and compassion for the real people in alternate universes. But, in your version of the multiverse, I am completely powerless to prevent anything good or bad from happening. It WILL happen. The only thing I can control is my subjective experience of which universe I inhabit, and the only person that has any effect on whatsoever is me. Even if I beat my children, there will be exactly the same number universes in which I remain a loving father to them. I would just be robbing myself of the subjective joy of that experience. But in your cosmology, my love for them protects them from nothing. They will be beaten, no matter what I do. Or for that matter, happy.

    I am surprised that this is hard for you to understand. It's starting to feel like a cognitive blind spot.