(Gosh. It seems odd to think that for two years, I had time to update this blog at least a few times each week. For many months I've been growing new habits which involve a lot less writing and a lot less public performance, and to be honest, I don't much like them. Today is probably not the day for a dramatic change -- indeed, I'm not convinced that dramatic changes in habit are ever sustainable -- but I think it may be the right time to shift slowly back the other way.)
Today I'd like to write down some iconoclastic ideas I developed, twenty years ago, about quantum physics and mortality, and which I was surprised and somewhat mindblown to see developed in Neal Stephenson's novel Anathem
. (One sentence book review, which de facto
cannot quote a complete sentence from page 119: I loved it, even though one scene near the climax seemed to be ripped off -- probably unconsciously, but also quite faithfully -- from Greg Egan's Quarantine
.) There will be some minor spoilers to the ideas in the novel, but I promise to steer clear of the characters & plot.
So once upon a time, I began to wonder about the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Hmm. I suppose this means I'm going to have to digress briefly into what quantum mechanics actually says.( Okay, I'm game. )
I'm going to repeat and paraphrase that last sentence, which is a fairly important concept called the Copenhagen Interpretation. The act of bumping two particles together creates an "event," and localizes both of them in a particular place and time. Before and after they bumped into each other, they both filled the entire universe, but bumping into each other was a specific event at a specific point in spacetime.1
The Many Worlds Interpretation is slightly weirder. What if both particles filled the entire universe, not just before and after the event, but also during
the event ... but for some reason we can only see it happen in one place and time? In this interpretation, the universe is constantly splitting into an infinite number of paths, one for each place and time the event might have occurred.
When you consider how many events are constantly occurring in one cubic centimetre of air, let alone the entire universe, the number of paths quickly becomes mindboggling, and it's tempting to throw the whole many-worlds interpretation at Occam's Razor just to watch it die screaming.2
But in fact it makes the math much
easier to work with, and physicists are suckers for easier math. If two equations predict the same experimental result, you can make a pretty good argument to throw the difficult math at Occam's Razor instead, and no one will be too upset. Heck, they'll even quote Copernicus vs. Ptolemy
at you: "Yeah, your math is easier, but it doesn't make any sense unless the earth
moves, which is so obviously ridiculous I can't believe I'm even talking to you. No way! I'll stick with my really complicated math, thanks."( I can usually get more of a handle on the multiple-universes thing by multiplying some really big numbers together. )
So once upon a time, I began to wonder how the many-worlds interpretation interacts with the idea of consciousness. And I came up with three major possibilities.
In options (1) and (2), consciousness is unique. The universe may constantly fracture into many worlds, but consciousness picks a single path through time. Since there are a lot of conscious beings out there, this raises the question of whether every consciousness picks the same path: and so option (1) constrains all conscious beings to experience the same universe, while option (2) doesn't.
In option (3), consciousness keeps on splitting just as the rest of the cosmos does, and every conscious being in the universe continues to be conscious in every universe where they exist.( Each of these three options carries with it a slightly terrifying implication. )
All of this is a sequence of speculation I first followed almost twenty years ago. The new insight which Mr. Stephenson recently brought me is a way of merging options (1) and (3).
In option (1) I identified the need for a force which operates on consciousness, and deduced that the cause of this force was outside & between cosmi. But this is a false deduction. Two electric charges can operate on each other without any charge in the space between, and two masses can interact without any intervening mass. There's no reason to invoke an external conscious entity to operate on consciousness, and in fact the math is much simpler if we don't. In short, we either become our own gods, or else we laugh at my 20-year-old self for imagining that "gods" was an appropriate term for something as simple as a universe-spanning consciousness.
Meanwhile, in option (3) I supposed that consciousness always bifurcates. But what if, instead, consciousness actually spans multiple universes? In particular, what if consciousness -- the ability to consider & decide among many possible outcomes, both in an abstract sense and in everyday life -- is the particular physical manifestation of a quantum computer? Then all our conscious minds, by definition, already span all of the universes in which we exist. It's not a matter of perceiving one particular universe among a googol of possibilities, but of perceiving all of them
, and identifying as real the most common elements -- which would reinforce each other as constructive interference.
We can remain aware of a myriad (or even a googol) of possible outcomes, while concentrating our perception on the likeliest outcome. We do it all the time, like swirling red and blue watercolour paint until we get purple instead of paisley. It's pretty basic second-law-of-thermodynamics stuff. But every possible outcome is contained within one of those universes, and therefore part of our perception as quantum computers. If we collectively and intuitively choose to inhabit the universe with the greatest number of common elements -- the one at the centre of the bell curve -- then entropy itself becomes an emergent phenomenon of how consciousness progresses through multiple worlds.
1Heisenberg proved that you can't measure a particle's momentum at a specific place, and that you can't measure its energy at a specific time, but he never ruled out measuring its place at a specific time. In fact, you have to be able to measure its position in 4-dimensional spacetime for Heisenberg's equations to make any sense!2I like to imagine Occam's Razor being wielded by Sweeney Todd.3Except Alan Thicke, who is apparently immortal in this timeline.