It may seem odd that this blog is called “Many Worlds Theory” and yet I have not yet blogged about, well, many worlds theory. Well, I am doing so now.
The arguments that lead a sizable portion of theoretical physicists to postulate a multiverse are subtle and complicated. I hope to eventually cover these arguments, but I’d like to start with a discussion of what many worlds is not. Therefore, with much fanfare, I present to you:
The Top 5 Misconceptions About the Many-worlds Interpretation (MWI) of Quantum Mechanics
1. Every time you do a quantum experiment, the universe branches into multiple universes.
This is a popular notion, as seen in TV shows like Nova and as presented by Martin Gardner. Unfortunately, it is the wrong way to look at things. It is much better to imagine that all of the possible universes already exist, and that doing an experiment just tells you (the experimenter) which universe you happen to be in.
Suppose you’re watching Star Wars. You have no idea whether you are watching the original, or the retconned 1997 version. You finally realize which version you’re watching when you see Han shoot and kill Greedo without Greedo ever getting a shot off. You conclude you’re watching the original version.
Of course, up until that point, the movies are exactly the same. (Rather, let’s just say they are the same. I haven’t actually checked this.) You wouldn’t conclude, when you got to that scene, that two movies were created from one, would you? There were two movies all along; watching Han shoot first just told you which movie you were watching. A physicist who performs a Stern-Gerlach experiment doesn’t split the universe in two; doesn’t create a whole universe; instead she has gained some new information: “Oh, so that’s what universe I am in.” No new physics of universe-creation is needed, and we need not violate conservation of energy.
2. The existence of a multiverse is a postulate of a strange kind of quantum mechanics.
There is a formulation of quantum mechanics often called universally valid quantum mechanics, which was first described by Hugh Everett III in 1957. It involves (see this for details) just one postulate: isolated systems evolve according to the Schrödinger equation. That’s it. A multiverse is a prediction of this postulate, not a postulate in and of itself. So if you believe that isolated systems evolve according to the Schrödinger equation, you will be led to the MWI, unless you invent new postulates to make yourself feel better (see #3).
3. The Many-worlds Interpretation has a lot of baggage.
This obviously depends upon what you mean by baggage, but the claim is often made that the MWI is horribly antithetical to Occam’s razor. That is, how could anyone seriously believe that countless billions upon billions of universes exist, when believing in one universe is much, much simpler?
If you feel this way, I have two responses.
One: how can you believe that countless billions upon billions of stars exist, when believing in just one star is much, much simpler? Shouldn’t you be Earth-centric, and call for Galileo’s excommunication? Or what about the integers? Mathematicians claim that there are an infinite number of them, but infinity is too hard to fathom, so why don’t you just say that there are a lot of integers, but that there is only a finite number of them? There. I bet you feel better.
Two: like it or not, Occam’s razor cuts both ways, and can be used to defend MWI. The idea is whether Occam’s razor applies to the number of universes, or the number of postulates in your physical theory. As Max Tegmark pointed out, universally valid quantum mechanics leads to a multiverse as a consequence. In order to get the Copenhagen interpretation (for years, the most popular flavor of quantum mechanics) and rid yourself of those pesky many worlds, you have to take Everett’s quantum mechanics and add one additional postulate: that wave functions collapse according to random and ultimately unknowable criteria. That is, the MWI is simpler in the number of postulates required. As Tegmark put it, which way you use Occam’s razor depends upon whether you prefer many worlds, or many words.
4. The Many-worlds Interpretation is not falsifiable and therefore not science.
The jury’s still out on this one, but many people (including David Deutsch) think that the MWI is misnamed: that it is actually a theory in and of itself, and that it is falsifiable. I haven’t made up my mind on this.
I tend towards Tegmark’s view that MWI is an untestable prediction of quantum mechanics, which is testable. Because we take quantum mechanics seriously, we have to take one of its children (MWI) seriously. As Tegmark says, it’s like black holes. We can never see inside a black hole, so what goes on in there is never falsifiable; yet we take black holes seriously and call black holes “science” because general relativity (the theory that predicts black holes) is so successful.
5. The Many-worlds Interpretation is fringe science and only believed by kooks.
These kooks include Stephen Hawking (who said the MWI was “trivially true”), David Deutsch, Bryce DeWitt, and Max Tegmark, among others. They also include a sizable number of theoretical physicists working today. In 1995 one poll (published in the French periodical Sciences et Avenir in January 1998) showed that 58% favored MWI; see also this informal 1997 poll.
Maybe we are all kooks. But there are a lot of us, and the number is growing.
[Note: my book Why Is There Anything? is now available for download on the Kindle! This book examines the many-worlds interpretation from a philosophical perspective.]