Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’


I don’t like to fly.

I will do it; I have flown dozens of times before; I will do it again.  But I don’t particularly enjoy the experience.  It has nothing to do with the perceived risk of flying…I know, of course, that driving on the highway is much, much more dangerous than getting into an airplane.  No, I don’t like to fly because it seems to me a particularly stressful way to die.  Seeing the wing shear off, then having the plane spiral down, gradually…

I don’t really want to talk about flying today.  What I want to talk about is a paradox that I discovered recently.  The paradox is this: the knowledge that magic is non-existent, that the universe is indifferent, that you are not special in the grand scheme of things—that knowledge can be both a comfort and a source of fear, simultaneously.  And that’s weird to me.  Shouldn’t one’s beliefs comfort you, or not comfort you, as the case may be?

Let’s say that you do think that you’re special, that you were meant for some grand purpose.  This would certainly be a comfort if you were afraid of flying.  After all, you’d say to yourself “why should I be afraid to get into an airplane?  It won’t crash—I’m special somehow!”

Now, suppose you are superstitious, and think you are special in the opposite way: you think you’re cursed, that the world is out to get you, that God hates you, whatever.  I bet that your beliefs don’t make flying a fun experience.

But what about me?  I am a physicist, a determinist, an agnostic, a free thinker.  You know how some people describe themselves as spiritual?  Whatever the opposite of spiritual is, I am that.  There’s no guardian angel watching over my shoulder; I was not meant for some higher destiny, and the universe doesn’t care about me one way or the other.  Given such beliefs, should I be comforted when I get on a plane, or not comforted?  Therein lies the paradox.

When I get on a plane, I often start thinking, “the wing’s going to rip off in mid-flight, I just know it…that would just be my luck…you just know I’m going to be on that one-in-a-million flight that crashes into the Grand Canyon.”  But then I comfort myself by saying “there’s no such thing as ‘being unlucky’.  I am no more likely than anyone else to be on an ill-fated Grand Canyon flight.  So I should take comfort, because objectively, plane crashes are really rather rare.”

The problem is, my beliefs also make me more nervous at times.  “There is no guardian angel.  I am not remarkable in any way, so I can’t be comforted by the idea that I am somehow special.  Planes sometimes crash, and there’s certainly a chance that I will be on such a flight.”

So: should I be comforted, or not comforted?

I should be comforted if I think (in some deep recess of my brain) that there really is something called bad luck, and that I really am “cursed” in some way, because when I remember that this is nonsense, I will feel better…my belief has erased a sense of foreboding that I was irrationally experiencing.

I should not be comforted if I think (in some deep recess of my brain) that there really is something called destiny, and that I really am “blessed” in some way, and that I was meant for some higher purpose than disintegration in a smoldering pile of twisted metal, because when I remember that this is nonsense, I will feel worse…my belief has erased a sense of protection and comfort that I was irrationally experiencing.

So again: should I be comforted, or not comforted?

Well, which is greater?  (1) My irrational belief (that everyone has to some degree) that I am cursed in some way, and that there is a “doom” hanging over me… or (2) my irrational belief (that everyone has to some degree) that I am blessed in some way, and that I was meant for something more?  In the first case (the pessimistic case) I should be comforted when I come to my senses, and in the second case (the optimistic case) I should be more worried when I come to my senses.

Hence the paradox:

  1. Pessimists are comforted when they remember that the universe is indifferent;
  2. Optimists are more worried when they remember that the universe is indifferent.

On balance, I am an optimist, which means my deterministic world view gives me even less comfort than it should.

Of course, given the fact that I am an optimist, I am comforted by the fact that there’s probably something wrong with my analysis.  Only, wouldn’t that make me a pessimist?  I’m so confused…

[Image is from the movie Flight (2012), directed by Robert Zemeckis.  It’s a good movie.  You should watch it.]

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There is a principle in physics which says that, essentially, if two things are entirely indistinguishable, then you might as well call them the same thing.  There is even a branch of statistics (Bose-Einstein statistics) which is based on this principle.

Now, the meaning of the word “indistinguishable” has a very specific meaning in this context.  In physics, two things are indistinguishable if they cannot be distinguished no matter what anyone does.  That is, they cannot be told apart even in principle.  If there is a way to tell two things apart, then “regular” statistics holds; but if they truly are indistinguishable then they obey the much less intuitive Bose-Einstein statistics mentioned previously.

(As an aside, and entirely as a speculative exercise, one could argue that the existence of particles which clearly do obey Bose-Einstein statistics means that either (1) there is no God, or (2) there are things that even God cannot do—such as distinguish such particles—because if God could distinguish them then why do they obey Bose-Einstein statistics in the first place?  But that sounds like an idea for a later blog post…)

As an example, suppose a photon is absorbed by an atom, and the atom subsequently emits another photon of the exact same frequency and polarization.  One could say that a photon was absorbed and then the same photon was re-emitted; or one could say that a photon was absorbed (and destroyed) and then a completely different but identical photon was emitted.  The principle of identical particles says that these two cases are equivalent.  Neither one is right, or wrong.  Whichever you choose to believe is a matter of taste.  There is no experiment that even God could do that would tell you which was “right” and which was “wrong”, so why worry about it?  They represent the same thing.

Suppose two identical particles interact.  Initially they are traveling South and East, respectively, and interact at the origin:

collision 1

We can’t see what “actually” happens at the origin.  After the collision they are traveling South and East again.  If that’s all you know, and all you could know, then which of the following cases is correct?

Case 1.  They passed right through each other without actually interacting:

collision 2

Case 2.  They each turned 90° and switched roles, so to speak:

collision 3

A physicist would say that these are identical situations, as long as no one, not even God, is allowed to look under the veil.  And the distinction isn’t just semantic: if the particles are distinguishable, and these two cases really do represent two distinct physical possibilities, then the statistics of what we observe in such situations will be different.

Now, what in the world does this have to do with philosophy?

I’ve often felt that philosophy could stand to have a similar principle.  Well, fine, let’s just do it.  Let’s just make the following hypothesis:

If two things are indistinguishable even in principle, then they are the same.

Now I’d like to apply this principle to what I call the “Next morning” paradox but which is virtually identical to the Swampman paradox of Donald Davidson.  Suppose I go to sleep tonight and enter a deep sleep (so that I am not even dreaming).  And suppose that during this time of unconsciousness my body spontaneously disintegrates, and just happens to be replaced with an identical one: identical in every way, including the position of every molecule.  (Of course, you might try to cite Heisenberg here and say you could never make a body exactly like a previous one, because there’s always some uncertainty in position and/or momentum.  But, as in the original Swampman example, we assume that luck prevails: just by random chance the atoms are all found in the same way.)  This new version of “me” wakes up, lives his life, and no one (not even the new me) has any idea that anything has transpired.

Davidson and others contend that the new me is not “me” at all, even though no one could tell the difference.  They say that there is some intangible spark that can never be quantified that somehow still distinguishes yesterday’s me and today’s me.  That is, the difference between the two me’s is magic.  I find this ludicrous.

Any being that has all of your physical properties, and more importantly, all of your mental properties and memories, is you.  This may bother some, because it implies that more than one “me” can exist simultaneously; after all, we could make an exact replica of me and leave the old me intact.  Well, who cares?  As a many worlds adherent, I guess it’s not surprising I wouldn’t be bothered by such a scenario at all.

I find these ideas so obvious that it’s almost difficult for me to convey the ideas without screaming internally.  The principle has its beginnings in physics, but I find it applicable here: if x and y are indistinguishable even in principle, then x = y.  End of story.  I frankly have no idea why anyone takes Davidson’s ideas seriously anymore.

Think of it this way:  suppose you knew you were going to be killed, but that an exact replica of you would be put in your place, and have all your memories, and live your life.  On a visceral level, you’d probably be upset: “you” would live on, but it wouldn’t really be “you”.  This is the developmental stage that Davidson is stuck in.

My response: that scenario might have happened last night.  You might actually have died, and been replaced.  No big deal, right?  In fact, it might be true that everyone dies, every single night, and is always replaced by a perfect simulacrum.  The important point is that you could never know.  No one would know.  The universe would appear exactly the same.  We might as well take these two cases (that we are replaced, or that we are not) as being operationally identical.  For all intents and purposes, you can assume that every night you die, and that in the morning a different version of you is created with the same memories, that will act exactly as you would have acted.  Because this way of looking at things is really identical to the way we normally perceive reality, there can be no harm in thinking this way.  In fact, thinking this way may very well lead to insights and attitudes that you wouldn’t have had before.


I find this idea strangely liberating.  Each “me”, every day, can be thought of as a different person, related to me, and sharing some of my qualities, but separated both by time and space.  And we’ve come now to the final point of this post: how I learned to stop procrastinating.  For when you think of future selves as being entirely different people (which, in some sense, they are) then you can start thinking about doing favors for your future selves.

I don’t want to clean the kitchen now.  I could procrastinate.  However, to do so would be doing a disservice to “future me.”  Why not clean the kitchen today, and do a favor to my future self?  It’s no different than doing the dishes as a favor to your spouse, or mowing a lawn as a favor to a friend.  Your future self will appreciate it, and be grateful for your thoughtfulness.

For, if you’re a nice person, and enjoy helping others, why not put your future self in that category?  Treat your future self as a fully formed, thinking, rational person, with thoughts and feelings and aspirations and concerns.  It’s easier to do this if you actually think of a future self as a different person entirely.  Then, it will be easier to do a favor for this person, be nice to them, care for them, sacrifice for them.  When seen in this light, procrastination is just a form of selfishness.  Would you get drunk if you knew someone else, a random person somewhere, would have a terrible hangover because of your actions?  I’d hope that most people would not.  And yet, “Saturday morning you” is a person, just like “Friday night you” is.  So why be so selfish?  Why have that tequila?

I am not trained as a philosopher, although I have published works on the philosophy of quantum mechanics.  Nevertheless, I don’t think philosophy is the exclusive playground of those with philosophy PhD’s.  As this example shows, something as abstract as Bose-Einstein statistics can inform “traditional” philosophical questions such as the existence of God, the mind/brain problem, and philosophical zombies.  My intent here is to get people thinking, discussing, evaluating.  Science and philosophy are not enemies.  They’re frenemies.  Let’s hope they continue to play together in the sandbox.

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I don’t think the general public is aware that, among theoretical physicists, the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics has become almost mainstream.  (See, for example, this article by Max Tegmark.)  This means, basically, that there are a large number of very, very smart people who take the idea of “other” universes seriously.

Maybe you are one of these people.  Maybe you found this blog by googling “many worlds theory” and ended up here.

So, you ask, will this blog be devoted to the “Many Worlds Theory”?  Yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that I am a theoretical physicist, who has published work (such as this) on the weirdness of quantum mechanics.  And yes, I will occasionally post on topics that relate to MWI (such as quantum interference, the philosophy of science, the existence of the universe, and whether Jet Li’s performance in The One was Oscar-worthy.)

But also, no, in the sense that I won’t always devote this blog to quantum physics.  After all, the blog is called “Many Worlds Theory”, and not the arguably more correct many-worlds interpretation or Everett’s relative state formulation or universally-valid quantum mechanics.  By “worlds” I mean not only parallel universes, but things that interest me.  Sounds self-centered, right?  Kinda personal?

Well, it is a blog.  Isn’t it supposed to be personal?

My interests include, in no particular order: recreational mathematics, classical music, philosophy, politics, games of all kinds, science fiction, history, the ouvroir de littérature potentielle movement, movies, sports…(I’ll stop before this too closely resembles an ad on a dating website.  Maybe it’s already too late for that.  Anyway, I’m very happily married, thank you very much.)

Ultimately, this blog will be devoted to examining topics using a scientific mindset.  Let’s get one thing clear from the start: I believe that it is only through science that we have learned anything about the world.  My goal is to have this theme come through in all my posts.  Sure, I might discuss the Higgs boson, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Berry’s geometric phase, or other physics stuff.  But even when I discuss something non-scientific like Honey Boo Boo or Deepak Chopra or the Carolina Panthers or economics, I hope to stick to facts, and what can be demonstrated through logic.  If I write a blog about how soccer is a boring sport, rest assured that I will give you reasons as to why it is boring, and cite the source(s) of my claims.

Of course, there is another universe in which this blog is devoted to how great soccer is.

Good thing we’re not in that universe.

[Note: my book Why Is There Anything? is now available for download on the Kindle!]

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