Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Many Worlds Epiphany

I had a kind of "many-worlds" epiphany a couple of years ago. I was watching some show of college football highlights and it came to the "play of the year." It was a long pass that pinballed off four different players before alighting, in stride and as if by magic, into the arms of a receiver who pranced into the endzone.

The first thing that struck me was how improbable the event was. Even the smallest of deviations would have resulted in an entirely different outcome. Naturally, the play was perceived as "destiny." And looking back, the event can be ably explained as a deterministic causal chain along the lines of f=ma mechanics. But, nevertheless, it seemed that if you could rewind the tape of history to the exact same conditions at the start of the play, you still would most likely get a different result. (Sadly, it's difficult to test this idea.)

But the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics happened to be on my mind at the time. So I thought, if I understand the implications correctly, the play *did* have different outcomes, and most of those outcomes would have followed more probable paths (incompletion, interception, etc.). At each point where one or another thing can happen, both things do happen; they just split off into different branching lines of reality. And these realities are in turn contained in a greater kind of meta-reality.

Or, as the more Buddhist-inclined adherents to the many worlds view like to point out, it's not the realities that are splitting, but the minds of the aware entities that inhabit the meta-reality that are splitting. The mind of the receiver splits into the reality of him catching the ball, and into reality of him dropping the ball, and so on.

Prior to my little epiphany, much of this spooky QM stuff troubled me (and still does), especially the intertwined role of consciousness. One problem was that if my mind was in some part responsible for fashioning the perceived reality around me, how is it that I could discover things I had never thought of before, nor ever would think of. Like a strange fossil in the ground, for example. Finding an otherwise unknown fossil implies a reality beyond myself determined by forces beyond my consciousness. The idea that "consciousness determines reality" as advocated by fringe misinterpreters of QM struck me as absurd. And it is absurd.

But the many-worlds idea is beginning to make more sense to me. My mind didn't put fossils in the ground. Nor did it insert distant galaxies into the universe. What's happening when I look at these things is that I'm perceiving the line of reality, the only line actually, that could lead to me as am now.

Not that I'm anything special. It's the same for everybody.


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