CONTENT WARNING: After reading this text you will gouge your own eyes out.
Visibility was almost nonexistent, the icy wind buffeted my face with snow and sleet and my numb fingers could not tell me if I had a solid grip on the cliff face. I had lost contact with the group and felt my strength dwindling rapidly due to lack of oxygen and exhaustion. I was going to die there. On the mountain. As I always knew I would.
This hasn’t happened yet, but it will, it is inevitable. I will someday climb the slopes of Mt. Everest and die there.
As will you.
As will we all.
How absurd! I’m not a mountain climber. I have no interest in climbing mt. Everest. What could possibly motivate me to end up there? It’s inconceivable. Absurd. It’s ridiculous.
And yet it will happen, and someday you will read about my self prophesied death. It’s inevitable.
And then you will know you live in the multiverse.
Oh, so that’s what this is about? The multiverse? Yes, the many worlds theory of quantum physics, that resolves the question posed by the double slit experiment – if the photon goes through both openings, then why do we only see one result?
One interpretation is because that outcome also happens in a parallel reality that is forever divorced from ours. Genteel physics professors picture scenarios where they both have a cup of tea or don’t, or, if they’re feeling frisky, one rare universe where they are president of the United States. How daring.
How utterly lacking in imagination.
I think the interesting question isn’t what has happened before, in universes that have already split off from our current one, but rather what happens in the future, because the past is another country, but the future is something you cannot avoid. And this is true whether we live in a fixed, single timeline deterministic universe or an ever branching set of multiverses, your future is rushing towards you like a windscreen towards a bug in a highway. Something wildly improbable could happen to you tomorrow – this is already the world we live in. You could slip in the shower and break your neck. You could have a stroke or a heart attack. A car could swerve unexpectedly and run you over – But this is all mundane stuff. Think instead of the most unlikely, most unfortunate thing that could happen to you. Now assume that it is a certainty. It WILL happen to you. Because it is inevitable, at least in the multiverse it is.
We’ve all heard of Schrodinger’s cat, sealed in a box where a quantum decay event has a 50% chance every hour of releasing a poison that kills the cat. Of course this is just a thought experiment, the cat would eventually die as the accumulated dice rolls eventually fell against it. But dice rolls have no memory so in a multiverse there would necessarily be a reality where the cat never dies – this is the basis of the idea of quantum immortality. At every possible junction where you could die there is also a possibility that you will not, and so there is a universe where you never die. You just have to have the courage of your convictions and step into the box instead of the cat. Never mind – you already are in the box, it’s all around you right now.
Some people misunderstand this “quantum immortality” deal to mean that somehow by magic your consciousness is transmitted to the dimension where you survive. Well, sort of! When you play Russian roulette with an automatic, by the rules of quantum immortality you always find yourself in that 1-in-a-thousand-odds reality where the gun jams or the bullet misfires. This is not because your consciousness has any magical properties, quite the opposite, it’s because your consciousness is split into identical “copies” in each and every one of those possible universes, but is then extinguished in most of them. The one that survives is the one that keeps noticing it has survived, and it is you, indistinguishable from all the other “yous” that just died.
But a binary choice between dead or alive is just a convenience for the thought experiment. In a real multiverse everything that can possibly happen does. In millions of realities you shoot yourself and die, in thousands of less likely timelines you survive due to a variety of malfunctions, or less than fatal injuries, and in some of those you are then killed by a falling light fixture in a freak unrelated incident. EVERYTHING happens!
Consider another sci-fi philosophical quandary – the Star Trek classic, “teleport gone wrong”. Instead of mixing you with the floor or turning you into a pulsating mass of flesh, this week’s transporter accident just made two of you. Identical copies. Both are you, for all intents and purposes. The transporter does not exist, of course, but if Many Worlds is true, then we’re running that experiment billions of times a second, as every possible iteration of all the particles in the universe splits into its own sub-universe.
A more recent example of this trope is the film “The prestige” in which Hugh Jackman’s stage magician character is given a miraculous “malfunctioning” teleporter by Nikola Tesla, which creates a copy of anything placed inside a few dozen metres away. Spoilers for a fifteen year old movie coming up, Jackman’s magician comes up with a stunningly masochistic scheme to profit from this machine: He creates an act where he is dropped into a vat of water and drowns in front of the audience, unable to escape – Only to then miraculously appear from behind the audience as if by magic. Of course the trick in this particularly twisted example is that there is no trick. He really created a duplicate of himself and killed his original in order to entertain his audience. I always thought this plot was pretty dumb, but fortunately for us it provides a pretty good illustration of my current argument. Like Jackman’s magician we are constantly being split into copies some of which are doomed to unpleasant ends. When the magician steps into the faulty teleporter, he knows he is going to drown, but he also knows he is going to triumphantly step out into thunderous applause from an amazed audience. Both outcomes are his assured future. And with every performance, he remembers another instance of him being “the right one” who steps into the limelight and applause.
Which is, if many worlds is accurate, exactly what is happening to us every second of every day. If every possible outcome is certain to happen, then every time you do anything the absolute worst outcome is assured to happen to you, personally. Imagine the worst thing that can befall you tomorrow. It will come to be. It’s certain.
And sure, the level headed, serious people will say “only things that are possible can happen in these branches”. But have you stopped to think just what a wide net that is? “Only” everything that’s possible already includes a vast possibility space the likes of which beggars the mind.
Many worlds laughs at reductio ad absurdum. If all branches of probability are explored then everything that can happen, does. And that includes a frankly unreasonable amount of possibilities. I used to disbelieve in the theory based on this intuition, much like an ancient Roman might have scoffed at the idea that the earth is a vanishingly small mote in a universe vast beyond comprehension (Although, Marcus Aurelius knew that the earth was tiny).
But personal incredulity is a thin shield against reality. And on the edges of possibility, where as Terry Pratchett put it, “reality wears thin”, unlikely coincidences can pull off stuff that would seem outright impossible.
How far can we take it? Imagine a thermodynamic miracle. This is a hypothetical scenario where the statistically normal behaviour of billions of atoms or molecules happens to align in an unexpected and improbable way to produce an anomalous result. All the molecules of air in a room suddenly aligning themselves to whoosh out the window leaving you in a vacuum, for example. Statistically nigh-impossible events because of the sheer amount of coincidences that would have to line up at the same time. Vastly unlikely, but not impossible.
Imagine a statue. All the silica atoms inside it are bobbing along in random vibration within the structure of the stone. Now imagine a few billion trillion of these atoms all happen to jerk “this way” at the same time. The stone cracks, maybe the statue shatters. Spontaneous material fatigue! We even have an explanation for events like these, nothing odd here. Now let’s go more improbable, even billions of times more unlikely – the atoms all align in a random pattern of motion such as that the statue’s arm rises, moving like a flesh and blood arm would. Improbable? Yes, mind bogglingly so but not actually impossible, and if many worlds is true then it is just one more of the scenarios reality explores as a matter of course.
See the statue. The statue turns it’s head to look at you. With a crackling sound the statue pulls itself from its moorings, steps out of it’s plinth and reaches out for you.
Then it crumbles.
In billions of more probable universes, the statue crumbled well before reaching this point, maybe it shattered at the very start and you shake your head in wonder at the unusual event and carefully keep to yourself that for a moment, it seemed like it was turning its head. Tomorrow, when you walk past a statue, this will happen to you. Well, probably not, but if it does you’ll understand what is happening, and that you live in a multiverse. The You experiencing it will know, and from the point of view of your current self, he is your future self.
But why stop there? Imagine a whole planet of moving statues, true p-zombies moving around mimicking a society, interacting with each other blindly just by the force of sheer improbable coincidence. Too far? Max Tegmark has run the numbers and apparently there is a limited number of combinations of quantum states for all particles in the visible universe, a huge but finite number. I do not know if the kind of “extreme chain of thermodynamic miracles” universe of the last example is contained in them or if there’s some sort of probabilistic analogue of the Planck limit or the speed of light that says “This far and no further, things can only get so improbable”. I don’t think anybody knows or can know for sure, but the point was to shift your “Overton window” of what is possible and impossible, and to make you concede that within the realm of the possible things can get extremely weird.
But let’s step back and look at our world, our shared consensus reality we have experienced together so far. We can agree we must live in a fairly middle of the bell-curve part of the multiverse, we see no quantum immortals. (If somehow Napoleon had never died and was still ticking along for no earthly reason, we’d at least have a pointer). Even in our boring, mediocre (As in theory-of-mediocrity) universe we do see odd coincidences crop up, times when our normal universe was not so staid. Nothing odd about this, even in a non-multiverse we’d expect unusual things as part of the usual distribution of events involving billions of people throughout the centuries. People walking through sustained machine gun fire like Sgt. York, unlikely coincidences like winning a second lottery ticket while demonstrating how you won a lottery ticket, people being killed by the same driver that killed their brother decades ago, etc…
The coin toss has no memory, so any universe that is unlikely constantly sheds mediocre, “probable” universes as a byproduct. Imagine a world where every time you say “Adava Kedabra” at someone, they die. Purely coincidentally of course, magic doesn’t exist, but spontaneous strokes and heart attacks do. Every time someone says that, the chances are vastly higher that nothing will happen and the resulting timeline will be forever free of that particular unlikely coincidence, no one will ever again die to the killing curse. But just as inevitably, one thread of coincidence will keep existing where it happens reliably, like clockwork. Imagine living in one such universe. Causality still exists, people would take notice, you could go through life thinking you are a wizard, just because random chance aligned itself perfectly for you by sheer unlikely cumulative coincidence. But at any point, billions of more probable universes would be shearing off where you lose your “powers”. Do we live in one such universe, descended from a sequence of extreme improbability? In many places in the world even today, being accused of witchcraft and sorcery can get you killed by a mob, so, perhaps we do. Perhaps the origin of life itself, abiogenesis, is one such unlikely event, and the explanation for the Fermi paradox is that our universe may be a “normal” descendant of a supremely abnormal origin.
People would still react to a world of improbable events, experience would make us more likely to fear a wizard with demonstrably real powers, more people would try to use the killing curse, and of course in a tiny subset of unlikely descendants of an already unlikely universe, it would work, creating a world where “magic” is real, populated by thousands of very lucky and very deluded “wizards”. A brain is a machine designed to constrain future possibilities by anticipating what will happen, but it can only work with what it knows, and if it has “bad” data it can only react in relation to it so in a world of evident magic, you must act in accordance.
Where is free will in all of this? Well, if you’ve been paying attention, philosophy, biology, physics (and probably economics too) have ruled that particular notion out long ago. In a weird way, many worlds sort of opens a little crack in the door for it once again, you will pick all the options but for the “you” that is traveling along one particular path, you could perhaps say truthfully that you made a choice that is yours alone and that distinguishes you from that other you that became a doctor or a garbage collector or didn’t drink that cup of tea through another chain of decisions.
But what if we make a firm decision to not do something, and we end up doing it anyway?
Greek drama is full of protagonists who are carried along by unyielding Destiny, but we’re all familiar with this scenario in more pedestrian contexts – “I won’t smoke that cigarette today”, “Time to switch off the video game”, our illusion of choice is in a weird way sustained by our inability to predict what we ourselves will actually do. If we knew for sure we will do or at least attempt what we propose to do free will would be a lot less apparent. We would just tick along doing what comes next, like ants seem to do.
If I decide to NOT take the car today, and stay at home instead, I can be relatively sure my future paths do not involve dying in a traffic accident (Barring some Rube Goldberg improbability like a car flying off an overpass and crashing through my window. Which will, by the way, of course happen.)
But, everything happens. So the universe where I firmly decide NOT to die climbing Mt. Everest by the simple expedient of NOT traveling to Nepal and NOT climbing the damn mountain but I end up doing it anyway ALSO happens. My precommitment to do or not do a thing may make an outcome more or less probable, but the counterfactual also happens.
Your left brain, neuroscience tells us, is a great confabulator. It finds reasons to explain what it sees we have done, even if it was not involved in the decision. Imagine if you killed someone tomorrow, for no good reason. Why would you do that? Because you are made of atoms, and one bunch of atoms pushing another bunch of atoms onto a train track is one possible configuration of a pile of atoms. It doesn’t take a thermodynamic miracle. Everyone has intrusive thoughts like that. Push someone onto the tracks. Grab the cop’s gun and start firing. Kick the baby in it’s round, football like head. Just nerve impulses firing and activating muscles. Nothing miraculous here, easily explained post facto by a sudden epileptic crisis or a medical or social antecedent in your history that suddenly gains increased relevance (“He had a concussion in high school” or “He smoked a lot of Pot in college”).
“I wish that I could give you an explanation for what happened.” But, she added, “I still cannot understand why I did what I did.””
“Huckaby has the rest of her life to contemplate the reason for and the results of her actions. Until she comes up with some answers, many of us will continue to wonder, along with her, why she did it.”
Aldo Bianchini, 46, who was born in Britain but lives in Italy, tore both his eyes out with his bare hands in front of a 300-strong congregation attending the church of St. Andrea’s in Viareggio, on Sunday. Emergency responders said Bianchini was calm and lucid when they arrived at the scene and told them a “voice told him” to rip his eyes out.
ANSA news agency.
These two examples are events from our real world, our shared reality up to now. If many worlds is correct, after reading this article, you too will gouge your own eyes out, for no good reason.
In a more unlikely but also certain reality, not just you but everyone who reads this article will gouge their eyes out, for no good reason. This will certainly cause me a certain amount of unwanted notoriety, and probably some legal trouble, but if it’s any consolation it will probably be conclusive proof for many that we do live indeed in a multiverse (Of course it would prove nothing, but it would be a bit of a bloody pointer, however inconclusive.)
You don’t think that could happen? It’s not like there haven’t been unexplained mass hysteria events in our boring, staid, consensus reality like the Dancing plague of 1518 or the Tanganyika laughter epidemic or the children’s crusade
It’s hard to think of human behaviour in these terms, I find It helps to visualize the world like a hot skittle or frying pan covered in a thin film of water… the water sputters and boils, individual molecules churning. Imagine the planet earth, from above… now consider the individual human lives sputtering and evaporating from this vantage point. Does it matter if one lasts longer than another? Does it matter if one skips when it should have hopped? From a sufficiently distant vantage point it makes no difference if Hitler wins WWII or if Homo sapiens goes extinct, the earth flies along, indifferent to our flickering existence.
Are human impossibilities more or less improbable than physical ones? Is me becoming President of the United States on the level of a thermodynamic miracle? On the one hand, it is just a lump of carbon, nitrogen and water finding itself in a particular configuration relative to all the other lumps of carbon, nitrogen and water, but I am not a “citizen” of the “United States” and I have no “Political base”, never mind having no “interest in the post”. What twists of fate, what sustained collective hysteria, what social upsets would have to collide for that particular outcome to become a reality? And is this more or less improbable than the moving statue? A lot less, I’d wager. But it does sound very improbable, like say, the idea of a teenage peasant girl convincing a King to let her lead his armies because the voices in her head told her to…
It’s amusing to think of the entire population of the earth, the entire human race throughout history, racing like lemmings up the tallest mountain on earth to die there (And yes in some even more unlikely branches they all do it at the same time). For me, climbing up Mt. Everest is a relatively doable affair, I’d just need to raise some money, hire some sherpas and take a flight out. By publicly committing to not climb Mt. Everest, I’m actually tempting some bored millionaire to make me a sponsorship offer I can’t refuse so perhaps I’m actually making the outcome more probable. But imagine some ancestor of mine – some European peasant who has never left his village. How does he end up climbing Mt. Everest? What an epic voyage that would be, what justification would his mind find for his actions? What adventures or sights would he see on his or her way. Yes, this is “reductio ad absurdum” material, but let’s go back to molecules, imagine I told you a molecule of air bounced off a wall and then shot off directly into space without colliding with another molecule of gas along the way. What are the odds? Who cares! The earth loses tons of gas from it’s atmosphere every day. Is this scenario unlikely? Is it thermodynamic-miracle levels of unlikely? I don’t know, but given the vast amounts of molecules of air and the millions of years the planet has had an atmosphere, I’m fairly certain it has happened at least once. Now think of a random human as being no more important than a random molecule. It’s all a matter of scale and from a sufficiently lofty vantage point, one collection of atoms adopting an unusual configuration in space and time is not particularly notable or unusual.
Have I convinced you? To feel this reality not just intellectually but viscerally? Are your thumbs tingling with the idea of gouging your own eyeballs out? The first time I came to this way of thinking, I seriously creeped myself out. Suddenly nothing was out of the question, nothing seemed solid or reliable anymore. Are the walls going to flow like liquid and collapse? Is the plane flying along the horizon going to swerve suddenly and dive towards me? Perhaps a gang of clowns was going to burst in through my door and murder me at any moment. Of course there are no roving clown gangs outside my door at this time but perhaps reality diverged catastrophically months before and now I do live in a world with roving gangs of clowns bent on murder? This would be funnier if our reality didn’t feature people going out for what they thought was a perfectly normal day being caught up in a nightmare of rape and murder.
How can we live like this? I don’t really think I’m going to gouge my own eyes out, even though it’s logically my certain future. As Tegmark says, when you get on a plane some versions of you will inevitably die in a crash, but in normal circumstances they constitute a small sliver of the total and can be ignored. And yet those innumerable yous that have died, are dying by the millions in likely and unlikely ways are no less you. Consciousness is conserved, even if probabilistic density is not. The reality you end up in is not any less real to you because it is on the far end of a probability curve. And it would certainly suck to realize you’ve slid down one of these multiversal dead ends. Speaking of sliding down, dying on a mountaintop by freezing to death is not my nightmare. Ending up face down stuck in a tube, jammed with no way to move like the poor unfortunate cave explorer who died in the Nutty Putty cave is. But even if you steer clear of caves you can end up dead trapped upside down in a dinosaur sculpture because you dropped your mobile phone. There are more potential unexpected bad ends than you can possibly imagine.
There is no helping it, our brains are tuned to our perception of a single sliver of reality, our calculations of risk and reward are exquisitely calibrated to the probabilities we are likely to encounter. It’s just a cosmic joke if it turns out that from a god’s eye point of view all outcomes are equally likely and certain. There’s nothing to do but carry on as usual. Perhaps with a touch of fatalism, perhaps with an eye out for the catastrophic (For example, I no longer keep my mobile phone under my pillow, to steer away from the timelines where it burns my face off in my sleep in a battery fire) and an appreciation for the power of coincidence.
Is it all negative? Well, no. All outcomes are eventualized, this includes the positive ones. Pleasure is a harder bar to reach than pain, order is less likely than chaos, but among all those timelines of death, horror and destruction and just as likely are the ones where you triumph, you are unreasonably lucky and live a charmed life where everything you want is granted to you. Not only your wildest fear, but also your most unlikely hope is a certainty, somewhere in the branching paths before you.
So, stop paying attention to the tingling of your thumbs and buy a lottery ticket.
It’s a sure thing.
David Wallace (Talk on the 80000 hours podcast)