The Human Condition:

Schrödinger’s World – June 3, 2012

Sometimes I get strange ideas, notions that flit through my mind and occasionally stick. One idea that flits across now and then, mostly when I go out for a motorcycle ride and then—contrary to the knowing predictions of my family and friends—come back alive, is that maybe there are an endless number of probabilistic choices occurring all around us and forcing the endless creation of new universes. Maybe we all live in Schrödinger’s World.

Erwin Schrödinger proposed his famous thought experiment in 1935. Put a cat in a box with a vial of cyanide and a triggering mechanism based on radioactive decay of a single atom—a truly random event. Close the box and wait a while. During your wait, the cat may have died, or not. The point is, you cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead inside the box until you open the lid.1 From your point of view then, the cat is neither alive nor dead—it is both alive and dead—until you open the box. The cat exists in a “superposition” of two states, an unresolved wave function, a state of indeterminacy.2

Schrödinger was making a point about affairs at the subatomic level, where the act of observation tends to interfere with the experiment. There are certain things in science—particularly in quantum mechanics—that you simply cannot know. If you want to know where an electron is at any particular instant, you have to impact it with some other particle, like a photon, in order to “see” it. Bang! There’s your electron. But the impact itself sends the electron off in a new direction. So you can know where the electron is, or where it’s going, but not both at the same time.3

This kind of observational blindness occurs only at the subatomic level. On the everyday level of darting cats and speeding cars, the object to be observed has enough mass of its own not to be deflected by its impacts—either casual or intentional—with photons.4 But, of course, Schrödinger has the last laugh, because there are myriad events in the universe about which you don’t know the outcome—sometimes you don’t even know of their possibility—until you look. The existence of water under the sands of Mars, the existence of life under the ice on Europa, the fate of stars at the galactic center … all are mysteries subject to endless wonder, speculation, and disputation until someone goes there and actually observes.5

What does all this have to do with motorcycle riding? Whenever I go out on the road upon two wheels, I become subject to unknown probabilities. Of course, all life is subject to unpredictable events like blood clots, stray shots, and falling flowerpots. But on a motorcycle the odds of unexpected entanglements increase from perhaps one in 10,000—the random events of everyday life—to something like one in 1,000 or less. Even when practicing constant vigilance, wearing protective gear, maintaining my margins,6 and observing my doctrine,7 I am still at risk for the unexpected: a sudden, unobserved pothole and loss of control; something falling off a truck; the driver who impulsively decides he likes my lane better. When I ride out, I know I just might not come back. Today might be the day I go under all eighteen wheels—or at least nine of them—of a semi. When I return to my parking stall at the end of a ride and put down the kickstand, I know that once more I’ve beaten the unpredictable odds and am back at the old one-in-10,000 until the next time I ride.

But then it occurs to me: what if I didn’t avoid the unpredictable? What if that garbage truck I passed8 today really did drop a flowerpot on my head? The event is random and the odds, like the atomic decay in Schrödinger’s box, are incalculable. This gives rise to a disturbing thought: suppose that, at the instant the truck’s load, unseen by and unknown to me, shifted and went fifty-fifty on the prospect of ejecting a flowerpot or other lethal object, I entered a state of superposition. For an instant of time—which is all the time probability needs—I existed in two states at once: both the flowerpot remaining on the load bed and me zooming safely past and the flowerpot leaving the load and catching me full in the face, causing me to backflip off the bike or forcing me to swerve violently, and putting me down on the pavement and under the wheels of that semi in the next lane.

If the cat and I can enter a state of indeterminacy, both alive and dead, then we can exit that state in either condition. Maybe we exit it both ways: in one rendition of the universe, the cat comes out of the box screaming and scratching, and I pass the garbage truck with a thankful, satisfied grin; in another, parallel, equally possible rendition of the universe, the scientist picks up the limp, dead cat, and I exit the realm of the living, the place, according to the Buddhists, of impermanence and illusion. Two worlds proceed from the same point. In one I later park the bike, take off my helmet, and exhilarate in having experienced a great ride. In the other, I leave behind a grieving family whispering, “Well, we knew it would happen one day,” along with a pile of unfinished manuscripts, some minor debts, an unrealized IRA, and unclaimed Social Security benefits.

For me and mine, as for the cat, the consequences are very real. For the rest of society, the seven billion other people on the planet, and the whoevers evolving on planets light years distant, the matter remains unknown, the effects inconsequential. A few books that might have entertained some readers won’t get written. The Social Security fund is extended into the black for a few more nanoseconds. Otherwise, no appreciable change in this universe.

But still, the live-Thomas universe might experience some far-reaching effects. In the universe where I go on to write more books, there exists the possibility of changing a future reader’s thoughts, and he or she might then go on to change the future course of that universe. The dead-Thomas universe lacks this potential. They really do become two entirely different universes, not just a minor variation of life in the same place.

So the point in time at which the flowerpot does or does not eject from the truck is the budding point for two of the many possible universes that sit side by side in whatever vast, echoing null-space which contains the multiverse.

Multiply my experience, today, with one effect, the flowerpot, by a million such problematic points in seven billion lives. Throw in the imponderables of earthquakes, tornadoes, and volcanic eruptions. And you have a multiverse that is constantly calving off new universes of their own, new paths that were taken or not, new results written on the pages of personal diaries and acted out on the stage of history. It was a meditation on this sort of endless budding multiverse that led me to the metaphysics of time in The Children of Possibility.9

How far does reality extend? Does the universe change if you flip of a coin when no one is watching and you don’t bother to look at the result? Does the order of cards matter when you’re playing solitaire? Or when you’re betting only penny ante stakes in blackjack? Do some of us inhabit these tiny, mutual worlds that exclude the rest of humankind and the fate of all the stars in the sky? Or do they all end up in the ocean of the multiverses? If some of these events lack the power to change history, then what is history when no one is watching?

As I said, sometimes I get strange ideas, notions that flit through my mind and occasionally stick.

1. Well, okay, it’s a thought experiment. Everyone knows what happens if you try to put a live cat into a box and close the lid: yowling, meowing, hissing, scratching. This goes on until you open the lid—unless the vial cracks first, in which case you hear a sudden urk! and then nothing. In any event, you have a pretty fair idea of a cat’s state of mind at all times.

2. Note: No animals were harmed during the making of this thought experiment.

3. Recent discoveries in quantum mechanics suggest that subatomic particles may actually exist in multiple states or locations simultaneously, subject to interference and entanglement. This leads me to think that either our understanding of the nature of the universe, or our structure of rational thought, may be incomplete.

4. The social sciences also suffer from a form of observer’s paradox. If people know they are being watched or questioned, they tend to behave and respond differently than they would “in the wild.” Sometimes simply the form of a question—some hidden bias in the wording—deflects the respondent’s thoughts and influences the answer. This is why sociology and opinion polling are considered to be art forms.

5. Put another way, Mars right now both does and does not harbor water. Europa both does and does not harbor life. Our premises are in a state of superposition until resolved by observation.

6. Every motorcyclist knows about margins: maintain a two-second distance from the car ahead (two seconds is the time, at any speed, it takes a roadside object like a fence post to pass from the car’s rear bumper to your front wheel); don’t let anyone tailgate you; watch the three-foot spaces beyond your knees. If your margins are in place, then someone has to cross that gap to get to you.

7. What is “doctrine”? For me, it’s the body of rules and observations that guide the “reaction” step of my SIPRE process (see-interpret-predict-react-execute; cf. SIPRE as a Way of Life from March 13, 2011). The basic doctrine on other drivers is in three parts: “1. No one’s looking out for you. 2. Even if he’s looking right at you, he doesn’t see you. 3. Even if he sees you, he doesn’t care.” On interaction with bouncing balls: “If a ball bounces into the street, steer ahead of it. Behind it will be coming either a small child or a dog.” Every motorcyclist builds his or her own body of doctrine, which is merely thinking about things before they happen.

8. More doctrine: “Do not ride behind or alongside garbage trucks, frozen-fish trucks, or cattle trucks. They leak. And in the case of garbage trucks, things tend to fall off.”

9. “Time is not a river …”