Free will, quantum mechanics, multiple parallel universes and drunken yobs on vacation!
07.03.2009 - 07.03.2009 10 °C
Some physicists, those with a more philosophical bent most likely, worry about how free will is possible in the universe governed by the rules of physics. If we can understand and describe the future motion of items down to the atomic level, does that not mean that we can predict the course of neurons firing in our brains? In an entirely predictable world, all that has been, all that is and all that will be would be predictable if we just knew all the right variables and had the computing power to run the calculations. But if the entire world - right down to the electrons firing around in brain controlling our actions - is predictable, than that means our actions would be predictable too. We wouldn't have free will, it is all an illusion.
Personally, that's why I like the concept of quantum mechanics, quantum indeterminacy and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. If we don't actually know where atoms are and where they will be, but can just assign probabilities to these concerns, then free will lives. We don't live in a deterministic world, but rather in a nondetermined, probabilistic world that allows us to make choices. I'm no physicist, but I believe this is called the "Copenhagen Interpretation" of quantum mechanics.
Albert Einstein, though the father of quantum mechanics, didn't like the nondeterministic nature of the theory, and worked for most of his life to come up with a theory of quantum mechanics that didn't include uncertainty. He couldn't ever believe that the universe was not explainable if we had absolute knowledge of the current state of it. In a letter to Max Born, he famously said the oft-misquoted line, "I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice." The "He" in the sentence is the reference to God. Niels Bohr had an excellent come-back, in my mind, which was to say, "Einstein, don't tell God what to do."
An alternative interpretation of quantum mechanics is to instead look at the probability of wave of an electron not as possible outcomes, but actual outcomes. Of all the possible places an electron could be, it actually is. Each of these possibilities then becomes its own "history." In effect, all possibilities occur, they just do so in parallel universes spun off from every point in time. This is called many-worlds interpretation. For us laymen, what that means is that if you imagine every choice you have ever made, there exists somewhere a world where you made the opposite choice.
I can't imagine the many-worlds interpretation actually being reality. It's too comic-booky. Too much like all those DC titles I remember popping up in the mid-1980s about multiple worlds and the Crisis on Infinite Earths where different versions of The Flash and Bat-dog all existed.
Thinking about the possibility that all those parallel worlds are out there, though, does present a tantalising thought that you could, if you could see through the barriers between worlds, find out what happened to other versions of you. I was thinking about this today as I wandered the streets of London down towards Chinatown, where I was heading to quench a craving for noodles.
I passed an estate agent that specialises in finding student housing in central London for all the students of the many University, colleges and other learning institutions in the city. I suddenly felt a little melancholy that I hadn't taken the opportunity as a student to go some place far away and exotic to study. Instead, I stayed close to home, and only really took up travelling in my 30s.
"What kind of person would I have been if I had started travelling sooner?" I wondered. I thought about all the lost opportunities and extra years I could have had feeding my travel urge. If there were multiple worlds out there, perhaps there was a Gregwtravels out there who had been at it since the age of 18, having criss-crossed the world many times, perhaps now lazing on a beach in Central America or eating noodles in a train station in Osaka.
Of course, that Greg probably doesn't exist even if multiple worlds do. After all, when I was 18 I had no real desire to go far away to school. The university I went to - University of Western Ontario - was really the only one I wanted to go to. I flirted very briefly and not too seriously with a couple other options, specifically McMaster University which was even closer to my hometown, and McGill.
McGill would have been an interesting choice. It was far from home, being a full 6 hours by train from my parent's house, and it was in Montreal, a bilingual and very diverse city. That is a Greg I could imagine that might have taken up travel sooner. Maybe he learnt French and did a semester in Paris. Maybe he went into something more bohemian than IT consulting, perhaps publishing. That Greg would be an interesting Greg to meet. I think I'd like him.
I continued to walk towards Chinatown, feeling the sting of lost opportunities. "I wish I'd starting travelling sooner. I wish I'd been braver in my 20s." I kept telling myself, becoming increasingly glum.
Perhaps Einstein was right, and perhaps God doesn't play dice with the universe, because just then something happened the removed all the glumness from me and cured my melancholy. It was so perfect a cure, so fitting to my affliction of temporary despondency that it had to be more than just mere coincidence.
I came upon this sign.
"Oh, a travel show, that'll brighten me up," I thought, so I went in. And brighten me up it did, but not in the way I imagined. For the show was focused on the young traveller, and was full of exhibitors plugging bus tours of Eastern Europe and trips that focused on nightlife, drinking and hooking up, including a company offered Trans-Siberian train journeys on the "Vodka Train," with big banners replete with photos of young, good-looking folk downing shots of the white liquor.
The place was jammed with people, mostly in the teens and twenties, and many seemingly interested in the tours that offered the best chances of hooking up and getting drunk. I could only stand it for a few minutes before I fled.
I realized, as I exited the hotel that it was probably best that I didn't travel much when I was younger, for knowing me it would have been EXACTLY that kind of travel - drunk all night, blurry eyed and hung-over during the day, missing most everything and really only wondering where the next bar was. I do know there are those out there in their teens and twenties who travel in a more measured, reflective way, but I don't think I would have done that. I would have been a drunken yob.
Some of you, especially those that have travelled with me, might be wondering how the above actually differs from my current method of travelling. I will admit that how I travel now does involve a few drunken nights and hung over mornings, but probably earlier nights, less buses and hopefully a little more appreciation of the local culture and sights than a 22-year-old me would have travelled.
"Guess I really didn't miss much," I told myself, and continued on my way to Chinatown, where I found a restaurant and fulfilled my noodle craving. I'm not as young as I once was, but I've still got a many good years of travel adventure ahead of me. I'll leave the other Gregs in other parallel worlds who made other choices to their own lives, and concentrate on mine. I may have started a little late, but I have to say that right now, it is pretty damn good.