November 11, 2009

Let’s get metaphysical: How our ongoing existence could appear increasingly absurd

So the Large Hadron Collider has been shut down yet again – this time on account of a bird dropping a piece of a bagel onto some sensitive outdoor machinery. The incident is not expected to keep the LHC out of commission for too much longer, but it represents yet another strange event that has kept the world’s most infamous particle accelerator out of service. In fact, the LHC has yet to function at full operational capacity since its completion over a year ago.

What makes this all the more interesting is that the Hadron Collider has been dubbed by some observers as a doomsday device on account of its unprecedented size and power. A minority of scientists and philosophers believe that the collider could produce a tiny black hole or a strangelet that would convert Earth to a shrunken mass of strange matter.

It's worth re-stating, however, that this is a fringe opinion. Several years ago, Max Tegmark and Nick Bostrom wrote a piece for Nature in which they concluded that a civilization destroys itself by a particle accelerator experiment once every billion years.

Okay, admittedly, one in a billion seems excruciatingly improbable. But not impossible. And it's this 'shadow of doubt' that has got so many people in a tizzy -- especially when considering that this so-called doomsday machine keeps breaking down. Seems awfully convenient, doesn't it? Are we to believe that this is mere co-incidence? Or is there something more to what's going on?

Now, I'm not talking about conspiracies or sabotage, here. Rather, a number of philosophers are making the case that something more metaphysical is going on.

Take, for example, the quantum immortality theory, which argues that you as an observer cannot observe your non-existence, so you will keep on observing your ongoing existence -- no matter how absurd. Aside from a large grain of salt, you also have to buy into the Everett Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics for this to work. As the universe splinters into probability trees, there are new trajectories that are forced into existence by your ongoing presence; in an infinite universe all observations must be made, no matter how improbable.

Now, at any given time we have to assume that we are living in the most probable of all possible habitable worlds. But that doesn't mean it's true -- it's just an assumption given the absence of sampling data. As quantum probability trees diverge, those that tread into more improbable spaces will begin to splinter with less and less frequency and diversity; there will be a limited number of escape routes given absurd and highly complex (but survivable) existence spaces.

All this can lead to some rather bizarre conclusions -- including the thought experiment in which you attempt to obliterate yourself with an atom bomb, only to have some kind of force majeure get in the way that prevents you from acting on your suicide.

It's important to remember that this only works for your ongoing existence. The rest of the world can burn around you; what matters is that you continue to observe the universe.

Okay, back to Hadron. Let's assume for a moment that quantum immortality is in effect and that the LHC is in fact the apocalypt-o-matic. It can therefore be argued that, because we are all collectively put into peril by this thing, we will never get to observe it working properly. There will always be something that prevents the device from doing what it's supposed to be doing -- everything from mechanical failures through to birds dropping bagels on it.

What's even more disturbing, however, is that these interventions could get increasingly absurd and improbable. It may eventually get to the point where we have to sit back and question the rationality of our existence. The world may get progressively screwed up and surreal in order for our personal existence to continue into the future.

One could already make the case that our collective existence is already absurd on account of our possession of apocalyptic weapons, namely the nuclear bomb. We've already come alarmingly close to apocalypse, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the infamous Stanislav Petrov incident. Would it be unfair of me to suggest that we should probably have destroyed ourselves by now? I would argue that the most probable of Everett Many World Earths have destroyed themselves through nuclear armageddon, but we happen to observe a version of Earth that has not.

This said, our ongoing existence does not seem ridiculously absurd. There are rational and believable reasons that account for our ongoing existence, namely self-preservation and a rigid safety-check system that has prevented a nuclear accident from happening.

But will the same thing be said a few years from now if the Hadron Collider keeps shutting down? What will happen to our sense of reality if stranger and stranger things start to intervene?

And what about the more distant future when we have even more apocalyptic devices, including molecular assembling nanotechnology and advanced biotechnologies (not to mention artificial superintelligence)? It's been said that we are unlikely to survive the 21st Century on account of these pending technologies. But given that there are some probability trees that require our ongoing existence, what kind of future modes will that entail? Will it make sense, or will the succession of improbably survivable events result in a completely surreal existence? Or will our ongoing presence seem rational in the face of a radically altered existence mode -- like totalitarian repression or the onset of an all-controlling artificial superintelligence?

Hopefully I don't need to remind my readers that this is pure philosophical speculation. Metaphysics is often fun (or disturbing as in this case), but it is no substitute for science. I think we should think about these possibilities, but not to the point where it impacts on our daily life and sense of reality.

But I'm sure we'll all want to keep a close eye on that rather interesting particle accelerator in Switzerland.


  1. Anonymous4:17 AM

    Interesting article.

    New powerful technologies and sciences are evolving wildly it seems without any real safety precautions in place. Where are the garauntees that these technolgies will not wipe out humanity? Well there really do not seem to be any in place.

    The quantum immortality theory, while definitely possible if one desires it enough, is not the full picture. That is like saying there are no levels of self or reality to be experienced beyond the physical one which most people are used to. At the same time it is saying that there simply could be nothing beyond the physical self or reality.

    It could very well be that the ego based layers of consciousness we are used will simply be deleted upon experiencing mortal death. It could also be very possible that we can simultaneously experience space time and those levels of reality beyond space time.

    All this is theoretical jabber though. Life continues right now and we all have decisions to make on how we choose to live. Or perhaps we only have the illusion of choice.

    I feel that at this moment there are infinite branches sprouting off leading each one of us into different futures. Now at the same time I feel that we have only one path we can travel down. Paradox is the most accurate conclusion.

  2. Anonymous1:41 PM

    Minor quibble: The reports said it was a piece of baguette (what we call French Bread), not a bagel.

  3. @caeious: I think there are definite safety precautions in place for situations in which real danger is foreseeable. The majority opinion that holds sway in the case of the LHC seems difficult to assail: higher-energy interactions than those to which the LHC aspired happen all the time (cosmic rays striking the ground, etc) and have been for the entire history of the planet. It's possible that something about the particular scenario of our (relatively) low-energy events will lead to catastrophe, but this would have to be in a completely unexpected way. If I pour drano down my sink to unclog a drain and it acts as a mutagen, it's not impossible that it could result in a catastrophic pathogen, yet I don't think anyone has contemplated putting any safeguards on drano use relevant to that potentiality.

  4. The problem with this idea is that if humanity someday erradicate itself there will be no one the day after to see that was wrong.

    Or maybe with a perfect human clonning tech we can program some robots to rebuild humanity after this "test".

  5. Anonymous4:25 AM

    @nato: Do you 'think' or do you 'know' there are definite safety precautions in place for situations in which real danger is foreseeable. Please state why you 'think' so or please state evidence backing your 'knowing' so.

    Higher energy interactions happen all the time than those to which the LHC aspired? Then why are people scared that the LHC might equal the end of the world? Is it just irrational fear based on some quantum physicists' speculations?

  6. @caeious
    "why are people scared that the LHC might equal the end of the world?...Is it just irrational fear based on some quantum physicists' speculations?"

    I'm honestly not able to find any quantum physicists who think this is an outcome likely enough to worry about. George's post keeps its relevance despite this fact, of course, because it's about the metaphysics of a class of event, not the actual nature of the LHC. So while I wouldn't call the fear 'irrational', I would call it unwarranted.

    "Do you 'think' or do you 'know' there are definite safety precautions in place for situations in which real danger is foreseeable. Please state why you 'think' so or please state evidence backing your 'knowing' so."

    I use the word "think" because I am not familiar with all the different candidates for powerful technologies. Those with which I'm familiar do generally have safeguards: nuclear technologies, research into genetics and so on are all regulated in some way or another. Are the regulations sufficient? Are they excessive? Those are definitely in question, but so far as I can tell there are safeguards of some kind or another.

  7. Anonymous3:11 AM

    @Nato Interesting.

  8. Will somebody please explain how aging and death by aging can be explain within the theory, i mean, our flesh sustrate can`t last forever in every universe possible as it maybe, can somebody tell me how the deterioration of human body is not a problem for quantum inmortality. Thank you

  9. @Cristian, I think the point George is trying to make is that in quantum immortality theory there must always be an event, no matter how improbable, that preserves the observer, for that observer. Thus, the "you" doing the observing must always exist in a world in which, somehow, you are still observing. Thus whatever quantum event necessary preserve the observer's existence will always occur. It will just so happen that a series of quantum events necessary to preserve your body will occur, because you the observer will not exist in the universes in which those events did not happen. I'm not saying I subscribe to this theory, but that's the outline of how I understand it.

  10. Thank you nato for your answer. Still i try to bring this to the level of understanding how that in my existence can happend (well the problem of aging is a different issue to us now than to my grandparents) anyway i think for example, and old man gets a heart attack one time, then universe split, then again and again etc. you will end up in one universe with a old man with his heart damage against all odds...can i believe that those universes can be so different that this old man can live with a heart affected with a thousand of heart attacks..if so, well surely myself can realize something strange is going on..maybe there is the absurdity element of this? a life perceived eternally against all odds? (sorry for my bad english, im from Chile)

  11. I think you have it right, Cristian

  12. I think you have it right, Cristian

  13. the world gets more and more like Hollywood--by analogy the main character must remain alive until the end of the disaster, or we have no reason to be following his story, right? therefore all versions of the script where he dies are eliminated. as the destruction races from California to China, the probability goes down, yet absurd coincidences keep him him alive. so, the longer we live in a world that could be destroyed at any moment, the more like a hollywood movie our lives get. other meta-physicists have argued that rates of 'coincidence' go up exponentially under similar circumstances.(sorry i don't have references)


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