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During Nebula reading I ran across several stories that explored the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Theory.

The Many Worlds Interpretation addresses the idea that our universe is merely one of infinitely many possible universes, and that for everything that happens in our universe, there exists a universe somewhere in which something different happened. It's a fairly common theme in science fiction right now, possibly because the theory is new and shiny and begs to be played with.

I'm all for playing with new, shiny things. But so far, Many Worlds stories leave me with a vague dissatisfaction. This is not because the stories are badly executed -- they aren't! -- but because I simply can't get my brain to accept the validity of the interpretation.

If, for every me that got cancer, there is also a me who didn't...
And if for every me who is happily married to my husband there is also a me who divorced him...
And if for every choice I make, there exists a me who made the opposite choice...

Then not only is free will an illusion, but it is also irrelvent. The Many Worlds Interpretation, as frequently utilized in fiction, implies that agency means nothing, and that ludicrous worlds exist in which ludicrous combinations of decisions pile on top of each other. By that logic, there must exist, somewhere, a universe in which I spent my morning eating a flavor of ice cream I despise while standing on my head in the center of the living room. In some other universe, I am contemplating suicide. In some other universe, I am a murderer.

My brain recoils at this idea. In a very real sense, my identity is nothing more than the sum of my decisions. To claim that I have never really made any decisions, that all apparent decisions were really just an effect of the eternally branching nature of existence, is to claim that I have no identity.

But it gets worse. If we postulate that the Many Worlds Interpretation is correct, then I cannot take joy in anything good that happens me. How can I take pleasure in prosperity when hundreds of thousands of other me's languish in poverty? Conversely, if I have just been beaten and robbed, I am not at all consoled by the knowledge that an infinite number of me's have been spared this atrocity.

The Many Worlds Interpretation robs me of all joy when life goes well and does not ease my pain when life is hard. It denies agency and steals my identity.

And that is why I do not like it.

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
j_cheney
Feb. 26th, 2012 07:56 pm (UTC)
Very well said ;o)
merriehaskell
Feb. 26th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC)
I think you're on to something there, Nancy--shouldn't there be a realistic limit to the Many Worlds?

Let's call it the Ludicrous Limit Hypothesis, which states that the Many Worlds theory, if true, would be practically limited by a certain level of probability. For example, the world where we all grow goatees isn't just this world with goatees, because there's no world where I *can* grow a goatee and still be a recognizable version of me.

(Well, okay. I can imagine that the world is entirely the same, but someone sometime about three years on the runways of Milan and Paris decided that goateed women were sexy, and ten or fifteen years ago, some pharmaceutical corporation made Luxurious Facial Growth Formula For Women that never caught on until they did a secret, under-the-table deal with the design houses to popularize women's facial hair, so now, here in Flyover Country I have JUST NOW decided to bend to fad and fashion, went to Target and spent $26.43 on a week's worth of LFGFFW.... And that's the *least disruptive* and *most likely* scenario I can think of off the cuff for Goatee World.)

So, to me, the Ludicrous Limit Hypothesis would not exclude a world where I became a math professor. Because while I am horrid at math, I can see that if I made a concerted effort to understand math at a younger age, I might have decided that anything this hard was worth conquering. I would put Math Prof Me at the outside edge but well within the Ludicrous Limit.

However, there is no world within the Ludicrous Limit where I am still me and I have willfully killed my husband. There is no Death Row me repenting of having stabbed him to death with a serrated knife. There just isn't, because this is literally the first time I've ever thought about stabbing him with a serrated knife, and also, I'd really have to premeditate the crap out of it to get that done, because I am graceless and weak, the knife is serrated, he is strong and possesses a desire to live, and I just don't have the will to do it. Add in the fact that I can't think of a motive... And going backward, down all the branching paths, I can't think of anything in our years together that would have provided the motive.

Butterfly effect and chaos theory, meh; I just don't see how there can really be a world that spawns from something that is simply outside the realm of possibility.

Edited at 2012-02-26 08:06 pm (UTC)
merriehaskell
Feb. 26th, 2012 08:11 pm (UTC)
And... "outside the realm of possibility" is too narrow. I don't know how to get across what I mean, but I occasionally consider what it would have been like if I had gone to a different college--fine. That's within the realm of possibility. But what would life have been like if I started dating and then married this person who pursued me a lot at one point? Except--there was *never* any chance we were going to get married. He or I would have had to be a totally different person. That world seems like it should be possible, but really, it is not.
dialyn
Feb. 26th, 2012 10:11 pm (UTC)
"I cannot take joy in anything good that happens me. How can I take pleasure in prosperity when hundreds of thousands of other me's languish in poverty?" But you can take joy in things that happen to you now even though you know hundreds of thousands of other people languish in poverty, starvation, and the threat of death from their own governments? That doesn't make sense to me.
nancyfulda
Feb. 27th, 2012 08:40 am (UTC)
You've got a point. There's a definite inconsistency there. I'll have to think about that one.

Edited at 2012-02-27 08:40 am (UTC)
nancyfulda
Feb. 27th, 2012 08:43 am (UTC)
Ludicrous Limit Hypothesis. I love that!
mercwriter
Feb. 26th, 2012 08:20 pm (UTC)
You articulate that superbly.

I've always been a little uncomfortable with the theory too, but could never pinpoint WHY. I think this nails the discomfort concisely. So thank you.
nancyfulda
Feb. 27th, 2012 08:39 am (UTC)
I'm glad it was helpful :)
JohnArkwright
Feb. 26th, 2012 09:33 pm (UTC)
Many Worlds/Fringe
I watch Fringe. Lately more of the "many worlds" iceberg has poked up above the Fringe surface. Originally there were two worlds with a well defined difference between them, so viewers felt like it was one world with two parts. The boundary between the worlds is breaking down and the characters struggle every week to hold everything together.

Now a main character from those two worlds has traveled to an alternative two worlds which differ only in a few respects, including the fact that he died as a child in those worlds. So he's been living in those worlds this season and trying to get back to "his" worlds.

The writers have taken viewers to the brink of feeling cheated--one step removed from, "The whole season was a dream. Ha!" Because he'll probably leave these two worlds and go back to his worlds. The worlds he leaves may be destroyed by the weakening barrier, or may be fine. And the viewers will be aware that, "Everything that can happens, does, so there's nothing that special about this world, or the events of this week's episode, or this season's storyline . . . or this television program.
biomekanic
Feb. 26th, 2012 10:10 pm (UTC)
It's not exactly new and shiny; sometime back in the mid 90s I read a story where the theory was proved valid and it lead to the world gradually winding down and a huge number of suicides: who cares anymore if anything you do, is not done, or is done better, by another version of you.

nancyfulda
Feb. 27th, 2012 08:38 am (UTC)
Does it say something weird about me that I consider mid-nineties to be recent?

I think I may be approaching old age...
biomekanic
Feb. 27th, 2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
Let me put it this way... I think "Nevermind" by Nirvana is a new album... and they just celebrated its 20 year release a few weeks ago.
John Tariq Dunne
Feb. 27th, 2012 12:32 pm (UTC)
Actually...
The Many Worlds theory was first formulated in 1957, according to Wikipedia. I first came across it in James Hogan's 1985 novel, The Proteus Operation; there was a ST:TNG episode that also made the Many Worlds theory an integral part of the plot, which came out a few years later.

Personally, I don't worry about the implications of theories like Many Worlds; quantum mechanics is odd enough. Wrapping one's head around some of the experimental results from the Dual-Slit experiment is difficult enough.
pingback_bot
Feb. 26th, 2012 11:11 pm (UTC)
February 27, 2012 Links and Plugs
User charlesatan referenced to your post from February 27, 2012 Links and Plugs saying: [...] y Fulda on Why I do not like the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Theory [...]
amberdine
Feb. 26th, 2012 11:23 pm (UTC)
I've always detested the Many Worlds interpretation. In my opinion it is a cop-out to facing the true weirdness of the quantum realm. We know the math works flawlessly. We know it's not macro-scale logical. That's enough. Just let it be. We don't need to make up whole elaborate schemes because we want an (entirely unverifiable, meaningless, useless) "explanation" for it.

I don't like interpretations at all, really, but Many Worlds is the worst of the lot.
nancyfulda
Feb. 27th, 2012 08:36 am (UTC)
>>it is a cop-out to facing the true weirdness of the quantum realm.

This is so true.
(Anonymous)
Feb. 27th, 2012 02:06 am (UTC)
Yes, but the Many Worlds interpretation is the only type of time travel story that doesn’t give me a headache.
ericjamesstone
Feb. 27th, 2012 05:10 am (UTC)
It's okay, Nancy. There are plenty of worlds in which you do like it.
nancyfulda
Feb. 27th, 2012 08:35 am (UTC)
Lol!
(Anonymous)
Feb. 27th, 2012 10:24 am (UTC)
multipke universes and suicidem etc
1968 - Niven's All the Myriad Ways. A police detective is investigating a series of suicides. They are all related to proof that thd multiverse exists.

It's actually a pretty old trope, as is the tendancy to take the route of 'what does it matter?' depressive, etc.

but as yet there is no known way for an individual to move between them. although they may exist and there are multipke 'yous' experiencing the best of everything - and the worst of everything - your relationship to them is the same as if none of them existed.

Nancy Wilson
Feb. 27th, 2012 03:12 pm (UTC)
Terry Pratchett addresses this...
In both NIGHT WATCH and LORDS AND LADIES, as well as JINGO, to a lesser extent- he talks about "the trousers of history" - you go down one leg or another - but he also has the "monks of history," one of whom explains to Sam Vimes (in Nightwatch, as I recall) that they don't know why, but some choices never branch off - there is no alternate universe, for example, where he has killed his wife (Mette's comment brought that to mind). Asked what that means, he says something very like, "we don't know. But your choices mean something."
In short, he posits an alternate worlds theory in which only some alternate worlds exist - those hinging on crucial choices you almost made, not the trivial ones (his history has a self-repairing mechanism, so most choices fall in this category) or the ones you didn't really consider. Anyway, it works for me, allowing the fun of alternate universes without the moral soullessness of other constructions.
(Anonymous)
Feb. 29th, 2012 01:30 am (UTC)
Well stated
Good piece, from a subjective direction. I agree with amberdine from an objective direction. Reality is always supported by mathematics, but it doesn't follow that all mathematics are reflected in reality.
_standback_
Feb. 29th, 2012 09:19 pm (UTC)
Hah. Just re-stumbled across a comic that reminds me of this.

Comic is here. Hebrew; the first two panels read:
"I don't need to do anything productive. In parallel universes my doubles are doing incredible things. Hey, one of us needs to be a lazy aimless bum."
nancyfulda
Feb. 29th, 2012 09:32 pm (UTC)
Ha!
dialyn
Mar. 5th, 2012 03:46 am (UTC)
Physicist James Gates on String Theory and the Story told by Science
I don't know if you listen to the program "On Being" with Krista tippet though I am sure you are familiar with the work of theoretical physicist James Gates. He was discussing string theory tonight. I'm a complete science drop out so I didn't understand much of what he said, but I thought it was very interesting anyway. http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2012/codes-for-reality/ ... especially how he talks in terms of equations having something in common with a story that the character takes over because he or she needs something to be told. I'll mess up the explanation since I am neither a writer nor a scientist, but something about it resonated with me. Anyway, I provided the link if you are interested. If not, no harm done.
nancyfulda
Mar. 5th, 2012 09:17 am (UTC)
Re: Physicist James Gates on String Theory and the Story told by Science
Very cool. Thanks for the link!
(Anonymous)
Jul. 1st, 2012 05:05 am (UTC)
Many worlds
The fact that a theory makes you emotionally uncomfortable says nothing about its validity.

You may prefer that many worlds wasn't true, but that doesn't make it so.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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Nancy Fulda is a 2012 Hugo and Nebula Nominee, a Phobos Award winner and a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient. She is the first (and so far only) female recipient of the Jim Baen Memorial Award. Her fiction has appeared in a number of professional venues.

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