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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

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!

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Nancy Fulda -- Hugo and Nebula Nominee

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That Undiscovered Country
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Movement
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Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, March 2011

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The Breath of Heaven
Stories from Distant Worlds

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In the Halls of the Sky-Palace
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Backlash (novelette)
Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, 2010

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The Man Who
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Dead Men Don't Cry:
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Nothing This Fun Could be Good for You (article)
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Like Rain From Silver Skies
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Basement Stories





Knowing Neither Kin Nor Foe
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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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