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  • Writer's pictureEdgar Chicurel H

Any Question?

When wondering about existence, what are the mysteries we wish we could understand? Given the chance, would we really want to have our questions answered? Do we even know what we want to know?

Consciousness and the Universe. These two subjects, and questions about them, are a recurring theme in all of these posts. Consciousness and the universe both are mysteries, I believe it is safe to say. But what does mystery mean? Without actually looking up the definition, a mystery involves something unknown. A murder mystery novel, for example, involves someone getting killed by an unknown party. There may be additional complications, but basically the mystery is solved when the killer is revealed. This is a whodunit story, because the question around which it revolves is, essentially, who committed the murder. The universe has more than one mystery, and the corresponding questions are, for example, Why is it so big? or, How and why did the Big Bang occur? These are fairly straightforward questions which most people have probably thought about. Physicists have a whole lot of additional questions which can get murky for the non-specialist, but some of the overarching ideas are approachable. One big question about the universe which we explored in a former post is why the fundamental constants, such as the masses of particles or the cosmological constant have the values that they do. Physicists also search for lots of other missing pieces in the puzzle of the basic descriptions involving Quantum Mechanics.

The difference between a murder mystery and a universe mystery is, however, worth noting. When we read Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue the question we ask as the story unfolds is, who killed Madame L’Espanaye and Mademoiselle Camille? We learn details regarding the murder scene, how the women died, what neighbors heard and other information, but solving the mystery is difficult and most of us are surprised when the case is finally cracked. When the author explains what happened and who did it, the mystery vanishes, and the story ends. The difference with the mystery of the universe is that the answers may not be so definitive, and may not even make sense to us. Why is the universe so big? is a fascinating question that we formerly explored and arrived at a possible answer to. But an alternative possibility is that there is no answer. This is frustrating. And, how about the question of why the Big Bang occurred? There are plausible explanations, but they are not definitive. What if we could get someone to answer all of these questions for us? Someone who knows the answers?

There is a cartoon in which an alien from a superior civilization offers to answer a person any question she wishes before the alien leaves for home. The human takes a moment and then, with hesitation, asks “Any question?” to which the alien answers, yes. And leaves.

Hopefully, if we ever get the chance, we can come up with a better question! But it occurred to me that given the opportunity to get an answer on anything, coming up with a good question is not so simple. Suppose that humans are given this chance, and you, reader, and myself, because of our great common sense and unsurpassed alien social skills are chosen to formulate this question.

Quantum mechanics would definitely be a good subject to ask about, as this is the scientific endeavor of humans that describes the fundamental nature of things. In the former post we looked at the Many Worlds Theory and found that this fundamental interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is liked by many particle physicists but remains to date only one of various possibilities. Does the world really split every time a wave function collapses? If we could ask our alien friend any question, would this be a good candidate? Before we spend our precious question, let’s think of Many Worlds from the perspective of consciousness. If, in fact, the universe is constantly making copies of itself, we never notice it because, as we saw before, we take our ride on only one branch. Looking ahead, it may seem exciting to imagine that you will be reproduced over and over to experience many worlds and not just one. But looking back, you may be disappointed because the person you are now really only experienced one branch of the many possibilities. The view from here forward is of countless universes where you will engage in many different activities and experience many lives. The view from here back is of just one life lived and a lot of ghost worlds you know nothing about. Does Many Worlds have any effect on us from the point of view of our conscious experience?

In the post on Cloning Consciousness we considered duplicating consciousness. We are used to losing consciousness when we sleep and regaining it when we awaken. Although it is only possible in the realm of science fiction, the idea of being dis-assembled and re-assembled a few moments later, as in Star Trek, does not seem particularly difficult to accept. But being introduced to a copy of yourself and told that you must now be eliminated because the copy will replace you is something terrifying, straight out of a sci-fi horror film. That seems to point to a huge discrepancy in the way we look at ourselves. What really is the difference between being replaced by a copy and going to sleep and waking up? If Many Worlds is true, branching universes are creating clones of consciousness constantly. In the former post I mentioned the universe splitter app and how disappointing it was. Suddenly, though, it seems we could try something with it. If I take my Universe Splitter app and enter the two possibilities “Have a cup of coffee with sugar” or “Have a cup of coffee with cyanide” and got the cyanide result, what would happen? As I finished my coffee I would most likely quickly lose consciousness and die, but would be created more or less simultaneously in another universe. Just like falling asleep and waking up. Right? It sure does not seem right. Apologies for disparaging the universe splitter app. Oh, and a recommendation to readers not to try this at home.

So, Many Worlds may actually have a profound impact on our existence, even if we never come into contact with other branches. Are we ready to ask the alien? Before asking, let’s state it in the most concise way we can to avoid misunderstandings and make sure we get the most out of this unique opportunity. I propose the question to be: Is Many Worlds the correct interpretation of the collapse of the Schrodinger Equation?

But wait, what are the possible scenarios for an answer? Our alien might say, simply, no. Hopefully a bit of an explanation might ensue, such as, “it’s a clever idea, but of course there are no branching universes, it’s great for your calculations though, so you can keep thinking of things that way. No problem, and have a nice day”. I, for one, would feel in a pretty good mood after this. But the physics community would probably be unsatisfied. If it’s wrong then what IS the correct interpretation they would, I am sure, clamor. Maybe if we provide it with a blackboard our alien would be so kind as to elaborate?

On the other hand, what if it says yes? It could just be yes, and Sean Carroll, for one, would probably be thrilled, but this in itself would leave us with another impossible question. How does our alien know? Asserting that many worlds exists unequivocally means there must be a way to prove it, which would imply that information can move from one branch to another. If this is the case, and we can figure out, or get the alien to explain a bit more how to interact with other branches, what would this mean for our concept of consciousness, and for that matter of the meaning of reality itself? I have always believed in the adventurous spirit of discovery of our race. How amazing for humans to have walked on the moon! How marvelous when we finally are able to land on Mars and someday visit other star systems! But, discovering that we exist on a mere sliver of reality? Learning that we keep getting copied in universe after universe with the tiniest differences? What about ethics? Does do the right thing now become, just do anything? There will always be a universe where you make all the good decisions, right?

It is starting to appear that the answer to this question is going to leave a lot of people pretty perplexed, if not downright upset. Maybe this is not such a good option. Fortunately there are other big questions available. One mystery that humans have speculated on and debated probably since pre-history is, how was the universe created? This might be a better option but, again, we have to consider how to state it to get a useful answer. The Big Bang is a widely accepted science-based explanation of how the universe came to be in its present form. This theory explains how a tiny exceedingly cramped proto-universe, many times smaller than an atom expanded furiously to become our definitely-no–longer-cramped current universe. This part of the story is fairly well accepted and understood by cosmologists. But why did it happen? Why did the universe begin this process of expansion? Could this question lead to a useful answer? All theories on the cause of the big bang are speculative and imply vastly different models of the universe or multiverse. Time may have not existed before the big bang, so the event was the beginning of the universe and time. Time may have already been flowing just fine, thank you, in a universe which contained our tiny proto-universe before the expansion began. Nobel prize winner and way-outside-the-box thinker Roger Penrose proposes that after all the mass in our present day universe disappears and only massless photons are left, the concept of time and scale will become meaningless and our very old universe will become identical to its initial state. This will result in a new big bang, which will produce a similar universe which will someday grow old and contain only photons and will then produce a new big bang. And so on. To explain why the Universe expanded so rapidly initially after its creation, theoretical physicist Alan Guth proposed the existence of something called the inflaton field. A change in the energy state of the field could produce universes such as our own, perhaps constantly. Of course, there is also the possibility that, one way or another, our universe was designed. Many non-scientists would prefer this explanation. Many scientists, in fact, would too.

So let’s imagine a few possible answers from the alien. If it said that it was due to a variation in the inflaton field that would be a great one for Alan Guth, but for the rest of us it would not be very enlightening. If the alien said that the Big Bang is a moment in a cycle such as Roger Penrose describes, this would mean we are in a world with no beginning or end, which would be fascinating and probably a hit with the Hindus. But it could also say something like, the Big Bang occurred because someone decided to begin a universe that way. Maybe what’s really at the heart of this question, and what we should have thought of asking the alien all along is does God exist? For the good of humanity, this is the perfect question and one that everyone would like an answer to, right? But wait, this one might be REALLY problematic. What if we get a flat “no”? Dear reader, we definitely should not ask that question.

Time passes and the alien is starting to look at its watch. What is a good question? Something everyone would like to know, which has a clean answer? A question our alien cannot wriggle out of answering usefully? Something that, no matter what the answer, will help us as a race?

I think I may have it. “Dear alien, What is the cure for a hangover?”

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