Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Wizards at War - I

I'm in the process of gently encouraging and feeding my eight year old son's nascent interest in esoterism. He is a big fan of the "ology" books ever since receiving Egyptology from his aunt Victoria this summer when they visited the King Tut exhibit in Philadelphia. One of the books he received for Christmas was Wizardology. This morning, he spent nearly two hours poring over the first several pages in the Wizardology book, which effort required a dictionary, a notebook, two other reference books, the Internet, and myself for reference.

We wound up discussing Sir Isaac Newton, the Elizabethan Magus John Dee, and ultimately, looking over several pages of the ultra-intriguing Voynich manuscript. All-in-all, time very well spent top-loading the mind of a little boy with infinite puzzles, mazes, and mysteries to solve, all of which will induce him to engage the study of history, science, math, symbolism, and a host of inter-related topics on his own.

Yesterday presented me with an amazing span of uninterrupted leisure time, during which I reacquainted myself with some topics and presentations I hadn't visited in a few years. One of the threads I crossed included the work of Hugh Everett. Everett is notable for a great many things, not least of which is the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics - an idea popularized in the 70's and which has had captured the imaginations of many a sci-fi head ever since. In laymen's terms, the MWI is as follows;
In 1957, Hugh Everett III proposed a radical new way of dealing with some of the more perplexing aspects of quantum mechanics. It became known as the Many-Worlds Interpretation.

According to this interpretation, whenever numerous viable possibilities exist, the world splits into many worlds, one world for each different possibility (in this context, the term "worlds" refers to what most people call "universes"). In each of these worlds, everything is identical, except for that one different choice; from that point on, they develop independently, and no communication is possible between them, so the people living in those worlds (and splitting along with them) may have no idea that this is going on.

In this way, the world branches endlessly. What is "the present" to us, lies in the pasts of an uncountably huge number of different futures. Everything that can happen, does, somewhere.

Until Many-Worlds appeared, the generally accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics was (and perhaps still is) the Copenhagen Interpretation. The Copenhagen Interpretation makes a distinction between the observer and the observed; when no one is watching, a system evolves deterministically according to a wave equation, but when someone is watching, the wavefunction of the system "collapses" to the observed state, which is why the act of observing changes the system. The Copenhagen Interpretation gives the observer special status, not accorded to any other object in quantum theory, and cannot explain the observer itself, while Many-Worlds models the entire observer-observee system.

The Many-Worlds Interpretation is an interpretation of quantum mechanics, and pertains to quantum events. But it also has implications for macroscopic systems like you and me. Although you may think that there are certain alternatives you would never choose, can you really be sure of that? There are a practically infinite number of versions of you, who have all split off at some time in the past from the path you are now following. There may be versions of you that split off five or ten years ago, or perhaps five minutes after you were born, to whom those choices may not seem unthinkable. But in a very real sense, those people are still "you" (but it can be argued that we should not use the word "are", or even "were"; we need to invent a new kind of tense...)

Many people find the Many-Worlds Interpretation, and the consequences that flow from it, deeply disturbing. This includes a great many physicists. It is also apparent that many physicists, including many who teach physics, do not have a good understanding of Many-Worlds.

However, polls have been taken among theorists who study such things, and have revealed that most of them believe that the Many-Worlds Interpretation represents, in some sense, an accurate description of the way the world really is. The polls also show that many of them would rather not discuss the subject.

It's not hard to see why so many people find these ideas disturbing. For if they are correct, they have profound implications for our understanding of the nature of the Soul, because the Soul (if there is such a thing) must branch along with the worlds that contain it. It would appear that the writings on which many contemporary religions are based make no mention of such an idea.
As you can see, Everett was one of the seminal wizards whose work exerted a profound influence on thinking and governance behavior in the late 20th century. Oh, and I'm not talking so much about MWI in that regard, that's more along the lines of religion or metaphysics, I'm thinking about his applied and practical work on game theory, operations research and nuclear weapons strategy....,


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