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The Human-Level Implications of Multiverse Models

August 13, 2011

My best friend is strongly drawn by the notion of a multiverse, specifically multiverses with other copies of themselves.  (This is different than multiverses in which say the only thing that varies continuously between universes is a ratio of fundamental constants — in that multiverse there’d be infinite universes but only one with anything resembling the earth.) In short we’re talking about those multiverse models in which the position of particles varies between universes, but not neccessarily the forces affecting those particles. There are two main ways of modeling this, one in which the different universes branch from one another at each instant reflecting the widening of possibilities, and another in which every universe starts out physically seperate but structured identically and then begin varying with one another later.

This latter interpretation is entirely monadistic and honestly kind of boring from a human vantage-point which is a good chunk of my friend’s aforementioned draw and what I want to focus on here. For example, if you’re invested in the notion of some kind of ideal and telelogical personal identity/goal then one could go around identifying universe branches with people. With a given universe corresponding to a certain person’s ideal life-path and so on. But this is problematic because in order for the multiverse to introduce physical elegance/simplicity rather than removing it you have to assume a full infinite spectrum and people are discrete, so you’re left with infinite expanses of universes between the ones you’ve picked out. Universes in which everyone fails to achieve their ideal nature / life path (as opposed to all but one).  Also, more importantly, since the universes don’t interact it’s just an introduced conceptual tool for imagining probabilities. (Being all parallel from the start they can’t be used to explain QM because it would mean interference effects would start at zero and grow with the age of the universe. And removing wave-particle duality way back at the gamow fireball doesn’t fit the data, to say the least.)

The former interpretation is more in line with the sort of language hollywood uses (“every decision creates new universes”) albeit, we’re obliged to note, a matter of particle “choices” not human-scale ones. And it opens the door to explanations of QM by assuming that newly branching universes are sticky in some sense in the process of separating, that is to say they continue to interact with one another. So single-particle wave interference is explained by the notion that everytime/everywhere a particle is left to itself our universe starts spreading out on the axis of multiverses. Then, once the particle’s wavefunction is resolved the spreading universe completes its break into different universes. I have a number of bones to pick with this notion because 1) no explanation of the mechanism of how this branching would work/arise has been made, 2) every concluding measurement of the wavefunction would shatter the universe into infinite universes because the wavefunction is continuous and this goes against the whole philosophy of the initial stickiness — why would universes be so opposed to discreteness as to smear themselves, but then happily jump to literally infinite discreteness? — and 3) while all this was built to explain specific ways the quantum world is weird it fails to explain a number of other weirdnesses. I’d prefer approaches with the potential to clean up all the weirdness — like self-interacting time-traveling particles in a single universe.

The whole notion of branching also can’t help but feel incredibly cluttered because each universe is more or less branching everywhere at the same time so the multiverse space is infinitely dimensional. Call me conservative but if we’re giving extra time dimensions I’d prefer something like a good old fashioned flat minkowski space with two time dimensions. Or at least a model that has that as a limit. But inelegant though it may be, the branching notion is at least possible.

Anyway, I happen to love discussions on the philosophical implications of cosmological models and my friend’s draw towards multiverse notions is largely grounded in the human-scale concerns generated (as is a portion of my repulsion), thus many of our arguments have been arguments of anarchist ethics. In broad strokes: On the one hand multiverse models satisfy a solophist or monadistic value in autonomy, diversity and remove. On the other, multiverse models utterly demolish consequentialism.

My concern is that basically multiverses are an ingenious way of slaughtering free will while keeping it alive. You have infinite choices, but so do an infinite number of you, each one with an infinite number of different outcomes guaranteed — thus each choice is shrunk contextually down to infinitesimal consequence. Regardless of your efforts at thinking a choice through, every action that you could take IS taken (plus there’s an infinite spectrum of yous taking actions that are impossible in your own current universe). The multiverse as a whole is uncharacterizable and thus unaffectable because it contains literally everything conceivable in infinite portions. There’s not even the hope of shifting probabilities (creating proportionally more universes with a liberated humanity), which means consequentialism is completely annihilated. But so to are ethical systems of more immediate context (like deontology and virtue ethics) left profoundly arbitrary. There’s no discrete “you” definable. You can pick some arc of personal future out and try to get as close to it as possible, but again, no action or way of thinking is going to change the possibility of you achieving whatever random ass shit you set out to achieve. Multiverses: a mire of meaninglessness.

Now my friend’s open to biting the bullet on some monadistic remove from the rest of existence, but the only potential motivation they’ve conjured for biting that bullet is a sort of ubermenschish disregard for others in order to focus on improving oneself. Now I think ubermenschish contemplations are cute, but I’m at a loss to see how that bears any relevance to multiverse models, because part of what the continuity neccessary for Quantum explanatory power sacrifices is any non-arbitrariness of “the self” or even any meaningfulness to actions relating to the following of an arbitrary self. And basically the moment a mind is left screaming “magic!” as an excuse they’ve defaulted on faith, which is weakness and a total violation of teh ubermensch company policy.

But every once in a while I do feel at least a psychological appeal of multiverse notions, which is intriguing enough to follow up.

First off there’s the introduction of locality. An fully continuous spectrum of possibilities around one pre-established point can be discretely walled off to some approximation because even though a wavefunction can be infinitely subdividable we can still handwave a zero for possibilities that are zeroish on that wavefunction. So one can imagine arbitrarily taking a five meter bubble around an event/decisionpoint and be able to make meaningful statements about changing the conditions within the future/multiversal expanse of that bubble (which we’ll assume has dimensions of time so out to five times the speed of light). Sure this collapses in any fundamental analysis (because the demarkation of that bubble is going to be totally arbitrary at any distance above zero or below infinity where full context comes into play and multiverse eats ethics), but heyo, we’re humans and sometimes we play with models as shorthand for broader things. So lets consider multiverse models as one of those “okay assume the sun is a cube” situations and consider it only in some arbitrary local context to a decisionpoint. What’s the utility in that kind of model?

Well, simply put, it’s freeing. We don’t have to calculate the absolute best course of action thought out five million steps ahead, we can go off an explore, subconsciously comfortable in the knowledge that an infinite number of ourselves are exploring too. We can cover all the ground with people just like ourselves and exactly the same sort of goals. In short the multiverse model is comforting because it means we’re not alone. It provides some desperately longed for positives of solidarity and companionship without the frustrations, dangers and other negatives possible in interactions with other people. After all, in the shitty, broken, power-relations strewn world we currently reside in rarely do we have the opportunity to work alongside someone else without the sort of interactions that involve treating the other person as a means. And keeping ourselves protected from being controlled like that requires a huge commitment of cognitive resources (defensively modeling out the other person’s threat vectors). This limited use of the multiverse model is equivalent to self-bifucation or mental cloning. It allows you to approach problems by choosing combinations of strategies in whatever proportion. Too often game theory advises us to randomize our responses with a certain distribution of weightings, but if there’s only one of us we get pulled toward solely the option with the highest payout. 1) This can be frustratingly hard to find and searching for it as opposed to just acting can be paralyzing. 2) If it is determinable it’s often predictable in the minds of our opponents, potentially allowing them to control us.

It’s easy to cheerfully undertake huge risks if your perception of self has been smeared out to a number of like people. Being part of an army of peers with exactly the same goals frees individuals to assign themselves to approaches no matter how marginally likely of success, but as a consequence of filling in a full spectrum of approaches with a certain distribution of emphasis the net odds of every individual can be improved. But there’s a couple differences between having an army of clones and having an army of clones each in different universes. Your clones can never interact with one another and thus it’s impossible to coordinate, collaborate or really anything that involves the transmission of information. (If they could then we’d be looking different model, something isomorphic to a universe with time travel as opposed to discrete universe forking.) This on the one hand relieves the successful percentage of yourself from having to deal with the percentage of youself likely to fuck up, and provides ease of mind when a risky approach fucks you over, but on the other hand it removes all the advantages of redundancy that comrades in the same universe have (pulling one another up when the expenditure of doing so is a net benefit in full context more than a net cost) and thus skews the overall odds towards fucking up.

I have to admit that even though multiverse models are inelegant and unlikely, if you squint at part of them, cover your ears, sing and do your damndest to ignore the breakdown of all ethics, meaning, choice, intention, etc lurking in both the ultraviolent (infinitesimal) and infrared (infinite)… they can be kind of comforting. Unfortunately that comfort being false means you’re actually crippling yourself with less optimal approaches.

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