Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Let’s get metaphysical: How our ongoing existence could appear increasingly absurd

So the Large Hadron Collider has been shut down yet again – this time on account of a bird dropping a piece of a bagel onto some sensitive outdoor machinery. The incident is not expected to keep the LHC out of commission for too much longer, but it represents yet another strange event that has kept the world’s most infamous particle accelerator out of service. In fact, the LHC has yet to function at full operational capacity since its completion over a year ago.

What makes this all the more interesting is that the Hadron Collider has been dubbed by some observers as a doomsday device on account of its unprecedented size and power. A minority of scientists and philosophers believe that the collider could produce a tiny black hole or a strangelet that would convert Earth to a shrunken mass of strange matter.

It's worth re-stating, however, that this is a fringe opinion. Several years ago, Max Tegmark and Nick Bostrom wrote a piece for Nature in which they concluded that a civilization destroys itself by a particle accelerator experiment once every billion years.

Okay, admittedly, one in a billion seems excruciatingly improbable. But not impossible. And it's this 'shadow of doubt' that has got so many people in a tizzy -- especially when considering that this so-called doomsday machine keeps breaking down. Seems awfully convenient, doesn't it? Are we to believe that this is mere co-incidence? Or is there something more to what's going on?

Now, I'm not talking about conspiracies or sabotage, here. Rather, a number of philosophers are making the case that something more metaphysical is going on.

Take, for example, the quantum immortality theory, which argues that you as an observer cannot observe your non-existence, so you will keep on observing your ongoing existence -- no matter how absurd. Aside from a large grain of salt, you also have to buy into the Everett Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics for this to work. As the universe splinters into probability trees, there are new trajectories that are forced into existence by your ongoing presence; in an infinite universe all observations must be made, no matter how improbable.

Now, at any given time we have to assume that we are living in the most probable of all possible habitable worlds. But that doesn't mean it's true -- it's just an assumption given the absence of sampling data. As quantum probability trees diverge, those that tread into more improbable spaces will begin to splinter with less and less frequency and diversity; there will be a limited number of escape routes given absurd and highly complex (but survivable) existence spaces.

All this can lead to some rather bizarre conclusions -- including the thought experiment in which you attempt to obliterate yourself with an atom bomb, only to have some kind of force majeure get in the way that prevents you from acting on your suicide.

It's important to remember that this only works for your ongoing existence. The rest of the world can burn around you; what matters is that you continue to observe the universe.

Okay, back to Hadron. Let's assume for a moment that quantum immortality is in effect and that the LHC is in fact the apocalypt-o-matic. It can therefore be argued that, because we are all collectively put into peril by this thing, we will never get to observe it working properly. There will always be something that prevents the device from doing what it's supposed to be doing -- everything from mechanical failures through to birds dropping bagels on it.

What's even more disturbing, however, is that these interventions could get increasingly absurd and improbable. It may eventually get to the point where we have to sit back and question the rationality of our existence. The world may get progressively screwed up and surreal in order for our personal existence to continue into the future.

One could already make the case that our collective existence is already absurd on account of our possession of apocalyptic weapons, namely the nuclear bomb. We've already come alarmingly close to apocalypse, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the infamous Stanislav Petrov incident. Would it be unfair of me to suggest that we should probably have destroyed ourselves by now? I would argue that the most probable of Everett Many World Earths have destroyed themselves through nuclear armageddon, but we happen to observe a version of Earth that has not.

This said, our ongoing existence does not seem ridiculously absurd. There are rational and believable reasons that account for our ongoing existence, namely self-preservation and a rigid safety-check system that has prevented a nuclear accident from happening.

But will the same thing be said a few years from now if the Hadron Collider keeps shutting down? What will happen to our sense of reality if stranger and stranger things start to intervene?

And what about the more distant future when we have even more apocalyptic devices, including molecular assembling nanotechnology and advanced biotechnologies (not to mention artificial superintelligence)? It's been said that we are unlikely to survive the 21st Century on account of these pending technologies. But given that there are some probability trees that require our ongoing existence, what kind of future modes will that entail? Will it make sense, or will the succession of improbably survivable events result in a completely surreal existence? Or will our ongoing presence seem rational in the face of a radically altered existence mode -- like totalitarian repression or the onset of an all-controlling artificial superintelligence?

Hopefully I don't need to remind my readers that this is pure philosophical speculation. Metaphysics is often fun (or disturbing as in this case), but it is no substitute for science. I think we should think about these possibilities, but not to the point where it impacts on our daily life and sense of reality.

But I'm sure we'll all want to keep a close eye on that rather interesting particle accelerator in Switzerland.

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