Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Suffering in the Multiverse


A direct link to the above video is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38seBd3ptm8

Does the multiverse really exist? In a recent blog entry about the question, we celebrated the fact that well-known physicists like Brian Greene have finally come around to saying that the other universes of the multiverse are not just theoretical, but as real as our own. Read this article from arstechnica which says we could see evidence of the answer to that question of whether the multiverse really exists within the next month:

Early in our Universe's history (before the mulitiverse's inflation pulled things apart), it was possible that the Universe bumped into a neighboring one. If that's the case, there should be remnants of that event buried in the cosmic microwave background. Less than a month from now, the ESA's Planck mission should arrive at the L2 Lagrange point with instruments sensitive enough to pick up this signal.
Many Worlds, Many Choices
Embracing Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics requires us to accept that there are branching timelines possible for our universe where each of us make the bad choice, do the wrong thing, have the unlucky twist of fate, and so on. In my project, I try to make it clear that there's a big difference between knowing that such potentials exist, and actually choosing to participate in those timelines. The version of the universe where I got out of bed this morning and killed all my neighbors must exist within the wave function of all possible versions of our universe, but that's not the version I chose to observe. Having not observed it, I can accept that the potential for it to exist was there but I will never be able to conjure that particular version of reality into existence now that this morning is passed. This is what I mean when I talk about the fifth dimension being a probability space - the probability of me entering a parallel universe where I killed my neighbors this morning is now zero per cent. Such universes continue to exist within the sixth dimension, but those outcomes have nothing to do with me, because I can't (and don't want to!) get to those versions of the universe: they're inaccessible (or decoherent, as physicists say) to the probability space of the quantum wave function that I'm currently navigating within.

Today is Michael Jackson's public memorial service. In the same line of reasoning, the versions of our universe where Michael Jackson is still alive today do not even exist as potential from within our fifth dimensional set of causally related outcomes, and that's true from the quantum level right out to the biggest, most macro picture of them all. According to the way of visualizing the dimensions that I'm proposing here, those versions of our universe exist only within the sixth dimension, and that's why "we can't get there from here" as we choose from our fifth dimensional probability space one planck frame after another.

Abolishing Suffering
Here's a link to an amazing essay by philosopher David Pearce, co-founder of the Abolitionist Society:
http://www.abolitionist.com/multiverse.html

In Computers and Consciousness, we touched on the transhuman movement, and David is a key proponent of those ideas (as we said then, transhumanism is about finding ways to use technology to improve our lives, up to and including approaches which increasingly blur the line between the technology and the person). Abolitionism is a related movement which proposes transhumanist solutions must work towards the abolition of all involuntary suffering in the world. In that sense, this relates to a fanciful blog entry I published not long ago called News From the Future.

Let me quote a few sections from the David Pearce essay, but I do invite you read the entire piece: this is a thought provoking exploration of the ideas that we deal with regularly in Imagining the Tenth Dimension. First, let's read a section where Pearce sums up all the different multiverse scenarios where suffering takes place:
...contemporary theoretical physics suggests that even the multiverse of Everettian quantum mechanics doesn't remotely exhaust the totality of suffering. For there may be googols of other multiverses. Suffering may exist in other post-inflationary domains far beyond our light cone; and in countless other "pocket universes" on variants of Linde's eternal chaotic inflation scenario; and in myriad parent and child universes on Smolin's cosmological natural selection hypothesis; and among a few googols of the other 10500+ different vacua of string theory; and even in innumerable hypothetical "Boltzmann brains", vacuum fluctuations in the (very) distant future of "our" Multiverse. These possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Nor are they exhaustive. Thus some theorists believe we live in a cyclic universe, for instance; and that the Big Bang is really the Big Bounce.

Of course, the theories alluded to above are speculative. They are far removed from our everyday experience. Even if one or more of these theories is correct, it is tempting implicitly to suppose that the suffering of sentient beings occupying such realms is (somehow) less real than our own: metaphysical theories imply, in some sense, only metaphysical suffering. This comfortable assumption would be wrong-headed, not to say complacent. If any of the above hypotheses are substantively true, then the suffering of victims embedded therein is no less real than our own. Moreover in the case of other branches of "our" multiverse, it's debatable whether the branches are even "metaphysical". Not merely is their existence implied by empirically well-attested theory. Strictly speaking, interference effects from other quasi-classical branches never disappear; they merely become vanishingly small. Interference effects between different "worlds" can in principle be quantified by decoherence functionals. Their inferred real existence isn't just airy philosophizing.

Faced with this fathomless immensity of suffering, a compassionate mind may become morally shell-shocked, numbed by the sheer enormity of it all. Googolplexes of Holocausts are too mind-wrenching to contemplate. We might conclude that the amount of suffering in Reality must be infinite - and hence any bid to minimise such infinite suffering would still leave an infinite amount behind. A sense of moral urgency risks succumbing to a hopeless fatalism.

Then, later in the essay, he discusses the possibility that even when future humans figure out a way to eradicate all suffering, there may continue to be some branches of the multiverse where, quite inexplicably, suffering is allowed to continue:

This discussion contains a controversial assumption which if confounded will make the story sketched here even darker. The controversial assumption is that when intelligent agents have attained the technical means to abolish the biological substrates of suffering, they will almost invariably do so. Thus by implication, suffering will be abolished in the great preponderance of branches where humans [or their functional counterparts] decipher their own genetic source code and develop biotechnology. A subsequent cross-branch reproductive revolution of designer babies is effectively inevitable. This generalisation might seem an extraordinarily reckless prediction. Forecasting is perilous enough even if one is a classical one-worlder. So predicting that a highly speculative scenario (i.e. the abolition of suffering) will eventually play out in the vast bulk of branches of macroscopic worlds with inhabitants attaining our level of technological development - and conversely, predicting that only a vanishingly small density of such branches will retain suffering indefinitely - might seem foolhardy in the extreme. Perhaps so. Recall how opiophobia still retards the medical treatment of even "physical" pain. But let's suppose instead that the analogy with anaesthetics holds up. After the discovery of general anaesthesia, its surgical use was contentious for a decade or two. But pain-free surgery soon became universally accepted. In our current state of ignorance, there is no way we can rigorously calculate the probability density of branches of the Multiverse where anaesthesia was discovered and rejected. But at worst, it's fair to say the proportion of branches is extremely small. Branches where governments outlaw pain-free surgery aren't sociologically credible. Of course the abolition of psychological distress is a less clear-cut case than anaesthesia. Technologies to abolish mental pain are in their infancy. But let's assume that in future they can be made as technically clean and successful as surgical anaesthesia. In what proportion of such branches will some or all people reject mental superhealth indefinitely? Again, a case can be made (though it won't be attempted here) that the proportion will be vanishingly small. Unfortunately, the proportion of life-supporting branches of the Multiverse whose dominant species reaches this stage of technical development is extremely small too. So the anticipated local success of the abolitionist project touted here is not as wonderful news as it sounds.

What practical lessons, if any, should be drawn from this bleak analysis of Reality? Assume, provisionally at any rate, a utilitarian ethic. The abolitionist project follows naturally, in "our" parochial corner of Hilbert space at least. On its completion, if not before, we should aim to develop superintelligence to maximise the well-being of the fragment of the cosmos accessible to beneficent intervention. And when we are sure - absolutely sure - that we have done literally everything we can do to eradicate suffering elsewhere, perhaps we should forget about its very existence.

David Pearce
(2008)

A beautifully written piece, Mr. Pearce, my hat is off to you. Here are some of the blogs where I've explored similar ideas, though admittedly not with the number of ideas-per-sentence that you were able to achieve with your brilliant essay:

We're Already Dead (But That's Okay)
The Biocentric Universe
The Past is an Illusion
Infinity and the Boltzmann Brains

Enjoy the journey,

Rob Bryanton

Next: The Big Bang is an Illusion

1 comment:

Adam said...

I don't think I've thought about suffering as much as other people have, but here's one observation I'd like to share: that suffering is also an illusion since it is based not in a particular event but in our interpretation of that event.

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