Tipler’s Tipsy Parallel Universes of Quantum Mechanics

Be sure to read the caption.

We’re back on our Edge series of concepts scientists wished more people knew about. Today’s entry is Frank Tipler’s Parallel Universes of Quantum Mechanics. Tipler:

In 1957, a Princeton physics graduate student named Hugh Everett showed that the consistency of quantum mechanics required the existence of an infinity of universes parallel to our universe. That is, there has to be a person identical to you reading this identical article right now in a universe identical to ours. Further, there have to be an infinite number of universes, and thus an infinite number of people identical to you in them.

Most physicists, at least most physicists who apply quantum mechanics to cosmology, accept Everett’s argument. So obvious is Everett’s proof for the existence of these parallel universes, that Steve Hawking once told me that he considered the existence of these parallel universes “trivially true.”

Hawking also thought it trivially true that philosophy is useless, itself a philosophical judgment. So perhaps we should seek out a more eminent authority.

Anyway, Tipler says “Everett showed that the consistency of quantum mechanics required the existence of an infinity of universes parallel to our universe.” Everett showed no such thing. Quantum mechanics does not need an infinite number of duplicate universes, along with another infinite number of different universes, to be consist. Everett instead produced a mathematical picture the interpretation of which is up for grabs. Don’t forget: QM is a theory of probabilities, and probabilities aren’t real, i.e. they are not physical entities. The refication of probability in QM is a major problem: see more in this book. I am dubious that “most” physics buy the interpretation that these infinity of parallel universes are real entities and not just parameters in an equation, but I’ve done no survey.

The free will question arises because the equations of physics are deterministic. Everything that you do today was determined by the initial state of all the universes at the beginning of time. But the equations of quantum mechanics say that although the future behavior of all the universes are determined exactly, it is also determined that in the various universes, the identical yous will make different choices at each instant, and thus the universes will differentiate over time. Say you are in an ice cream shop, trying to choose between vanilla and strawberry. What is determined is that in one world you will choose vanilla and in another you will choose strawberry. But before the two yous make the choice, you two are exactly identical. The laws of physics assert it makes no sense to say which one of you will choose vanilla and which strawberry. So before the choice is made, which universe you will be in after the choice is unknowable in the sense that it is meaningless to ask.

To me, this analysis shows that we indeed have free will, even though the evolution of the universe is totally deterministic.

This type of thing leads to exasperation, but proof by exasperation doesn’t count in logic, so we need to take it seriously. Accepting the Many Worlds of Everett, here you are, ready to make a choice. There are (it is said), at the moment, an infinite number of yous standing in line at an infinite number of Baskin Robbins (and they with only 31 flavors!). The universes are identical in every way, down to the quark across the vast regions of space. There are also an infinite number of other universes different in an infinite number of ways.

In your universe you choose, as any sensible person would choose, Moose Tracks. An infinite number of other yous also choose Moose Tracks, and separate infinite yous choose the other flavors. Actually, you don’t choose, since it is quantum mechanics determining that set A of you gets Moose Tracks, set B Chocolate Cherry, set C gets Orange Swirl, and so on. All the choices are filled, and all must be filled. The universes, since the non-choice choices were different, are all now on their own paths, evolving differently. Nobody who eats Moose Tracks acts in exactly the same way as somebody who eats Orange Swirl.

Each time a choice is made, an infinity of universes peel off and wend their own ways. How many choices are made? Oh, many, many. Toss a pebble onto the pavement. Quantum mechanics suggests—this is the formula—that the pebble can take infinitely many end positions, all the way from infinitely over there, to infinitely in that direction. That makes another set of infinite universes pop into existence, to each follow the paths decided by where quantum mechanics puts the infinite pebbles.

That’s a lot of infinities! Infinities upon infinities upon infinities, because stuff is happening all over the place. Think of some remote star and the physical and chemical reactions taking place within. Each reaction in each moment requires another infinity of branching universes. You can’t emphasize enough how many infinities this is, since these reactions are happening already across an infinite number of universes. It’s a lot.

But then, what makes quantum mechanics choose this universe as the one in which I opt for Moose Tracks? Sure, QM makes sure all choices are made. But how? And how does it order the choices? What—what exactly—is driving QM to put what where? Which of the infinite universes gets the pebble at X, and which at X – 17? And why?

Ah. We’re right back to the same problem the original, single-universe QM posed, and the reason for the positing of Many Worlds. How does QM actualize potentialities? How does it select specific outcomes. Nobody knows the answer with ordinary, single-universe QM. Indeed, all we can know is we can’t know (thanks to Monsieur Bell). But something is making the choice, even if we don’t and can’t know what it is. The escape to Many Worlds avoids the question, because that theory says all choices are made. Very well: all are made. But how? The theory still does not say, and cannot say. Nothing has been solved.

So we see, even if Tipler’s interpretation of Everett is right, and there is no, there is zero, observational evidence it is, we still haven’t solved the problem we set out to solve. How does QM choose? All we’ve done if multiplied infinities faster than democracies increase budget deficits. Which is supposed to make the problem.

Before we go, we owe to Tipler to present his solution to the so-called Problem of Evil—which vexes both atheist and theist theories: to atheists, there can be no such thing as evil (or good) yet trying taking an atheist’s wallet; to theists, an Omnipotent God would seem to preclude evil.

Another philosophical problem with ethical implications is the Problem of Evil: Why is there evil in the universe we see? We can imagine a universe in which we experienced nothing bad, so why is this evil-free universe not the universe we actually see? The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz argued that we are actually in the best of all possible worlds, but this seems unlikely. If Hitler had never taken power in Germany, there would have been no Holocaust. Is it plausible that a universe with Hitler is better than a universe without him? The medieval philosopher Abelard claimed that existence was a good in itself, so that in order to maximize the good in reality, all universes, both those with evil in them and those without evil, have to be actualized. Remarkably, quantum mechanics says that the maximization of good as Abelard suggested is in fact realized.

Is this the solution of the Problem of Evil? I do know that many wonder “why Hitler?” but no analysis considers the fact that—if quantum mechanics is correct—there is a universe out there in which he remained a house painter.

Oh my. If Everett-like universes exist, not only was there a Stalin, ruthless socialist murderer that he was, but there were an infinite other worse Stalins, some that not only killed millions, but who slaughtered billions. And there must have been one who killed everybody, and not just killed everybody, but who tortured them all to death in the worst possible way. And not only must there been such a blood-soaked Stalin, there must have been an infinite number of Maos who committed worse crimes. And not only must there been an infinite number of Stalins and Maos, but there must be—there must be—an infinite number of yous who are worse criminals still!

This is the solution to the Problem of Evil? One doubts.

Deeper criticisms

An irreconcilable flaw of infinite “yous” is that our intellects and wills are not bodies, i.e. not made of physical stuff, and therefore not susceptible to physical forces. There is thus no way to split an intellect since each is unique. Even if you can imagine a way to overcome this, it gives rise to continuity problems.

At this moment in time stands you, ready to make a choice. Forget all other universes and concentrate on the one you are in now, poised. QM makes the choices (however many there are, and this could be an infinite number) and splits the universes. Never mind how. But it must make the splits. It’s not a problem (not really) where these different universes go, but where does the energy come from to make the splits? It must be infinite in extent and infinite in ability. Everything happens instantaneously. Must this Infinite Pool exist outside the universes it is creating? Is it God?

Now there must be a you that persists through each split that is the same since intellects are not splittable. Each split must be accompanied by the creation of a new intellect attached to the new physical stuff, including the new bodies that resemble you (and how is that accomplished?). But you yourself must persist.


  1. @Briggs:

    “Now there must be a you that persists through each split that is the same since intellects are not splittable. Each split must be accompanied by the creation of a new intellect attached to the new physical stuff, including the new bodies that resemble you (and how is that accomplished?). But you yourself must persist.”

    Or there are no selves and therefore nothing persists or even needs to persist — I take this as reductio against the Many Worlds interpretation by the way.

  2. It has always struck me, even a quarter century ago when taking an undergraduate “analytic” philosophy intro course, that the “determinism” side of the “free will vs determinism” misunderstands – or makes assumptions about reductionism regarding – the phenomenon not only of the human soul, but about all of biology. Life itself must be explained within this framework, not just human life. Who really thinks that even their faithful pooch is simply an automaton? (The argument, it seems to me, also makes a strawman of “free will” elevating it to an absolute Kantian or divine level rather than the more humble, human level of dependent freedom [on air to breathe, food to eat, water to drink, sleep to have had, etc] that most of experience).

  3. “This is the solution to the Problem of Evil? One doubts.”
    You get an infinite number of universes where the splits result in Nirvana and that Nirvana grows. For every “evil” you, there is a “saint” you. It may all zero out to neutrality when it comes to morality. We’d need a super supercomputer to figure that out. (And a definition of “morality”, of course)

    This makes for fascinating scifi. “Andromeda” had the character Chance who was always looking for the “most perfect future”. You can get a lot mileage out of a plot line using that premise.

    Next, let’s throw in time travel and the infinite pasts that are changed and spinning of new universes—then pass the bottle of aspirin around. These things should only be considered at 2 AM when you really don’t care, you just can’t sleep and there’s infinite material in these discussions to fill the void before you finally drift off.

  4. A cursory on-line search reveals that “the parallel universes of quantum mechanics” are only a theory. They might not exist. Here’s an example of recent (Nov 2014) reporting: http://www.livescience.com/48806-parallel-worlds-quantum-mechanics-theory.html There/then, discussion of finding ways to actually test the theory are reported. That brief article ends with:

    “Richard Feynman, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” but Poirier and his colleagues argue that physicists have much to gain from trying.”

    Children of all ages are observed blogging about the science behind fictitious things & phenomena presented in sci-fi movies and even comic books. They can understand the distinctions and boundaries between reality and fiction, and the theory underlying the fiction that might or might not be in some part real.

    The debate by Tipler, and Briggs’ rebuttal, is just plain silly — there’s a theory, alternate universe(s), wholly unproven and perhaps nothing more than a curious artifact of the math that created it, treated as if its somehow factual. Then the unsupported & unsupportable moral (!) implications somehow extrapolated from that are then debated as if there’s any credence in all that to debate.

    Once one ventures beyond objective facts one is not engaged in science; and once one has ventured into the realm of maybes and what-ifs and then-whats — a fantasy realm some label “philosophy” — but that particular kind of “philosophy,” founded on suppositions and extrapolations that very likely not only do not exist but probably cannot exist, is indistinguishable from science fiction incorporating nonsensical contrivances designed to move the story along (like Star Trek’s “tractor beams”). Children out there comprehend distinctions between reality, possibility, and sheer & utter nonsense concocted for entertainment value. Whether or not the likes of Tipler & Briggs do is unclear — and that makes for entertaining reading akin to the Sokal Affair/Hoax* by authors that are also their own target audience!

    * Sokol’s paper similarly incorporated Quantum Mechanics, being titled: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”

  5. The only things that have multiple future states according to this interpretation of quantum theory are the quantum particles. If there are things that are not made of quantum particles, then those things do not automatically have multiple future states.

    One of those things is spacetime itself. Singularities (black holes) are another of those things, one would think, as they have just mass, electrical charge and angular momentum. They are not made of quantum particles (in the theoretical sense) so a black hole cannot be duplicated by the mechanism that duplicates quantum particles.

  6. That’s if space-time is a “thing”. Einstein thought not. He regarded both space and time as “metaphysical intrusions” into empirical science and contended that general relativity had “deprived [them] of the last trace of objective reality.” Space-time was contingent on the existence of matter. If matter disappeared, he wrote, space and time would also disappear.

    Heisenberg, OTOH, cast doubt on subatomic particles, which he saw as more akin to Aristotelian potencies than to actualities. “It has become clear that the desired objective reality of the elementary particle is too crude an oversimplification of what really happens.” Heisenberg, it is rumored, knew a thing or two about quantum mechanics.

    Anyone who thinks quantum mechanics can be used to resolve the problem of evil or the question of free judgment or any other such non-metric issue should lie down with a cold washrag over his face until the fever passes. The existence of a term in a mathematical model does not oblige the physical world to go along with the gag.

  7. I’ll just leave this here in case any students or others in search of actual knowledge happen to stumble on this page: just please Google Frank Tipler and glance through the results on the first page before deciding if he’s worth spending your time on. Actually, Tipler and Briggs are more of a consonant combination than the latter would probably be comfortable with.

    Finally, I’ll pass over Brigg’s unlettered attempt to deal with issues in quantum measurement (just read any textbook), and come to rest at his equally unlettered, and starkly bigoted, claim that “to atheists, there can be no such thing as evil (or good)”. If nothing else, this claim is empirically falsified by the ease with which most atheists manage to perceive the nature of the moral cesspool that is the Catholic Church, something that, while not invisible, is sensibly harder to detect by believers.

  8. From the standpoint of physics, I believe that the Many Worlds interpretation would be very hard pressed to defend conservation laws, e.g., conservation of energy. If the Multiverse doesn’t have to observe conservation of energy, why would any individual member of it have to?

    From the standpoint of philosophy, the Many Worlds interpretation quickly becomes the position of Heraclitus, “You can’t go into the same river twice,” subsequently corrected by his pupil as, “You can’t go into the same river once.”

  9. Having done electron microscopy, I have a problem considering electrons as potentialities only. I shoot a beam of electrons at something then I see the results recorded in a chemical photographic thing that I can hold in my hand. That said, measurements are not the only thing. [I had this conversation with another forum denizen. We exist within a framework that exists within existence. Bound within that framework, things will look like they’re random to us, given our limitations, when they are not as an actuality. A being that is outside of that framework and created the rules for that framework before turning the framework into an actuality, for instance. Another instance, a man creates rules for a controlled environment then makes it actual.]

  10. The ‘problem of evil’ is loaded because with the rest of the verbiage it assumes that science can even expect to answer “the problem”.

    Science does not define the limit of rationality (philosophy). Rationality is bigger than science.

    Einstein said:
    “We can speak of ethical foundations of science but we cannot speak of the scientific foundations of ethics.”

    The ‘problem of evil’ is asking a question about ‘why?’, or purpose or meaning. These are questions that physics cannot answer except in mechanical explanations about how? Which are often confused when not implicitly stated. It cannot answer a question where there is no physical thing to examine the object. Meaning or reason do not have physical manifestations themselves. Words and language which includes mathematics are evidence of meaning.

    Morals or ethics have mastery over science. Meaning or purpose which is akin to the problem of evil is not a question that a methodological reductionist can have a handle on until they find a piece of rationality or a piece of scratch from which it is built. Or to be serious about it until they can find transcendence. There is no meaning without it.

    Some atheists like Lawrence Krause get round this by claiming “there is no why?” It is another one of those ‘human constructs’ (I don’t care for those).
    I wonder why he bothers. Chances are he could give a reason.

    Jurgen Habermas said:
    Our Education systems, legal systems and human rights are all derived from the Judeo -Christian system. (which I was laughed at here for saying in the past.)
    “To this day we have no other source. Everything else is post modern chatter.”
    So not all atheists have a problem with the concept of morals or ethics. They simply accept them as existing. Same goes for evil.

    As to the reason for evil? It is part of the universe that allows for good by comparison. Which is the same universe that allows freedom to choose. There would be no rationality or ‘mind’ in a world without evil. It is the world we all know and without hope there is no answer to the question of evil. That is the real question being asked as to why?

  11. Gee, I’ve been away from this blog for a while (the reason why would be too boring or horrific to say) and I come back, Lord be praised, to a subject I know a little about. Briggs, I hate to say it, but I think you (and Tipler) have misinterpreted Everett’s Relative State Theory. First, the Many World Interpretation (abbreviated commonly as MWI) was introduced not by Everett, but by Hugh DeWitt some 10 years later in a popularization in Physics Today. Second, what Everett was trying to accomplish with Relative State Theory was to eliminate a very undesirable piece of quantum mechanics interpretation, the collapse of the state function. I won’t go into this in detail but there’s a fine article that’s both humorous and knowledgeable with respect to the physics that deals with this. Spam control won’t let me link but Google “If Many Worlds had come first.”
    I’ll quote from there (referring to the “collapse interpretation” of QM)
    ” The only law in all of quantum mechanics that is non-linear, non-unitary, non-differentiable and discontinuous. It would prevent physics from evolving locally, with each piece only looking at its immediate neighbors. Your ‘collapse’ would be the only fundamental phenomenon in all of physics with a preferred basis and a preferred space of simultaneity. Collapse would be the only phenomenon in all of physics that violates CPT symmetry, Liouville’s Theorem, and Special Relativity.”
    In its original form (and there were lots of ambiguities left to be interpreted), Relative State Theory was more of a parent to David Albert’s “Many Minds” theory than to MWI.
    I’ve discussed this and given references–particularly to Jeffrey Barrett’s comprehensive review–in a blog post (again, shameless self-promotion)
    and tied in Molinism, Middle Knowledge and Free Will (I hope YOS will pardon an excursion into his domain–and I don’t really feel the need of a cold towel or other therapy.) Google “Free Will and God’s Providence: the Many Worlds/Many Minds of Quantum Mechanics” (again leaving out a direct link).

  12. I already knew there was an evil me and a good me. The thing I find troubling is not knowing which of us is the one with the beard.

  13. I’m really glad that I’m not smart enough to even begin to understand any of this stuff. Looks painful.

    Well, ok, I’ll admit to one exception. I do think it would be pretty cool to understand how gravity works.

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