A case study in fooling oneself

by Mitchell_Porter 7 min read15th Dec 201179 comments


Note: This post assumes that the Oxford version of Many Worlds is wrong, and speculates as to why this isn't obvious. For a discussion of the hypothesis itself, see Problems of the Deutsch-Wallace version of Many Worlds.

smk asks how many worlds are produced in a quantum process where the outcomes have unequal probabilities; Emile says there's no exact answer, just like there's no exact answer for how many ink blots are in the messy picture; Tetronian says this analogy is a great way to demonstrate what a "wrong question" is; Emile has (at this writing) 9 upvotes, and Tetronian has 7.

My thesis is that Emile has instead provided an example of how to dismiss a question and thereby fool oneself; Tetronian provides an example of treating an epistemically destructive technique of dismissal as epistemically virtuous and fruitful; and the upvotes show that this isn't just their problem. [edit: Emile and Tetronian respond.]

I am as tired as anyone of the debate over Many Worlds. I don't expect the general climate of opinion on this site to change except as a result of new intellectual developments in the larger world of physics and philosophy of physics, which is where the question will be decided anyway. But the mission of Less Wrong is supposed to be the refinement of rationality, and so perhaps this "case study" is of interest, not just as another opportunity to argue over the interpretation of quantum mechanics, but as an opportunity to dissect a little bit of irrationality that is not only playing out here and now, but which evidently has a base of support.

The question is not just, what's wrong with the argument, but also, how did it get that base of support? How was a situation created where one person says something irrational (or foolish, or however the problem is best understood), and a lot of other people nod in agreement and say, that's an excellent example of how to think?

On this occasion, my quarrel is not with the Many Worlds interpretation as such; it is with the version of Many Worlds which says there's no actual number of worlds. Elsewhere in the thread, someone says there are uncountably many worlds, and someone else says there are two worlds. At least those are meaningful answers (although the advocate of "two worlds" as the answer, then goes on to say that one world is "stronger" than the other, which is meaningless).

But the proposition that there is no definite number of worlds, is as foolish and self-contradictory as any of those other contortions from the history of thought that rationalists and advocates of common sense like to mock or boggle at. At times I have wondered how to place Less Wrong in the history of thought; well, this is one way to do it - it can have its own chapter in the history of intellectual folly; it can be known by its mistakes.

Then again, this "mistake" is not original to Less Wrong. It appears to be one of the defining ideas of the Oxford-based approach to Many Worlds associated with David Deutsch and David Wallace; the other defining idea being the proposal to derive probabilities from rationality, rather than vice versa. (I refer to the attempt to derive the Born rule from arguments about how to behave rationally in the multiverse.) The Oxford version of MWI seems to be very popular among thoughtful non-physicist advocates of MWI - even though I would regard both its defining ideas as nonsense - and it may be that its ideas get a pass here, partly because of their social status. That is, an important faction of LW opinion believes that Many Worlds is the explanation of quantum mechanics, and the Oxford school of MWI has high status and high visibility within the world of MWI advocacy, and so its ideas will receive approbation without much examination or even much understanding, because of the social and psychological mechanisms which incline people to agree with, defend, and laud their favorite authorities, even if they don't really understand what these authorities are saying or why they are saying it.

However, it is undoubtedly the case that many of the LW readers who believe there's no definite number of worlds, believe this because the idea genuinely makes sense to them. They aren't just stringing together words whose meaning isn't known, like a Taliban who recites the Quran without knowing a word of Arabic; they've actually thought about this themselves; they have gone through some subjective process as a result of which they have consciously adopted this opinion. So from the perspective of analyzing how it is that people come to hold absurd-sounding views, this should be good news. It means that we're dealing with a genuine failure to reason properly, as opposed to a simple matter of reciting slogans or affirming allegiance to a view on the basis of something other than thought.

At a guess, the thought process involved is very simple. These people have thought about the wavefunctions that appear in quantum mechanics, at whatever level of technical detail they can muster; they have decided that the components or substructures of these wavefunctions which might be identified as "worlds" or "branches" are clearly approximate entities whose definition is somewhat arbitrary or subject to convention; and so they have concluded that there's no definite number of worlds in the wavefunction. And the failure in their thinking occurs when they don't take the next step and say, is this at all consistent with reality? That is, if a quantum world is something whose existence is fuzzy and which doesn't even have a definite multiplicity - that is, we can't even say if there's one, two, or many of them - if those are the properties of a quantum world, then is it possible for the real world to be one of those? It's the failure to ask that last question, and really think about it, which must be the oversight allowing the nonsense-doctrine of "no definite number of worlds" to gain a foothold in the minds of otherwise rational people.

If this diagnosis is correct, then at some level it's a case of "treating the map as the territory" syndrome. A particular conception of the quantum-mechanical wavefunction is providing the "map" of reality, and the individual thinker is perhaps making correct statements about what's on their map, but they are failing to check the properties of the map against the properties of the territory. In this case, the property of reality that falsifies the map is, the fact that it definitely exists, or perhaps the corollary of that fact, that something which definitely exists definitely exists at least once, and therefore exists with a definite, objective multiplicity.

Trying to go further in the diagnosis, I can identify a few cognitive tendencies which may be contributing. First is the phenomenon of bundled assumptions which have never been made distinct and questioned separately. I suppose that in a few people's heads, there's a rapid movement from "science (or materialism) is correct" to "quantum mechanics is correct" to "Many Worlds is correct" to "the Oxford school of MWI is correct". If you are used to encountering all of those ideas together, it may take a while to realize that they are not linked out of logical necessity, but just contingently, by the narrowness of your own experience.

Second, it may seem that "no definite number of worlds" makes sense to an individual, because when they test their own worldview for semantic coherence, logical consistency, or empirical adequacy, it seems to pass. In the case of "no-collapse" or "no-splitting" versions of Many Worlds, it seems that it often passes the subjective making-sense test, because the individual is actually relying on ingredients borrowed from the Copenhagen interpretation. A semi-technical example would be the coefficients of a reduced density matrix. In the Copenhagen interpetation, they are probabilities. Because they have the mathematical attributes of probabilities (by this I just mean that they lie between 0 and 1), and because they can be obtained by strictly mathematical manipulations of the quantities composing the wavefunction, Many Worlds advocates tend to treat these quantities as inherently being probabilities, and use their "existence" as a way to obtain the Born probability rule from the ontology of "wavefunction yes, wavefunction collapse no". But just because something is a real number between 0 and 1, doesn't yet explain how it manages to be a probability. In particular, I would maintain that if you have a multiverse theory, in which all possibilities are actual, then a probability must refer to a frequency. The probability of an event in the multiverse is simply how often it occurs in the multiverse. And clearly, just having the number 0.5 associated with a particular multiverse branch is not yet the same thing as showing that the events in that branch occur half the time.

I don't have a good name for this phenomenon, but we could call it "borrowed support", in which a belief system receives support from considerations which aren't legitimately its own to claim. (Ayn Rand apparently talked about a similar notion of "borrowed concepts".)

Third, there is a possibility among people who have a capacity for highly abstract thought, to adopt an ideology, ontology, or "theory of everything" which is only expressed in those abstract terms, and to then treat that theory as the whole of reality, in a way that reifies the abstractions. This is a highly specific form of treating the map as the territory, peculiar to abstract thinkers. When someone says that reality is made of numbers, or made of computations, this is at work. In the case at hand, we're talking about a theory of physics, but the ontology of that theory is incompatible with the definiteness of one's own existence. My guess is that the main psychological factor at work here is intoxication with the feeling that one understands reality totally and in its essence. The universe has bowed to the imperial ego; one may not literally direct the stars in their courses, but one has known the essence of things. Combine that intoxication, with "borrowed support" and with the simple failure to think hard enough about where on the map the imperial ego itself might be located, and maybe you have a comprehensive explanation of how people manage to believe theories of reality which are flatly inconsistent with the most basic features of subjective experience.

I should also say something about Emile's example of the ink blots. I find it rather superficial to just say "there's no definite number of blots". To say that the number of blots depends on definition is a lot closer to being true, but that undermines the argument, because that opens the possibility that there is a right definition of "world", and many wrong definitions, and that the true number of worlds is just the number of worlds according to the right definition.

Emile's picture can be used for the opposite purpose. All we have to do is to scrutinize, more closely, what it actually is. It's a JPEG that is 314 pixels by 410 pixels in size. Each of those pixels will have an exact color coding. So clearly we can be entirely objective in the way we approach this question; all we have to do is be precise in our concepts, and engage with the genuine details of the object under discussion. Presumably the image is a scan of a physical object, but even in that case, we can be precise - it's made of atoms, they are particular atoms, we can make objective distinctions on the basis of contiguity and bonding between these atoms, and so the question will have an objective answer, if we bother to be sufficiently precise. The same goes for "worlds" or "branches" in a wavefunction. And the truly pernicious thing about this version of Many Worlds is that it prevents such inquiry. The ideology that tolerates vagueness about worlds serves to protect the proposed ontology from necessary scrutiny.

The same may be said, on a broader scale, of the practice of "dissolving a wrong question". That is a gambit which should be used sparingly and cautiously, because it easily serves to instead justify the dismissal of a legitimate question. A community trained to dismiss questions may never even notice the gaping holes in its belief system, because the lines of inquiry which lead towards those holes are already dismissed as invalid, undefined, unnecessary. smk came to this topic fresh, and without a head cluttered with ideas about what questions are legitimate and what questions are illegitimate, and as a result managed to ask something which more knowledgeable people had already prematurely dismissed from their own minds.