X-Message-Number: 15196
Date: Tue, 26 Dec 2000 20:01:22 -0800
From: Lee Corbin <>
Subject: Is Many-Worlds a Red Herring?

How much does the truth or falsity of the MWI (Many Worlds Interpretation)
of quantum mechanics actually contribute to questions concerning morality,
identity, survival, or success?

Not much, I submit.  Let us examine a number of specific cases in order to
probe the range (if any) where MWI does make a contribution.  (For those
uncertain about what MWI is, a most wonderful book is David Deutsch's "The
Fabric of Reality".  This has to be the ultimate reference on the subject.
Best of all, the book, although very deep, is entirely non-technical and
consists of approximate 1000 carefully constructed paragraphs in fine
English.  To follow it, all you need is a burning interest in reality.)

Case one, "It doesn't matter if I murder someone since they live in
infinitely many worlds anyway."  The flaw in this reasoning is easy to
spot: whatever fraction of all the worlds that your victim lives in, his
or her life will be diminished by whatever fraction of those worlds that
you inhabit in which you make the same choice.  If you "decide" to
kill..., then in effect "vast numbers"---not really the most accurate way
to describe the situation, but one that will do---of you will make the
same decision, and the impact throughout all the worlds will be
non-trivial.  We have a word for such a person.  He or she is a murderer.
The many-worlds interpretation changes nothing.

Case two, "I hate my boss, but because of case one (above), I will flip a
coin 20 times, and if it is tails each time, then I will kill my boss.
This way, I get to kill him in 1/2^10 of the worlds, e.g., about one in a
million.  It will give me great satisfaction [if I am this kind of sicko]
to know that I knocked him off in at least that fraction of worlds." The
flaw in this case is that, yes, while you don't affect the multiverse
much---i.e., you don't do much murder in the multiverse---the situation is
exactly no different from the previous (or other) interpretation of
quantum mechanics. Namely, if you decide ahead of time to attack your boss
by this technique, then in standard interpretations of QM you merely stand
a 1 in a million chance of doing homicide.  We already know exactly what
this means, and our usual emotions and intuitions are perfectly
satisfactory.  We say "you stand a small chance of committing an evil
act".  It turns out that actually going ahead and wiping out your boss in
one of a million worlds (under MWI) is morally extremely similar to taking
a one-in-a-million chance of killing your boss in one world.  I submit
that the differences should be understood to be quite minor, because of
the general thrust of all these cases: namely, MWI doesn't make any

Case three, "See, Mom?  I didn't get killed by jumping the canyon in my
motorcycle, so there."  But Mom is still very angry and rightfully so.
"You COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED", she screams. "Yeah, but I wasn't. So what?"
Well, Mom is right in either interpretation of QM.  If there is one world,
her emotions properly track that her son has a lot of bad ideas, and that
these ideas can harm him greatly, and she screams to try to correct the
situation.  In the many-worlds, her case is even easier to state, "you
WERE killed in a terribly high fraction of worlds!".  Now is there really
a difference?  You can't seriously think so!  (In MWI, case three is
called, "You can't beat the odds!)  The many-worlds theory changes
almost nothing.

Case four, A young cryonicist dies in his sleep and is not frozen or
vitrified.  Someone says, "Well, that was very unlikely and therefore he
still lives in many worlds, and so it doesn't matter." The error here
(similar to some of the other cases) is that this world is NOT AN ISOLATED
PHENOMENON.  Whatever happens here happens in many worlds.  Whatever
lessons we have to learn here (e.g. to learn about Billy Seidel's
Deanimation Alarm System, or that other system that has appeared recently
on this list), we must learn independently of whether MWI is the correct
interpretatin of QM.  This case is still a tragedy, and it is a mistake to

go messing with your correct emotional and intellectual responses to it by
invoking an abstract theory.  Our emotions and intellect are grounded in
what works.  That's a fact. (But if you'd still like to know why, the
theory of evolution has the answers.)

Case five, the famous suicide lottery: "I will get a good physical random
number generator, and use it to select lottery numbers, and then kill
myself in each world that I don't win."  Readers of this list (who are
interested enough in such things to have followed THIS post so far, will
recall how this notion has been discredited in previous posts by myself
and by Mike Perry.  Basically, (in my view) you are killing off almost all
versions of yourself, and greatly diminishing your total run time. But
whether you buy my refutation or some other MWI theorist's, the suicide
lottery is an equally bad idea.

The cases may be multiplied indefinitely, but I will stop here for the
sake of brevity.  All of these cases illustrate that whether you exist in
one world, or whether instead you exist in a "house of mirrors", act
prudently in any case!

So be very, very skeptical of anyone who says, "We should do X because the
many-worlds interpretation of QM is true." Most likely, the person is
forgetting that there are innumerable copies of himself saying exactly the
same thing in many worlds.  In other cases, the person is probably unaware
that the many-worlds interpretation could be erroneously be used to say
almost any half-baked thing whatsoever.  In either case, it doesn't matter
and the many-worlds theory changes nothing.

You see, any condition we find, we find all over the place. Any act we
choose, we choose all over the place.  Whatever reasons or feelings that
lead us to choose a particular act pre-MWI should cause us to select the
same act post-MWI.  I have called this the "Many Worlds Normalization
Principle" for over ten years now, and I believe it.  The bottom line is:
be extremely cautious in using the many worlds interpretation of quantum
mechanics to rationalize or justify anything whatsoever.

Lee Corbin

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