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The First Anti-Solipsist

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Schroedinger's Cat
Can this cat be saved from evil physicists?
Does the cat even exist?

I'm reading this interesting Scientific American article last night about Hugh Everett. Everett was the first guy who came up with the theory that there might be more than one universe that we live in. In fact, a lot more.

Up until Everett, quantum physics had a problem: at the small level everything was in a probability wave, and at the large level things were obviously not in a probability wave -- they really existed. This quandary was illustrated very well by Schroedinger's Cat.It is accepted that a subatomic particle can exist in a superposition of states, a combination of possible states. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, the superposition only settles into a definite state upon observation. This is known as collapse or measurement.

Schrödinger proposed his "cat", after a suggestion of Albert Einstein's. Schrödinger states that if a scenario existed where a cat's state of life or death could be made dependent on the state of a subatomic particle, and also isolated from any possible observation, the state of the cat itself would be a quantum superposition — according to the Copenhagen interpretation, at least.

It's true: the cat would be both alive and dead at the same time. Or better stated, it would be in a superposition of both states.

That's some kind of cat.

Up until that point (and even today) physics says that the wave doesn't collapse until the observation is made. That is, the cat is in some weird state between life and death. Everett came up with a radical idea at the time -- what if in one universe the cat died, and in the other universe the cat lived? To us it might look random, because we don't know ahead of time which universe we are in until we make the measurement, but the world keeps on acting very normally. It's just that the probability wave includes not only the particles involved, but the observers as well. At each little picosecond, the universe is splitting off into copies of itself.

As you can imagine, this drove physicists even more nuts than the dead/alive cat. When Everett wrote up his ideas for his PhD dissertation, they didn't want to give it to him. His mentor even went to Europe to meet with Niels Bohr to get his approval. Bohr was kind of a rock star of physicists, and he wasn't buying Everett's idea one bit.

Everett in 1955, with Niels Bohr (age 24)
Everett (near right) in 1955, with Niels Bohr (age 24)

Somehow or another. Everett got his PhD. He was very disillusioned with academic life, however, and joined the defense industry in the USA where he did all sorts of neat an interesting things.

Unfortunately, Everett also had quite a bit of a drinking problem and he was, as it turned out, a very strict Solipsist.

What's a Solipsist you might ask? I know I did.

Solipsism (Latin: solus, alone + ipse, self) is the philosophical idea that "My mind is the only thing that I know exists". Solipsism is an epistemological or metaphysical position that knowledge of anything outside the mind is unjustified. The external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist. In the history of philosophy, solipsism has served as a skeptical hypothesis.

Denial of the materialist existence, in itself, is not enough to be a Solipsist. Possibly the most controversial feature of the solipsistic world view is the denial of the existence of other minds. We can never directly know another's mental stability. Qualia, or personal experience, is private and incorrigible. Another person's experience can be known only by analogy.

Philosophers try to build knowledge on more than an inference or analogy. The failure of Descartes's epistemological enterprise brought to popularity the idea that all certain knowledge may end at "I think therefore I am" (cogito ergo sum).[1]

The problem of solipsism also merits close examination because it is based upon three widely held philosophical presuppositions, which are themselves fundamental and wide-ranging in importance. These are:

  1. That my most certain knowledge is the contents of my own mind — my thoughts, experiences, affects, etc.
  2. That there is no conceptual or logically necessary link between the mental and the physical — between, say, the occurrence of certain conscious experiences or mental states and the 'possession' and behavioral dispositions of a 'body' of a particular kind (see the Brain in a vat);
  3. That the experiences of a given person are necessarily private to that person.

Solipsism, like other skeptical hypotheses, is likely impossible to refute. Likewise, the core assertion of materialism — that there is an external universe — is also impossible to refute.

His son said that Everett used to drink and just sit at the end of the table, completely expressionless. "He was like a piece of furniture," he said. When Everett's oldest daughter tried to commit suicide, he simply replied when he was told about it, "she must have been unhappy then."

It struck me as quite an unusual way to live -- believing that you exist only in your mind, and that other people, places, and things are just things that appear to you mentally. They have no real existence outside of your mind at all.

So then I thought; what would be the opposite of that? What would an anti-solipsist believe? Seems like he would believe that all experiences, things, people, places, opinions, and experiences were real in life except his own perception of them, which would simply be an illusion.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this the core belief (perhaps not stated that way) of many belief systems? That others matter more than the individual? That the universe, God, life, nature is something to which we are to respond? That in the scheme of things, we are less than nothing when compared to the reality around us?

I'm thinking this anti-solipsism stuff is fertile ground. Wish I had time to play around with it more. That is, if I really exist.

Everett died in his early fifties of a heart attack while he slept. His son found him, although his son said he felt a very strange feeling seeing his father dead -- he really didn't know the man at all.

It wasn't until later that he realized that his dad had written a theory that is still changing the world of physics as we know it. We're still debating Everett's multi-universe theory.

Seems like he did a pretty good job of existing, at least for fifty years or so. I wonder how his family and social relations would have been if he had been a strident anti-solipsist? If you're still interested in the man, you can read a nice bio of Everett over on the space/MIT site.

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This page contains a single entry by Daniel published on November 21, 2007 12:24 AM.

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Daniel Markham