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Not another innocuous Internet quiz
July 12, 2012 6:20 PM   Subscribe

Errol Morris (previously) would like to know if you are an optimist or a pessimist.

FRS quantum physicist David Deutsch is an optimist, particularly when it comes to near-miss asteroids and Earth. In his recent book The Beginning of Infinity, he makes this claim:
If a one kilometer asteroid had approached the Earth on a collision course at any time in human history before the early twenty-first century, it would have killed at least a substantial proportion of all humans. In that respect, as in many others, we live in an era of unprecedented safety: the twenty-first century is the first ever moment when we have known how to defend ourselves from such impacts, which occur once every 250,000 years or so.
Morris is running an informal questionnaire on his New York Times blog to ask if people think this is true or false and how confident they are about that. And he promises a surprise when he reveals the final results...
posted by Doktor Zed (28 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Surprise: The asteroid actually hit the earth, and you live on only in a simulation.

Actually, when I'm feeling dark, every time I walk down a flight of stairs I consider that I've just spawned a branch universe in which I fall and break my neck.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:25 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


So, the more precise joke would be: The asteroid actually hit the Earth, but not our Earth.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:27 PM on July 12, 2012


I don't believe in that two-worlds mumbo jumbo. There is no alternate universe where I quit my job today and enjoyed myself for once. I have never seen room for that in a deterministic universe. Sure, there may be quantum behaviors that split the universe into multiple instances, but I don't see how events that micro could effect us on a macro scale.
posted by rebent at 6:38 PM on July 12, 2012


There is no alternate universe where I quit my job today and enjoyed myself for once.

Why not? One presumes there could be a series of events that lead to that.
posted by solarion at 6:46 PM on July 12, 2012


No, I've just been to all possible universes, and he never does it. It is weird.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:55 PM on July 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


What if I believe we live in a time of unprecedented safety but it has nothing to do with our ability to defend ourselves from asteroids?
posted by jacquilynne at 6:57 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't believe in that two-worlds mumbo jumbo. There is no alternate universe where I quit my job today and enjoyed myself for once. I have never seen room for that in a deterministic universe. Sure, there may be quantum behaviors that split the universe into multiple instances, but I don't see how events that micro could effect us on a macro scale.

Unless you go in for some sort of Spinozistic hard-core "what there is is all there is or ever could be" then you are committed to the idea of other realities in at least some sense, even if that sense is only maximal state descriptions.

Would it be a contradiction of the very laws of nature for me to have poured an extra 1/100 of a fluid ounce of water into my glass earlier tonight? Was it from the very dawn of time determined that I would pour exactly that many ounces of water into the glass and no more? You are welcome to think that, and some people do, but most would say that there are other ways things could have been.

Bam, parallel universes. Now, whether those universes are quantum states (I'm not really sure what that means), or sets of sentences, or realities just like this, or something else entirely is a separate question.
posted by pdq at 6:57 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I took his quiz but was disappointed that there was no immediate feedback. Apparently it's a cliffhanger where he gets another column in a few days reporting the aggregate quiz results.

It would surprise me for some reason if Morris self-reports as an optimist.
posted by bukvich at 7:00 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think rebent is getting at deterministic human behavior, not like, the physical impossibility of opening one door and not another. But given that the sequence has so far been iron clad and certain, then there is little reason to believe the chain does not continue without break, and, more importantly, would do so in all universes just the same way, unless, of course, starting conditions were different.

Anyway, I assume that is what he is getting at because why else bring in quantum physics as a reference except to put it front and center on the blame stage for introducing real uncertainty into what was previously believed to be a certain and deterministic universe (although not deterministic in anyway that humans could presently make use of for accurate and certain prophecy).
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:04 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just reached the tipping point where I convinced myself to start behaving as an optimist. Then I took that test and found out I have to wait a few weeks for the results. Thanks, I'm back to my old crabby self.
posted by digsrus at 7:17 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't believe we have the capability to stop a 1km asteroid from striking the Earth. Our space defense capabilities are embryonic at best.
posted by Renoroc at 7:48 PM on July 12, 2012


We do have the capacity to stop meteors, but it is contingent on rebent always working and never enjoying thing. Sorry, rebent, but at least you know all humanity depends on your toiling and moiling!
posted by winna at 8:23 PM on July 12, 2012


If a one kilometer asteroid had approached the Earth on a collision course at any time in human history before the early twenty-first century, it would have killed at least a substantial proportion of all humans.

Seriously, are we sure that one didn't?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:29 PM on July 12, 2012


There is no alternate universe where I quit my job today and enjoyed myself for once. I have never seen room for that in a deterministic universe. Sure, there may be quantum behaviors that split the universe into multiple instances, but I don't see how events that micro could effect us on a macro scale.

Well, Schrödinger's cat, right? What if you wired up a radiation detector to a light, and if the light turned on within one hour then you quit your job and enjoyed yourself for once?
posted by jedicus at 8:57 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


That isn't how the thought experiment worked! It was designed to mock this very idea!
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:10 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


i am a pessimist
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:14 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


That isn't how the thought experiment worked! It was designed to mock this very idea!


No, the experiment was designed to mock the idea that macroscopic objects could exist in a superposition of states. As Schrödinger explained "There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks."

I was suggesting a modified version where the observation of a quantum effect is used to make a decision. If we assume that there are alternate universes in which the radioactive particle does or does not decay, then we must necessarily assume that there are alternate universes in which rebent does or does not quit his job in response. rebent himself does not simultaneously exist in both states.
posted by jedicus at 9:21 PM on July 12, 2012


This is why I paid my $5
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:17 PM on July 12, 2012


I'm definitely a pessimist, but I'll be damned if the moon in that illustration didn't look like a chocolate chip cookie to me.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:18 PM on July 12, 2012


Goddamn Schrödinger's cat!

As TwelveTwo rightly pointed out, it was meant to mock these sorts of things.
But the whole thing doesn't even work because it assumes a magic observer (the radiation detector) which doesn't collapse the wave form.

It's a completely flawed joke thought experiment (and Schrödinger was well aware of this) that somehow caught on and people won't shut up about.

Sorry.. I'll quiet down. It's just a particular bugbear of mine.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:22 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Relevant.
posted by Ritchie at 4:20 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


pdq: "Unless you go in for some sort of Spinozistic hard-core "what there is is all there is or ever could be" then you are committed to the idea of other realities in at least some sense, even if that sense is only maximal state descriptions.

Well, I don't know enough about Spinoza to say one way or another about that. Based on your description, I feel like you are saying "Oh but the die COULD have come up six! See, there are alternatives" but I am saying "if you look at physics, you will find that, based on how the die was held in the hand, how it was moved, and how it rolled, there is no alternative to the die coming up four."


Would it be a contradiction of the very laws of nature for me to have poured an extra 1/100 of a fluid ounce of water into my glass earlier tonight?


yes

Was it from the very dawn of time determined that I would pour exactly that many ounces of water into the glass and no more?

yes

You are welcome to think that, and some people do, but most would say that there are other ways things could have been.

I think those people are confusing their ability to imagine macro effects with the ability to predict things with a scientific model (see the die example above). That model can be physics, biology, psychology, chemistry, etc. Currently, many of our models do not accurately predict outcomes with the precision required to satisfy lay people, but the science is growing

Bam, parallel universes. Now, whether those universes are quantum states (I'm not really sure what that means), or sets of sentences, or realities just like this, or something else entirely is a separate question.
"

Um, in my opinion, believing that, each time that any person or, like, bug or, i guess, water droplet does (or does not do) anything, the entire universe i.e. all of existence gets duplicated is, in my opinion, a much larger leap of faith than to just say "No, the drop of water went down your hand this way because of surface tension."
posted by rebent at 6:38 AM on July 13, 2012


on post: betrayed by the preview window!
posted by rebent at 6:40 AM on July 13, 2012


As TwelveTwo rightly pointed out, it was meant to mock these sorts of things.
But the whole thing doesn't even work because it assumes a magic observer (the radiation detector) which doesn't collapse the wave form.


No, it wasn't. I know what it was meant to mock, and my version avoids it entirely. There is no superposition, no magic observer. Just an ordinary observer of a quantum event making a decision based on whether the event happens or not. The point is that quantum events can have macroscopic consequences, so if you believe that the universe is not deterministic at the quantum level, then it can also be non-deterministic at the macro level.
posted by jedicus at 7:29 AM on July 13, 2012


jacquilynne: "What if I believe we live in a time of unprecedented safety but it has nothing to do with our ability to defend ourselves from asteroids?"

I believe the opposite. I'm sure the world would band together to deflect an oncoming asteroid. But that doesn't stop me from be shot on my way home from the corner store.
posted by Splunge at 12:24 PM on July 13, 2012


I'm not sure I'd even concede that you're more likely to die violently now than in the past, but even assuming that is true, when is the last time you or anyone you know died of bubonic plague?

Life expectancy seems like a pretty good measure of safety to me, and by that measure, we're safer now than ever by a pretty large margin.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:13 PM on July 13, 2012


I think it's pretty clear in terms of life expectancy that individually we've never been safer. In terms of numbers and geographical distribution, we've never been more secure as a species.*

*Please note, YMMV. Safety of non-white, non-christian squatters on oilfields cannot be guaranteed.
posted by Jakey at 3:24 PM on July 13, 2012


Jedicus, I agree, your version makes sense.
It was the classical version I was ranting about.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:11 PM on July 14, 2012


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