If I ever decided to abandon any pretense of integrity or credibility, and just shoot for making a bazillion dollars peddling quantum hokum, the particular brand of quantum philosophy I would peddle has already been laid out, in Robert Charles Wilson’s Divided by Infinity. In the story, the narrator is given a copy of a “crank book” by Carl G. Soziere, titled You will Never Die, which makes an argument that is essentially a variant of the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics:
And the argument was seductive. Shorn of the babble about Planck radii and Prigogine complexity and the Dancing Wu-Li Masters, it came down to this:
Consciousness, like matter, like energy, is preserved.
You are born, not an individual, but an infinity of individuals, in an infinity of identical worlds. “Consciousness,” your individual awareness, is shared by this infinity of beings.
At birth (or at conception; Soziere wasn’t explicit), this span of selves begins to divide, as alternate possibilities are indulged or rejected. The infant turns his head not to the left or to the right, but both. One infinity of worlds becomes two; then four; then eight, and so on, exponentially.
But the underlying essence of consciousness continues to connect all these disparate possibilities.
The upshot? Soziere says it all in his title.
You cannot die.
The “shared consciousness” stuff is twaddle, of course, but at its core, there’s actually a fairly coherent idea, which is no sillier than things that get published in reputable journals. For that reason, this is my favorite fictional treatment of Many-Worlds.
The sensible argument is this: in the Many-Worlds interpretation, the wavefunction of the universe contains elements corresponding to all of the possible outcomes of any particular action. This gives an exponentially expanding wavefunction– it doubles in size with every coin-flip– but we only see one outcome occurring because each of those pieces also contains a version of every observer of the event, and so on. When you flip a coin, there’s one piece of the wavefunction in which it comes up heads, and in that piece of the wavefunction, you see it come up heads, and act accordingly. Meanwhile, there’s another piece of the wavefunction in which the coin comes up tails, containing a you that sees it come up tails, and so on.
To the extent that “consciousness” is a meaningful thing, it consists of a perceived coherent history of events making up your backstory, as it were. And if that’s the case, it’s sort of by definition impossible to experience your own death– once you die, you stop experiencing anything, and that perceived history comes to a close.
If you take Many-Worlds seriously, though, there is always a piece of the wavefunction in which you don’t die. Failing to die may be ridiculously improbable, but the theory says that all possible outcomes, even ridiculously improbable ones, must take place. In a certain sense, our very existence depends on this fact– as I say in my public lecture, the only reason the Sun shines is that quantum tunneling allows fusion to occur in the core of the Sun, despite the temperature being 1,500 times lower than it would need to be for protons to come into direct contact. Every photon reaching us from the Sun is the result of a ridiculously improbable occurrence.
By that logic, then, you will never experience your own death. Death ends experience, by definition, so as time goes by your consciousness gets whittled down to only those parts of the wavefunction in which you have survived. Except “whittled down” isn’t the right term, because as Wilson rightly notes, there are an effectively infinite number of branches of the wavefunction in which you survive; granted, the number of branches in which you die is also infinite, and in some sense a “bigger” infinity than the ones in which you live (scare quotes because it’s “bigger” in a sort of fuzzy everyday-language sense, not a rigorously mathematical Cantorian sense), but infinite all the same.
Of course, Wilson takes a lot of liberties with the idea for the sake of his story. There’s no reason, after all, why the surrounding universe should become any more improbable as you go on. The most likely outcome for you to experience is a universe in which the only obvious anomaly is your own survival. There’s no particular reason why you not dying should in any way be correlated with the fate of anybody else, after all, so it’s not like you’ll be tripping over copies of Shakespeare banged out by monkeys with typewriters on your way to your three hundredth birthday party. And you certainly won’t see unwritten Heinlein novels drifting in from alternate universes. The universe around you will continue to look more or less like it “should” look, but you just won’t die.
(Of course, this totally undermines the idea’s potential as a basis for a bazillion-dollar guru empire. Following this logic out to its natural conclusion leads inevitably to the idea that everyone and everything you know and love will age and die in the usual manner. This is, after all, the creepy core of Wilson’s story, which fairly explicitly takes the side of the character who declares the whole business to be a horror story, not a fairy tale.)
This has, of course, been considered by people like Max Tegmark, who make a living thinking Deep Thoughts about quantum mechanics. I don’t really buy Tegmark’s attempt to explain this away, though– he suggests that aging and death represent a gradual degradation of “consciousness,” such that you’re not really conscious any more when the end comes. But then, that’s exactly what I would expect the Max Tegmark in my immortal branch of the wavefunction to say and experience. In the branch where I’m immortal, everybody else sees their consciousness degrade with time, but I keep on going, through a remarkable chain of quantum coincidences.
It’s true that biological processes aren’t simple binary quantum choices, but at some level, everything is the result of an accumulation of infinitely many simple binary quantum choices. If you’re going to run with the whole crazy multiverse thing, I don’t see any reason to back off the notion of immortality, other than the face-saving desire not to sound like a New Age loon. But remember, the jumping-off point for this whole thing is the idea that I’m casting aside personal integrity and scientific credibility to chase that sweet, sweet Deepak Chopra money, so, you know, bring on the craziness.
(Of course, if you really want to have a universe that avoids the seeming absurdity of everyone individually living forever, there’s a simple way out: life after death and immortal souls. Then you get to experience your own death, but that presents its own problems…)
In the end, of course, I don’t really take this that seriously. It’s fun in a late-night-dorm-room-conversation sort of way, but that doesn’t make it remotely scientific. There’s no way to test this to the satisfaction of anybody other than yourself; or, rather, there’s no way to test it that leads to all observers getting the same answer– silly business like quantum suicide let you “prove” it, but only to yourself. Granted, to an infinite number of yourselves, but you “prove” it wrong to a larger infinitude of other people.
Late-night-dorm-room-conversation sorts of idea are great bases for science fiction stories, though. And Wilson’s story does far less violence to the Many-Worlds idea than most stories in the genre. Which is why I recommend it to people as my favorite fictional treatment of the subject.
Sadly, the story also sort of undermines my ability to exploit this idea for some filthy New Age lucre– constructing a loopy philosophy directly from science fiction is probably a little too obvious (insert your own Scientology joke). But in some universe, I’m living the high life on this basis…