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Free Will, Many Worlds, and Time Travel

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  • Free Will, Many Worlds, and Time Travel

    THE FABRIC of the COSMOS, Brian Greene, 2004
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 15 - Teleporters and Time Machines
    Free Will, Many Worlds, and Time Travel
    Free will is a tricky issue, even absent the complicating factor of time travel. The laws of classical physics are deterministic. As we saw earlier, if you were to know precisely how things are now (the position and velocity of every particle in the universe), the laws of classical physics would tell you exactly how things were or would be at any other moment you specified. The equations are indifferent to the supposed freedom of human will. Some have taken this to mean that in a classical universe, free will would be an illusion. You are made of a collection of particles, so if the laws of classical physics could determine everything about your particles at any moment — where they'd be, how they'd be moving and so on — your willful ability to determine your own actions would appear fully compromised. This reasoning convinces me, but those who believe we are more than the sum of our particles may disagree.

    Anyway, the relevance of these observations is limited, since ours is a quantum, not a classical, universe. In quantum physics, real-world physics, there are resemblances to this classical perspective; there are also potentially pivotal differences. As you read in Chapter 7, if you know the quantum wavefunction right now for every particle in the universe, Schrodinger's equation tells you how the wavefunction was or will be at any other moment you specify. This component of quantum physics is fully deterministic, just as in classical physics. However, the act of observation complicates the quantum mechanical story and, as we've seen, heated debate over the quantum measurement problem still rages. If physicists one day conclude that Schrodinger's equation is all there is to quantum mechanics, then quantum physics, in its entirety, would be every bit as deterministic as classical physics. As with classical determinism, some would say this means free will is an illusion; others would not. But if we're currently missing part of the quantum story — if the passage from probabilities to definite outcomes requires something beyond the standard quantum framework — it's at least possible that free will might find a concrete realization within physical law. We might one day find, as some physicists have speculated, that the act of conscious observation is an integral element of quantum mechanics, being the catalyst that coaxes one outcome from the quantum haze to be realized. 9 Personally, I find this extremely unlikely, but I know of no way to rule it out.

    The upshot is that the status of free will and its role within fundamental physical law remain unresolved. So let's consider both possibilities, free will that's illusory and free will that's real.

    If free will is an illusion, and if time travel to the past is possible, then your inability to prevent your parents from meeting poses no puzzle. Although you feel as if you have control over your actions, the laws of physics are really pulling the strings. When you go to whisk away your mother or shoot your father, the laws of physics get in the way. The time machine lands you on the wrong side of town, and you arrive after your parents have met; or you try to pull the trigger and the gun jams; or you do pull the trigger, but you miss the target and instead knock off your father's only competitor for your mother's hand, clearing the way for their union; or, perhaps, when you step out of the time machine you no longer have the desire to prevent your parents from meeting. Regardless of your intention when you enter the time machine, your actions when you exit are part of spacetime's consistent story. The laws of physics trump all attempts to thwart logic. Everything you do fits in perfectly. It always has and always will. You can't change the unchangeable.

    If free will is not an illusion, and if time travel to the past is possible, quantum physics gives alternative suggestions for what might happen, and is distinctly different from the formulation based on classical physics. One particularly compelling proposal, championed by Deutsch, makes use of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Remember from Chapter 7 that in the Many Worlds framework, every potential outcome embodied in a quantum wavefunction — a particle's spinning this way or that, another particle's being here or there — is realized in its own separate, parallel universe. The universe we're aware of at any given moment is but one of an infinite number in which every possible evolution allowed by quantum physics is separately realized. In this framework, it's tempting to suggest that the freedom we feel to make this or that choice reflects the possibility we have to enter this or that parallel universe in a subsequent moment. Of course, since infinitely many copies of you and me are sprinkled across the parallel universes, the concepts of personal identity and free will need to be interpreted in this broadened context.

    As far as time travel and the potential paradoxes go, the Many Worlds interpretation suggests a novel resolution. When you travel to 11:50 p.m. on December 31, 1965, pull out your weapon, aim at your father, and pull the trigger, the gun works and you hit the intended target. But since this is not what happened in the universe from which you embarked on your time travel odyssey, your journey must not only have been through time, it must have been also from one parallel universe to another. The parallel universe in which you now find yourself is one in which your parents never did meet — a universe which the Many Worlds interpretation assures us is out there (since every possible universe consistent with the laws of quantum physics is out there). And so, in this approach, we face no logical paradox, because there are various versions of a given moment, each situated in a different parallel universe; in the Many Worlds interpretations, it's as if there are infinitely many spacetime loaves, not just one. In the universe of origination, your parents met on December 31, 1965, you were born, you grew up, you held a grudge against your father, you became fascinated with time travel, and you embarked on a journey to December 31, 1965. In the universe in which you arrive, your father is killed on December 31, 1965, before meeting your mother, by a gunman claiming to be his son from the future. A version of you is never born in this universe, but that's okay, since the you who pulled the trigger does have parents. It's just that they happen to live in a different parallel universe. Whether anyone in this universe believes your story or, instead, views you as delusional, I can't say. But what's clear is that in each universe — the one you left and the one you entered — we avoid self-contradictory circumstances.

    What's more, even in this broadened context, your time travel expedition doesn't change the past. In the universe you left, that's manifest, since you never visit its past. In the universe you enter, your presence at 11:50 p.m. on December 31, 1965, does not change that moment: in that universe you were, and always will be, present at that moment. Again, in the Many Worlds interpretation, every physically consistent sequence of events happens in one of the parallel universes. The universe you enter is one in which the murderous actions you choose to undertake are realized. Your presence on December 31, 1965, and all the mayhem you create, are part of the unchangeable fabric of that universe's reality.

    The Many Worlds interpretation offers a similar resolution to the issue of knowledge seemingly materializing from nowhere, as in the scenario of my mother's writing a decisive paper in string theory. According to the Many Worlds interpretation, in one of the myriad parallel universes my mother does develop quickly into a string theory expert, and on her own discovers all that I read in her paper. When I undertake my excursion to the future, my time machine takes me to that universe. The results I read in my mother's paper while I'm there were indeed discovered by the version of my mother in that world. Then, when I travel back in time, I enter a different one of the parallel universes, one in which my mother has difficulty understanding physics. After years of trying to teach her, I give up and finally tell her what to write in the paper. But in this scenario there is no puzzle regarding who is responsible for the breakthroughs. The discoverer is the version of my mother in the universe in which she's a physics whiz. All that's happened as a result of my various time travels is that her discoveries are communicated to a version of herself in another parallel universe. Assuming you find parallel universes easier to swallow than authorless discoveries — a debatable proposition — this provides a less baffling explanation of the interplay of knowledge and time travel.

    None of the proposals we've discussed in this, or the previous section are necessarily the resolution to the puzzles and paradoxes of time travel. Instead, these proposals are meant to show that puzzles and paradoxes do not rule out time travel to the past since, with our current state of under standing, physics provides possible avenues for end runs around the problems. But failing to rule something out is a far cry from declaring it possible. So we are now led to ask the main question: Is time travel to the past possible?
    Last edited by Reviewer; 10-14-2012, 10:18 PM.