A Copenhagen story about the problem of suffering before human sin
March 23, 2013 — 10:00

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Problem of Evil  Tags: ,   Comments: 3

It sure looks like there was a lot of suffering in the animal world prior to the advent of humanity, and hence before any sins of humanity. Yet it would be attractive, both theologically (at least for Christians) and philosophically, if one could say that evil entered the physical world through the free choices of persons. One could invoke the idea of angels who fell before the evolutionary process got started and who screwed things up (that might even be the right story). Or one could invoke backwards causation (Hud Hudson’s hypertime story does something like that). Here I want to explore another story. I don’t believe the story I will give is true. But the story is compatible with our observations outside of Revelation, does not lead to widespread scepticism, and is motivated in terms of an interpretation of quantum mechanics that has been influential.

Begin with this observation. If the non-epistemic Copenhagen interpretation (NECI) of Quantum Mechanics is literally true, then before there were observers, there was no earth and hence no life on earth. Given indeterministic events in the history of the universe, the world existed in a giant superposition between an earth and a no-earth state. The Milky Way Galaxy may not have even existed then, but instead there was a giant superposition between Milky-Way and no-Milky-Way states. And then an observation collapsed this giant superposition in favor of the sort of Solar System and Milky Way that we observe. There are difficult details to spell out here, which we can talk about in the discussion. But note that the story predicts that we will have astronomical evidence of the Milky Way existing long before there were observers on earth, even though perhaps it didn’t–perhaps there was just the giant superposition. For when such a superposition collapses, it leaves evidence as of the remaining branch having been there for a long time earlier.

Now to make this a defense of the idea that suffering in the animal world entered through human sin, I need a few assumptions beyond the above plain NECI story:

  1. the observations that collapse the wavefunction are observations by intelligent embodied observers
  2. quantum states only come to be substrates of conscious states when the wavefunction is strongly concentrated on them (think of a very narrow Gaussian)
  3. prior to there being humans on earth, there were no highly concentrated quantum states of the sort that would be substrates of conscious states
  4. humans were the first embodied intelligent observers of the earth (or of other stuff relevantly entangled with it)
  5. God set up special laws of nature such that if humans were never to make wrong choices, no wavefunctions would ever collapse into the substrates of painful states.
  6. optional but theologically and philosophically attractive: the unsuperposed existence of humans comes from a special divinely-wrought collapse of the wavefunction (this would solve one problem with NECI, namely how the first observation was made, given that on plain NECI before the first observation there was a superposition of observer and no-observer states before it; it would also help reconcile creation and evolution)

One might even connect the giant superposition with the formless and void state mentioned in the Book of Genesis, though I do not particularly recommend this exegesis and I don’t believe the story I am giving is in fact true (and I am mildly inclined to think it false).

Objection 1: The story makes standard paleontological and geological claims literally false. There never were any dinosaurs or trilobites, just a giant superposition with dinosaur- and trilobite-states in one component.

Response: So does the plain NECI story, without any of my supplements such as that it is intelligent observation that collapses the wavefunction. And just like the plain NECI story, my extended story explains why have the evidence we do.

Objection 2: Like the worst of the young-earth creationist stories, this story involves a massive divine deception.

Response: Not at all. Consider Descartes’ attractive idea that what we expect from God is not that we would always get science right, but that we would be capable of scientifically correcting our mistakes. And the discovery of quantum mechanics, with the invention of the NECI interpretation, came within a century of Darwin’s work. As soon as we had quantum mechanics with the NECI interpretation, we had good reason to doubt whether prior to the existence of observers there was an earth simpliciter or just an earth-component in a giant superposition.

Objection 3: There are better interpretations of quantum mechanics than NECI.

Response: Weighing the pros and cons of an interpretation of quantum mechanics requires weighing all its costs and benefits. This will include weighing the theological benefits of this interpretation, given the evidence that there is a God.

Variant: If we want, we can reinterpret the paleontological and geological claims about how things were before observers as relativized to a component of the wavefunction, while exempting consciousness from this relativization–only where there are highly concentrated states is there consciousness. The Everett interpretation basically does this relativization for all claims. The present relativization is, I think, less problematic than the Everett one. First, it doesn’t branch intelligent agents or conscious states in the way the Everett interpretation does, a branching that generates the severely counterintuitive consequences of Everett’s theory. Second, I do not think it has the well-known serious philosophical problems with the interpretation of probability that the Everett interpretation suffers from: the probabilistic transitions all happen with intelligent observation, and are objectively chancy transitions with the probabilities being interpreted according to one’s favorite view of objective chances.

Final remarks: Why don’t I believe this story? Well, for one, I find myself incredulous at it. Second, we know that either quantum mechanics or relativity theory is false, and I see little reason to assign more credence to quantum mechanics. Third, I do want to preserve the claims of the special sciences, like biology and geology, without implausible relativization. Fourth, I am sceptical of (1), the idea that only intelligent observation collapses the wavefunction.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    A few observations:
    It is not clear that the state of universe as a superposition of physical states is in some way less real than the state of collapse in which only one physical state, namely the observed one, remains. The more natural way to think about the superposition is that all physical states in it are real, co-existing at the same time and in the same space. Schroedinger’s cat in the closed box exists as a superposition of both alive and dead at the same time – not as a superposition of possibly alive and possibly dead. The “collapse” does not entail an ontological transition from one nebulous substance into a concrete one, but consists of the disappearance of all co-existing physical states but one. This view, if anything, worsens the problem of animal suffering before the advent of humanity. On the other hand you are free to posit the less-than-real, thus consciouness-free, uncollapsed state of the universe before humankind, but the whole story looks kind of ad-hoc to me.
    About objection #2, if physical realism is false then there is no deception.
    About objection #3, the question is “better” for whom. There are probably better interpretations from the point of view of the physicalist for whom the idea of consciousness being a primary property of reality is anathema. But from the point of view of the agnostic, whose view is by definition neutral and thus matters more, NECI is probably the best interpretation.
    The Copenhagen story you give does not solve the problem of actual animal suffering.
    A neat solution of the problem of animal suffering, which in my judgment offers no conceptual problems whether ontological or theological, is based on the observation that whereas conscious experience entails at least one conscious subject, it may well be experienced by several conscious subjects – a condition we call empathy. I take it as given that God is a subject of all experience there is. In the case of humans we know that we too are subjects of our experience, which means that God has perfect empathy with us. In the case of animals though there is no reason to suppose that, similarly, they too are subjects. Thus one may posit that the only subject of animal experience is God. This solves the problem of animal suffering without suggesting any kind of deception. When we see an animal suffer, the suffering is real, albeit is experienced only by God (as well as to a small degree, through our imperfect empathy, by us).

    April 2, 2013 — 3:30
  • Dianelos:
    “The more natural way to think about the superposition is that all physical states in it are real, co-existing at the same time and in the same space. Schroedinger’s cat in the closed box exists as a superposition of both alive and dead at the same time – not as a superposition of possibly alive and possibly dead.”
    That doesn’t seem to me to be a natural way to think about superposition. Superpositions are vector sums. If my velocity is a superposition of 40 km/h north with 40 km/h east, I am not going north, and I am not going east, and I am not going 40 km/h. I am going 57 km/h northeast, a completely different property from the properties of going 40 km/h north and of going 40 km/h east. (The analogy is not exactly right, because of normalization.)
    Leaving living things out of it (I think living things have souls, which complicates matter), let’s take a glass. If it’s in |whole>+|broken>, it’s literally neither whole nor broken. To be whole, it would have to be in |whole>, and to be broken, it would have to be in |broken>. And it’s in neither state, so it is neither whole nor broken. (I am not denying classical logic here. There is nothing absurd about something being neither whole nor broken. A melted ice cube is neither whole nor broken.)

    April 2, 2013 — 14:16
  • Let me add that I do not say that the transition from a superposed to a non-superposed state is a transition from a less real to a more real state. Both states are real. The superposition between the glass being whole and the glass being broken is just as real a quantum state as the glass being whole. (It could be that although both quantum states are real, one of them is simpler or more natural.)
    Indeed, the state of the glass being whole is itself a superposition of |whole>+|broken> and |whole>-|broken>.
    Nonetheless, on the view I was suggesting, conscious states require physical correlates that are almost pure. That doesn’t mean that the very mixed states, say (3/5)|correlate of pain>+(4i/5)|correlate of pleasure>, are less real, just that they are not correlates of conscious states.

    April 2, 2013 — 14:24
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