I recently had a deep philosophical discussion with a friend from Persia. I always enjoy such discussions, and I found this one especially pleasant, because it seemed to give insight in how to live a better life. Oddly enough, this insight stemmed from quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics has many formulations, such as the path integral formulation (in which a particle, in moving from point A to point B, covers every possible path between the two points) and the many-worlds formulation (in which our universe is a superposition of an infinite number of universes, with one universe for every possible outcome of an interaction between quantum particles). These and other interpretations of quantum mechanics are all aimed at explaining that devilish feature of quantum mechanics known as the Uncertainty Principle. Simply put, at a sufficiently small scale, anything can happen, and there's no telling what will happen until it's already happened. Infinite possibilities, only one actuality.
Of course, when we move from the diminutive quantum perspective to the more familiar large-scale perspective known as normal life, we discover that statistical physics will have its say, and we face a new reality: the Second Law of Thermodynamics. There are many ways of stating the Second Law, but I like John Keynes's version best: “In the long run, we are all dead.” Batteries drain, stars burn out, black holes suck everything up, and if you random walk long enough, you always end up going the same direction: down.
On the one hand, freedom to choose from an infinite pool of possibilities, and on the other hand, complete slavery to an inevitable eventuality. During my discussion with my friend, it occurred to me that somewhere in between these two extremes is a funny thing called free will.
To me, the essence of free will is actions with consequences. Do what you want, then deal with the results of what you just did. Do actions have consequences on a quantum scale? Not really. Whether or not we can actually describe a particle as “making choices” it's usually free to undo those choices. Particles and anti-particles routinely pop in and out of existence, creating and annihilating themselves over and over. No consequence is permanent. On the grand scale, there is only one consequence, death, and all the actions in the universe lead only to death. Somewhere in between the two, there's us.
Like the universe, we're heading down. We're growing old and dying, slowly moving towards an inevitable future. But like individual particles, we're free to walk around. We don't have to head down; we can head in a different direction, and – this is the important part – keep heading there. Repetition is the ticket to getting things done. Any good athlete will tell you that success is not the result of any one action, but millions of actions directed towards one goal (in the case of our hypothetical athlete, these actions consist of such things as eating or not eating certain foods and long hours of working out at the gym).
Going back to the path integral formulation, imagine that you can move any direction you want, but you can only move in small steps. You've got to keep going that way. In the many-worlds formulation, all the worlds are possible, but it's hard to go from the actual world to the distant possibility of the desired world. You have to step through all the worlds in between.
There is an old German saying that goes: “You have to take life as it happens, but you should try to make it happen the way you want to take it.” Remember that. Live, act, do...and then deal with what comes next. That's how to live the better life. And now you can say you've learned something from quantum mechanics.
P.S. Cool article: We are Iron Man!
For the heavy metal/comic book/literary mystery fan in all of us.