The famous Schrodinger’s Cat problem is much more complicated (and, perhaps interesting) than I’m going to make it here, but for my purposes, it’s all about how reality affects possibility.
The basic description of the problem is that an airtight box exists, inside which we place a cat and the exact amount of poisonous gas whereby the cat has precisely a 50% chance of dying. The problem comes when we ask, before looking in the box, “is the cat alive or dead?” We don’t know and neither answer is more likely than the other. In some sense, the cat is both alive and dead, because reality has not yet come to bear on possibility. Until we open the box, the cat is both or neither. Yes, the cat is either alive or dead, but until we look, we can’t know.
This problem speaks to the role of an observer in reality and asks a lot of questions about whether there is some “higher” observer of our universe that forces our possibilities to become realities. Those are cool questions, but almost definitely beyond my ability to tackle today (or, probably, ever). I am
interested, though, in what this perspective has to say about our own prior actions.
My family loves to play board games. Upon marrying into said family, my wife, almost immediately, noticed (to her chagrin) that my brothers and I spend an inordinate amount of time after each round, hand, or game, analyzing prior play. We talk about strategy and possibility and alternatives while my wife would rather just get on with what’s next.
I think this analytical nature, while helpful to learn and change moving forward, hasn’t actually served me well overall. I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time looking backwards. I hate to fail. Most people do, but I seem to have a more difficult time than most, especially if a poor choice, on my part, is likely the culprit.
When I watch Jeopardy, I’m much less bothered by the questions to which I don’t know the answer than I am by the questions whose answers exist in my brain, but I’m unable to recall. The notion that I could’ve answered correctly under different circumstances bothers me.
I suspect this is a trait many perfectionists share. Lots of hesitation and second guessing. In school, I typically did all my assignments at the last possible moment, because, if I’d finished earlier than the deadline, I’d obsess over how to improve upon the assignment and stress myself out. Not everyone obsesses about the possible as often or as deeply as I do, but we all obsess about the possible at some time or another.
Imagine I’m playing ball in the house and knock my mom’s glass vase off the shelf and it shatters on the floor. When she comes into the room, I have two choices. Well, I have infinite choices, but they all boil down to two main categories: 1) take responsibility; 2) attempt to avoid blame. In hindsight, most of us would’ve preferred to go with option 1; in the moment, we’re less sure.
This is how nearly all of our regrets come about. We have a choice. We reject the choice we later believe we should have made. If its a big enough regret, we can get caught up in shame and guilt and self-hatred that really takes a toll on us and our psyche… and pretty much everyone around us. If we obsess about all our mistakes the way I obsess about Jeopardy answers or board games, life is pretty miserable.
What if I told you, though, the actions you took were the only actions you could have taken?
That might be a relief to the conscience, but it doesn’t really ring true. Clearly, in the moment of the broken vase, there are two possibilities: own up or deflect. I wonder, though, if this isn’t like Schrodinger’s cat. We may have two theoretical options in the moment, both very real, very possible, but its only with hindsight, with action, that we can see which one was actualized.
I’m not arguing for a fully pre-determined world here. By no means. I do believe in choice. I don’t, though, believe in unencumbered choice, uninfluenced choice – and I don’t think anyone else does either. We’re not – none of us – as perfectly free as we’d like to think we are. We’re all governed by the past.
Yes, I could possibly have apologized to my mother, taken responsibility, and refused to lie or blame-shift in that moment; I was physically capable of doing so. I might argue, though, that in that moment, that particular action was actually impossible. I could not have acted differently because I didn’t. Beforehand, anything was possible, at least in my mind, because it hadn’t happened yet. Once it did happen, though, it was the only thing that could’ve happened.
Maybe certain physicists are correct and there is a multiverse out there in which every possibility is a reality in some particular universe. But in this world, in this universe, in the reality in which we’re all living right now, the only thing that could’ve happened is what did happen, because that’s what happened.
We can go back farther than that moment, of course. Perhaps if I’d been punished more severely the previous time I’d lied to my mother, it would’ve changed what happened in the moments following the breaking of the vase. Maybe if I’d seen her cry over my betrayal instead of her retreating the bedroom to mourn my disobedience, my later reactions would’ve been different.
Of course, the same logic that says my action in the incident of the broken vase was determined, means those prior actions were also determined – by the actions that preceded them – and so on and so forth to the beginning of existence.
This is the essence of the Prime Mover argument for the existence of God, by the way. Everything is influenced by everything that’s come before it, so either existence has always existed or there was some source by which all that is came into existence. There’s a lot to think about in that argument, too – but it’s also beside my current point.
What I think we need to learn from this whole concept is not to look back, but to look forward. That doesn’t mean we should leave the past unexamined – in fact, the very act of examining and evaluating the past may be the instrument for changing the future – it just means we shouldn’t worry so much about what I could’ve done differently in some past decision, but we should focus on how our prior actions might inform our future choices. How do I become the kind of person who makes fewer regrettable choices moving forward?
The bad news is, there’s no real way to get out of this cycle. We can’t find a reference point outside our own existence by which to influence what happens within it. We can’t omnisciously control our own lives any more than God can (hey, here’s another complicated argument for another time; we’re up to three now), but, I think, an embrace of this process does help us have faith in the future.
What I have noticed about the world, is that each of our choices, whether positive or negative, influences us in a positive direction. You may argue that’s not true and give evidence of people who’s lives have spiraled into a morass of sinister evil, one sin compounding upon another until redemption seems impossible.
You’re not wrong, but this is where my Christian perspective comes into play. Christianity teaches that we’re living in an eternity (ironically, this belief might be more consistent with the notion of an eternal past over that of a Prime Mover, but this is, alas, a fourth complex distraction we don’t have time to address today). That means our physical death – perhaps at the bottom of this evil downward spiral – is not actually the end of the story.
Given an infinite amount of time, redemption is the only possible future.
The only thing that ever gets us in trouble in our decision making is a prioritizing of short term thinking. If we’re operating in fight or flight mode, for example, we’re only thinking about the immediate results of our actions, which may lead us to make choices we’ll later regret.
Even if we’re forward-thinking, through – willing to sacrifice the immediate best result for an improved result down the line – we may not be (or even be capable) of thinking far enough ahead. What seems like the right decision two years later, may prove, in hindsight, the wrong decision a further two years beyond that.
Thus, the only time we make the wrong decision is when we’re not thinking far enough ahead. In an infinity, we have both an infinite amount of future time to consider, but also an infinite amount of time to learn to think farther ahead.
Experience also tells us there is a “rock bottom” for almost everyone. There’s a moment in which we’re so obsessed with the immediate that our compoundingly poor choices become so immanent to our experience that we’re thrown out of that downward death spiral and finally capable of making a better choice – largely because there’s now no worse choice available to us, there is no shorter term for us to falsely consider a priority.
At the very least – an absolute worst case scenario – in a world of infinite time, we’re getting infinitely closer to that rock bottom with each increasingly poor choice, but never reaching it. This is basically what people, who believe in Hell, mean when they talk about Hell.
In a world of infinite future, with infinite time and infinite choices, the chances of that worst case scenario are infinitesimally small. If there is just one outcome from which redemption is impossible, where “rock bottom” is actually unreachable, then there are a near-infinite number of outcomes where redemption is possible.
Now, by this same logic, the chances of a perfect redemption are also infinitesimally small. There’s only one possible outcome in which our choices become so positively influenced as to eliminate entirely the impact of negative choices – a sort of escape velocity from the orbit of sin, if you will. However, between these two extremes, there’s an almost infinite number of possible infinite futures that hold the hope of redemption.
That might sound hopeless, but this is where we can go back to Schrodinger’s Cat. The unknown reality in the box is only unknown so long as the gas inside provides a perfectly equal chance of the cat living or dying. If that balance is off, the likelihood of one result or the other improves.
We sometimes take for granted an existence in which the forces of selfishness and selflessness are eternal opposites, pushing in different directions towards diametrically opposed ends. I’m not sure this is a given, though. Certainly from the creation of the universe, this has been the case – the trajectory of those two forces were divergent.
One of the great mysteries of Christian faith – or at least one of the challenges – is our struggle to describe the tangible change wrought by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We’re pretty good at spiritualizing the difference before and after, but we’ve not always been great at naming what is genuinely different in the world.
What if the result of God’s intervention through Christ was an ever so slight alteration of the cosmic trajectory of those two forces: selfishness and love? What if their divergent paths were skewed just past parallel to ensure an inevitable merging in some far future? What if there is some future moment, determined and set in stone, when our desire for self-fulfillment will be entirely satisfied by and aligned to a complete emptying of self?
In a world of complete determinism, we’re stuck between the extremes. The possibility of an eternally degenerating hell or the achieving of some miraculous escape velocity from the cycle of success and failure are so minuscule as to be illusory. But, if the elemental forces of the universe are not actually speeding away from each other, but instead gradually approaching, there is nothing but hope and optimism for the eternity to come. There’s no way to necessarily prove it, of course, but this is the Christian hope.
While our futures are, in many ways, determined by the past, they are not mindlessly or randomly determined. Love exists. And love expressed, is love compounded. There is a force in the universe that is working in each of our infinities to push us towards the preferred future and away from the worse case scenario. We are not equally likely to move towards one extreme or the other; the cat has a much higher chance of being alive than dead. In fact, if we persist long enough, the cat can only be alive. This is why some of us, who believe in Hell, believe its likely no one will end up there.
Given infinite time and infinite possibility, I believe in love.
**And, even if life is limited to the 80-odd years we get on this Earth, or if, biologically, we’re someday capable of extending life indefinitely, or, perhaps, if infinity is not, in fact, destined towards anything at all, then, even still, when it all comes down to it: love still seems pretty worth pursuing.