The Structure of Human Hope: speculations on immortality

In my previous posts (1, 2, 3), I've tried to be careful not to offer any speculation on the actual nature of resurrection or immortality. Instead, I've tried to follow the scriptures, and simply hold out trust and confidence in a God who is continually leading humanity to higher and higher levels of growth and progress, who cares for each one of us individually, and who never lets any of us go.

I think that is a secure and sound foundation for our hope.

But here, I want to offer a little in the way of speculation. Most people are unaware that science actually suggests a concrete and physically-real immortality. They are unaware because scientists are largely unsure what to do with it philosophically, and so simply choose to ignore it.

They are unsure how to handle it philosophically because philosophy is built on human intuition, and the areas of science that deal in issues of immortality are quite counter-intuitive. I'm talking, of course, about Quantum Mechanics.

Let me be clear here. Nothing in the scriptures suggest what I'm about to describe. I believe the scriptures are consistent with what I'm saying, but they do not tell us this information. We should not expect them to. The scriptures encourage a deep confidence in God's care and protection of us, and leave discussion of the afterlife to exactly that. We must leave the rest of the details up to science.

So here is what science tells us.

According to the mathematics of Quantum Mechanics, the results of any event are probabilistic. Flip a coin, and there's a 50% chance it will come up heads, and a 50% chance it will come up tails. Shoot a gun into the air, and there's a large chance the bullet will fall harmlessly to the ground. But there is a small chance it will fall in precisely the right manner to kill someone else. This much seems straight-forward.

But Quantum Mechanics doesn't actually say sometimes one thing happens, and sometimes another thing happens. It actually says that in all cases, both things happen. When you flip a coin, the math doesn't specify that it might come down heads or tails, it specifies that the coin came down 50% heads and 50% tails. When you shoot a bullet into the air, it specifies that the bullet came down 99% harmless, and 1% fatal. Further, it specifies that your bullet-victim is not actually alive or dead, but 99% alive, and 1% dead.

There are two ways you can interpret this bizarre science. One - it doesn't really have anything to do with reality. Two - it has everything to do with reality. In Quantum Mechanics, they call interpretation one the "Copenhagen Interpretation". Interpretation two is called the "Many Worlds Interpretation".

The Copenhagen Interpretation was the prevailing interpretation for many years, simply because the alternatives were unthinkable. But the Copenhagen Interpretation doesn't come without costs. In order to deal with the discrepancy between the math and the observed reality, they had to invent a new effect - an effect in which the person who observes the flipping coin mysteriously "decides" which result actually happens. This is as bothersome as the alternatives they were trying to avoid, and has resulted in a slew of pseudo-scientific quantum mysticism. More importantly, it doesn't actually explain anything. It doesn't suggest a way in which this phenomenon works, and it simply assumes this phenomenon into existence.

In contrast, the Many Worlds Interpretation doesn't assume anything other than what the mathematics already tell us. It simply takes the mathematics at their word, and accepts the troublesome fact: our universe consists of an infinity of different histories.

When the coin is flipped, the mathematics tell us the truth: history splits into two streams, one in which the coin lands heads-up, and the other in which it lands tails-up. When the bullet is shot, history splits into a stream in which it comes down harmlessly, signaling the start of a race, and a stream in which it comes down fatally, killing an innocent bystander, causing scandal, grief, and possibly revenge. Every decision we make, every event that happens, results in a splitting of history into two or more streams of results.

Many people find this picture appalling. But to me, it makes a deep sense. It gives a deep meaning to the concept of free will - rather than constrain us to a single history in which every move is predetermined, it gives us the vast expanse of possibility in which to truly and actually flex our decision-making capability. Only in this picture are the various alternatives presented to us actually real.

I mentioned that the Copenhagen Interpretation has been the prevailing interpretation for many years. For many people, this is still true. But among the physicists most involved with the relevant areas of science (Stephen Hawking, etc), the Many Worlds Interpretation now (rightly) prevails. The math is simply too convincing, and the alternative is not just another interpretation, but actually requires inventing a new effect to make it fit our preferred view of the world. That's not how science is supposed to work.

So the Many Worlds Interpretation appears to be correct, and the consequence is that we now have to adjust our view of reality to deal with living in a multiverse instead of a universe. As with all scientific discoveries, this will require a lot of rethinking. But that is exactly why we value science - it shows us the world as it really is, not as we expect it to be.

There are a lot of significant consequences to this understanding, but I only want to deal with one at the moment. That is, of course, immortality.

A moment's thought will show why the Many Worlds Interpretation is relevant to mortality. Most people's deaths are highly dependent on random probability - whether one leaves their house a minute earlier or later, which cells get exposed to the sun, how the blood clots flow through the bloodstream. Without too much effort, we can probably all think of times when, if something went a little differently, we would be dead now. According to the Many Worlds Interpretation, those situations actually went both ways, and in one history, you died, and in this history, you lived.

If you can contemplate that for a minute, you may begin to ask yourself why you are the one alive right now. And science's answer is that you are actually a stream of branching histories, spreading out through the multiverse, trying out every experience in the realm of possibility.

At the moment of potential death, there are always at least two paths forward - one in which you die, another in which by the slightest chance, you survive. But it should be obvious that you will never experience the path in which you are dead. Instead, as you come to the moment of death, you will see only the path forward in which you survive.

And naturally, there are histories in which you die. But on the scale of the multiverse, these histories are not dead ends, they are rocks in the stream, diverting the flow.

Your death is then never the end. It is, instead, the diversion of your life into other paths through the multiverse. You will never notice this diversion - instead, your life will continue on in more and more interesting histories.

For those of us who experience your death, this will naturally and rightly be a sad thing. We will miss your presence with us in our history. But for you, history never ends. Without skipping a beat - you continue on, living your life on the same earth, with many of the same people - but in a different history than we are left to experience.

And so tonight, you can step out on your porch, look up at the stars, and know that you have billions and billions of years in which to explore and experience this magnificent, unfathomable universe.