Shadows and the concept of self
By Giulio Prisco and Richard L. Miller
March 11, 2005
Let us begin with the dead cat in the box — or maybe it is the live cat. Or maybe both, depending upon how the radioisotope decayed during the time of the original thought experiment. Or maybe, it really took place. Somewhere. Someplace. Or maybe not. Or maybe the cat is only a shadow, and its source is not really a cat (look closely at the picture above).
Regardless, everyone knows which cat we are discussing – the poor feline belonging to the famous Dr. Schroedinger. In just about every Quantum 101 book available, the cat at one time or another seems to be in a strange superposition somewhere between alive and, well, not alive. There it is: the line drawing of the standing tabby standing ghostlike astride the dotted outline of the reclining tabby. Alive and dead, all at the same time and same place. Welcome to the strange world of the quantum.
Or something like that. If one were to believe the believers, business like this – a complex fuzz of probabilities likes just behind the curtain, just behind the box and just around the bend. If no one has quite measured it yet, then maybe it doesn’t quite exist. . . yet. Unless of course, the object being measured happens to be a sentient being other than a cat.
Or does it (I)?
As anyone who has pursued the receding spectre of decoherence can attest, measurement is a funny thing. What, exactly, does a measurement consist of anyway? Can a measurement be qualitative — as in “I see the cat in the box and she’s alive”? If so, then simple observation seems to be the base criteria for measurement. If we perceive something, then it exists.
Or does it (II)?
One of us (RM) wrote a novel a few years ago in which one of the main characters was a case-hardened Copenhagen theorist – nothing existed unless he observed it. Theoretically, if he was alone in his room at night, then the world outside was only a ghostly stew of probabilities. By observing them, he brought them to life. He was the world’s most extreme solipsist – not only was he the only person who truly existed, but he was the rest of the world’s creator. It was a terrible responsibility; but one he thoroughly and completely ignored. Needless to say, he was a difficult person to deal with, and the other characters in the novel complained strenuously.
And yet, as countless philosophers have pointed out, how do we know this is not the actual situation? Observation and experience notwithstanding, there likely remains that nagging voice in our minds that maybe we are the only ones here, that our position is unique. In a singular universe, with events happening along a single time-line stretching north into the future, this concept can’t work very well. But if our selves inhabit multiple frames of reference across many layers of probabilities, then all bets are (no pun intended) off.
A few months ago one of us (GP) sent a post to several mailing lists, outlining the shadow metaphor described below.
The post received many replies, in particular one from RM, who authored the novel “Dreamer“, stating that this view of fundamental physics could naturally accommodate the phenomena described in the novel. GP purchased Dreamer and was very much impressed as shown by his review.
This article is an adapted and expanded version of the original post, with new ideas contributed by both authors. We think that, while Everett‘s Relative State formulation of quantum mechanics makes a lot of sense, its popular interpretation as “Many Worlds” (MWI) should be taken only as a simple pictorial device useful for a first understanding of the theory.
As a more accurate interpretation, we propose thinking of perceived realities as shadows of a more complex reality. We suspect this is what some authors, perhaps including Everett himself, were trying to say, and that others may have said it explicitly (see Lockwood’s quotes below).
We will use poor Schroedinger’s cat as an example. Following Everett, the cat is in a superposition of [cat dead] and [cat alive] states before an observer opens the box and looks inside, and stays so after (there is no collapse).
After opening the box and looking inside, the observer is in a superposition of [observer who remembers having seen the cat dead] and [observer who remembers having seen the cat alive].
The MWI says that after the act of observation (measurement) the universe is split in two branches where the first has [cat dead] and [observer who remembers having seen the cat dead], and the second has [cat alive] and [observer who remembers having seen the cat alive]. The difficulty with this interpretation (when it is taken too literally) is: on the one hand we are saying that fundamental reality contains no such things as cats dead or alive, but on the other hand we are describing the world(s) with cats dead and cats alive.
To clarify the first part of the statement: as we can choose any two directions to form a basis to use for the description of a particle’s spin, all choices generating equally valid descriptions, besides [cat dead] and [cat alive] we should be free to use another basis to describe the cat. While any pair of independent linear superpositions of [cat dead] and [cat alive] will do, of course you have no idea of what such a superposition would “look like”.
Since you cannot remember having ever seen one, you do not know what a superposition of [cat dead] and [cat alive] would look like, so probably you would not recognise one if you saw it. Perhaps this is the reason why you cannot remember having ever seen one.
In other words, perhaps since reality is One Big World too complex for our minds to process efficiently, we use a simplified representation as Many (small) Worlds for our processing. This is not so surprising when we remember that our best computer programs use data compression and segmentation techniques, throwing most of the information away, to perform complex tasks such as face recognition efficiently. Perhaps reducing a complex reality to parallel worlds is a successful evolutionary trick that sentient beings have developed to process reality more efficiently.
We believe thinking of shadows may be a better mental device than thinking of parallel worlds. Using this model the realities that you, and your doubles in other branches of the MWI model, perceive can be thought of as shadows of a more complex reality. Observing a shadow permits saying certain things about its source, like size and overall shape, but not other things like colour and smell. The shadow does not contain such information. Also, much of what we can say about shadows has more to do with illumination and the surface where the shadow is cast than with the actual source.
In the image above, imagine the sources moving and rotating in in such a way as to change the shadows they are projecting onto the wall. In terms of this analogy, the two-dimensional surface of the wall is the physical reality that you perceive, and *you* are one of the shadows on the wall. Thinking of multiple worlds as shadows brings us back to Plato’s cave, but there are two important differences: First, each of us observes shadows of the *real* world in a very large number of caves in parallel. Second, we are shadows ourselves, our mental computational processes being shadows of other, possibly much more complex, computational processes.
In our view of the world, saying “your mental computational processes” is just another way to say “you”. So what are you a shadow of? We don’t know, but perhaps by observing the shadow we can develop some plausible assumptions on the source.
We are conscious being: though we are not able to put our fingers precisely on what consciousness *is*, we know that it is a property that each of us posseses. And most experts believe that consciousness must have something to do with complexity: if a computational process is complex enough, it may become a conscious process.
So, since it seems reasonable to think that a source must have a degree of complexity not lower than its shadow, we should consider the possibility that we are shadows cast by conscious sources. Following Greg Egan who outlined something similar in his novel “Quarantine“, we can use the term “smeared self” to indicate such a source. Your smeared self is simultaneously conscious of a very large number of Everett branches, and you, who can only perceive one, are the shadow that your smeared self is casting on this specific branch. The mental activity of your smeared self may well be much more complex than yours, and perhaps the interaction between us who wrote this very speculative and imprecise note, and you who are reading it, is the shadow of a much more complex interaction between our smeared selves.
The concept of “smeared self” is similar to the concept of “Mind” proposed by Michael Lockwood in e.g. “Many Minds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics“. Some relevant excerpts are quoted at the end of this paper.
Lockwood’s paper is difficult but very interesting. We recommend also the companion paper “Many Minds Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics: Replies to Replies“, where Lockwood answers the objections of other quantum theorists to his views.
The image above can provide a further “feeling” this concept. Suppose the two coloured images on the wall are thinking and feeling conscious entities, call them “alice” and “bob” for clarity. Self awareness gives them the ontologic status of “persons”. At the same time, they are the shadows of two much more complex entities, their smeared selves Alice and Bob. As Alice and Bob move and rotate in their higher dimensional space, they cast shadows (local versions of alice and bob) on countless walls (local realities). As in the MWI “other times are special cases of other universes”, this model is atemporal: alice now, and alice at other moments of her life, are shadows of the same Alice.
Assuming Alice and Bob themselves are thinking and feeling conscious entities, perhaps they are no more conscious of any local alice and bob than we are conscious of the activities of each single cell in our bodies. Perhaps their mental activities “run” in a computational space where none of the concepts familiar to alice and bob makes sense.
But in some sense they are “present” in each and every local reality, as the hidden sources of whatever their shadows think and do. We are consciously aware of only a very small part of the information available to our smeared selves, but perhaps some mental subsystem, that we are never or rarely conscious of, has access to more information. By analogy with the Z-buffer used in computer graphics to hold the properties of pixels not seen from a given perspective, we can indicate this subsystem as Z. It seem reasonable to assume that the information available to Z is mainly confined to a thin slice of the multiverse (short term memories and “memories” of other “close” realities including future times) and fades away with “distance” according to a multiverse metric. It is then tempting to identify Z with Hilgard’s Hidden Observer. Perhaps under some circumstances, e.g. deep hypnosis or altered consciousness states, some “memories” of “close” realities in Z may leak through and become available for retrieval. This would provide an explanation for the (fictional) circumstances described in “Dreamer” and experimental findings such as those of the PEAR lab and the Global Consciousness Project.
A short article by RM, titled “Soul, Spacetime and The Hidden Observer“, has recently been published on Transhumanity. In the article RM explores the train of thought behind the fictional events in “Dreamer”:
“One of the theories of quantum physics requires spacetime to continuously branch off into parallel universes as time progresses. Suddenly the road of my life became a multi-lane highway stretching from the past to the future. Row upon row of still images — all the”nows” that happened, alongside the ones that never were. And this wasn’t science fiction, but a view backed by one of the most successful theories in modern physics.”
and asks questions about the difficult concept of “soul”, which we had managed to avoid mentioning in this article so far.
Exactly which soul is taking care of business next door in hyperspace? What about the universe where I didn’t make it past my teen years? Are they all me? How can one soul watch over all those parallel universes — there supposedly are an infinite number — without getting, well, a little confused?
The considerations in this article can, we hope, provide some glimpses to the source of our shadow world where, we suspect, the answer to this last question can be found.
Another metaphor, pictorially different but conceptually equivalent, is outlined below.
Let’s stop for a moment and imagine oneself existing in a three-dimensional world as a two-dimensional object – a circle, say, printed on the surface of a two-dimensional leaf of paper. Packed adjacent to it, fore and aft are other pages, similar except for one or two tiny but perceptible details. Now imagine thousands or millions of these pages, each describing environments surrounding that central circle – the self. Yourself.
Now, remove a page and look at it. What do you see? A section of self, a single layer. But if you somehow can x-ray the column of pages (in computerese, the Z-space) you see the three-dimensional object “extended” through the stack. Now, imagine that you can animate the circles on each page – make them move one at a time in the two-dimensional layers like shadows across a stack of film.
Now, as a final exercise, imagine a surface connecting the edges of the circles, and you have the topology of self across a multiply-structured universe. Each thin slice is an object existing in block spacetime – a smeared shadow of the larger object existing in Z-space.
And of course, the obvious response is, “what does this get us?”
For one thing, this characterization of “self” as shadows or versions smeared across multiple probabilities allows each of us to inhabit multiple realities at the same time. Not a particularly appetizing scenario, unless you happen to be a scientist trying to figure out how decoherence works. Invoking the well-worn example of Young’s double-slit experiment, while your self in Z-space views the electron traveling through both slits; your practical single-layer-oriented self chooses to perceive just one. The electron doesn’t choose one or the other slit, you choose to see one or the other. There’s no decoherence, only choice. Chalk up one for Bohr. . . and Everett.
Another helpful attribute of the “smeared shadow” model is how it may explain entanglement as merely connections elsewhere in Z-space (Hilbert Space, Argand Plane or “stack” for this term — we’re not particular.)
A third plus for this model is how it explains some of the more problematic experimental results coming from the Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne’s Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory as well as those documented recently by Dean Radin and twenty years earlier by physicist Helmut Schmidt in his famous delayed-choice based “retro pk” experiments. A conscious entity existing as a stack of “selves” in Z-space could “choose” from a smorgasbord of possibilities that match selected outcomes.
Of course, Schmidt’s experiments (perfectly proper delayed choice exercises masquerading as “reverse causation” experiments) involved groups of students who managed to “influence” choices made months before. This set of experiments, in fact, used random number generators that were eventually used to “predict” future events based on anomalies in the output stream.
Groups? Do groups exist in Z-space?
Put another way, is there such a thing as group consciousness? Jungian psychologists would consider the question absurd: of course there is group consciousness, and would point out that French sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested a “consciousness collective” in the early 20th century.
If the self existed as a densely packed set of layers across a set of probabilities, then “self” can be both a unique object in manyworld spacetime as well as a connected object on a 4-D manifold. It would seem then, that consciousness and Everett quantum mechanics can be both linked and described by standard algebraic topology.
Which is fine, of course: quantification is always considered a good thing, even for psychologists. But is there evidence for this sort of thing in the real world? Is there evidence that the conscious self can experience the Z-space of the Many World topology?
There is evidence to suggest the answer is yes.
In the late 1970’s a clinical hypnotist, quite by accident, learned of a structure located very deep in the mind that is apparently associated with an executive function. That is, it manages the various sub-personalities and specialists that inhabit our conscious work space. The researcher who discovered this entity, E.I. Hilgard, called it “the Hidden Observer”.
One meets one’s Hidden Observer through hypnosis, and getting there is not easy. Clinical hypnotists measure hypnosis in terms of perceived hypnotic depth, with 0-40 being the “usual range” obtained after a few sessions – and 41-130 being the range of “very deep hypnosis”, attainable only after many, many sessions. While the usual range of 0-40 is associated with light sleep, the deeper end involves perceptions of time and space that are unlike any normally encountered. Patients venturing into this dark zone report that “‘peaceful’ is not a meaningful word,”, ‘the body is a thing left behind’, ‘time is a meaningless concept beyond this level,’ and the self is seen as a ‘tiny ripple at the far fringes of an infinite sea of consciousness’.
Tart, CT. Measuring the depth of an altered state of consciousness, with particular refernce to self-report scales of hypnotic depth. In E. Fromm and R.E. Shor (Eds.) Hypnosis: Research developments and perspectives.. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton. 168, 169, 183.
Hilgard. Op cit. p. 169.
If such an arduous journey is required to meet the Hidden Observer, it is reasonable to assume that the entity resides, psychologically speaking, in a very deep place. If we may be permitted a topological/physics perspective, the percipients’ description suggest nothing so much as a visit to Hilbert Space.
So finally we arrive here: If many-worlds exist, then consciousness must exist in each viable world. If we exist on multiple worlds, it is reasonable to assume connections between equivalent elements among different worlds, thus giving rise to consciousness over multiple worlds (Z-space). Moreover, there is evidence for the existence of a structure that actually navigates this topology, guiding the perceived “self” on a path through the various possibilities.
Thus, we return to Schroedinger’s cat, a creature both alive and dead in the Multiverse, but apparently only one or the other in our own limited perspective. Visualizing him (or her) in all possible states may be counterintuitive in the instant slice of reality we refer to as our “real world”. Should we view Shroedinger’s cat as a single entity in a box or a multiplicity of entities of which we can perceive to every single one?
In the final analysis, we not only perceive Schroedinger’s cat, but choose between its many manifestations and incarnations. In the final analysis, the world may indeed be ours. And everyone’s.
All at the same time.
References on Hilgard’s Hidden Observer:
Hilgard, Ernest R. Divided Consciousness: Multiple Controls in Human Thought and Action, John Wiley and Songs, New York. 1986. p. 209
Excerpts from Michael Lockwood “Many Minds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”:
A many mind theory, like a many worlds theory, supposes that, associated with a sentient being at any given time, there is a multiplicity of distinct conscious points of view. But a many minds theory holds that it is these conscious points of view or “minds”, rather than “worlds”, that are to be conceived as literally dividing or differentiating over time…
The use of the term “world” or “universe”, in the context of a so-called “many worlds” or “many universes” view, introduces an ambiguity. For there is clearly a sense in which even an advocate of a “many universes” view would concede that there is just one universe: what, as we saw earlier, is sometimes referred to as the multiverse. A similar distinction is called for in the context of a many minds view. There is a sense in which I can regard myself as having just one mind. I could call this my multimind, but the word is not a very euphonious one, and in what follows I shall therefore mark the distinction by writing “Mind” where I mean multimind…
The common sense assumption that this history [one one’s mind] is unique is, I suggest, a figment of memory, which confines the gaze of consciousness to a kind of “tunnel vision” directed downwards in the experiential manifold. We cannot look “sideways” through the manifold, any more than we can look “upwards” into the future.