“The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived.”
– Erwin Schrödinger
“Schrödinger was wrong.”
– Ben Hunt
Most people confuse Schrödinger’s Cat with the Observer Effect. It’s a lot weirder and more important than that.
Here’s what Schrödinger’s Cat is NOT. There’s a live cat inside a box, and the act of opening the box to see the cat will break one of two glass vials also inside the box. If Glass Vial A is broken, a deadly poison is emitted that kills the cat. If Glass Vial B is broken, nothing happens and the cat stays alive. This is an example of an Observer Effect – that the act of observation determines the outcome.
In the true Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, the poison gas vial isn’t broken by the observer opening the box, but could break open by chance over some period of time. As in the Observer Effect experiment, though, there’s no way to know if the cat is alive or dead without opening the box. After you open the box, the observer knows for sure whether the cat is dead or alive. But before you open the box?
The insight of Schrödinger’s Cat is that the cat is alive AND the cat is dead before the box is opened. It’s not merely unknown whether the cat is alive or dead. The cat is actually alive AND actually dead at the same time.
Wait a second, Ben. What do you mean the cat is actually alive AND actually dead at the same time? Obviously that’s not true. The cat is either alive OR dead. There is a state of the world where the cat is dead, and there is a state of the world where the cat is alive. Maybe we can’t know whether the cat is alive or dead, but it MUST be one or the other. That’s reality.
Schrödinger is saying no, that’s not reality. Schrödinger is saying that reality is – in reality – probabilistic. That the actual physical reality is that the cat is both alive AND dead at the same time. Maybe our human experience of reality does not allow us to have pets that are alive and dead at the same time, but that’s our fault, not reality’s fault.
I’m being a little facetious, because Schrödinger developed his famous thought experiment as a critique of quantum physics, and it’s now used to describe different theories of superpositioning in that weird world, where the smallest building blocks of nature should theoretically exist in multiple states of nature simultaneously. In the macro world of real-life humans doing real-life things, a cat is truly either alive or dead, not both.
I think, though, that it’s not just quantum reality where Schrödinger’s Cat exists. What we’re seeing with the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing yesterday is a social reality where Schrödinger’s Cat also lives.
It is the act of observing that resolves the superpositioning of a cat that is both alive AND dead. If you open the box to look at the cat, you will experience either a dead cat OR a live cat. There is no third state of the world here, no middle ground to be had where the cat is both alive and dead. Same with the Kavanaugh hearings. If you observed the hearings, you opened the box.
Before the Kavanaugh hearings, our social reality allowed the superpositioning of two states of the world, a cat that was both alive AND dead, a specific sexual assault that happened AND a specific sexual assault that didn’t. What do I mean by social superpositioning? I mean that we as citizens weren’t forced to take sides, that citizens who would only later find themselves within totally different states of the world could continue living in the same political reality.
After the Kavanaugh hearings, there’s no more social superpositioning. The cat is alive OR the cat is dead. Again, I’m talking states of the world, not credibility or evidence or arguments or whatever. There is a state of the world where Kavanaugh assaulted Ford in 1982, and there is a state of the world where he did not. Pick one. Now. And once you’ve picked, you no longer co-exist in the same political reality as someone who picked differently. You are truly – and I mean this in a very literal sense – in different worlds. Those different worlds are, in the terminology of one of the main strands of quantum physics, decohered, meaning that they have ZERO connection of any sort with each other. The respective universes go on operating as if the other did not exist. If we both open the box, and I experience a different state of the world than you, then I am – again literally – dead to you.
If you’ve spent a nanosecond on social media over the past 24 hours, you know exactly what I mean.
The last time I experienced a national Schrödinger’s Cat moment, where significant portions of the population experienced mutually exclusive and decohered realities? The OJ Simpson trial. That was a black/white thing. This is bigger, or at least more evenly divided. Which makes it worse.
And unfortunately, once your state of the world has been set, it can’t be reset. That’s the other thing about the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment … it doesn’t run backwards. Once you’ve resolved the superpositioning into one state of the world or the other, you can’t go back.
If you believe in the Ford state of the world today, there’s no waking up in two weeks and thinking, “hmm, maybe the Kavanaugh state of the world could be right. Who knows, really?” Ditto if you believe in the Kavanaugh state of the world. This isn’t a mean-reverting phenomenon. We never go back to a fuzzy probabilistic world where “both sides” can co-exist in a superpositioned social reality.
THIS is what it means to have a widening gyre of politics. There’s no reset button. There’s no walking back the experience of opening these boxes – what I call decoherence events – that are forced on us by both the Democrats AND the Republicans.
A dead Schrödinger’s Cat stays dead.
For more on what it means to have a widening gyre of American politics, see “Things Fall Apart (Part 1)”.
For more on what it means to have decoherence events forced on us by political entrepreneurs of both parties, see “Always Go To The Funeral”.
For an oldie but goodie Epsilon Theory note on Schrödinger and investing, see “Schrödinger’s Portfolio”.