Sunday, November 13, 2011

Possibly dead, possibly alive cats, or why I did well in Geometry

Have I mentioned how the ipad is cutting into my reading time? I'm still reading, but it takes me much longer to get through a book these days, and a certain slim piece of technology in a cute red leather cover is largely to blame. So maybe it was an attempt to make my ipad time less brain-melting that led me to one of my new favorite things: One-Minute Physics on youtube. I've always wanted to understand physics, and these little mini-lessons are short and simplified enough for my mostly unscientific mind to grasp.

So the other day I stumbled across this one:

Now, I had heard of Schrödinger's cat before, of course. I did attend a small liberal arts college, after all, and what else would they have been teaching us in such a place? But it either never made much of an impression on me, or I forgot about it, or something. The whole problem is interesting to me because it seems like a philosophy thing and not a physics thing, and I can't decide if I am right and physicists have their heads too far up their own asses, or if I am just not smart enough to understand that part of it. Possibly both of those options are true.

See what I just did there?

So at first, I was kind of stymied by this, and it seemed like one of those things where any religious person would be able to just shrug and say that of course [insert deity of choice] was the observer collapsing our reality to just one choice and shake their heads at those silly scientists. I mentioned it to Andria and she said "I know, it makes my stomach hurt to think about it." I could have looked up what other people have written about it, but I kind of liked having such a novel problem to mull over, so I tucked it away in the back of my mind and took it out to play with from time to time over the next few days. Here is what I decided:

This problem is based on the flawed idea that possibility=reality. Our observation of the cat has no real effect on the cat's status. Just as the cat seeing the powder keg explode or not seeing it explode really has no bearing on whether it did or didn't. Before we open the bunker and see the cat, it is already alive or dead. Just like before a baby is born, it is already a male or a female, whether or not the parents have chosen to find out the sex. It does not exist in a state of being either/or just because the parents haven't seen the goods yet. The whole thing actually reminds me of the kind of magical thinking that leads people to say that, for example, their prayers caused a suspicious lump to turn out not to be cancer. The lump is or is not cancer before it is ever detected or biopsied, and our observation of the test results, just like our thoughts and prayers while we wait for them, is incidental.


Thinking through this in such a logical, orderly way made me feel very happy with my little brain until, in an unrelated philosophical aside, I read about Saul Kripke. Oh well.

1 comment: said...

I love that video. But this post is way too much on a Tuesday morning before coffee. Too much smart thinking. I'll have to read if after my Friday night bong hits.

Kidding! Just kidding!