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In Shrodinger's cat, it seems our ignorance of the cat's state of existence places the cat in superposition of being in both states simultaneously. But since all of us exist in a state of not knowing when and how we are going to die, does that mean we also exist in superposition?

closed as unclear what you're asking by John Am, Alexander S King, Not_Here, Conifold, John Slegers Jul 25 '17 at 23:51

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  • Technically, we are in a superposition since according to quantum mechanics everything is. But for all practical purposes this is negligible because we are macroscopic. Confusing knowing and not knowing things with quantum superpositions is a common error discussed on Physics SE, see Is my baby's gender an example of Schrodinger's cat? One can be uncertain about things in perfectly classical ways. – Conifold Jul 24 '17 at 23:12
  • Ummm...I'm not familiar with any proposition in quantum mechanics holding that everything is in a state of superposition and I'm fairly certain there is a substantial difference between not knowing and being incapable of knowing. – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 23:17
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    And to Not_Here's defense, you are calling on a very specific phenomena in a very demanding theory. The problem with hoping that people just accept your sentiment, rather than digging into technicalities, is that these tools you are wielding have very powerful implications that are ignored if the technicalities are not paid attention to. – Cort Ammon Jul 25 '17 at 2:06
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    @JohnNotwen based on your comments, this is a primarily opinion based question, so it's not really appropriate for the format of this site. Here some examples so that you can make your question more objective: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/1210/… and philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/32828/… – Alexander S King Jul 25 '17 at 4:11
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    @JohnNotwen thanks. I congratulate on your ability to emulate the Deepak Chopra quote generator. – Alexander S King Jul 25 '17 at 14:56
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The Shrodinger's cat is a thought experiment. In QM there are several interpretentions and some of these does not require the "collapse of the wave function". So QM is an established theory of the quantum level but it is not a completed theory so the hypothesis that we may derive from each interpretention are nothing else than hypothesis without any real value. So yes according to an interpretantion of QM we exist in superposition but this is an ampty idea in essense.

  • Why is it an empty idea in essence? I kinda like the idea of existing in superposition. That might be the only reference to "super" I ever get to apply to myself... – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 22:06
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    You can also dress as a superman for the carnival. – John Am Jul 24 '17 at 22:10
  • I think Frida talks that such ideas lead to absurd ideas, without any evidence to experience, and without any value at all. You can also imagine that you are a pink elephant. We can call this Shrodinger's elephant – John Am Jul 24 '17 at 22:14
  • We can also look at the significant role ignorance plays out in even the most mundane confrontations in life. I'm not sure I could resist the temptation to know my precise time and cause of death. Could you? So is it the case that sometimes even ignorance can be a good thing? – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 23:05
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Let's assume your interpretation of quantum mechanics for the sake of the argument.

The cat is in a superposition because we do not know if it is alive or dead. Now you don't know when and how your future self will die, so it's your future self, not you now, that could be in a superposition by this standard.

Also, note that not everything we don't know about is in a superposition, because someone else might know about it (again, following your interpretation of quantum mechanics). So if someone in the future knows how and when you die, then your future self is not even in a superposition.

You could reply that future observers don't exist yet, so that nobody actually knows when and how you will die. But if you follow this line, your future self doesn't exist either, so is not in a superposition.

So any way you think about it, the answer is: no, from the fact that you don't know when you will die does not follow that you're in a superposition.

  • Actually I know more about Shrodinger's cat, in reference to death, than I know about myself. I know I am alive now. We know Shrodinger's cat was alive when placed in the box. We also know the cat is in a situation that is contingent on atomic delay, which is entirely random. I don't know what my future cause of death is or when. If the cat dies we already know why. So it seems like, if anything, I exist more in a state of superposition than even Shro's cat? – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 21:01
  • How does it affect my arguments? You're talking about your future self, not your present self, that's my point. You sure know that you're alive now, so you're not in a superposition dead/alive. – Quentin Ruyant Jul 24 '17 at 21:48
  • It affects your argument in the time tensor. Your every reference to the cat's state of affairs is and will always be future tense just like any reference to my existence. I mean, if I was now dead we wouldn't be having this conversation. Isolating one of the propositions doesn't address the remainder of the question, but I agree with your observation, even if its only trivially true. – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 22:22
  • I guess what I'm trying to say Quen is that we knew the cat was alive when placed in the box but that knowledge didn't change his superposition, after the fact of being placed therein, in the least, so why should it change ours? In fact, we knew more about the cat's chances of survival than we know about our own because we set up a random threat to his existence. – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 22:25
  • Well no, in Schrödinger's thought experiment, it is the present cat that is in a superposition. The future cat is not in a superposition because in the future, we open the box and observe its state which then becomes determinate. – Quentin Ruyant Jul 24 '17 at 22:27
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I don't think this sort of attempted analogy between a physics thought exercise and philosophy works exactly, nevertheless it made you think about this question so it must have done some good. So to continue your analogy I would have to say that we have to make a good observation of our lives as we go along and in essence collapse our own wave function. In Sartre this would be through commitment to some purpose or interest (it can even be jazz music as in his novel Nausea, if memory serves), Heidegger would say perhaps our own way of being-towards-death. It seems to me you have noticed that human freedom offers so many at least theoretical opportunies that we could easily lose ourselves to ideterminancy unless we commit ourselves in some way. So you may be interested in the existentialist school. P.s. I can know with a high degree of precision when I will die if I take my own life, but I'm not willing to go that far for knowledge! There are just things we don't know about our future, we don't know but at least we know we don't know. I'm not sure we need the word superposition. I would not add extra words when we have enough words in philosophy as it is.

  • Are you saying the answer to this question is existentialist? Is there no metaphysic involved in the tension between what we know, what we can learn and when we can learn it? – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 21:35
  • I would say let's separate the physics stuff from us. The physics exercise is what generated the question, it got us here on this interesting question...so now let us kick that ladder away and talk about how those indeterminancies in our own life may bother us, or not. If it is a problem for us, say a wish to be more grounded in a world with few certainties, then I may want to study say Kirkegaard, Sartre, maybe Heidegger to get their take on it. – Gordon Jul 24 '17 at 21:53
  • It doesn't bother me Gordon, it actually stimulates my imagination to explore the variables across these different but similar circumstances. A good follow up question might be, "if you could push a button and the facts about your future death would immediately appear on your computer screen, would you push that button, and if so, why? – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 22:35
  • That's right. It's simply not a problem for some people. I'm pretty much the same way, except I have to admit I have hit some bumps along the way of life and have gone running for philosophical mama, pacifier, blankets and everything else. Hey...any port in a storm. Would I push the button, No 🙀 – Gordon Jul 24 '17 at 22:43
  • I'd like to think I wouldn't either Gordon but I'm glad I that's a temptation I'm not likely to ever have to face. I think I've tried every flavor of "rocky road" known to man and probably invented a few more along the way, so I can resemble. – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 22:55
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The mathematical concept of superposition is not the same as not knowing. Schrodinger's cat is a frustrating topic for a novice in QM to explore because the whole reason Schrodinger invented it was to poke at the uncomfortable claims that the Copenhagen Interpretation required. Its job is to cause difficult questions to come forth.

As for the cat, the Copenhagen Interpretation states that the cat is in a superposition of alive and dead until it is observed. Observation is a very nuanced concept in Copenhagen, which is not the same thing as us knowing or not knowing. It is closer to answering the question of whether or not the information exists to be known or not. Until the observation, that information does not exist. This is different from a simple "we don't know if we're alive or dead."

Other interpretations have different solutions to this puzzle. Multiple-Worlds Interpretation, for instance, states that we can't objectively talk about the state of the cat, but we can talk about the combined state of the observer and the subject: "the observer's observed state of the cat will be consistent with the actual state of the cat."

Pure quantum mechanics, without the aid of an interpretation to bring it into the more classical-framed ways of viewing the world, would argue that everything is part of a quantum mechanical "wave function." This function can be decomposed into superposed states, if desired, but that's about as far as it goes. To explore your question in this realm, we would have to dive deep into what does the "we" in "do we all exist" actually means. It turns out that it can be harder to pin down than you might like.

It is a fun thought process to work through, but it's not the same as uncertainty about one's own death.

  • I understand where you're coming from Cort, only my question isn't whether we are dead or alive but rather does not knowing when and how we are going to die place us in a superposition similar to the cat? When the cat was placed in the box we knew more about his possible future state of existence than we ever know about our own, except in those unfortunate cases where we are told by a doc we are dying of some illness. – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 22:02
  • @JohnNotwen That's why I say superposition is not about knowing. It's a phenomena associated with observation in QM. It also has several properties. In particular superposition, by the definition of the term, implies that f(x + y) = f(x) + f(y) and f(ax) = a*f(x). If you don't have those two properties, the term superposition doesn't apply. It's a challenge that comes with using physics in philosophy: the physics terms are so extremely precise that they can be very hard to attach to any meaning except the one they were intended for. – Cort Ammon Jul 24 '17 at 23:09
  • You know Cort, I'm always reading and hearing about how different quantum reality is from our own yet I just can't see how we can live without it. The terminology, whether its mathematica or just plain English, lacks a certain color to it that I was hoping philosophy could redeem. I apologize if I've ruffled anyone's feathers herein so I will continue my quest elsewhere. – John Notwen Jul 24 '17 at 23:32
  • I'd argue that quantum mechanics has shown that reality is different from what most of us intuit reality to be. The lack of "color" you describe is likely because the "color" in life stems greatly from our intuitive understanding of the world around us. Myself, I find the "color" of QM to not be in the underlying QM model, or the interpretations of QM, but in the curious gap that occurs between them. However, it is very difficult to discuss the philosophy of this gap without a rather strong understanding of QM and its interpretations. – Cort Ammon Jul 24 '17 at 23:37
  • Something you could explore, to bring color back into the terminology, is to turn the "do we exist" question into a "what would it mean if we existed..." question. Ask "what would it mean if we existed in a superposition of alive and not alive." Explore the consequences of using the same principles as QM uses to explore this question of life and death. You may find that you can define a meaningful concept which demonstrates the behavior of superposition (those two equations I mentioned earlier), or you may find why superposition does not describe life and death well. – Cort Ammon Jul 24 '17 at 23:39
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Yes, but it has nothing to do with dying.

The notion of 'wave collapse' and 'choice of world' in quantum mechanics is a vast oversimplification. Superficial observation does not purge the world of all superposition in a single instant. (The very idea contradicts relativity, right? No 'worldwide instants' exist.) In fact, most of the world is not determined almost all the time.

There are still particles involved in any interaction that have not been directly 'observed'. In fact, that is the vast majority of them. Those particles still have indeterminate state. But on a large scale, that indeterminacy is never observed due to the law of large numbers. A bunch of determined, distributed things, and a bunch of things undetermined but bound by a distribution average out the same.

The cat lived or died. But what is the spin on the nearest electron to its tail? That is likely to still be in a definite superposition. And even if we measure it, it then immediately going to take part in some unobserved interaction that will again put it in superposition.

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