Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Tralfamadorians and the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics

I tried, and I wasn't able to find a genuine Google hit on the search Tralfamadorians quantum mechanics transactional interpretation [1]. Shame, since Vonnegut seemed to have this theory in mind ...
Kurt Vonnegut | Obituary - Economist.com

... “Slaughterhouse-Five”, published in 1969 against the backdrop of racial unrest and the Vietnam war, propelled him from science-fiction writer (a label he abhorred) to literary icon. The novel caught the brooding, anti-establishment mood of the times and became an instant bestseller. Its signature hook, “So it goes”, which followed every death, was adopted as a mantra by opponents of the war.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is kidnapped by small green aliens called Tralfamadorians, who teach him the true nature of time: that all moments in the past, present and future exist always, and that death is just an unpleasant moment, neither an end nor a beginning. When Billy is shot bringing this message to the world, he does not mind. He knew he would die like this; he has seen it all before. “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello” are his last words...

The Tralfamadorian position, I've read, is taken seriously (or at least semi-seriously) by some physicists. Many would say the 'transactional interpretation' of QM is consistent with a severely predestined universe, so that indeed all moments would aways exist, from start to end, and never be changeable in the slightest [2]. I imagine a vast celestial record player that could move back and forth, playing music backwards and forwards ...

Anyway, it's been a long time since I read Slaughterhouse-five, and now that I'm ancient it's probably time to take a break from Quantum Mechanics and reread it ...

[1] One interesting hit, however, led to me subscribe to Backwards City ...
[2] Gribbin 1994: "At first sight, it might seem as if everything is fixed by these communications between the past and the future.... we are back with the image of a frozen universe ... in which neither time nor space has any meaning, and everything that ever was, or ever will be, just is.". Gribbin tries to wriggle out of this interpretation - unconvincingly.

Update: 15 things Vonnegut said well

Update 5/13/07: found a quote to affirm my recollection of the pre-deterministic aspects of the transactional interpretation.

Update 5/21/07: I continue to return to the theme of fate, though I don't want to belabor it with repeated posts. I'll sneak in some updates instead ...
  • Newtonian physics implied that if one knew the position and velocity of every particle in existence, then one would know all events. Oddly enough, I think I first read of this in a 1930s era science fiction novel. I assume this was a discussion topic for philosophers during the long span of Newtonian physics.

  • OneThe standard interpretation time slicing inherent in general special relativity is that there exists for each event a perspective from which the event is occurring in the past. Simple induction would then say all events are thus rigidly pre-determined. Of course we know special relativity is incomplete, so perhaps this is of academic interest. [jf 6/11/07: I wrote "general relativity" originally, but the meme comes from special relativity. For all I know general relativity lessens this rigidity. Einstein, at one point in his life, apparently firmly believed that all events, from the beginning to the end of time, were absolutely fixed, which gives a different spin to his famous comments about God and dice. To Einstein not only did God not play dice with the universe, the universe didn't "play" at all -- it simply was. Given the time that Vonnegut was writing, he was probably presenting a version of predestination derived from special relativity.]

  • The predetermination qualities of the transactional interpretation of QM arise from the future-past interactions (rather similar to time slicing in general relativity), but one could interpret non-locality (correlation of non-connected states) as arising not from "action at a distance" but merely as a side-effect of predetermination.
Update 6/11/07: There are now about a dozen hits on the this search string, but all but two (Brad DeLong and this original) appear to be from splogs (spam blogs) echoing Brad. This, of course, brings to mind the facetious "theory of 600". My interpretation of this recent net meme is that that there are really only 600 people in the world, and that the other 6.6 billion alleged individuals are reflections, echoes, and aspects. This bit of self-satire seems have some truth in the world of blogs -- for each true blog there are at least a dozen false echoes. (Sometime in the past six months I read an excellent science fiction short story that may have been the basis for this meme, but I can't recall the author. I need one of those "life record" things we're being promised.)

Of course, if splogs echo Brad rather than, say, David Broder, does that make them not entirely evil?

On the matter of pre-determination, the most obvious objection is how does a story that we perceive as approximately "internally consistent" manage to spontaneously manifest itself all at once? This pushes the anthropic principle to an extreme of extremes (in infinite time an infinite number of chance assemblies produce one that seems to be self-consistent). If one doesn't buy the "universe as a tv show" vision then one also rejects both special relativity and the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics. Special relativity is known to be an incomplete approximation, so that's not too hard to reject. Transactional QM seems to be recently falling to the "decoherence" model in which reality is constructed and deconstructed dynamically*, so we may be back to a universe that's not pre-determined, but at the price of being in a universe in which reality itself is emergent, ephemeral and perhaps mutable*.

* For the benefit of those who don't read my stuff routinely, I'm not a physicist and I don't even personally know any theoretical physicists. I'm merely channeling the more respectable books written about the philosophical interpretations of modern physics.

Update 7/24/07: Newsweek makes the same connection. Do you suppose they got it from here ...?


Anonymous said...

Not just physicists. It is implied by the (much older) Christian idea of eternity: if one can be outside time, one can see all times as co-existing.

James Killus said...

The Tralfamadorians first appeared in Vonnegut's earlier novel, The Sirens of Titan, in which it is revealed that the entirety of human history has functioned to allow a Tralfamadorian to deliver a message to humanity. The message is "Greetings."

This has been a spoiler, but all Tranfamadorians knew this already.