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If God hates the Higgs boson, we can build paradise on Earth

The Large Hadron Collider is an amazing scientific tool. And although it is still not up and running it produces a steady stream of exciting news – because when the experimentalists are busy with repairs the theorists are at play. New York Times brings us the story about a theory that suggests that the accelerator is being sabotaged from the future.

The idea, presented by Holger Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya in two papers (paper 1, paper 2) is that (based on some very speculative physics) there could be a form of future-to-past signal that conspires to keep futures with much Higgs production unlikely. Things will seemingly randomly arrange themselves so that the LHC doesn't get turned on, and there are no Higgs particles. The authors even suggest that one can use this influence to check the theory: make a binding agreement that the LHC will not be turned on if eleven thrown dice all come up ones (a one in 3 billion chance). If the dice do come up all ones when the CERN director throws them, that is actually evidence for the theory. This might be evidence that theoretical physics still has the edge on philosophy in strangeness.

Most people are likely to think that backwards causality cannot happen, but the concept is not that far out in physics (and philosophers have occasionally warmed to the idea). On the microscale the laws of physics do not appear to have any preferred time direction, so if causality can occur in one time direction it should also occur in the opposite. Feynmann famously modeled positrons as electrons moving backwards in time. Maxwell's equations of electromagnetic waves famously predict so called "advanced waves" that appear to move backwards in time. While these are usually disregarded as mere formalism, a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics uses them to explain quantum phenomena. General relativity appears to allow closed timelike curves under some extreme circumstances, and applying quantum theory to such spacetimes produces similar kinds of "conspiracies" keeping the world paradox-free. The everyday notion of causation as might actually just be due to us living on the macroscale in a particular area of spacetime. It might not apply in general, just as physics predicts that many of our concepts of space and time are parochial.

The dice experiment has some similarities with another unusual possibility: global quantum suicide. If you rig a machine to painlessly and instantly kill you if you press a button, what will you see a few seconds after pressing the button? Obviously you cannot be in the state of observing yourself to be dead. The only possible states you can see are those where the machine malfunctioned: the button jammed, the power failed, the killing contraption didn't work. If you are a believer in the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (or any other multiverse theory) then the machine merely removes you from the future of any world where it works. You can also rig it to kill you if some condition is not met, such as you not winning the lottery. That way you will only be around in worlds where you have won (assuming the device is reliable enough not to break very often; the chance of breakdown has to be much smaller than the chance of winning).

Hans Moravec suggested in his book Mind Children (1988) that if you tried to turn on a particle accelerator a number of times and every time something prevents it from running, this might be a sign that something like quantum suicide is happening. The functional accelerator might be doing something dangerous, such as causing vaccuum decay that instantly wiped out the Earth, acting like a global quantum suicide device.

If Nielsen and Ninomiya are right, the apparent effect will be the same
although there would actually not be any parallel world disasters.

Each failure would add credence to the idea that the accelerator actually does have an effect. But how much? I calculated it a while ago, using Bayes theorem and the assumption that occasionally complex machines do break for natural reasons. My eventual estimate was that if you tried to start the LHC 30 times in a row and failed all the times (for unrelated reasons), then you would have enough evidence to think there was more than 50% chance that this theory was the best one.

If we were to discover that the "curse of the LHC" actually worked, it would be the best possible news. Just link the accelerator to an Internet feed, and have it start if the stock market is going down, a terrorist action happens somewhere or if someone gets sick. All those worlds would be prevented from coming into existence (if the Higgs-hating theory is true) or discreetly wiped out leaving just the happy observers (if the quantum suicide theory is true). Paradise on Earth!

Of course, some might worry that wiping out bad parallel worlds is immoral or bad in some way. Sure, each parallel world wired their accelerator by their own free will (besides those remote worlds where we didn't decide to do it). But isn't there something bad about becoming an ever more unlikely set of worlds, even if these worlds are exceedingly happy? However, if there is indeed something bad about making the world you observe around you less likely than other potential worlds, then you should never do anything that has many individually unlikely outcomes (such as playing a hand of poker) since it splits the probability. In fact, you ought to increase entropy to maximize your worlds probability by accelerating heat death. That appears to be unlikely to work. In fact, as Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord show, many forms of ethics get into trouble when you have infinite worlds.

But so far, I estimate the chance of anything going on at the LHC beyond recalcitrant hardware to be about 2 in a billion. Meanwhile I give a 50:50 chance to the LHC finding the Higgs boson by 2011.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Hmmmm. I think this has just solved the Fermi Paradox (why we have found no evidence of extra-terrestrial life). Retro-causality is possible, achievable by a moderately advanced intelligence and nothing wants to share a galaxy with us! A hillarious sort of inversion-perversion of the Anthropic Principle: they don’t exist because we do and if they did, we wouldn’t. 😀

    It’s fascinating and whilst I’m 100% sure that it’s all true, it’s interesting to examine the *perceived* distinction between utilising retro-causation by trying to create Higgs particles and Quantum Suicide. In the latter case, it is a consequence that we care about – you’re unlikely to persuade many people to try the experiment and you’re even less likely to get a grant to wire the World’s nuclear aresenal to the FTSE 100 (like tracking the surges of an arbitrary and heavily-gamed financial system is a good metric for the species’ success anyway, but for the sake of argument… ;). However, with the LHC hypothesis, you’re essentially saying that you’ve found a consequence that the Universe cares about but we do not, so hooray – we can blackmail Reality. “Give us the fookin money or we’ll set the Higgs on yer” .

    There are two problems that immediately come to mind with this, however. The first you’ve already touched on in the context of the Quantum Suicide machine, that kills you if you don’t win the lottery. How DO you ensure that the chance of the machine breaking down is less than that of winning the lottery. Or in this case, which is more likely – getting the LHC working or staving off global recession. I personally would find it hillarious if engineers were pitted in an ongoing battle against the odds (literally) to refine the quality of the LHC and its descendents, increasing its reliability against various targets. “Well, we’ve got it to the point where we can generate lottery wins of £5,000 or less. The next version in eight years time should be able to guarantee a 0.0001 rise in the global economy.” “Wonderful, how much did it cost?” “Four billion euros.” 😉

    Anyway, the above is just me having fun with the concept. The grander question were this hypothesis true, would be how absolute is the Universe’s dislike of the the Higgs particle and how smart is the Universe. In the first case, I merely mean will the creation of a Higgs particle trigger massive adjustments of probability to avoid it, or is the effect cumulative with increasing numbers of the buggers. But this segues beautifully into the second question. “Smart” is a inaccurate word given that we’re talking about fundamental forces, but from a pragmatic viewpoint, we might as well use the term. If mankind kept trying to foist Higgs particles on the Universe to push itself ever further into favourable chance outcomes, at what point do we reach the tipping point where it becomes more likely that mankind itself either doesn’t exist or (very scary now) loses the capability to create Higgs particles (plague, runaway AI, meteor strike, our ancestors all eaten by sabre-tooths in that bottleneck when there were only a few thousand humans still surviving, whatever).

    It’s a great idea, a fun concept and I am totally in favour of the director of CERN sitting at a desk with a handful of dice in one hand, and the ON switch for the LHC under the other, muttering “I’ll turn it on, I mean it…” However, until mankind can accurately gauge the relative probabilities of the different ways in which retro-causality might avoid the creation of particles it finds distasteful, it might be wise to avoid playing chicken with Reality. We might find that this brings us right back round to the Fermi Paradox that I opened with. Perhaps we’re alone because any species sufficiently advanced learns how to manipulate chance this way and eventually makes its own existence unlikely through pissing the Universe off mightily. I shall call this latter scenario the Antrhopomorphic Principle. 😀

    In closing, I’ll just mention that this isn’t new to soft sci-fi / fantasy. Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber touched on it and Fritz Leiber’s Destiny Times Three dealt explicitly with such a probability machine (although in that case, forked worlds could be kept existing).

    Anyway, great article. Thanks for the laugh and the physics.

    Taliesin Nuin.

  2. Many physics bloggers don’t appear to be too impressed with Holger Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya ideas. I’m not an expert in physics, but I would tend to be skeptical as well.

    If the universe we are living in is a false vacuum then maybe you could find a way to nucleate to a lower energy state (thus destroying the universe) Perhaps this could be done in a future with a more sophisticated particle accelerator. You would tie this to a quantum measurement (the spin of an electron for instance) so it would happen in a probabilistic way. You could connect the quantum measurement to a news feeder. So every time something bad happens there would be a measurement of the electron and you would have a 50% chance of vacuum decay. So 50% of the earths where something terrible happened would cease to exist. You would be basically wiping out living beings in different branches of the universal wave function every time something negative occurred. You might possibly make the probability of expunging life even higher if you wanted. There would be a sort of evolutionary processes playing out whereby only wave function branches that sustained “paradises” would continue to exist. Of course I’m not exactly sure how entanglement and interference factor in with the decohered branches. Also people’s definition of a paradise is considerably variable. How many decohered earths would you be wiping out? Would it be googols of them before you hit upon a world free from anything negative? Could you erase even all pain and unhappiness with this method as well (negative utilitarianism)? Maybe you could tie the quantum measurements to anytime someone experienced unhappiness so as to enable paradise engineering through quantum whole world suicide. It seems that if you did this you might end up just destroying all branches where any life exists, unless you were careful somehow. I don’t think any of this speculation is too realistic, but it is interesting to think about.

  3. I should have clarified that the last post was basically just summarizing what I thought was the more probable scenario you gave (vacuum decay vs. higgs boson). It seems like if you set the bar too low for destroying the world, you would wipe out life in too many branches of the universal wave function. The only branches that would be left would be those where creatures didn’t or couldn’t develop the technology to wipe themselves out, or where accidents prevented the technology from causing the decay (not necessarily paradises). There are definitely a lot of variables and there is no guarantee that doing any of this would lead to a positive outcome. There could be decohered branches of the wave function where every person on earth with an IQ above 110 happened to suddenly die from a heart attack, for example. Thus no one left would be smart enough to carry out the vacuum decay experiment any longer and those specific branches would continue to exist (even though human suffering would continue to go on). Also most decohered earth’s will likely have much less intelligent life than humans, thus they would never have the technology to cause a decay to a false vacuum. Darwinian natural selection would still continue to occur in those branches. You would basically be destroying most branches of the wave function that have life intelligent enough to actually carry out full scale paradise engineering. So this probably would not be a good thing.

  4. Your lack of concern with wiping out large measures of consciousness in other worlds to ensure a greater average well-being among those left strikes me as greatly at odds with our normal values.

  5. I wonder whether our normal values are a good guide here. They say it is wrong to wipe out existing people to improve the well-being of others, but the kind of existence these people hold appears to be somewhat different from the existence enjoyed by inhabitants in parallel worlds. We rarely worry about how our actions might change the measure of happy and unhappy parallel worlds, despite them outnumbering the population in this world enormously. I think this might partially be a remoteness effect: we have become more willing to help people across the world now when we can see and meet them. But even if we could meet with parallel world selves they have an ontological link to us that is very different from same-universe selves.

    Similarly our normal values says that it is better to wipe oneself out due to a deliberate decision than being wiped out by somebody else’s decision (although still quite bad, of course). If we build a quantum suicide device, the parallel world people are also equally involved in the project as they build their parallel world devices.

    But overall, the reason quantum suicide is such a fun thought experiment is likely that it is greatly at odds with our normal values. It is not something we would normally do any analogue to in the real world.

  6. Perhaps one could with time and practice learn which possible futures were worth excluding by “sculpting” futures one considered beneficial a single stroke at a time, much like a quantum Michelangelo with a block of cosmic marble: Infinite possibilities exist before the chisel hits the block, then slowly the body of the dead Christ emerges in the arms of the Virgin. The artist’s vision emerges beautiful and complete except for the infinite possibilities which its existence has destroyed. Each chip, each speck of dust destroys other possibilities. The sculptor keeps chipping very carefully until finally there is only one outcome availiable, all possible quantum worlds are now constrained to a single outcome.
    Either because of the enormous energy constrained by this singularity or some other mechanism of enormous power: perhaps the emnity of the God for the Higgs, perhaps one chip too many, the fragile perfection brings about a massive quantum cataclism which insists on reasserting every possible outcome, a big bang in which every possible outcome reasserts itself resetting the clock. Slowly the sculptor finds his chisel and begins once again to carve away possible outcomes. One wonders could this series of events happen in only six days?
    Not only might this be the God particle it may be the instrument of the creation, the Logos which makes worlds from the chaos. Who knew that creating the universe could involve such overwhelming decisions and choices?

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