Saturday, June 28, 2008

Quantum mechanics cures my fear of flying

Maybe 3 or 4 years ago, I started developing a fear of flying. I never had a problem before then, but for some reason I started getting scared, especially when there's turbulence. My mother says it's because I became an atheist, but I don't buy that, because I've been a closet atheist for a while, well before my fear of flying. I know that flying is extremely safe, safer than driving, but that doesn't comfort me. I think my fear comes from the fact that if there is a crash, I have about a 0% chance of survival. At least in a car crash, I have a shot at survival. On a plane, there is nothing I can do. You just go down, and that's it.

But I have to fly, because it's the only practical way to travel long distances. I don't believe in any supernatural protectors, so I can't pray for safety or anything. So I need a way to get over my fear. It helps to have a couple drinks before getting on the plane, and sometimes that's enough, but usually, I get too in my head about it. It's too easy to imagine, when the plane hits a little turbulence, it just going down and not stopping. I know it's irrational, and I know that airplanes are incredibly well-engineered, designed to handle stresses well beyond those actually experienced during flight.

So, when I really need to console myself, I turn to an idea that comes from quantum mechanics (and pushes into philosophy a bit): the anthropic principle. It's a controversial idea that has several variations and different interpretations, but I'm mainly concerned with comforting myself on a plane, not fundamental scientific and philosophical issues.

Basically, the anthropic principle states that humans (or some observer) are the forcing factor that causes the universe to exist. In quantum mechanics, all possible outcomes of any situation coexist simultaneously, until something observes them and forces a single one to be chosen, according to a probability distribution. Schrodinger's cat is the classic macro analogy. The anthropic principle applies this theory on a universal scale (a source of controversy), and claims that the universe must exist in a state that allows something to observe it. Any possible universes which do not support some sort of observer within that universe cannot be observed, and therefore do not exist.

It's sort of like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, except I don't like Zen. Zen embraces contradiction and illogicality, which is great if it works for you, but all it does for me is piss me off. If a universe big bangs into existence and no one sees it, does it exist? The anthropic principle says no.

So, if no one is around to observe the universe, it doesn't exist. How does this help me on airplanes?

Well, I take another idea from philosophy to complete the picture. A fundamental question since ancient Greece has been "how do I know anything exists." It's an impossible question, one that requires some sort of assumption or leap of faith at some point (such as Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum"). But at the end, I have no idea what truly exists. I don't know whether everything I observe, including other people, is real, or a figment of my imagination (I disagree with existentialism here... I'll buy that existence is fundamental for me, but can't see that it therefore must be so for everything else I observe). As far as I can tell, other people very well may not be real. I certainly have no way of proving that they are not.

So, I can suppose that I am the only real person in the universe. I am at least by far the most provably existing person in the universe. Under the anthropic principle, therefore, the universe exists because I am here to observe it. Not humanity in general, but me specifically, because I have no idea whether or not anyone else really exists. If I don't exist, neither does the universe, because I can't observe the universe.

Thus, if the plane goes down and crashes and I die, I will no longer be here to observe the universe, and it will not exist anymore. Poof! Gone. That would be quite an abrupt end to the universe. I comfort myself thinking how unlikely and catastrophic that would be. It would be a shame for all the wonderful complexities and amazing processes of the universe to just halt all of the sudden. I comfort myself knowing all this, and it gets me through flights.

It may sound conceited or vain or something, but from a purely scientific standpoint, factoring in what information I can truly know (that I exist), it is 100% correct (given that you accept the theories outlined above). I don't go around acting like I'm the center of the universe or anything. I just know in the back of my mind, that whenever I think I might die, that would mean the end of the universe (at least to me) because I won't be around to observe it anymore. I use that to help me not feel so scared, because the end of the universe is a big deal, big enough that I can convince myself I will be OK.

That's why I need to live an arbitrarily long time. To keep the universe going. That's where the singularity comes in, but that's another post.


Tony said...

"I think my fear comes from the fact that if there is a crash, I have about a 0% chance of survival. At least in a car crash, I have a shot at survival. On a plane, there is nothing I can do. You just go down, and that's it."

I think it's interesting that two brothers can have the exact opposite view on this situation. I have never been afraid of flying in a plane for the exact reason that you fear it (or did fear it). Barring takeoff/landing accidents, if there is a crash I am pretty much sure I would have no chance of living through it and there is absolutely nothing I could do to avoid that outcome. On a plane I am simply a passenger, I am not controlling the plane and I couldn't control it if the need arose. If there is some kind of mechanical malfunction I am basically along for the ride on a 100-ton brick falling 40,000 feet. Once I get on the plane there is nothing I can do but enjoy the ride and hope we land on a runway rather than on someone's front lawn. In a car wreck, however, I may have been able to avoid that outcome. Maybe I wasn't paying attention and hit another car, or maybe someone else hit me. I could have seen them and swerved, or paid more attention and avoided merging into someone on the interstate. Adding to that is the uncertainty of the outcome. With a plane crash, I'm pretty confident that I won't be walking away from it. However, in a car accident there its a huge number of possibilities. If I'm lucky everyone involved will walk away with only scrapes and bruises, but if I'm not so lucky I could be paralyzed from the neck down. What if I crawl out of the car unscathed and my passenger is badly injured or killed? There are so many possible outcomes that can not be expected or anticipated.

I have always looked at skydiving and bungy jumping the exact same way. I would love to skydive, but there is no way in hell I will ever tie a giant rubberband to my feet and swan dive off of a bridge. You very rarely hear of a skydiving accident where the person lived. Not to say that it doesn't happen, but at least to me, a skydiving accident is followed by a much more certain ending than a bungy jumping accident.

Just thought I'd chime in on this one because when reading it that statement jumped out at me. I have had a few discussions before about similar things and the "there's nothing I can do so screw it" mentality I tend to take. It's interesting that we look at the same situation with exact opposite views and end up at the same conclusion, whether because there's nothing I can do to avoid the inevitable or because the entire universe will cease to exist if a plane crash takes you out. Maybe that comes back to the fact that you are an atheist and I choose to believe there is something more (yes "choose", there's a big difference between belief and knowledge and I think it's absurd for anyone to argue that they know what will happen to them after death, whether they believe in heaven, or buddahood, or don't believe in any form of life after death, but thats a whole different topic). Anyway, very interesting post and I'm glad to see you won't have to spend $30 on airport beer to get through flights :D

Justin said...

Hey Sully,

I just ran across your blog last night. I wished we had had more of these conversations when I was still an undergrad, but I suppose we can carry out this dialogue remotely -- Ah! The beauty of the blogosphere.

It is interesting that you had such a fear of flying. The description of what sets off this panic seems very similar what happens to me in a lot of situations. Call it an over-active imagination, but sometimes when I'm just walking on a street at night I imagine a mugger coming out and stabbing me randomly, or I imagine falling/tripping in some situation and doing incredible damage to my self, or more frequently, others that I care about. I call it "living out projected lives" and I have no control over it except to calm myself and try to reduce the internal narration of events un-realized.

I find it interesting that you use a combination of Cartesian solipsism and QM to calm yourself. I use to really buy the "Cogito Ergo Sum" as a solid axiom of reasoning, but I'm not even sure about that anymore. What am I? What does it mean to think, or exist? I think it would be interesting to play this thinking off of your Singularity ideas. What happens when a computer attains "consciousness"? As a program running on a machine, does it really exist? If you were to delete the program, would the universe stop? What is, by the way, the universe that of a conscious program?

This leads me to Zen. I think you would be surprised at, just how logical and rational zen buddhism, or buddhism more generally can be. Most of the illogical aspect of it, consists of useful tricks practitioners have developed to help cease internal chatter, which is the source of alot of peoples' (including you and me) suffering. If you're interested I wrote an entry over at my blog here:

Good talking (writing) with you Sully!