Why the Many-Worlds Formulation of Quantum Mechanics Is Probably Correct


From Sliders, NBCUniversal

by Sean Carroll

I have often talked about the Many-Worlds or Everett approach to quantum mechanics — here’s an explanatory video, an excerpt from From Eternity to Here, and slides from a talk. But I don’t think I’ve ever explained as persuasively as possible why I think it’s the right approach. So that’s what I’m going to try to do here. Although to be honest right off the bat, I’m actually going to tackle a slightly easier problem: explaining why the many-worlds approach is not completely insane, and indeed quite natural. The harder part is explaining why it actually works, which I’ll get to in another post.

Any discussion of Everettian quantum mechanics (“EQM”) comes with the baggage of pre-conceived notions. People have heard of it before, and have instinctive reactions to it, in a way that they don’t have to (for example) effective field theory. Hell, there is even an app, universe splitter, that lets you create new universes from your iPhone. (Seriously.) So we need to start by separating the silly objections to EQM from the serious worries.

The basic silly objection is that EQM postulates too many universes. In quantum mechanics, we can’t deterministically predict the outcomes of measurements. In EQM, that is dealt with by saying that every measurement outcome “happens,” but each in a different “universe” or “world.” Say we think of Schrödinger’s Cat: a sealed box inside of which we have a cat in a quantum superposition of “awake” and “asleep.” (No reason to kill the cat unnecessarily.) Textbook quantum mechanics says that opening the box and observing the cat “collapses the wave function” into one of two possible measurement outcomes, awake or asleep. Everett, by contrast, says that the universe splits in two: in one the cat is awake, and in the other the cat is asleep. Once split, the universes go their own ways, never to interact with each other again.


And to many people, that just seems like too much. Why, this objection goes, would you ever think of inventing a huge — perhaps infinite! — number of different universes, just to describe the simple act of quantum measurement? It might be puzzling, but it’s no reason to lose all anchor to reality.

To see why objections along these lines are wrong-headed, let’s first think about classical mechanics rather than quantum mechanics. And let’s start with one universe: some collection of particles and fields and what have you, in some particular arrangement in space. Classical mechanics describes such a universe as a point in phase space — the collection of all positions and velocities of each particle or field.

What if, for some perverse reason, we wanted to describe two copies of such a universe (perhaps with some tiny difference between them, like an awake cat rather than a sleeping one)? We would have to double the size of phase space — create a mathematical structure that is large enough to describe both universes at once. In classical mechanics, then, it’s quite a bit of work to accommodate extra universes, and you better have a good reason to justify putting in that work. (Inflationary cosmology seems to do it, by implicitly assuming that phase space is already infinitely big.)

That is not what happens in quantum mechanics. The capacity for describing multiple universes is automatically there. We don’t have to add anything.


The reason why we can state this with such confidence is because of the fundamental reality of quantum mechanics: the existence of superpositions of different possible measurement outcomes. In classical mechanics, we have certain definite possible states, all of which are directly observable. It will be important for what comes later that the system we consider is microscopic, so let’s consider a spinning particle that can have spin-up or spin-down. (It is directly analogous to Schrödinger’s cat: cat=particle, awake=spin-up, asleep=spin-down.) Classically, the possible states are

“spin is up”


“spin is down”.

Quantum mechanics says that the state of the particle can be a superposition of both possible measurement outcomes. It’s not that we don’t know whether the spin is up or down; it’s that it’s really in a superposition of both possibilities, at least until we observe it. We can denote such a state like this:

(“spin is up” + “spin is down”).

While classical states are points in phase space, quantum states are “wave functions” that live in something called Hilbert space. Hilbert space is very big — as we will see, it has room for lots of stuff.

To describe measurements, we need to add an observer. It doesn’t need to be a “conscious” observer or anything else that might get Deepak Chopra excited; we just mean a macroscopic measuring apparatus. It could be a living person, but it could just as well be a video camera or even the air in a room. To avoid confusion we’ll just call it the “apparatus.”

In any formulation of quantum mechanics, the apparatus starts in a “ready” state, which is a way of saying “it hasn’t yet looked at the thing it’s going to observe” (i.e., the particle). More specifically, the apparatus is not entangled with the particle; their two states are independent of each other. So the quantum state of the particle+apparatus system starts out like this:

(“spin is up” + “spin is down” ; apparatus says “ready”)                (1)

The particle is in a superposition, but the apparatus is not. According to the textbook view, when the apparatus observes the particle, the quantum state collapses onto one of two possibilities:

(“spin is up”; apparatus says “up”)


(“spin is down”; apparatus says “down”).

When and how such collapse actually occurs is a bit vague — a huge problem with the textbook approach — but let’s not dig into that right now.

But there is clearly another possibility. If the particle can be in a superposition of two states, then so can the apparatus. So nothing stops us from writing down a state of the form

(spin is up ; apparatus says “up”)
+ (spin is down ; apparatus says “down”).                                   (2)

The plus sign here is crucial. This is not a state representing one alternative or the other, as in the textbook view; it’s a superposition of both possibilities. In this kind of state, the spin of the particle is entangled with the readout of the apparatus.

What would it be like to live in a world with the kind of quantum state we have written in (2)? It might seem a bit unrealistic at first glance; after all, when we observe real-world quantum systems it always feels like we see one outcome or the other. We never think that we ourselves are in a superposition of having achieved different measurement outcomes.

This is where the magic of decoherence comes in. (Everett himself actually had a clever argument that didn’t use decoherence explicitly, but we’ll take a more modern view.) I won’t go into the details here, but the basic idea isn’t too difficult. There are more things in the universe than our particle and the measuring apparatus; there is the rest of the Earth, and for that matter everything in outer space. That stuff — group it all together and call it the “environment” — has a quantum state also. We expect the apparatus to quickly become entangled with the environment, if only because photons and air molecules in the environment will keep bumping into the apparatus. As a result, even though a state of this form is in a superposition, the two different pieces (one with the particle spin-up, one with the particle spin-down) will never be able to interfere with each other. Interference (different parts of the wave function canceling each other out) demands a precise alignment of the quantum states, and once we lose information into the environment that becomes impossible. That’s decoherence.

Once our quantum superposition involves macroscopic systems with many degrees of freedom that become entangled with an even-larger environment, the different terms in that superposition proceed to evolve completely independently of each other. It is as if they have become distinct worlds — because they have. We wouldn’t think of our pre-measurement state (1) as describing two different worlds; it’s just one world, in which the particle is in a superposition. But (2) has two worlds in it. The difference is that we can imagine undoing the superposition in (1) by carefully manipulating the particle, but in (2) the difference between the two branches has diffused into the environment and is lost there forever.

All of this exposition is building up to the following point: in order to describe a quantum state that includes two non-interacting “worlds” as in (2), we didn’t have to add anything at all to our description of the universe, unlike the classical case. All of the ingredients were already there!

Our only assumption was that the apparatus obeys the rules of quantum mechanics just as much as the particle does, which seems to be an extremely mild assumption if we think quantum mechanics is the correct theory of reality. Given that, we know that the particle can be in “spin-up” or “spin-down” states, and we also know that the apparatus can be in “ready” or “measured spin-up” or “measured spin-down” states. And if that’s true, the quantum state has the built-in ability to describe superpositions of non-interacting worlds. Not only did we not need to add anything to make it possible, we had no choice in the matter. The potential for multiple worlds is always there in the quantum state, whether you like it or not.

The next question would be, do multiple-world superpositions of the form written in (2) ever actually come into being? And the answer again is: yes, automatically, without any additional assumptions. It’s just the ordinary evolution of a quantum system according to Schrödinger’s equation. Indeed, the fact that a state that looks like (1) evolves into a state that looks like (2) under Schrödinger’s equation is what we mean when we say “this apparatus measures whether the spin is up or down.”

The conclusion, therefore, is that multiple worlds automatically occur in quantum mechanics. They are an inevitable part of the formalism. The only remaining question is: what are you going to do about it? There are three popular strategies on the market: anger, denial, and acceptance.

The “anger” strategy says “I hate the idea of multiple worlds with such a white-hot passion that I will change the rules of quantum mechanics in order to avoid them.” And people do this! In the four options listed here, both dynamical-collapse theories and hidden-variable theories are straightforward alterations of the conventional picture of quantum mechanics. In dynamical collapse, we change the evolution equation, by adding some explicitly stochastic probability of collapse. In hidden variables, we keep the Schrödinger equation intact, but add new variables — hidden ones, which we know must be explicitly non-local. Of course there is currently zero empirical evidence for these rather ad hoc modifications of the formalism, but hey, you never know.

The “denial” strategy says “The idea of multiple worlds is so profoundly upsetting to me that I will deny the existence of reality in order to escape having to think about it.” Advocates of this approach don’t actually put it that way, but I’m being polemical rather than conciliatory in this particular post. And I don’t think it’s an unfair characterization. This is the quantum Bayesianism approach, or more generally “psi-epistemic” approaches. The idea is to simply deny that the quantum state represents anything about reality; it is merely a way of keeping track of the probability of future measurement outcomes. Is the particle spin-up, or spin-down, or both? Neither! There is no particle, there is no spoon, nor is there the state of the particle’s spin; there is only the probability of seeing the spin in different conditions once one performs a measurement. I advocate listening to David Albert’s take at our WSF panel.

The final strategy is acceptance. That is the Everettian approach. The formalism of quantum mechanics, in this view, consists of quantum states as described above and nothing more, which evolve according to the usual Schrödinger equation and nothing more. The formalism predicts that there are many worlds, so we choose to accept that. This means that the part of reality we experience is an indescribably thin slice of the entire picture, but so be it. Our job as scientists is to formulate the best possible description of the world as it is, not to force the world to bend to our pre-conceptions.

Such brave declarations aren’t enough on their own, of course. The fierce austerity of EQM is attractive, but we still need to verify that its predictions map on to our empirical data. This raises questions that live squarely at the physics/philosophy boundary. Why does the quantum state branch into certain kinds of worlds (e.g., ones where cats are awake or ones where cats are asleep) and not others (where cats are in superpositions of both)? Why are the probabilities that we actually observe given by the Born Rule, which states that the probability equals the wave function squared? In what sense are there probabilities at all, if the theory is completely deterministic?

These are the serious issues for EQM, as opposed to the silly one that “there are just too many universes!” The “why those states?” problem has essentially been solved by the notion of pointer states — quantum states split along lines that are macroscopically robust, which are ultimately delineated by the actual laws of physics (the particles/fields/interactions of the real world). The probability question is trickier, but also (I think) solvable. Decision theory is one attractive approach, and Chip Sebens and I are advocating self-locating uncertainty as a friendly alternative. That’s the subject of a paper we just wrote, which I plan to talk about in a separate post.

There are other silly objections to EQM, of course. The most popular is probably the complaint that it’s not falsifiable. That truly makes no sense. It’s trivial to falsify EQM — just do an experiment that violates the Schrödinger equation or the principle of superposition, which are the only things the theory assumes. Witness a dynamical collapse, or find a hidden variable. Of course we don’t see the other worlds directly, but — in case we haven’t yet driven home the point loudly enough — those other worlds are not added on to the theory. They come out automatically if you believe in quantum mechanics. If you have a physically distinguishable alternative, by all means suggest it — the experimenters would love to hear about it. (And true alternatives, like GRW and Bohmian mechanics, are indeed experimentally distinguishable.)

Sadly, most people who object to EQM do so for the silly reasons, not for the serious ones. But even given the real challenges of the preferred-basis issue and the probability issue, I think EQM is way ahead of any proposed alternative. It takes at face value the minimal conceptual apparatus necessary to account for the world we see, and by doing so it fits all the data we have ever collected. What more do you want from a theory than that?

Piece crossposted with Sean Carroll’s website. Via