Thursday, April 30, 2020
The cat out of the box
One of the most fascinating experiments in science is that involving the Schrödinger's cat.
The experiment requires a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source all placed in a sealed box. If a Geiger counter detects radioactivity caused by the decay of one single atom, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat.
Although while in the box the cat can be simultaneously alive and dead when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.
One interesting theory, is that both the alive and dead states of the cat persist after the box is opened, but are split from each other. When the box is opened, the observer and the possibly-dead cat split into an observer looking at a box with a dead cat, and an observer looking at a box with a live cat.
The experiment is a reminder of how uncertainty underlies not just our existence but that of the whole universe.
The excitement of living derives from making choices and weighing risks in the face of uncertainties. That is why any static utopia becomes dystopian the very moment when people are deprived of the freedom to make mistakes.
But that is only one side of the coin. Uncertainty creates anxiety which can be debilitating. COVID 19 is just an example of the collective risks we face as a species, foremost of which is global warming. Added to this is an economic system which renders the lives of entire populations and communities superfluous. Choice entails a sense of being in control of events. But neo liberalism tends to put us at the mercy of forces which are outside our control.
Managing uncertainty is probably one of the secrets to a happy life. It should also be the goal of social policy and health promotion.
Freedom is all about being in a position to choose. But there is no real choice if the option is between survival and destitution. That is why a universal basic income is a pre-condition for freedom. Moreover to equip us all to deal with uncertainty a national mental health policy is imperative. Why should not mental therapy be part of the national health scheme? Freedom is also restricted by ownership of time. If we do not own most of our time, how can we even exercise our freedom? And how much time would we have left to weigh choices and take responsible decisions?
Awareness of the consequences of our actions and their butterfly effect, is also key to increasing the sum of happiness in the world. Freedom comes with responsibilities. And freedom becomes cruelty when exercised without empathy. The world is not our playground. In this sense freedom without equality simply results in the oppression of the many by the few (or in some cases the few by the many).
For even the most inconsequential action can unleash a chain of unpredictable events not just on fellow humans but also the planet in which we live. Still it is thanks to these chains of unpredictable events that we probably owe our own existence in this particular spot in time and space. It is also thanks to decisions taken on the spur of a moment that we owe some of the happiest moments in our lives. Yet we should never forget that we are also like the cat in the box and that there is always another side of the coin, perhaps even different versions of our selves experiencing different trajectories unleashed by choices sometimes made by us or made for us by others. In this way the universe is playful and has its own sense of humor, bestowing fortune randomly. Yet that is no excuse for not taking care of ourselves and others, to ensure a safety net for all.