In honor of Halloween yesterday, let me tell you a scary physics story:
Sarah was an ordinary college student, in an ordinary dorm room, ordinary bean bag chairs strewn around an ordinary bed with ordinary pink sheets. If she concentrated, she could imagine her ordinary parents back home in ordinary Minnesota. In her ordinary physics textbook on her ordinary desk, ordinary laws of physics were written, described as the result of centuries of experimentation.
Unbeknownst to Sarah, the universe was much more chaotic and random than she realized, and also much more vast. Arbitrary collections of matter formed and dissipated, and over the universe’s long history, any imaginable combination might come to be.
Combinations like Sarah.
You see, Sarah too was a random combination, a chance arrangement of particles formed only a bare few moments ago. In truth, she had no ordinary parents, nor was she surrounded by an ordinary college, and the laws of physics that her textbook asserted were discovered through centuries of experimentation were just a moment’s distribution of ink on a page.
And as she got up to open the door into the vast dark of the outside, her world dissipated, and she ceased to exist.
That’s the life of a Boltzmann Brain. If a universe is random and old enough, it is inevitable that such minds exist. They might have memories of an extended, orderly world, but these would just be illusions, chance arrangements of their momentary neurons. What’s more, they may think they know the laws of physics through careful experiment and reasoning, but such knowledge would be illusory as well. And most frightening of all, if the universe is truly ancient and unimaginably vast, there would be many orders of magnitude more Boltzmann Brains than real humans…so many, that it would almost certainly be the case that you are in fact a Boltzmann Brain right now!
This is legitimately worrying to some physicists. The situation gets a bit more interesting when you remember that, as a Boltzmann Brain, anything you know about physics may well be a lie, since the history of research you think exists might not have. The problem is, if you manage to prove that you are probably a Boltzmann Brain, you had to use physics to do it. But your physics is probably wrong!
This, as Sean Carroll argues is why the concept of a Boltzmann Brain is self-defeating. It is, in a way, a logical impossibility. And if a universe of Boltzmann Brains is logically impossible, then any physics that makes Boltzmann Brains more likely than normal humans must similarly be wrong. That’s Carroll’s argument, one that he uses to argue for specific physical conclusions about the real world, namely a proposal about the properties of the Higgs boson.
It might seem philosophically illegitimate to use such a paradox to argue about the real world. However, philosophers have a similar argument when it comes to such “reality is a lie” scenarios. In general, modern philosophers point out that any argument that proves that all of our knowledge is false or meaningless by necessity also proves itself false or meaningless. This is what allows analytical philosophy to carry forward and make progress, even if it can’t reject the idea that reality is an illusion by more objective means.
With that said, there seems to be a difference between simply rejecting arguments that “show” that the world is an illusion or that we are all Boltzmann Brains, and using those arguments to draw conclusions about other parts of the world. I would be curious if there are similar arguments to Carroll’s in philosophy, arguments that draw conclusions more specific than “we exist and can know things”. Any philosopher readers should feel welcome to chime in in the comments!
And for the rest of you, you probably aren’t a Boltzmann Brain. But if the outside world looks a little too dark tonight…