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Free Will and Quantum Clones: How Your Choices Today Affect the Universe at its Origin

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The late philosopher Robert Nozick, talking about the deep question of why there is something rather than nothing, quipped: “Someone who proposes a non-strange answer shows he didn’t understand the question.” So, when Scott Aaronson began a talk three weeks ago by saying it would be “the looniest talk I’ve ever given,” it was a good start. At a conference on the nature of time—a question so deep it’s hard even to formulate as a question—“loony” is high praise indeed. And indeed his talk was rich in ambition and vision. It left physics überblogger Sabine Hossenfelder uncharacteristically lost for words.

As part of his general push to apply theoretical computer science to philosophy, Aaronson has been giving thought to that old favorite of college metaphysics classes and late-night dorm-room bull sessions: free will. Do we have autonomy, or are our choices preordained? Is that a false choice? What does it mean to be free, anyway? For some of Aaronson’s earlier thoughts, see his lecture and blog post. Though hard to summarize, his talk (slides here) can be broken down into two parts.

First, he sought to translate fuzzy notions of free will into a concrete operational definition. He proposed a variation on the Turing Test which he calls the Envelope Argument or Prediction Game: someone poses questions to you and to a computer model of your brain, trying to figure out who’s the human. If a computer, operating deterministically, can reproduce your answers, then you, too, must be operating deterministically and are therefore not truly free. (Here, I use the word “deterministically” in a physicist’s or philosopher’s sense; computer scientists have their own, narrower meaning.) Although the test can never be definitive, the unpredictability of your responses can be quantified by the size of the smallest computer program needed to reproduce those responses. Zeeya Merali gave a nice summary of Aaronson’s proposal at the Foundation Questions Institute blog.

The output of this game, as Aaronson portrayed it, would be a level of confidence for whether your will is free or not. But I think it might be better interpreted as a measure of the amount of free will you have. Last year, quantum physicists Jonathan Barrett and Nicolas Gisin argued that free will is not a binary choice, live free or die, but a power that admits of degree. They proposed to quantify free will using quantum entanglement experiments. Freedom of will enters into these experiments because physicists make a choice about which property of a particle to measure, and the choice affects the outcome. Such experiments are commonly taken as evidence for spooky action at a distance, because your choice can affect the outcome of a measurement made at a distant location. But they can also be interpreted as a probe of free will.

If there are, say, 1000 possible measurements, then complete freedom means you could choose any of the 1000; if your choice were constrained to 500, you would have lost one bit of free will. Interestingly, Barrett and Gisin showed that the loss of even a single bit would explain away spooky action. You wouldn’t need to suppose that your decision somehow leaps across space to influence the particle. Instead, both your choice and the outcome could be prearranged to match. What is surprising is how little advance setup would do the trick. The more you think about this, the more disturbed you should get. Science experiments always presume complete freedom of will; without it, how would we know that some grand conspiracy isn’t manipulating our choices to hide the truth from us?

Back to Aaronson’s talk. After describing his experiment, he posed the question of whether a computer could ever convincingly win the Prediction Game. The trouble is that a crucial step—doing a brain scan to set up the computer model—cannot be done with fidelity. Quantum mechanics forbids you from making a perfect copy of a quantum state—a principle known as the no-cloning theorem. The significance of this depends on how strongly quantum effects operate in the brain. If the mind is mostly classical, then the computer could predict most of your decisions.

Invoking the no-cloning theorem is a clever twist. The theorem derives from the determinism—technically, unitarity—of quantum mechanics. So here we have determinism acting not as the slayer of free will, but as its savior. Quantum mechanics is a theory with a keen sense of irony. In the process of quantum decoherence, to give another example, entanglement is destroyed by… more entanglement.

As fun as Aaronson’s game is, I don’t see it as a test of free will per se. As he admitted, predictable does not mean unfree. Predictability is just one aspect of the problem. In the spirit of inventing variations on the Turing Test, consider the Toddler Test. Ask a toddler something, anything. He or she will say “no.” It is a test that parents will wearily recognize. The answers, by Aaronson’s complexity measure, are completely predictable. But that hardly reflects on the toddler’s freedom; indeed, toddlers play the game precisely to exercise their free will. The Toddler Test shows the limits of predictability, too. Who knows when the toddler will stop playing? If there is anybody in the world who is unpredictable, it is a toddler. What parents would give for a window in their skulls!

Yet no one denies that toddlers are composed of particles that behave according to deterministic laws. So how do you square their free will with those laws? Like cosmologist Sean Carroll, I lean toward what philosophers call compatibilism: I see no contradiction whatsoever between determinism and free will, because they operate at two different levels of reality. Determinism describes the basic laws of physics. Free will describes the behavior of conscious beings. It is an emergent property. Individual particles aren’t free. Nor are they hot, or wet, or alive. Those properties arise from particles’ collective behavior.

To put it differently, we can’t talk about whether you have free will until we can talk about you. The behavior of particles could be completely preordained by the initial conditions of the universe, but that is irrelevant to your decisions. You still need to make them.

What you are is the confluence of countless chains of events that stretch back to the dawn of time. Every decision you make depends on everything you have ever learned and experienced, coming together in your head for the first and only time in the history of the universe. The decision you make is implicit in those influences, but they have never all intersected before. Thus your decision is a unique creative act.

This is why even the slightest violation of free will in a quantum entanglement experiment beggars belief. “Free will” in such an experiment means simply that your choice of what to measure is such a distant cousin of the particle’s behavior that the two have never interacted until now.

This is where we get into the second big point that Aaronson made in his talk, about just how creative an act it was. Even if the influences producing a free choice have never interacted before, they can all be traced to the initial state of the universe. There is always some uncertainty about what that state was; a huge range of possibilities would have led to the universe we see today. But the decision you make resolves some of that uncertainty. It acts as a measurement of those countless influences.

Yet in a deterministic universe, those is no justification for saying that the initial state caused the decision; it is equally valid to say that the decision caused the initial state. After all, physics is reversible. What determinism means is that the state at one time implies the state at all other times. It does not privilege one state over another. Thus your decision, in a very real sense, creates the initial conditions of the universe.

This backward causation, or retrocausality, was the “loony” aspect of Aaronson’s talk. Except there’s nothing loony about it. It is a concept that Einstein’s special theory of relativity made a live possibility. Relativity convinced most physicists that we live in a “block universe” in which past, present, and future are equally real. In that case, there’s no reason to suppose the past influences the future, but not vice-versa. Although their theories shout retrocausality, physicists haven’t fully grappled with the implications yet. It might, for one thing, explain many of the mysteries of quantum mechanics.

In a follow-up email, Aaronson told me that the connection between free will and cosmic initial state was also explored by philosopher Carl Hoefer in a 2002 paper. What Aaronson has done is apply the insights of quantum mechanics. If you can’t clone a quantum state perfectly, you can’t clone yourself perfectly, and if you can’t clone yourself perfectly, you can’t ever be fully simulated on a computer. Each decision you take is yours and yours alone. It is the unique record of some far-flung collection of particles in the early universe. Aaronson wrote, “What quantum mechanics lets you do here, basically, is ensure that the aspects of the initial microstate that are getting resolved with each decision are ‘fresh’ aspects, which haven’t been measured or recorded by anyone else.”

If  nothing else, let this reconcile parents to their willful toddlers. Carroll once wrote that every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology. A toddler playing the “no” game goes you one better. Every time the toddler says no, he or she is doing cosmological engineering, helping to shape the initial state of the universe.

Quantum art courtesy of garlandcannon. Slide courtesy of Scott Aaronson.

George Musser About the Author: is a contributing editor at Scientific American. He focuses on space science and fundamental physics, ranging from particles to planets to parallel universes. He is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory. Musser has won numerous awards in his career, including the 2011 American Institute of Physics's Science Writing Award. Follow on Twitter @gmusser.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. blindboy 4:21 am 09/20/2011

    Untestable hypothesis upon untestable hypothesis we could fill the entire multiverse with the quantum foam of this type of blather.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Cristi Stoica 5:33 am 09/20/2011

    Hi George,

    Nice article.

    Scott said:
    “I’ll present a perspective about free will, quantum mechanics, and time that I’ve never seen before. I’ll place a much higher premium on being original and interesting than on being right.”

    You said:
    “This backward causation, or retrocausality, was the “loony” aspect of Aaronson’s talk.”

    I would like to point out that some of these “loony” ideas I already presented in 2008 [1,2,3].

    1) The idea that free will can be viewed as an “input” from outside the laws of the universe, similar to the input from a player in a computer game.

    [2], 4.2:

    “when a human plays a computer role-playing game, there is an algorithm representing the character in the game. The algorithm may use some random input, to act more unpredictable. But it is the human that also inputs data, and controls the character’s actions. From the point of view of the algorithm, this looks like random input, but if the player is good, we can observe that the actions seem to have a definite intention. The inputs converge towards a purpose. Likewise, it is always possible that the material mind is just a character in a role-playing game, and the real “I” of that mind is something outside the material world. This immaterial “I” inputs, by using the quantum freedom, data into the material world, to control the decisions of the algorithm that we consider to be our minds.”

    2) The idea that free will can exist in a deterministic world because the initial conditions are delayed

    [2], 3.3:

    “The delayed initial conditions mechanism shows that it is never too late to have a decision concerning the initial conditions of the Universe (as long as they are not established yet). This mechanism reintroduces the determinism in Quantum Mechanics, in a way that is simpler than in the standard approach, avoiding the problems of the wave function collapse. This kind of determinism is compatible with the free-will at the same extent as the indeterministic interpretation.”

    I proposed an experiment to test this hypothesis in [2], 4.3. It is different from Aaronson’s proposed (gedanken) experiment, based on the no-clonning theorem. I think this is in fact the original part from Scott’s talk.

    [1] Cristi Stoica, Smooth Quantum Mechanics: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/4344/
    [2] Cristi Stoica, Convergence and free-will: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/4356/
    [3] Cristi Stoica, Flowing with a Frozen River: http://fqxi.org/community/essay/winners/2008.1#Stoica

    Link to this
  3. 3. Rex Bromfield 6:25 am 09/20/2011

    I haven’t read this article yet but I probably will. In any event, it seems appropriate to comment on it now. It has a lot of words, which is good because the question of causality becomes complex, especially at the quantum level. I will likely never know whether feeling positive about this article, as I do now, will taint my opinion after I have read it. Be that as it may, I will not be reporting on it later because I don’t really have the time.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jimmywat 7:09 am 09/20/2011

    “Free will” is a simplistic statement, a very poorly defined subject to discuss scientifically. Quantum mechanics cannot measure both speed and position at the same time since it must bombard whatever with another particle or ray which, relative to that which is being measured, is highly significant. If we measure the reflected light from a baseball, the light has no significant effect on the baseball. We can therefore rule it out of our conclusions. Not so with an electron or atom in motion. The act of measuring or measuring what bounced off it affects the experiment. That does not mean there is no cause and effect at that level; just that we can never measure it accurately.

    Moreover, at the human level, we have many experiences and the coincidental conditioning that they brought to us. We have limited mental capacity, un- or subconscious thoughts and automatic reactions or tendencies such as the sex drive that vary from person to person and are the result of our evolution. All of these combine to produce the illusion of “free will”. Moreover, we are not gods who can control all the variables. We are not free not to eat, not to urinate, to live without clothing in freezing temperatures, etc. All of these physical limitations destroy any semblance of there being “free will”.

    This brings us to the illusion of “free will”. Our thoughts are electro-chemical reactions to stimuli that, in turn, cause other thoughts and reactions. If we could measure all of the inputs, know all of the processes, and had a computer large and fast enough, we could predict everything, including human “decisions”. We do not and never will due to the infinity and infinitesimal nature of the universe.
    Having said all of that, we cannot consciously live our lives that way. We therefore must live our lives as if we had “free will”.

    Link to this
  5. 5. johnwerneken 9:37 am 09/20/2011

    jimmywat is one smart cookie. And this is a good article.

    Link to this
  6. 6. MadScientist72 10:24 am 09/20/2011

    @blindboy – It’s even worse than that! Thanks to “the no-cloning theorem”, even if you could test the hypotheses, no one would ever be able to accurately reproduce the experiment, thus violating one of the central tenets of the scientific method – reproducability. With this bit of absurdity, the quantum mechanics crowd may well have jumped into the pseudoscience deep-end.

    @jimmywat – Actually, we ARE free to not eat, not urinate and go out naked in the blizzard, we’re just not free to avoid the consequences of doing so, namely death.

    Link to this
  7. 7. citicrab 10:29 am 09/20/2011

    jimmywat has elucidated the subject adequately. There seems to be one more aspect to it though. Even complete unpredictability does not provide for free will. Unpredictable does not equal free, “free” presupposes a moral judgement. You can not talk of it in a universe devoid of moral sense. Free will is only possible as given to us by a deity. The last statement of jimmywat’s post, on the necessity to live life as if we had it, seems to agree with the an Einstein’s observation. However it immediately poses the next question: if we do not have free will, after all, what does the word “must” mean?

    Link to this
  8. 8. KipHansen 1:07 pm 09/20/2011

    And if Man is, at his most basic level, a spiritual being, making a computerized clone of his brain will reveal nothing about how he makes choices and fail to inform us in the slightest about the subject of free will.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Cristi Stoica 3:20 pm 09/20/2011

    Is my comment censored? If so, why?

    Link to this
  10. 10. OgreMk5 4:23 pm 09/20/2011

    If a positron is just an electron moving backwards through time, then events in the present can influence the past, which, in turn, influences the present.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Marc Levesque 7:04 pm 09/20/2011

    “Robert Nozick … quipped: “Someone who proposes a non-strange answer shows he didn’t understand the question.””

    I’m not a philosopher but that sounds like a procedural fallacy, and a distractor, like “poisoning the well”.

    I’d be tempted to answer back to Nozick “And clearly you don’t understand language or semiotics”

    Q83256

    Link to this
  12. 12. Cristi Stoica 1:08 am 09/21/2011

    I would like to point out that some of these “loony” ideas I already presented in 2008 [1,2,3].

    1) The idea that free will can be viewed as an “input” from outside the laws of the universe, similar to the input from a player in a computer game.

    [2], 4.2:

    “when a human plays a computer role-playing game, there is an algorithm representing the character in the game. The algorithm may use some random input, to act more unpredictable. But it is the human that also inputs data, and controls the character’s actions. From the point of view of the algorithm, this looks like random input, but if the player is good, we can observe that the actions seem to have a definite intention. The inputs converge towards a purpose. Likewise, it is always possible that the material mind is just a character in a role-playing game, and the real “I” of that mind is something outside the material world. This immaterial “I” inputs, by using the quantum freedom, data into the material world, to control the decisions of the algorithm that we consider to be our minds.”

    2) The idea that free will can exist in a deterministic world because the initial conditions are delayed

    [2], 3.3:

    “The delayed initial conditions mechanism shows that it is never too late to have a decision concerning the initial conditions of the Universe (as long as they are not established yet). This mechanism reintroduces the determinism in Quantum Mechanics, in a way that is simpler than in the standard approach, avoiding the problems of the wave function collapse. This kind of determinism is compatible with the free-will at the same extent as the indeterministic interpretation.”

    I proposed an experiment to test this hypothesis in [2], 4.3. It is different from Aaronson’s proposed (gedanken) experiment, based on the no-clonning theorem. I think this is in fact the original part from Scott’s talk.

    [1] Cristi Stoica, Smooth Quantum Mechanics: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/4344/
    [2] Cristi Stoica, Convergence and free-will: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/4356/
    [3] Cristi Stoica, Flowing with a Frozen River: http://fqxi.org/community/essay/winners/2008.1#Stoica

    Please do not remove again this comment

    Link to this
  13. 13. GratefulRob 9:40 am 09/21/2011

    Uh, free will doesn’t mean free reign, (or at least not in practice) it means free choice. That is of course unless/until we become/are the increate (God/dess). Besides that a very interesting article with thoughtful comments. Unfortunately if Godell’s incompleteness theorem is correct, one can never completely apprehend Reality using any system of logic, but it is fun to try.

    Link to this
  14. 14. whbecker 9:33 pm 09/22/2011

    Actually, Godel’s incompleteness theorem applies to some very specific mathematical structures and it doesn’t say anything about “apprehending reality”. A good reference on this is “Godel’s Theorem – An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse” by Torkel Franzen.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Kibbs 2:41 pm 09/27/2011

    The answer is as simple as the human touch is. Imagine a barber, same as the barber next to him, giving a cut. We all know each one cuts and wields his blade differently, touches differently, each person sitting in the chair is singularly unique, as well as their actions, the physical hair is counted, follicle shapes like a snowflake, individual. Of course, cloning, and the idea of cloning ‘perfection’ and a uniqueness of matched set of is a fallacy, if only measured by the stars alignment at moment of creation or origin.

    Link to this
  16. 16. kebil 10:40 pm 12/7/2011

    I like what Jimmywat wrote, and agree with him mostly. The only real caveat I have is the fact that quantum indeterminacy means we can never be absolutely sure of the outcome of any process. Probability plays an essential role in the outcomes of any event at the level of quarks and electrons, and indeed, everything, albeit at a lesser and less notable amount as the scale increases. Thus, we could never be total accurate in our predictions, but we could get very close with a simulation of a brain (theoretically) as at the level of neurons and receptors, quantum effects are negligible. That simply means that the universe is not entirely deterministic, but that does not mean that their is free will. Free will is not the same thing as being unable to predict what a person could do, even with a computer simulation. If anything, if such a computer existed, it would probably also feel like it had free will.

    There are only two ways that a choice can be made, either randomly, or by the use of some systematic process (i.e. an algorithm). If a choice is not processed through some systematic process, then it must be random. You can’t have a “free will” component, something that is not random, but is not the result of such a process. There is a reason, though, why we feel as if we had free will, and it is probably a useful, if not necessary function of the brain to produce such a feeling in order to produce motivation, feel reward as well as it’s inverse, and produce self awareness.

    This algorithm is not some simple mathematical function (in most cases), rather, it is the complex processing of electrical pulses through neuronal circuits in multiple networks in parallel (like a multiprocessor computer, only vastly more processors). Trillions of connections between billions of neurons connecting to each other.

    The algorithm we use is incredibly complex, has inputs from our current emotional state, past experiences and memories, often outside of our awareness, as well as process occurring outside our awareness. This algorithm is changed by every event that occurs to us, every experience, every decision we make and it’s consequences. Even our thoughts, our ongoing internal dialogue, can create or break connections between neurons. This results in a changing network that handles any and all “choices” that arise during the day.

    The only way a neuron fires is by the input of multiple electrochemical signals from many synapses (connections)(with the exception of some neurons that have been programmed to fire regularly, although these to may be subject to neuronal inputs). This signal is then transmitted to other neurons. We have billions of neurons, and trillions of connections. Various parts of the brain have been designated to handle specific types of information, how this happens is the result of our genetics and experience. Neuronal pathways are constantly merging with each other, as well as diverging to other pathways, meaning a signal does not merely excite the next neuron, it can excite (or inhibit) many neurons, as well as be affected by many neurons. There is no one to one schematic of firing, rather, signals are processed via many parallel circuits at the same time.This network of signals, as hard as it may be to believe, are necessary and sufficient to produce the “feeling” of free will, as well as consciousness and awareness.

    It is this complexity gives rise to the feeling that our decisions are much more than mere reflex actions, but rather, the result of “free will”. This is just a feeling, in reality our decisions are made via much the same mechanism as reflexes, except for the fact that there are many more neurons involved in the signal processing that the simple three neuron signal that handles the most basic reflexes.

    Our thoughts, feelings, and ideas, are all emergent properties of this vastly complex organ. There is no “spiritual” input from another realm, quantum mechanics don’t give rise to free will, if anything, they would introduce randomness into the process at a low level. The brain (and mind, which is the same thing) is a physical computational organ, vastly more complicated than anything man has made. It processes signals through a complex network, giving rise to such phenomena as emotions, thoughts, memories, and awareness. It has been demonstrated by many diverse experiments that our perceptions and thoughts can be directly altered via applied electrical signalling, that our decisions are often made before we ourselves are aware of them, in some cases seconds before, that physical trauma to the brain are sufficient to produce chronic problems with any of the functions of the brain, including consciousness, and drugs, entirely physical substances, can dramatically alter our perceptions, feelings, and influence our thoughts and decisions. All these facts are just further evidence that our mind exists in the physical brain, and not on some spiritual dimension.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Brain1 9:07 pm 11/29/2012

    JUST ANOTHER horrible attempt to make sense out of materialism and or atheism.

    Its very cut and dry. You can either think or you cant. Particles can no more arrange themselves into Reason than the universe can arrange itself into this clearly designed structure.

    When you are so biased that you ascribe god-like magical ability to particles yet deny the obvious answer starring you in face–you have ceased to even be a real person. You are detached from the universe.

    All the words you speak, the way you say them, and at what speed are carefully chosen. You moved the matter in your brain at the command of your will. Convincing yourself you’re not a person is quite a trick to preform all to escape God.
    We clearly see design…so we say no– it just looks like it– so we look at the math—oh damm..thats designed too. Your just running away from the truth that everybody has already known but you guys.

    Link to this
  18. 18. ludozic 8:38 am 01/29/2013

    @johnwerneken – the “smart” cookie has been quantized into less smart but FREE pieces I am afraid. (See about “strange quarks” below.)

    @jimmywat – I am afraid your reasoning is on its head on top of not holding itself. Worse than that, this is the reasoning followed by materialist dualist determinist scienticists who see anything as separated from one another, whereas in truth every single thing is interconnected with another.

    Those same scienticists have perpetrated those ideas in your reasoning, which are in great part responsible for the technocalypse we are now all facing, but which can be stopped. It is easy to stop it -> Get rid of that stubborn scientism, which necessarily leads to technism, which in turn leads to technocalypse… ( @Brain1 – okay, though another responsible part of the turmoils in the world is people who have been maintaining blind faith, which by the way is no better no worse than axiom-based faith of scientism. I am extremely dubious about an all powerful supreme entity separated from us and who would have full control upon us, who would also freely decide when and where to punish/reward who / which soul. The main thing that does not go well at all with this view is the separation bit, again. This leads to dualism, again, which is problematic. If there is one or several creator(s), we must be interconnected and to it. We must be fully part of it, within cycles. Maybe under the table, we are it. )

    One paramount idea, which you have swallowed without any resistance just like mainstream orthodox science / scientism has been doing, is that apparently we humans have limited mental capacity… Better keep that (inculcated) thought for yourself!

    Just look at how anomalous your own reasoning is. Your so cherished scientism tells you that one cannot prove a negative. Next thing you do, you prove to yourself (and try and intimidate us with this “proof”) that you (we) LACK certain mental capacities…

    Better than that, just like all those chaps, you are repeating it to us ; and that free-will of choice is an illusion, and that human consciousness is merely a useful but vain product of evolution.

    @MadScientist72 – The consequence you are talking about is Earthly (physical/material) death. But maybe you really are a non-physical/immaterial soul, who has an impermanent (decaying) physical/material body exhibiting continuous life down here right now. A non-physical/immaterial soul may always survive and always be endowed with free-will… Challenge that! Properly!

    @kebil – Nicely tried. But: “…that our decisions are often made before we ourselves are aware of them, in some cases seconds before, …” What did you expect? Tell me about the opposite story of consciously making a decision and then only afterwards all the subconscious-related neurons doing all their work (firing and reorganising their nets). Of course that it could not work that way, which would be absurd. Decisions first build up within the subconscious via its related neural networks, granted. Then a decision is made, and then we become fully aware of it. Human consciousness is the result of firing neurons, also granted. But this does not necessarily discard free-will or higher will power. One reason is that matter, including the one making up neurons, is somewhere composed of strange quarks, which exactly disappear out of and reappear into our observed physical reality very seemingly purely randomly! So here you have it! See?
    So, just don’t hastily jump into conclusions from primary evidences that seem to suit your cause and the convenience of your life, without even being willing to look harder and further. The proof of your close-mindedness is for instance: “and not on some spiritual dimension”. I rather invite you to chew about what if such a spiritual plane contained all the answers you are obviously unaware of. I am serious with this because it may well solidify any theories of reality/existence we have thus far, especially mainstream theories, which are so lame / anomalous.

    Let’s simply embrace uncertainty rather than attempting in vain to tame it one way (e.g. scientism) or another (e.g. blind faith).

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