The Theory of the Many COVID-Worlds

What we (think we) understand about the life-cycle of the pandemic is entangled with our ‘tools of observation’ and their function, and capacity. [Photo: Getty Images]
In 1957, Hugh Everett suggested the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum theory: each time the wave function collapses another universe is created. Given we have one COVID pandemic, and, yet, a multitude of global responses, are global populations living in respective COVID-worlds?

There’s a theory within quantum mechanics called the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI). The many worlds interpretation is intended to resolve one of the meta-paradoxes of quantum: why do the results of quantum experiments not match our everyday experience of the world? Or, more precisely: why is the conduct of quantum experiments unlike the conduct of ‘regular,’ macro-level experiments?

MWI Explained

You see, when you perform a quantum experiment, two peculiar things happen. Firstly, the experimental arrangement can change the outcome of the experiment, despite the two experimental set-ups purporting to ‘measure’ the same specific phenomenon; and, secondly, predictions about the outcome of certain quantum experiments can only be made probabilistically, since ‘perfect,’ or ‘complete’ knowledge of the outcome of a quantum experiment is gained only after the experiment has been conducted. Under quantum mechanics, a range of probabilities is the best you can hope for. That said, the outcomes are always probabilistically accurate. Quantum models are notoriously reliable, and, as forms of science, wave and matrix mechanics are yet to be falsified. The Many Worlds Interpretation attempts to absolve quantum theory of these two sins: (1) phenomena are no longer susceptible to ad hoc change; and, (2) the range of possible outcomes are no longer probabilistic, they are rendered certain prior to measurement.

The MWI, as a solution, is remarkably elegant and simple to follow – accepting it, however, is another matter entirely. According to MWI, following a quantum experiment, a distinct universe exists for each possible outcome. The ‘future’ of each new universe continues as determined by the particular outcome arising from the quantum experiment. The physicist who conceived of MWI, Hugh Everett, asked us to think of tree branches. If you made a succession of quantum experiments, you (i.e., the observer) branch off into successive trajectories. All the other branches exist, but you (i.e., your conscious, self-possessed memory of self) has no knowledge of the other branches existing as other worlds and continuing as such into the future.

Bear in mind, according to MWI, ‘you’ (i.e., an exact copy of your body and memories) exists in each newly created universe along with the particular outcome of the quantum experiment (as the ‘totality’ of the universe qua reality). However, since the ‘experience’ of the experiment was different for the ‘you’ sent to the other world (i.e., the copy of you), from the moment the measurement takes place the exactitude between ‘you’ and ‘copy of you’ begin to diverge (as the new experiential trajectory of reality commences). As a side note, MWI necessarily adheres to the philosophical position that ‘self/you’ is a mental construct determined by one’s experience of reality – i.e., you are you because of a ‘chain of overlapping memories’ – what is commonly referred to as the Psychological-Continuity view of personal identity.

Taking MWI from another perspective, when a quantum experiment is performed, you (i.e., the observer) quite literally create another universe – an identical copy of the reality you were presently/previously inhabiting. Metaphysically speaking, MWI would appear to endow the quantum physicist with Godlike powers!

I’ve provided this background in MWI not to convince the reader of the ‘correct interpretation of quantum theory,’ but, rather, to describe the situation I observe with respect to global variation in COVID-19 responses.

MWI and the COVID-19 Pandemic

I take the COVID-19 pandemic as the phenomenon, domestic policy prescriptions and mitigation measures as the experimental set-up, and the social reality (i.e., the lived experience) of the population as the outcome of the experiment. Looking at the variation in COVID-19 responses this way, consider two possible interpretations: (1) on the one hand, it may be that domestic policy and mitigation prescriptions are changing the physical reality of the disease and this is why social reality differs between (and even across) national jurisdictions; or, (2) on the other hand, the domestic policy and mitigation prescriptions of particular authorities are sending their populations to particular COVID-Worlds.

Most policy-makers would like to believe they have the capacity to ‘change the physical reality of the disease.’ Few, however, would accept they are ‘sending their constituents to new, and divergent, COVID-Worlds.’ Indeed, policy-makers like to believe their mandates are having a determining effect on COVID-19, while simultaneously, ensuring we all live in precisely the same COVID-World. Unfortunately, as with a quantum paradox, this reading of events does not comport with our lived experiences.

The Paradox of the Many COVID-Worlds

Life in Stockholm in 2020 is quite different from life in Berlin, and neither are quite like life in Sydney, Australia. In a banal and mundane fashion, these new COVID protocols (whatever they may be) have surprisingly easily become the ‘new normal.’ In many ways, I am reminded of the introduction of airport security measures after the Twin Towers came down on September 11th, 2001. Although we grumbled the first few times we took off shoes while juggling belts, jackets, passports, and laptops with too few hands, it wasn’t long before we started loosening fastenings as we waited in line and muttered instead at the passengers who didn’t know to take the fluids-bag out before they put their baggage on the conveyor… Critically, however, while global airport security seemingly reinforces the sameness of the international travel experience, national COVID-19 responses highlight how different places can be.

A further hallmark of our present dilemma is the spatial and conceptual alienation. Given domestic and international travel restrictions, many Berliners, Stockholmers, and Sydneysiders have no knowledge of life outside their COVID-World. Not only is travel between jurisdictions difficult, expensive, and undesirable, it is being deliberately discouraged by both departure and host countries alike. In the same way, I don’t know what the ‘copy of me’ thinks or feels after the quantum experiment has been performed – although I may receive ‘reports’ – it is extremely difficult to ‘access’ another COVID-World.

Finally, every distinct domestic population has been on its own particular trajectory since March 2020 and know only their specific past, present, and future. Every country has its own ‘pandemic ballad’: a story we can relay to one another about the first arrival of the virus, the early cases, where it ‘came from,’ outbreaks, suppressions, mitigations, and the popular reactions.

Essential for the veracity of our Gedankenexperiment, we note that Sweden’s, Australia’s, and Germany’s policy prescriptions have been quite different. The measures put in place to combat, mitigate, or otherwise address the presence of COVID-19 in-country have varied in number, kind, intensity, duration, and timing. In the crudest of descriptions: Australia took the hard and fast approach; UK the late and sloppy; and Sweden, the wait and see. To summarise: each nation experiences the one phenomenon (COVID-19), performs a distinct experiment (particular response measures), and finds themselves in a divergent COVID-world (isolated, unique, and inaccessible).

So, how do we account for what we observe?

Disentangling the Many COVID-Worlds

I believe neither of the two interpretations I proposed above, taken individually or together, provide an adequate description. Firstly, we are not unproblematically changing the physical reality of the disease. It’s not as simple as saying: the virus arrives on our shores, we do X, now the virus and its transmission are affected to X degree. In many cases it would be more accurate to say we are simply changing the knowledge we obtain about the physical reality of the disease – depending upon the specific domestic policy and mitigation prescriptions. Secondly, although we (broadly speaking) genuinely do inhabit the same COVID-World, the media and other powerful political and institutional actors are fostering a discourse based upon the assumption that we have been sent to new, and divergent COVID-worlds. The old us vs. them, inside-outside binaries, and Schmittian friend-enemy dichotomies are deployed to create visceral distinctions between one COVID-World and another.

With respect to ‘changing the knowledge we obtain about the physical reality of the disease,’ in March 2020, Oxford University produced a study claiming up to 50% of UK residents had been or were infected with COVD-19. Despite this possibility, quantitative data graphed so elegantly as a ‘first wave’ in March-April-May shows a dramatic and exponential spread of the disease throughout the population. The veracity of both, either or neither form of data collation notwithstanding, I maintain, that March-April-May was not a ‘wave’ in infections as much as it was a wave in testing: the sharp increase in cases mirroring the newly obtainable information generated by widely available COVID-19 test kits. Similarly, we were in no position to attribute deaths to COVID-19 until the experimental set-up existed to test the deceased and dying for the disease. In other words, what we (think we) understand about the life-cycle of the pandemic; its spread and mortality rate, is frustratingly entangled with our ‘tools of observation’; and when these tools became available, their function, and capacity.

Now, concerning the ‘assumption that we have been sent to new, and divergent, COVID-worlds,’ most national media appear to operate under the illusion that the social reality they investigate and opine upon is a reality that ‘could not have been otherwise.’ In other words, rather than a probabilistic future based upon the measures their governments adopted (for better or for worse), the media assumes the mentality that authorities determined the course of events, and, with them, the COVID-19 outcomes splashed daily across their broadsheets: cases, hospital admissions, and deaths alike. According to popular narrative, Australia has a low rate of infection and deaths attributed to COVD-19 because (certain) authorities acted with haste and prudence; the United Kingdom has an appallingly high rate of infection and death from COVD-19 due to Boris Johnson’s abject failure; and, Sweden… well, we don’t like to talk about Sweden. They’re in some kind of parallel COVID-Valhalla no one quite understands.

What’s missing from this fatalistic media disposition is any meaningful consideration of contextual, environmental, structural, social, or cultural factors. For example: Australia has a population density of 3.2 people per square kilometre, while England has 275 people per square kilometre. Perth receives 3,200 hours of sunshine per year, Manchester less than a third – at 1071 hours. London has mass transit, Sydney does not. When it’s warm weather in Sydney its generally miserable in London.

The Explanatory Limits of MWI

The problem with the conventional interpretation of COVID-19 responses that I lay at the feet of the mainstream media (i.e., the belief in deterministic policy, or, the assumption our reality differs post facto markedly from the reality of others) is the same problem I hold against the Many Worlds Interpretation: the theory is unfalsifiable.

There’s no way to prove what we ‘see’ is not evolving according to the theory of the Many COVID-Worlds. We don’t have a counterfactual for any specific reality since that reality is by its very nature the only reality of its kind. In addition, all facts can be said to fit nicely to the pattern of the world we are meant to have been sent to – since, of course, all the facts of any future reality will only ever be obtainable by the very pattern of reality following from the precise reality that preceded it… You know you’re dealing with a slippery theory when the situation would look exactly the same, whether the theory is valid or whether it is complete nonsense.

Like many philosophical propositions: the brain in a vat, Descartes’s daemon, the Matrix or Inception dream states – the elegance, un-falsifiability, and apparent ‘fact-accommodation’ of the MWI is no substitute for rigour, nuance, interdisciplinary, and complementarity.

I contend the Many World Interpretation does for quantum theory what the many-COVID worlds approach does for COVID-19 response: nothing is really answered; the question is merely shelved. MWI doesn’t even attempt to describe what ‘happens’ when the wave function collapses, it simply avoids the question by saying this doesn’t happen at all. It provides an elegant meta-theoretical account of what reality(ies) would be like if the strangest part about quantum wasn’t a problem anymore.

Similarly, the current attitude towards COVID-19 response doesn’t adequately provide an understanding of what we are doing since instead of describing what is ‘happening’ we condemn ourselves to an imaginary COVID-world where ‘the happening’ has already been replaced by ‘the happened.’ If we would like an adequate understanding of what has ‘actually’ worked, not worked, delayed, forestalled, mitigated, resolved, or otherwise ameliorated the pandemic; firstly, we ought to accept that much of the information we think we ‘see,’ concerning COVID-19, is in fact a reflection of changing access to knowledge about the virus; and, secondly, appreciate that every population does in fact reside in the same COVID-World, while the efficacy of policy prescriptions should only be judged over the longue durée, with due consideration of contextual, environmental, structural, social, and cultural factors.

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