There are many ways things could go, so for concreteness let’s assume that (in some local area) there are approximately 100 possibilities for the next second, and approximately 100 x 100, or 10,000 possibilities for the next two seconds.
Then the question arises: do some of the two-second outcomes have overlapping paths? In other words, suppose we take the first option in the first second. Are all of the outcomes we can reach different from all of the outcomes we could reach if we took the second option in the first second?
It is at least plausible that some overlapping paths can exist. For example, something might swerve to the left in the first second, and then to the right in the second second, ending up just where it would have been if it had swerved to the right in the first second and to the left in the second. Let’s suppose it turns out this way. Thus we have situation A and time A, and situation B and time B, with a first and second path, both of which lead from situation A at time A, to situation B at time B.
When we get to situation B, what does the world look like? In particular, if someone is in situation B and says, “let’s look at the world and figure out what just happened,” what does it look like? Consider three different accounts:
- It looks like situation B except also that it looks like we took the first path
- It looks like situation B except also that it looks like we took the second path
- It looks like situation B, and we can’t tell which path was taken
The problem is evident. These are three different situations. If things currently look different, the situation is different. So these cannot possibly all be descriptions of situation B. And in particular, only the third is a reasonable description of the situation we should expect. We have set up the situation so that there is no difference in our current situation, whether the first or second path was taken. So of course in situation B it will be impossible to know which path was taken.
But what does that look like, exactly? “We don’t know” is not a description of a situation, but a description of our state of knowledge. What is it about situation B that makes it impossible to tell which path was taken? What happens if you describe the situation as exactly as possible, and then explain why that “exact” description still does not determine which path was taken?
Consider again Schrödinger’s confusion about his cat. The reason why the notion of “bluriness” came up at all was not merely that the wave equation seems to describe something blurred, but also because the actual results of experiments suggest that something blurred took place. Thus for example in double-slit experiments, interference patterns suggest that something is going through both slits at once, while if detectors are added to determine what, if anything, is going through the slits, one seems to find that only one slit is used at a time, and the interference pattern goes away.
This fits the above description of situation A and situation B almost perfectly. In the double slit experiment, there are two paths that could be taken to arrive at the same outcome. But that “same outcome” is not one in which it looks like the first path was taken, nor one in which it looks like the second path was taken, but one in which the outcome’s relationship to the path appears to be confused. And on the other hand, if we can tell which path was taken, as we can when we add detectors, there is no such confusion, because the outcomes no longer overlap; the outcome where the first detector registers is not the same as an outcome where the second detector registers.
In this sense, quantum theory is simply the situation where Aristotle was right about the indeterminacy of the future, with the minor addition that it turned out to be possible to get to the same future by more than route.
Note, however, that this implies the worrisome outcome that I suggested in that post. Just as the future is indeterminate, so is the past. Just as the present has many possible future outcomes, there are many past paths that could have resulted in the present.