Decoherence

There is no past or future. There are only stories of the past and stories of the future, and both kinds are mutable. We resolve the pervasive ontological uncertainty by matching the story we know (beginning, middle, end) and placing its middle in the “now.” This allows us to imagine that we understand why the past happened in a way that led to the present, and what the future brings. As long as the present follows the arc of this story, we are content. We’re in control of the narrative.

When inevitably, the infinite complexity of the world manifests itself in bucking our chosen story, we encounter decoherence: our expectations of the past that was “now” just a moment ago no longer match what we experience–a prediction error!–and the future stops looking as certain, causing us to pattern-match to another story we know that might fit. Depending on the cache of stories we draw, these stories might be cataclysmic (aversion) or blissful (craving), guiding our expectation gradients. As we latch onto that new story, we repeat the cycle: the story’s beginning reshapes our past, the middle constructs the present, and the end predicts the future. This metamorphosis happens quite seamlessly and magically in our minds. The new story snaps into place in a way that neatly explains or just plain forgets the old one.

But in that moment of decoherence, in that struggle to regain control over the narrative, we experience suffering. Our sense-making revolts, unable to cope with the blood-curling contact with uncertainty, grasping to regain that elusive handle on the narrative. A global pandemic, an unthinkable tragedy, or even just an unexpected act of someone you care about. Each holds that decoherence potential, the hidden token of suffering.

So we strive to reduce this suffering. We escape, trying to hide in environments where only familiar stories could play out–or so we believe. We try to dial down that prediction error, denying the markers of decoherence, continuing to hold on to the chosen story for as long as we can. We rebel and rise up, hoping to shape the world into our stories. We accommodate, looking to find our places in the stories of others. We hone our sense-making to produce the most accurate predictions. We hoard stories lest we are faced with the one we don’t know.

And yet, we continue to suffer. Somehow, all of these efforts backfire, bringing more suffering, a sense of a vicious cycle at play. As we white-knuckle our way through life, exhausted and beaten down, the paradox of decoherence is revealed to us. Decoherence is the glimpse into the nature of reality. The richer our models, our attempts to capture the complexity of reality, the more they will look like decoherence. The ultimate insight of understanding is that there is no insight and the understanding itself is a neat trick that our minds invented to cope with that fact. The paradox of decoherence is that the most accurate, crystal clear representation of reality is just as incomprehensible as the reality itself. The race toward clarity is the race toward decoherence.

… And I catch myself trying to hold on, trying to come up with a bigger story that includes decoherence being part of something bigger, something spiritual, something God-like. I fall into the mysticism of the Unknowable, hoping that this would do as an okay-ish substitute for true letting go. But deep in my heart, I know that it won’t. Decoherence just is, and the bigger picture is decoherence.

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