Alternate histories

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Jennifer
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Alternate histories

Post by Jennifer » 02 Apr 2012, 01:04

I've pretty much read all of Harry Turtledove's alt-history stories for adults, so I started reading his young-adult series Crosstime Traffic, which, I think, is set sometime in the late 2090s or early 2100s: the premise is that, between resource depletion and overpopulation the earth was screwed until some geniuses discovered how to travel to alternate timelines, so people can go there to trade for food and other necessities. (There are some holes in the premise; for starters, they've already found worlds where man never evolved and there's no intelligent life, and tapping those resources might be easier than trading for grain from the peasants in a world where the Roman Empire never fell, but never mind.)

In Gunpowder Empire, the first book, the moment of divergence was that in our world, the Roman general Agrippa died relatively young, but in their world he did not, and thus he rather than some dunderhead led the Roman legions in Germania; in our world Germany was never made part of the Roman Empire but in their world it was, and so there were no barbarians to bring Rome down so it remained and stagnated, similar to how China started stagnating after awhile. Also, Mohammed was never born. So now, over 2,000 years later, Roman technology is about where our timeline's technology was around the early 1500s or so: water clocks, primitive cannon and one-shot muskets are about the most modern tech they have.

I'm now reading Curious Notions, the second book; the premise is that Imperial Germany won World War 1, remained aggressive, was the first country to get the nuclear bomb because with no Hitler, none of Europe's brilliant scientists ever left the continent, and nuked and subjugated the US sometime in the 1950s. Technology in that world is still stuck around the late 70s/early 80s in our timeline, and much more restricted; cell phones are enormous circa-1985 models by our standards, and only German military officers have them. However, racial attitudes are still pretty much stuck in our pre-1950s.

I don't know if any of us know ancient Roman history well enough to speculate how history would be different if Rome had subjugated Germany, but what if Germany had won World War I? Do you think the world would still be primarily empires now and 80+ years hence? How would a victorious Imperial Germany have reacted toward Russia, which quit the war early and then had a revolution and turned Communist? Do you think the US in the 1920s would have become more or less isolationist with Germany controlling most of Europe?
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Jennifer » 06 Apr 2012, 14:25

Just read the third book in the Crosstime Traffic series: the idea is that the alternate's world today is still very similar to our world circa 1400 or so: Christian Europe is a poor, technological backwater; parts of southern Europe are controlled by Muslims, and Muslim cities are where culture and sophistication are to be found. The point of divergence was, in our world the Black Death wiped out "only" a third of Europe's population; in their world there were multiple Black Deaths which wiped out over four-fifths of Europe (though the Muslim countries in the south were hit no worse than they were in OUR timeline.)

But here's an idea I found interesting: in all three books, Turtledove has mentioned how religions differ across timelines. For example, OUR timeline has a certain collection of manuscripts deemed "THE Bible," and certain other old manuscripts that might have been part of the Bible, but they were rejected for inclusion back when church elders put the official Bible together in the fifth century or so. And every timeline where Christianity arose has its own version of the Bible, different gospels, different ideas about Paul, etc.

In the latest book, Christianity has morphed into something entirely different from ours: during the last of the Great Black Deaths there was a French peasant named Henri who believed he was Jesus' brother, the second son of God, and he was put on earth to stop the plague or something. Catholic authorities tortured him to death on "the wheel," and then, the next day, the torturers died, and the last Black Plague burned itself out soon thereafter, and the upshot was that pretty much all of Christian Europe thus decided "Henri was right, and the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church totally wrong."

So Christian churches in this timeline do not have "one steeple topped by a cross" but "two steeples, a short one topped by a cross and a tall one topped by a wheel." Henri was not merely Jesus' brother, but Jesus' more important brother.

I wonder: assuming the fantastic assumption that such crosstime traffic were possible -- we actually could visit alternate earths where history played out differently -- what effect would that have on the religions of THIS world? Turtledove made a throwaway mention how the study of comparative religion included entire fields of comparing "alternate Islams" and "alternate Judaisms" and "alternate Christianities," but went into no detail, and certainly said nothing about any crises of faith here, inspired by the wildly divergent religions elsewhere.

Like, f'r'instance, what would be the chances of Henri-style Christianity making a foothold here, in a world where Henri never existed (or at least never came to prominence) because our Black Plague was nowhere near as bad? Or, there was another world with a Jesus-centric form of Christianity much harsher than ours: the Gospel of John was never written, and the books which DID make the canon included some of the nastier Jesus stories that are non-canon in our world ... I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of today's "Old Testament Christians" (the ones for whom Christianity is 99 percent gay-bashing) didn't try adopting some of those otherworldly Bibles -- the Bibles where Jesus was less about loving sinners and more about smiting them -- in lieu of our old King James Version.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Kolohe » 06 Apr 2012, 14:42

Most of religion is not the religion (that is the belief) but the culture. And similar beliefs can spawn vastly different cultures with small changes to initial conditions.

On a separate but related note, one could argue that Jesus is not even among the three most important people in the history of (pre-Reformation) Christianity; they are (in order) Paul, Constantine, and Aquinas Augustine (non-ironic edit). (with a special group award to the Council of Nicea).
Last edited by Kolohe on 06 Apr 2012, 15:30, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Jadagul » 06 Apr 2012, 14:57

Kolohe wrote:Most of religion is not the religion (that is the belief) but the culture. And similar beliefs can spawn vastly different cultures with small changes to initial conditions.

On a separate but related note, one could argue that Jesus is not even among the three most important people in the history of (pre-Reformation) Christianity; they are (in order) Paul, Constantine, and Aquinas. (with a special group award to the Council of Nicea).
No Augustine?

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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Jennifer » 06 Apr 2012, 15:05

I have to disagree on that: without Jesus, you have no Christianity at all. Unless it's that weird alternate-history Henri-centric version of it.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Jennifer » 06 Apr 2012, 15:11

I'm more curious about how, say, this world's Christians would react upon learning of other world's Christianities. Especially those Christians who have to ignore huge portions of Jesus' teachings today: Jesus not only commanded that people help the poor, he explicitly hated rich people. Compare that to the type of "Christianity" that appears as a plank in certain Republicans' campaign platforms. Or the anti-gay Christianity, which spends a lot of time quoting the old testament but ignores NT "love-thy-neighbor" stuff as much as possible. I wonder how many of THOSE types of Christians might abandon this world's official-canon Bible in favor of some other world's Bible?

If you're Rick Santorum, a Bible with an Old Testament identical to our own, but a New Testament WITHOUT "Judge not lest ye be judged" and "love thy neighbor" and "forgive, forgive, forgive" in favor of Jesus using his powers to beat the shit out of the unrighteous, could easily seem far more "holy" than the Bible we have today.

If you're Pat Robertson, it would also be helpful to get a New Testament where Jesus never said anything against rich people and never ordered his followers to sell all they have and give the money to the poor.

EDIT: Fixed minor errors.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by thoreau » 06 Apr 2012, 15:19

Jennifer wrote:I have to disagree on that: without Jesus, you have no Christianity at all. Unless it's that weird alternate-history Henri-centric version of it.
Perhaps if we change "important" to "influential" or "decisive" it is a more reasonable statement?

Jesus was not the only religious teacher going around the Middle East at the time. He's the one whose teachings caught on, because of the works of those who came after him. And how those teachings are received, perceived, interpreted, and applied in turn depend on subsequent theologians. Jesus set it in motion, but Paul and others spread it, Roman emperors (and later others, e.g. the Spaniards) imposed it, theologians interpreted it, Luther and other Protestant reformers offered different interpretations, etc.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Kolohe » 06 Apr 2012, 15:25

Jadagul wrote:
Kolohe wrote:Most of religion is not the religion (that is the belief) but the culture. And similar beliefs can spawn vastly different cultures with small changes to initial conditions.

On a separate but related note, one could argue that Jesus is not even among the three most important people in the history of (pre-Reformation) Christianity; they are (in order) Paul, Constantine, and Aquinas. (with a special group award to the Council of Nicea).
No Augustine?
I wrote Aquinas but was thinking and meant Augustine.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Jadagul » 06 Apr 2012, 15:30

Kolohe wrote:
Jadagul wrote:
Kolohe wrote:Most of religion is not the religion (that is the belief) but the culture. And similar beliefs can spawn vastly different cultures with small changes to initial conditions.

On a separate but related note, one could argue that Jesus is not even among the three most important people in the history of (pre-Reformation) Christianity; they are (in order) Paul, Constantine, and Aquinas. (with a special group award to the Council of Nicea).
No Augustine?
I wrote Aquinas but was thinking and meant Augustine.
Well then, no Aquinas? :P

Though actually you're right--Aquinas is probably less influential just because he came later. He's a huge influence on how Catholics actually think their theology right now but Aquinas is an influence on basically all of Christianity and mostly they don't realize it.

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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Jennifer » 06 Apr 2012, 15:41

Jadagul wrote:Though actually you're right--Aquinas is probably less influential just because he came later. He's a huge influence on how Catholics actually think their theology right now but Aquinas is an influence on basically all of Christianity and mostly they don't realize it.
Based on the book I read yesterday, I think Turtledove (who has a degree in history) credits Aquinas for why, in our timeline, it was the Christian rather than Islamic world that had the scientific revolution: when discussing differences between the "home alternate" (our timeline) and the world of Henri Christianity, he said that the Roman Catholic world followed the teachings of Aquinas, who said that scientific knowledge and religious faith could co-exist, whereas the Islamic world followed a philosopher whose name I hadn't come across before, who said science and religion could NOT exist.

Of course, Henri Christianity pretty much abandoned most Roman Catholic elements, including Aquinas, and the Henrians have a similar anti-science attitude to that of Islam. The implication, therefore, was: not only is this world some 800 years behind ours, technologically; they're also unlikely to ever progress much beyond that.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Kolohe » 06 Apr 2012, 16:32

But that's the thing, religion is the least important reason why the two worlds, at parity in 1500, diverged the way they did. The most important is that the people in the Middle East, were, well, in the middle, and could sit fat dumb and happy on their trade monopolies. The Europeans were the only ones of the two with the motivation to figure out how to get around Africa (by east or west) to India and China so that the spice could flow. The second is that, by 1500, Christian Europe was fractious enough to have competing power centers, but lumpy enough that the power centers had actual power. In contrast, the entire Muslim world (west of Persia) was under Ottoman control. So the Sultan's decisions, for good or for ill, were the be all and end all of matters.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Aresen » 06 Apr 2012, 19:08

Kolohe wrote:Most of religion is not the religion (that is the belief) but the culture. And similar beliefs can spawn vastly different cultures with small changes to initial conditions.

On a separate but related note, one could argue that Jesus is not even among the three most important people in the history of (pre-Reformation) Christianity; they are (in order) Paul, Constantine, and Aquinas Augustine (non-ironic edit). (with a special group award to the Council of Nicea).
I am going to dispute Constantine. Yes, he did make Christianity the Official State Religion of the Roman Empire, but I think that would have come about anyways. The only serious rival was Mithraism. The problem with Mithraism was that it was a religion of the elites - the lower classes were not welcome. This left Christianity as the only choice for the vast majority of the people. (The Classical Pantheon was fading everywhere.) Ultimately, that meant there would be differing faiths for the upper and lower classes - which was not a stable situation, especially as Christianity was open to the upper class as well. It was only a matter of time until Christianity achieved supremacy and it would eventually have happened whether In hoc signo vinces or not.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Kolohe » 06 Apr 2012, 20:03

I don't know enough to say that someone like Constantine, and thus the triumph of (Nicaean) Christianity was inevitable. My inclination though, is to say Constantine was important for providing Christendom temporal power *at that time* - that is, while the Roman Empire was still a going concern.*

Had Christianity continued to spread organically, and/or continued to face opposition from the entrenched powers, my take is that Western Europe, at the time of the fall of Rome** would have had a lot of different, and quarreling, Christian sects. These would have further morphed over the next several centuries, plus possibly allowed some 'pagan' religions to remain viable, and there was an increased chance of someone new coming along a kicking off their own thing (like Mohammed in the real world or Henri in Jennifer's example).

So, no unified Christian faith (until the Orthodox split), and at the very least, no Pope. (that is, no individual religious figure with that much real temporal power)

*this is of course the Italy based empire, though by Constantine's time of course, the competing power center of Byzantium was well established, and starting to (had achieved?) the upper hand. One of the big holes in history education in the US is what was going on East of the Adriatic after Alexander left the scene. The narrative is typically Rome get sacked in the 5th century, then 1000 years later, BOOM! Renaissance, Bitches.

**there is also that the decline of 'Roman' civilization & political institutions, and the rise of Christianity are intertwined, and may be in some parts causal.
when you wake up as the queen of the n=1 kingdom and mount your steed non sequiturius, do you look out upon all you survey and think “damn, it feels good to be a green idea sleeping furiously?" - dhex

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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Aresen » 06 Apr 2012, 20:43

I'd forgotten about Constantine's role in the Council of Nicea, but I think such a Council would have been inevitable once there was a Christian Emperor. Emperors and kings like things standardized, especially for a State Religion, so there would have been some sort of council to make sure there was One True Official Faith.

OTOH, if there had never been a Christian emperor and, as a result, Christianity had remained splintered into numerous competing sects, I suspect that Islam would have taken the whole of the old imperial territories by the end of the 9th century. A factionalized Christianity would not have been able to unite against Al-Andalus, which would have conquered them piecemeal.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by GinSlinger » 07 Apr 2012, 10:54

Aresen wrote:The problem with Mithraism was that it was a religion of the elites - the lower classes were not welcome.
This didn't jibe with what I remembered, so I turned to the least infailable source I know:
Soldiers were strongly represented amongst Mithraists; and also merchants, customs officials and minor bureaucrats. Few, if any, initiates came from leading aristocratic or senatorial families until the 'pagan revival' of the mid 4th century; but there were always considerable numbers of freedmen and slaves
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithras#Membership

But my Classical history is weak, so I'm willing to admit I'm wrong.

As to alt-history . . . . It's usually considered easier to change timelines than I think it really is. Some might say something like "If only Hitler would've gotten into art school, he wouldn't have felt ostracized. He wouldn't have founded the Nazi Party. There would've been no WWII and no Holocaust." This seems an extreme form of "great men make great times" (as opposed to the counter proposition "great times make great men.") In the Hitler example, this seems to completely ignore the possibilities that either someone else leads the Germans to fascism (pretty likely, I would suspect) or that a socialist extremist group manages to come to power, and you get the alt-timeline Molotov Pact for greater world Socialism. Let's not forget that antisemitism was not confined to fascist groups.

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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Kolohe » 07 Apr 2012, 12:44

But that's the whole fun of it. History is circumstance, sure, but it's also choices. And any give Idea is inevitable, but the when, either decade or century, of that Idea is not. Nor how it's fused with other Ideas, circumstances, and choices.
when you wake up as the queen of the n=1 kingdom and mount your steed non sequiturius, do you look out upon all you survey and think “damn, it feels good to be a green idea sleeping furiously?" - dhex

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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Jennifer » 07 Apr 2012, 14:27

Kolohe wrote:But that's the whole fun of it. History is circumstance, sure, but it's also choices. And any give Idea is inevitable, but the when, either decade or century, of that Idea is not. Nor how it's fused with other Ideas, circumstances, and choices.
See, I"m not convinced that every given idea is inevitable. Certain discoveries might be inevitable -- had Columbus never lived, some European sailor would've stumbled across America sooner or later, had Isaac Newton never lived, we'd probably still know "his" laws of motion by now. But ideas -- ranging from "individual rights are more important than societal demands" to "your religion is your business, nobody else's" -- I don't think those are necessarily inevitable at all.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by D.A. Ridgely » 07 Apr 2012, 14:32

Jennifer wrote:
Kolohe wrote:But that's the whole fun of it. History is circumstance, sure, but it's also choices. And any give Idea is inevitable, but the when, either decade or century, of that Idea is not. Nor how it's fused with other Ideas, circumstances, and choices.
See, I"m not convinced that every given idea is inevitable. Certain discoveries might be inevitable -- had Columbus never lived, some European sailor would've stumbled across America sooner or later, had Isaac Newton never lived, we'd probably still know "his" laws of motion by now. But ideas -- ranging from "individual rights are more important than societal demands" to "your religion is your business, nobody else's" -- I don't think those are necessarily inevitable at all.
Maybe they're only inevitable in an alternate universe. *grin*

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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Jennifer » 07 Apr 2012, 14:55

D.A. Ridgely wrote: Maybe they're only inevitable in an alternate universe. *grin*
That ties into a problem I have with the entire alternate universe/multiverse concept -- which I gather is pretty close to "established" science now, scientists actually believe it, it's no longer a stoner joke -- the idea that every possibility plays out somewhere gives me headaches because it goes beyond trying to grasp the concept of infinity, but an infinite number of infinities.

Here's a personal anecdote about a choice I made last night; I share it solely because it is so utterly mundane, boring and pointless: Jeff and I went grocery shopping last night. We plan to try a new recipe requiring vegetable shortening, which we don't normally buy. Jeff suggested it might be in the "baking needs" aisle, but it wasn't. Then I suggested the aisle selling oils, found it, bought it, the end.

But presumably another universe branched off last night -- a universe where we went straight to the oil aisle, and never walked down the baking needs aisle. And ... that's it. That's the point of divergence. But what actual difference did it make? None that I can see; it's not as though some heavy light fixture fell from the ceiling in the oil aisle right where the shortening's kept, and I thought "Oh my god, if I hadn't stopped in the baking needs aisle first I'd have been crushed. In an alternate universe I died five seconds ago." And I've made dozens of similarly mundane choices since getting up this morning. I can't wrap my mind around the idea that I've already spawned multiple universes -- the universe where I made a post on Grylliade but did NOT return to it 30 seconds later to edit out a typo; the universe where I chose to eat leftover lasagna rather than leftover paprikash this morning, the universe where I took a shower almost immediately upon awakening, rather than a couple of hours later as happened in this timeline.

I also find it difficult to believe that, for example, when my brother asked me a couple of weeks ago if I'd do the "Flat Stanley" thing, sending my little niece some photos and a letter about what it's like to live in the exotic state of Connecticut, I said "I'd be honored," but there's another universe where I said "Why the fuck should I bother" and another where I said "Depends; how much will I be paid for this" and another universe where, at the moment I touched my computer to email him my response, a giant spark of static electricity came out and killed me, and another universe where ....
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by D.A. Ridgely » 07 Apr 2012, 15:06

Jennifer wrote:
D.A. Ridgely wrote: Maybe they're only inevitable in an alternate universe. *grin*
That ties into a problem I have with the entire alternate universe/multiverse concept -- which I gather is pretty close to "established" science now, scientists actually believe it, it's no longer a stoner joke -- the idea that every possibility plays out somewhere gives me headaches because it goes beyond trying to grasp the concept of infinity, but an infinite number of infinities.

Here's a personal anecdote about a choice I made last night; I share it solely because it is so utterly mundane, boring and pointless: Jeff and I went grocery shopping last night. We plan to try a new recipe requiring vegetable shortening, which we don't normally buy. Jeff suggested it might be in the "baking needs" aisle, but it wasn't. Then I suggested the aisle selling oils, found it, bought it, the end.

But presumably another universe branched off last night -- a universe where we went straight to the oil aisle, and never walked down the baking needs aisle. And ... that's it. That's the point of divergence. But what actual difference did it make? None that I can see; it's not as though some heavy light fixture fell from the ceiling in the oil aisle right where the shortening's kept, and I thought "Oh my god, if I hadn't stopped in the baking needs aisle first I'd have been crushed. In an alternate universe I died five seconds ago." And I've made dozens of similarly mundane choices since getting up this morning. I can't wrap my mind around the idea that I've already spawned multiple universes -- the universe where I made a post on Grylliade but did NOT return to it 30 seconds later to edit out a typo; the universe where I chose to eat leftover lasagna rather than leftover paprikash this morning, the universe where I took a shower almost immediately upon awakening, rather than a couple of hours later as happened in this timeline.

I also find it difficult to believe that, for example, when my brother asked me a couple of weeks ago if I'd do the "Flat Stanley" thing, sending my little niece some photos and a letter about what it's like to live in the exotic state of Connecticut, I said "I'd be honored," but there's another universe where I said "Why the fuck should I bother" and another where I said "Depends; how much will I be paid for this" and another universe where, at the moment I touched my computer to email him my response, a giant spark of static electricity came out and killed me, and another universe where ....
Oh, it's far more mind boggling than that. Not that an infinite number of infinities is all that problematic, but the notion that any universe that is possible has happened / is happening / will happen is considerably beyond most people's intellectual pay grade. It means, for example, that there is a parallel universe in which everything is exactly the same except, say, you just coughed in that one but not in this one. (Assuming, that is, that your coughing doesn't necessarily entail other changes to the universe, itself a problematic concept.)

I don't know that you can say the multiverse conjecture is anywhere close to what scientists 'believe.' It's a conceptually plausible but entirely unfalsifiable method of understanding certain physical phenomena, but it lies at or over the outer edge of science into the realm of metaphysics. Metaphysics, moreover, most philosophers are loathe to take seriously however much fun it may be considering the paradoxes and conundrums it seems to entail.

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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Warren » 07 Apr 2012, 15:07

I'm not sure what you're going on about Jennifer. The whole 'all possibilities multiverse' thing isn't really about how the it affects people. But I will just state for the record, that it is most decidedly not accepted science. Last I knew the scientific community was still arguing about whether it was science at all.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Jadagul » 07 Apr 2012, 15:19

On infinite numbers of infinities: Jennifer, remind me to explain Cantor diagonalization at some point.

On many worlds in general--I have many thoughts. I'm also running late. This post is a placeholder. But the short version is that I find many worlds most sensible as an alternative to Copenhagen.

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Re: Alternate histories

Post by D.A. Ridgely » 07 Apr 2012, 15:20

Warren wrote:I'm not sure what you're going on about Jennifer. The whole 'all possibilities multiverse' thing isn't really about how the it affects people. But I will just state for the record, that it is most decidedly not accepted science. Last I knew the scientific community was still arguing about whether it was science at all.
But we can take comfort in the fact that there are an infinite number of universes in which she understands that.

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Re: Alternate histories

Post by Kolohe » 07 Apr 2012, 15:20

Jadagul wrote:On infinite numbers of infinities: Jennifer, remind me to explain Cantor diagonalization at some point.

On many worlds in general--I have many thoughts. I'm also running late. This post is a placeholder. But the short version is that I find many worlds most sensible as an alternative to Copenhagen.
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Re: Alternate histories

Post by D.A. Ridgely » 07 Apr 2012, 15:37

Jadagul wrote:On infinite numbers of infinities: Jennifer, remind me to explain Cantor diagonalization at some point.
Then we can discuss whether treating infinite sets like finite sets is even comprehensible, let alone sufficiently self evident to qualify as an axiom. (Wittgenstein's position, unsurprisingly, is that the answer is ultimately arbitrary. I'd just be interested in Jadagul's take.)

Jadagul wrote:On many worlds in general--I have many thoughts. I'm also running late. This post is a placeholder. But the short version is that I find many worlds most sensible as an alternative to Copenhagen.
Because you balk intuitively at the notion that the best description of sub-atomic behavior is probabilistic? I just don't see what the many worlds hypothesis adds to our understanding of physical reality. Seems to me, it's just a warm fuzzy.

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