The Long Arc of Pyrrhic Victories
in which i talk about quantum mechanics, but in a fun way
note: I’m using Substack’s newsletter system now. Don’t be alarmed! Or do! Whatever helps you to spread the word about this thing, which I will be trying to do more regularly.
Here are three things I know almost nothing about: “Pyrrhic victory,” “Schrödinger's cat,” and the “Trolley Problem.” I know a Reddit-amount, a tweetable amount, even a “fiction writer reduces Big Idea to Symbol” amount. Watch as I barely dazzle you.
A Pyrrhic victory is when you win a battle at such great cost that you lose the war. Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment that crystalizes the strange math of quantum superposition. There is a cat in a box without airholes, basically, and the cat is neither dead nor alive but both simultaneously until the box is opened and the cat is observed. Sort of. And the Trolley Problem? The Trolley Problem is the only reason anyone who’s not a serial killer has considered whether murdering one person would be sufficient, or if more really is less and they should just murder five.
Again, I don’t have even a Wikipedia-level knowledge of these issues, Wikipedia being specific in places I’m happy to be fuzzy. But for several years, I’ve wondered about the ways in which Schrödinger’s cat and the Trolley Problem are each a kind of Pyrrhic victory. Shrödinger’s cat, in particular, was designed to show how ridiculous quantum superposition is if taken simply and literally. (Benjamín Labatut’s recent book, When We Cease to Understand the World, is fun on this exact scientific battle. I mean it! Fun!) Schrödinger’s cat, in some sense, is just a common sense retort.1 Some fancy math tells you that a cat in an airless box must be considered not-dead and not-alive, or whatever? Leave the lid on for two hours and let’s bet on it. Put your money where your mouth is, physicists. $1,000,000 says we see the artist formerly known as a living cat. (i.e. If both are equally valid, why does reality almost universally tip in one direction?)
Schrödinger’s cat is a Pyrrhic victory in that he won the thought experiment battle but lost the war over quantum interpretations. Everyone is introduced to his cat when they’re introduced to the quantum superposition concept, but not because the cat is a critique. Rather, the cat is an exemplar, a standard-bearer of this particular quantum paradox. It’s a conquering, bludgeoning, useful thought experiment, so good it actually captures the heart of this difficult concept. Worse than a Pyrrhic victory, really, it’s a traitor.
The Trolley Problem faces a similar conundrum. I feel like I’m risking the wrath of certain enclaves of the internet just by typing the words “Trolley Problem” too many times, but a quick reminder: you’re driving a trolley and realize it’ll crash and kill five passengers (but not you, let’s say) if you don’t change tracks. If you do change tracks, however, you’ll kill one person on the other track. What’s your decision? And after you’ve made your decision, philosophers (and sometimes demons) will usually add wrinkle after wrinkle to drive you insane.
Philippa Foot, though, devised the thought experiment as a way to smack around the logical positivists she and a few other philosophers were fighting in the mid-20th century. It hasn’t been turned against her in the same way Schrödinger’s cat claws at its inventor’s intentions, but the trolley has definitely gone off the rails. It was never meant to be a decisive tool of ethical procedure, but a nimble pin with which Foot could pop the air-headed pomposities of her colleagues.
Which brings us, finally, to Jane Austen.
Wait, what? Jane Austen?
Yes, Jane. Austen.
The name of this newsletter is “commonplace,” which I pretentiously chose as a reference to commonplace books, scrapbooks of notes, aphorisms, and quotes that people have created for as long as there has been paper, pretty much. I riffed in my last newsletter about over-indulging the word “confluence,” but there’s little else I plan to write about here—actual confluences, I mean, and not simply the word confluence. (Confluence.)
Which, again, brings us to Jane Austen. (Confluence.) In writing some of the best satires of all time, she somehow simultaneously defeated and created every romance cliché the BBC could hope to hawk. Book to book, she unmasks sentimentality, defrocks the pieties of passion, and disembowels the coquetry of courtship. And for all this her legacy has ensured that every clunky motif pilloried has been eternally enshrined.
What I enjoy most about all these examples, though, is how the power of the presentation—the concreteness of Schrödinger’s cat, the anxiety of the Trolley Problem, and the delightful realism of Austen’s farces—outlasts original intentions. Their energy has been coopted, misused, and worse, but the vivacity itself can’t be spent. Every writer, if given the chance, loves to bang on about form, about the how of writing, and not simply the what. Our mothers told us once too often, “It’s not what you said, it’s your tone,” probably. Or we didn’t speak at all because it mystified us, then studied it to death so we could go to parties. Or we’re just scrapping to be thought smart.
But we’re correct. The how, the form, is not the whole of any art, but it is what distinguishes certain imaginative outputs from others. The content is always impinged by its context, and to modern minds Schrödinger’s cat is a useful tool of his enemies, the Trolley Problem is a useful platform for new air-headed pomposities, and Jane Austen’s work—so charming, so decent despite its acid wit—is a sort of Disneyland for the romantic.
And Pyrrhus? He won his battle, he lost his war, but he’s remembered for phrasing the situation perfectly.
Reading: I take notes on everything I read, so here are some quick highlights from recent books, with excerpted quotes from my reading journal:
Intimations, by Zadie Smith: A “small, brief return to the heat of 2020, I really enjoyed it. It wasn't as cathartic as I thought it might be, and the essay which landed the biggest wallop was her post-script on contempt as a virus. The British class contempt of Boris Johnson's ideas-man opened the work, and then she transitioned to the contempt of the officer who killed George Floyd. Her recounting of his death resurrected how it felt to witness that death on social media. … I never want to forget that.”
Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark: “This book was published shortly after Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and it feels like a spiritual sequel: another cast of girls, though aged into burgeoning womanhood, and another plot based on the formal tensions of skipping back and forth through time. The energy of her short novels, of this one at least, have the punch of a short story. There is something contained, almost unexpansive in the focus, but not necessarily in the form or even what she can fit within the tight vision of the plot. This is also a novel of incredible soundscaping--Joanna's poetry ringing through the book, the telephone of the future and the telephone conversations, and more, I feel like. The specifics are escaping me. It's almost too quick, in some ways, but I found myself nearing the end of the book stippled by the usual transcendent shiver.”
The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald: “The femme fatales, and really all the female characters, were at the center of this work in a way that almost parodied noir tropes. Certainly that's one of Macdonald's games, to go as pulpy as any detective novelist, but always in the hope of exposing Lew Archer's slight aloofness, his gut hunger for truth and not for themes. … Might also be the best narrated audiobooks, whether it’s Tom Parker or Grover Gardner.”
Who knows if I’ll ever share anything ever again. I love you all. Thanks for reading.
Yeah, yeah. Schrödinger is after a more precise argument that isn’t anything as populist as my own, but I already warned you: I don’t know what I’m talking about.