Calvin, Hobbes and Schrödinger?s Cat

By Miguel de Asúa

Printed in Ciencia Hoy, Volume 7 - No.37 - 1997

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
- John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

We always arrive late (though, it is better late than never arriving).

When Bill Watterson, the author of the famous comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, decided to retire, a well known newspaper of the city where I reside, started to publish the news amongst its readers (obviously, translated - in some form - to Spanish).

Calvin and Hobbes would soon be gone, and from that height of sensible intelligence to which they brought us, we can not come down easily.

Here, in my city of Buenos Aires (from which I can not leave, for historical reasons or familiarity) I have found a follower of "Hobbesian Calvinism" (my friend Carlitos), who also considers himself a devoted follower of the sacred texts of this cult. Perhaps, because I am an optimist (except during Sundays at sunset), I hope this article will awaken new interest and bring a legion of fans to Calvin and Hobbes, growing until the few transform into many.

Calvin is a six year old boy who lives with his desperate parents ( the reason for their despair being Calvin). He has no siblings; however, he has Hobbes. Who (or what) Hobbes is, is what we will try to discuss here. For now, lets just say that Calvin plays with a very charismatic tiger that speaks, moves, feels -- to put it plainly, has life. When in the corresponding panel, however, an adult appears, Hobbes is at that moment only a stuffed tiger like any other plush toy.

The comic strip revolves around Calvin's life: his indifference to the destruction of his family's property during the course of his hyperactive runs through the house; his ambivalent love-hate relationship with Susie Derkins; his imaginary adventures as Spaceman Spiff or Stupendous Man; his scholastic and sometimes non-scholastic tribulations with his teacher; his encounters with Moe, a big, dull-witted but more powerful classmate; and his never-ending play with Hobbes that adopts various forms: Calvinball (a ball game with constantly changing rules, usually depending on who is winning the game), various fights, logical-linguistic arguments, or time traveling and using the transmogrifier ( a cardboard box that, as the name indicates, transforms anyone that enters it). When he is in a good mood, Hobbes is a cheerful companion; besides playing, he participates in long and reflexive dialogues with Calvin that, ironic or melancholic, are always a model of frank discussion.

Calvin and Hobbes, like all texts, is open to interpretation and leaves many questions. It goes far beyond the pure human pleasure that its reading produces and perhaps that?s the reason for its existence. One of the more interesting questions is of the metaphysical order (the names given to the protagonists of this strip already subliminally invite you toward philosophical reflection): What is the ontological status of Hobbes? Or to be less pedantic, what is the grade of reality that Hobbes possesses? Is he just a stuffed tiger that only Calvin can see as real? Or is the tiger real when nobody else can regard him as real? Let's analyze the possibilities more closely.

Hypothesis One: The most obvious interpretation coincides with the vision of the world that is offered by philosophical realism. The real Hobbes is the stuffed tiger; the Hobbes that is seemingly alive, Calvin's best friend, is no more than a figment of the imagination of a six-year-old boy, what most child psychiatrists would call an imaginary friend a being that the child considers existent but in reality does not exist. This would be the hypothesis of common sense. No one except Calvin ever sees Hobbes as a real tiger. If we accept the intersubjective verification (a constituency), a requirement to affirm the existence of an object, then Hobbes does not exist except as a stuffed tiger. Science not only admits to empirical objects (intersubjective verification by direct observation) but also theoretical objects (such as quarks, black holes, etc.). From this point of view, Hobbes the conversing tiger could be a theoretical object, and the stuffed tiger (the observable evidence) the empirical trace that induces us to postulate about his existence. Here, however, we will run across two important obstacles: a) the real live Hobbes is seen, at least by Calvin, and b) there is no theory that demands the existence of the real Hobbes; and should a real live Hobbes exist, there would be the problem of it being an ad hoc theory -- to be clearer, a theory created to explain a particular phenomenon and incapable of explaining anything more (a very poor and weak theory, by the way).

Hypothesis Two: The second possibility -- sustained by my friend Carlitos, the local expert -- is that Hobbes really does exist, as accomplice to Calvin. This theory has illustratable antecedents. Remember Saint-Exupery, who in The Little Prince says that the drawing that appears on the first page of the book is truly a representation of an elephant inside a boa, and that only the incapacity of adults to comprehend that most important things are invisible prevented them from seeing things as they are, making them believe that the drawing was a representation of a sombrero.

From a point of view a little more technically philosophical, this posture could be assimilated to the idealist empiricism of the Archbishop Berkeley, for whom to be is to be seen. Things are the ideas we have of them. If they are to exist outside one?s mind, it is because there is an infinite mind that perceives them continually, when no other human does. This mind is of course God. This way, the Hobbes that is alive would remain so as long as he is being observed by Calvin and also by God, as God is the ultimate guarantee of his existence. Hobbes would then, in Borge?s own words, be one of those things that nobody sees except Berkeley's God...and in this case, Calvin. The only problem with this theory is that it does not explain why others see Hobbes as an inert and silent creature.

Hypothesis Three: A third possibility, I believe, should shed light on this situation and this possibility appears free of objections. It is the solution associated with the paradox of Schrödinger?s cat. This problem was posed by a famous physicist as a manifesto of the difficulties of the probabilistic (orthodox) version of quantum mechanics in 1935. First, we have a living cat and place it in a thick lead box. At this stage, there is no question that the cat is alive. We then throw in a vial of cyanide and seal the box. We do not know if the cat is alive or if it has broken the cyanide capsule and died. Each of these possibilities depends on its being reached by a photon, which has a 50% probability of being fired in the direction of poison and another equal chance of beinf fired in the other direction. Since we do not know, the cat is both dead and alive (though technically, 100% dead and 100% alive at the same time -- hence the paradox), according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive).

However, according to the theory, none of these possibilities has a reality, until it is observed, or in this case, we open the box and see. What, then, would be the real state of this cat if we had not opened the box? Neither living nor dead; but when we as observers intervene, only then is the cat either alive or dead. In other words, the state of indeterminacy collapses to either one state or the other, depending on the participation of the observer. In the same way, we can speculate that Hobbes, if seen only by Calvin, manifests himself as a live tiger; but when observed by the adults, he appears as a stuffed tiger that Calvin plays with. The phenomenal form which is adopted by Hobbes depends then, on the observer. It could be argued, however, that whether Hobbes is real or not is still unresolved. Indeed, that is one of the questions that has tormented the philosophers of science and physics since the creation of quantum theory, and I don?t see why it?s up to me, an obscure scholar on the periphery, to solve such complicated ideas in this essay. I have done enough by suggesting a possible explanation. The details, objections, and counter objections remain to be resolved by the lector (like most math textbooks usually say, just when the reading gets interesting).

I do not wish, however, to close this essay without imagining the possibilities that some specialists could propose about the "Hobbes paradox". Some may recall the classic distinction of Frege between sense (Sinn) and meaning (Bedeutung). His example concerns the planet Venus which was known as "the evening star" and as "the morning star" before it was realized that both were Venus. Frege argues: "the evening star" = "the morning star" does not have the same sense as "the evening star" = "the evening star" so "the evening star" does not have the same sense as "the morning star". However "the evening star" and "the morning star" refer to the same object, so the reference of "the evening star" is distinct from its sense. Psychoanalysts may interpret that the lively, carefree Hobbes suggests the principle of pleasure that presides over the activities of Me, while the boring, serious, stuffed Hobbes represents the principle of reality, characteristic of I, which takes care of relations in the external world (the live Hobbes is Interior Life, the stuffed Hobbes is the Exterior Life). The art theorists may grasp the idea of Gombrich and argue that all figurative representation is conventional, so that the live Hobbes and the inanimate Hobbes are two forms to interpret the same reality using different codes of representation. A Spinoza reader may affirm that, in reality, the two Hobbes are only two of the infinite modes of a unique substance, which is God and nature. Interpretations will continue to multiply (for those who think all texts never say anything more than talk about the writer himself, and that Calvin is my friend Carlitos, and I am Hobbes). However, instead of continuing with this essay in vain, I prefer to occupy my Sunday (right before sunset) on reading and rereading my Calvin and Hobbes books, and to continue throwing myself into the world of these two, and entertaining myself with the adventures of Calvin and his tiger, and learning the wisdom they have to offer. In the end, what is intelligibility but one of the many forms of beauty?