The Cat Came Back


I do not have a cat, but I am occasionally ambushed inside my house by a small black cat that sneaks in when I am not looking. It has green eyes, white socks and an unnerving habit of hiding – like a Cheshire Cat – making itself visible when it senses the optimum fright effect can be achieved. I’m convinced it knows I do not regard it as ‘my’ cat; in as much as a human can own a cat… But I have no desire even to pretend that I own one, however, this little creature seems to think that I need the practice. Perhaps it is just doing human psychology experiments.  It often watches me through the kitchen window from its spot on top of a compost bin in the back garden,  maybe deciding whether it will employ me on a regular basis.

Little does the creature know that I am doing mind experiments upon it.   Everyone knows Schrödinger’s thought experiment with the cat in the box and the cyanide.  Perhaps if he had imagined a rat instead of a nice little cat it would not now be popularly appropriated (or misappropriated)  as a metaphor for the known and unknown of defined possible outcomes. ‘We don’t know if the rat is alive or dead’ would be met with the hope that death for the sorry rat was assured. Similarly ‘The rat is alive’ would be met with a horrified response ‘why’? But we accept the fate of the cat, often with tears for either outcome. In the original thought experiment, the cat, until confirmed either alive or dead,  is considered to be in a superposition of these states – both alive and dead at once. I could nit-pick. Over the course of a certain time, the cat will certainly be dead, cyanide or no. And over the course of time it has also been both, but I am taking Schrödinger’s ideas outwith his original intention, which was to show that a simplistic interpretation of the idea of superposition was not reasonable extended to the ‘real’ world. There are plenty of learned, and quite fascinating discussions of this elsewhere, some of them involving explosives instead of cyanide, but this is outwith my focus for this post, which is more to do with epistemology – from my small corner, at least. (Or perhaps ‘box’ to keep my terminology consistent). Thought experiments must be treated every bit as seriously as material ones – perhaps more so, since there is no back-stop from common-sense Nature to ground our observations.

I assume that my house is a cat-free place. Why should a cat suddenly materialise inside it? I have not requested the delivery of a small, black cat with green eyes and white socks, so why is one under my side table in the lounge, considering options on my sofa? OK – the commonsensical plain argument is that I should not have left my door open. Leave it open for long enough and a small black cat would be the least of my problems. But that is not the argument I am trying to get to.  It is a kind of phenomenological magic – the sort a child feels on Christmas morning when he/she wakes to find presents have materialised at the end of the bed, or under the tree according to local tradition. Or the magical transference of the child’s letter placed in a post box to Granny’s house. Without knowing how the material transference happened, the perceptual effect is of magic. The cat ‘appeared’ in my living room. This is the stuff of fairy tales, but it also tells us how our thinking is affected by knowledge. Once we ‘know’ how something works the magic is gone. But also, we are inclined to shut our minds to alternatives. Perhaps my cat knows how to teleport from the compost bin to my lounge. I closed the door, yet the cat is there. The cat came back…

I am a practical woman. I keep magic in reserve.  But by ‘knowing’ the cat came in before my washing, I have closed my mind to possibilities, and am less open to alternatives, be they prosaic – the cat was there all night, perhaps. Or it came in through the window. I have boxed my thoughts. Call in  Hercule Poirot  to get my little grey cells outside the box.  And as I know that boxes have cyanide in them, I should be scared of staying, because someone always dies when Poirot is around. But the box is where I am thinking. And the cat comes back. I am sure it is grinning…



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