Tuesday, October 11, 2005

either / or ... both / and

So, in the seemingly mysterious way that is its nature, quantum physics has been streaming into and popping up in my life here in all sorts of ways over the past couple of weeks. It started with a mention in one article, then a conversation, another article, some emails, a lecture, and now it seems to be everywhere. I finally sit down to write about it after our first lecture with Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef. Reading some of his work, hearing him lecture and having a brief chat with him has been a mind opening experience. It’s yet another one of those “ah-ha” moments, when things that seemed so complex become so simple, and right back to mind-bogglingly complex. The transformational change continues (more on this later).

The conceptualizations are difficult for our (Western) minds to grasp, because we have the concepts of rationality so ingrained through generations, and institutionalized throughout our own lives. But they slowly start to make more sense the more one spends time with them, and the more open one’s mind is to the possibility that our current view of our reality is incomplete.

The “crisis” for Newtonian theory and our natural laws came in the first few decades or so of the 1900s, when in a quest to find the building blocks of matter, we found that there was nothing there – just a series of potential states, which we could not observe without affecting them. We (or quantum physicists, I guess) finally had to come to grips with the fact that we could not separate ourselves from nature. There was no possibility of outside objective observation at this level – our observation changed reality. (The transformational change that the scientists making these “discoveries” went through personally was apparently very trying, as I suppose it is for anyone who experiences existential “crisis”, when one is forced to confront the crumbling of one’s constructed reality).

Also at that the quantum level we have whole duality of light issue – is it energy or matter? A continuous wave, or streaming packets of matter? This contradiction defied a basic tenant of classical, Western, linear, Aristotelian, rational logic, which seem elementary at the macro level:

1) axiom of identity: A is A

2) axiom of non contradiction: A is not non-A

3) axiom of the excluded middle: there is no third term T, that is simultaneously A and non-A

The duality of light gives us an example of A being A and non-A – being itself and its opposite, simultaneously. In the quantum world then, we see we are dealing with drastically different laws than in the macro world. It is no less than a different reality – another level of reality that we are a part of but for the most part not conscious of. At this other level of reality, there is T, that is the axiom of the included middle.

One practical example of this concept, that is maybe more specifically relevant (or easier to grasp as relevant) to our studies here was proposed by Max-Neef today. One dominant school of thought when thinking about ‘environmentalism’ is that it is a series of trade-offs between things that are either good for growth* or good for the environment – either A or non-A – a choice between two contradictory forces. But on another level of reality, the two are one and the same and that can be called sustainability. It is not that simple, but starting to conceptualize that can be helpful.

On some level, intuitively, I think we all know what it is, but it is not something that can be communicated with language easily, if at all. It also helps explain why some of these synergetic ‘solutions’ we come across in dealing with sustainability - like some of the amazing results, not thought of and unintended, that spring from Permaculture design, green building / development projects, new business models, etc – seem almost magical to us. They are the result of non-linear systems thinking and therefore tap into, or at least flirt with another reality.

I’m sure any attempt I make to explain concepts surrounding quantum physics come off as amateurish and full of holes, but hopefully it will provide some useful food for thought, regardless. I’m sure we’ll be revisiting many of these ideas... Stay going.

*[by growth, it is important for us to differentiate between physical growth for growth’s sake and growth of value. This requires a shift from our obsession with efficiency (in whatever it is we’re doing) to a focus on the effectiveness of what we’re doing, and how it is helping us to meet human needs worldwide (including many that are not met in lives of the richest people in the richest nations. Much more to follow on all of this.]

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

For anyone interested in the Quanta. . . The existential "crisis" that exists when observation changes reality was first introduced by the quantum mechanics physicists Heisenberg in the 1920's and is known as "The Uncertainty Principle": basically the more precisely position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa. This relation has profound implications for such fundamental notions as causality and the determination of the future behavior of an atomic particle. It is often called more descriptively the "principle of indeterminacy." Certainly interesting stuff but perhaps a bit of a leap linking it to environmentalism. The simultaneous and harmonious coexistence between those things good for "growth" and those good for the "environment" seems more an issue of how we define those terms than the existence of an alternate reality.

Anonymous said...

While there may not be a direct link between the quantum principle and environtalism per se- I think the point that Max-Neef is trying to make is that we can challenge old assumptions and find alternate ways of doing things (realities). This upstream thinking could cause a similar shake-up in the environmental world that Heisenberg caused in the quantum world.

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