Human, Not Quantum, Relationships Matter

quantum field

As is quite frequent, I begin with a comment based on a David Brooks column. Today, he is talking about the movie, Interstellar. Based on the publicity, I had decided to skip it, but now I will have to see it. The nub of his thoughts show up in these few paragraphs:

More, it shows how modern science is influencing culture. People have always bent their worldviews around the latest scientific advances. After Newton, philosophers conceived a clockwork universe. Individuals were seen as cogs in a big machine and could be slotted into vast bureaucratic systems.

But in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity, everything looks emergent and interconnected. Life looks less like a machine and more like endlessly complex patterns of waves and particles. Vast social engineering projects look less promising, because of the complexity, but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.

I have had a long-standing conversation (some would call it an argument) with a colleague and friend about the reality of quantum entanglement and the idea that everything is connected through some universal, but mysterious even to scientists, field. Although not explicitly related to the film, the NYTimes just ran an article on this subject.

Bell’s paper (one of the most cited papers of all times) made important claims about quantum entanglement, one of those captivating features of quantum theory that depart strongly from our common sense. Entanglement concerns the behavior of tiny particles, such as electrons, that have interacted in the past and then moved apart. Tickle one particle here, by measuring one of its properties — its position, momentum or “spin” — and its partner should dance, instantaneously, no matter how far away the second particle has traveled.

The key word is “instantaneously.” The entangled particles could be separated across the galaxy, and somehow, according to quantum theory, measurements on one particle should affect the behavior of the far-off twin faster than light could have traveled between them.…Entanglement insults our intuitions about how the world could possibly work. Albert Einstein sneered that if the equations of quantum theory predicted such nonsense, so much the worse for quantum theory. “Spooky actions at a distance,” he huffed to a colleague in 1948.

I argue in my work that relationships and the connections between whatever is related is critical and necessary for flourishing to become possible. But, I stop short of resting my arguments on the existence of some quantum field that permeates the universe. There may be some valid theory about the interaction of two sub-atomic particles over vast distances, but human behavior clearly does not follow such a law. I assert that simultaneous variations of human behavior are so uncorrelated that it is impossible to deduce any containing force field that is governing their actions. And so, I see any attempts at invoking any kind of universal field in the background as a distraction from the key point, that of living and acting out of a conscious acknowledgment of interconnectedness.

What counts is a belief that humans live in an interconnected world. We act on our beliefs whether they are grounded in science or not. (see, for example, any entry for Religion). But if they are to be effective in a collective sense, that is, producing a world that works over time, such beliefs must be shared by a preponderance of the individuals. As Brooks points out, modern science, itself, in its mechanistic model of reality, has shattered an earlier, widely held belief that humans were bound together in an organic, holistic system. In place of some mysterious scientific principle explaining systemic behavior, pre-modern societies invoked multiple and singular Gods as the cause of human actions.

In place of any scientific proof, I rely on a humanistic model, largely created by Heidegger and other phenomenologists. Using philosophical, not scientific, rigor, he posits that human existence, the unique way of describing our species life cycle, is fundamentally based on care. What makes us unique among other animal species, which also have nervous systems, is that we ask questions about our experiences. We are are conscious of and care about them. Further, we discuss care and other meaningful responses to our questions in language, without which we could not ask or answer questions or enter meaningful relationships with any being, even ourselves.

Language, to me, must have arisen through attempts to explain human endeavors, that is, actions, so that they could be repeated and routinized. But human actions always involve a relationship: an actor or agent and a target object, which could be another human or some other being. Without a sense of connectedness, language would not have arisen as it has. Language, the medium through which today we live meaningful lives is embedded through and through with that sense of connections. Care is another name for those actions deemed implicitly to be important enough to show up in language. (I am here laying my interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy on you.)

Language, the house of Heidegger’s Being, has like Being itself become cold and mechanical, as scientific explanations have displaced our earlier organic views of life. We can design the world according to our formulas and on technology based on those formulas. The resulting machine will churn out everything that is important to us: money, security, justice, etc. In essence, this is the credo of modernity, just as Brooks tersely expresses it. As so often is the case, I criticize Brooks for taking us only part way to where he seems to be going at first. While criticizing (I think he does) modernity, he waffles when he says, “but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.”

Flourishing depends strongly on “What webs of relations will, not can, do.” I am more confident in the results than “can” suggests. We cannot wait until scientific evidence (if it ever arrives) displaces our current beliefs about our mechanical place in the world, just another mechanism in the whole. There is plenty of evidence around already that we got as far as the modern era because we took care of the world around us in a connected, organic manner. Without the rigid laws of modernity, we may not have created our world of smartphones and skyscrapers, but is possible that we would be flourishing, expressing the fullness of our species potential without having so badly damaged both the world and ourselves.

ps. I know that Stephen Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature that we are today much less violent than in earlier times, but omits, in his arguments, violence to the earth and non-physical violence to ourselves.

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