The Question of Quantum

28 March 2016, 1354 EDT

Tough as it is to follow Charli’s excellent post on terrorism, somebody has to do it and so I might as well. If this past ISA is any indication, quantum is a big deal. The panel on Alex Wendt’s new book linking quantum mechanics to the social sciences was standing room only (from what I hear, I could not be there). James Der Derian has Project Q at the University of Sydney. One of the papers I read as a discussant at ISA invoked the term superpositionality, much to my surprise. So, Newtonian World out, Quantum World in (not sure where Einstein fits).


This is all fascinating. Quantum mechanics has been around for a while, and for a while physicists have struggled to reconcile the strange subatomic world, characterized by phenomena like superpositionality (the state or location of a particle are probabilistic and exist in multiple states/conditions at the same time, and according to one interpretation only collapsed to a point upon observation), quantum tunneling (when a particle passes through a barrier without having to surmount it) and quantum entanglement (quantum states of two particles are linked such that changes in one are immediately reflected in the other, regardless of distance), with the macroscopic world we see, which is characterized by none of these things. Indeed, the effort to link quantum phenomena to macro scale forces—namely gravity—is part of what has physicists tied up in string theory knots. At least in Wendt’s case, he apparently claims in his book (fair warning, I have not read it yet, but I did watch a video lecture at Q Project and read an interview on the book) humans are macro level manifestations of quantum phenomena (specifically, that humans are actually ‘walking wave functions’). I will leave aside for now a range of questions that come to mind such as:

  • Who made the first observation to collapse the first wave function?
  • Why can’t humans use quantum tunneling? (ok this one is a bit snarky)


These I hope to address when I (eventually) review Wendt’s book for the Duck. A more general concern sparked by the quantum discussion regards the fetishization of the physical sciences in the social kind. I am not accusing anyone using quantum speak of such, but rather see the fascination and the rapid proliferation of quantum speak as indicative. And these theoretical, conceptual, and analytical moves come at a cost. Efforts to apply Newtonian-style concepts and approaches have repeated demonstrated their inability to come to terms with the social world. Efforts to emulate the physical sciences have driven a specific conception of knowledge-creation and a methodological trend toward quantification that produce at best partial conceptions of the world.


With respect to quantum in particular, the dangers increase substantially. The calculations for ‘simple’ quantum systems are pretty demanding, and it is (or at least should be) an open question if it is even possible to do those kinds of calculations for something like a human being, much less a society. No doubt efforts to do so will ensue, but we should be very skeptical of whatever comes out the other end of the machine. Even short of a ‘Foundation’-like set of equations that predict society and social behavior, drawing on the language of quantum can have pernicious effects. For example, the concept of superpositionality has little if any temporality: the cat is either dead when you look in the box or it is not. Yet social systems, human systems, have all kinds of temporality built into them. That does not mean we throw superpositionality out, but we should be aware that the concept does not fit well with processes and dynamics that take time to resolve, if they ever do at all.*


Indeed, while I am a bit wary on one hand of the emerging quantum flux, on the other it has the potential to break apart long-standing assumptions about how the social world works by forcing IR scholars and social scientists to reconsider foundational, perhaps even nearly subconscious, assumptions about how the world works. For example, in his interview Wendt uses the idea of quantum entanglement (elements of the system cannot be defined separately from the system) to reexamine the role of language. Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money was in part titled as such to take advantage of the ways that Einstein’s general relativity** was breaking the mold in physics to break the mold in economics. But as I read Keynes, he did so in an effort to reassert the human and social element of economics. If quantum does the same in IR and the social sciences more broadly (for example, forcing us to revisit the relationship between observer and observed or the role of contingency) then we should welcome it.


*I am aware that there are interpretations of superpositionality that allow for temporality.

**Thanks to Wes Widmaier for making this point