A Quantum Analysis of the Western Worldview
Most people recognize that they have something that can be called a worldview, even though few would attempt to define it. Anyone’s worldview contains all the perceptions and shared ideas that allow us to assume we have a stable idea of how our physical environment supports us. It is an important part of everyone’s culture. But a worldview is more comprehensive than what we call culture, which tends to be more of a group view than a worldview. Our worldview and culture always find a way of living together, but they remain distinct.
Most of the main features of our worldview escape our critical attention. Because everyone seems to agree, we simply assume they are real. But what if they are not? Peter Evans, in the title of an article in The Conversation, asks the question, “Is reality a game of quantum mirrors?” He also suggests that science has actually come to that conclusion.
Understanding Our Place in the Grander Whole
In his book “Helgoland,” the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli explains that our inherited assumptions about the world may have misled an entire civilization. In today’s consumer culture that focuses on objects and the value we attribute to them this could have radical implications. Evans clarifies the terms of the debate: “Expecting objects to have their own independent existence — independent of us, and any other objects — is actually a deep-seated assumption we make about the world.”
Evans agrees with Rovelli that the object-oriented worldview we have inherited from Europe’s four-century-old scientific and industrial revolutions needs reassessment. He supports Rovelli’s thesis that “quantum theory — the physical theory that describes the universe at the smallest scales — almost certainly shows this worldview to be false. Instead, Rovelli argues we should adopt a ‘relational’ worldview.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A mindset which recognizes that things have no identity or measurable value without other things, as opposed to an object-oriented mindset that isolates all things to put a price tag on them
Individuals have a worldview, but so do civilizations. Most individuals’ worldview shares a preponderant number of common features with their civilizational worldview. But every individual’s worldview varies in some respects with regard to society’s worldview. This is especially true in the modern civilizations that value individualism and have come to dominate in the West.
The features that diverge from the dominant worldview give us a sense of our own identity, either as a unique individual or even as a member of a group. We tend to respect commonly shared assumptions and beliefs while at the same time needing to affirm the subtle features that make our worldview distinct. Most people nevertheless remain unaware of what distinguishes their civilization’s worldview from other real and possible worldviews. In that sense, worldviews can become tyrannical.
Rovelli believes that the fundamental understanding scientists have acquired about the undeniable laws of quantum mechanics indicates that one of the key features of our inherited and shared worldview — our belief in the reality of objects — is mistaken. As Evans points out, “He claims the objects of quantum theory, such as a photon, electron, or other fundamental particle, are nothing more than the properties they exhibit when interacting with — in relation to — other objects.” In other words, without the interaction, nothing can be said to exist.
The corollary of this is that “there is no underlying individual substance that ‘has’ the properties.” This contradicts our current worldview that has imposed the idea that we live in a world of substances, each of which has properties. It turns out that properties are the only things that are real. They combine to create the illusion of substance.
Rovelli proposes moving away from the culture that divides the world into an indefinite number of substances to which we attribute properties and replacing it with the understanding that the form of anything we perceive is entirely the effect of a relationship. As Evans expresses it, “according to the relational interpretation, the state of any system is always in relation to some other system.” In this reading of reality, nothing can be understood or even exist outside of its context. It also means that contexts have context. These are two radically different ways of looking at the world.
There is an interesting parallel with the research of contemporary anthropologists who have focused on the comparative analysis of cultures. Just as Rovelli opposes an object-oriented worldview to a relation-oriented worldview, the anthropologists contrast relationship-oriented cultures and task-oriented cultures. US culture is usually cited as an extreme example of a task-oriented culture. More than in any other culture — and in stark contrast to most Asian, African and Latin American cultures — Americans view social interaction as a pretext for accomplishing something. They always have an object to achieve. Relationships are acknowledged primarily as contexts that permit transactions or the transfer of property rather than as the invisible but powerfully organized foundation of social reality.
Reviewing Rovelli’s book for The Guardian, Manjit Kumar sums up Rovelli’s thesis in these terms: “The world that we observe is continuously interacting; it is better understood as a web of interactions and relations rather than objects.” Most cultures in human history have made similar assumptions about society itself, emphasizing the reality of relationships.
Today’s Americanized worldview serves the useful purpose of justifying capitalistic notions of ownership and attribution of value, an industrial organization that treats people who produce and consume as objects, and the consumer society itself made up of people purchasing objects. It came into being over the past four centuries in Western Europe and North America. It now dominates what education and the media have conditioned us to think about the world. Contemporary physics and cross-cultural anthropology stand as exceptions that embrace relationships as the foundation of everything. Philosophy, economics and political science clearly have not caught up.
The interesting parallel between the findings of quantum physics and cross-cultural anthropology reveals something about what would be implied if the paradigm shift Rovelli recommends were to occur. It would imply our civilization’s taking on board the new understanding of physical reality and applying the lessons to social organization itself.
The task-oriented, fundamentally utilitarian culture that emerged in the English-speaking world during the industrial revolution became massively dominant across the globe in the 20th century. Its global victory can be attributed to the emergence of mass media and the expanding wave of soft power that accompanied the hard power of the US military and the almighty dollar. Today, all our institutions reflect an implicit political worldview that sees the nation-state as the only legally recognized source of social legitimacy.
These institutions, and their rules and practices, require thinking of the human environments as enclosed zones that contain a finite collection of substances (economic resources) endowed with properties, one of those properties being commercial value. It has inevitably produced the widely accepted, though often disparaged, truism: Everything has a price.
Changing an entire population’s worldview would be a monumental task, but it has occurred in the past. Rovelli is an optimist. His optimism stems from his belief — which is widely shared in the modern Western worldview — that science has a mission of communicating the truth about the world we live in and that, once that truth is unambiguously established, the logical thing to do would be to modify the civilization’s worldview. But Rovelli’s thesis contradicts the culture that embraces it, which means that resistance will be fierce. We now tend to think of truth itself as a quantifiable object, as when we say things like, “How much truth is anyone willing to accept?”
In the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, a radical shift took place in the dominant worldview. It led to the scientific and industrial revolutions. We traditionally represent it as a shift from superstition to science. But it was also a shift from a relationship-based worldview to a mechanical, object-oriented one. Feudalism itself was a system of interacting relationships, as Thomas Piketty insisted in his book “Capital and Ideology.” Now science has led us to a point at which the scientific revolution may appear as a denial of the true understanding of science. In his book, Rovelli reveals that he himself looks beyond the various Western worldviews to Eastern philosophy, that of the second-century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, for inspiration.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.