Back in 1987 REM had a popular song proclaiming “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” That certainly seems to fit the spirit of the times today. But that was also the feeling of physicists back in the early 20th century.
Werner Heisenberg, discoverer of the Uncertainty Principle, observed back then: “The violent reaction on the recent development of modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.”
Fast forward to life today: it seems things are similarly going out of control. We see institutions that are crumbling, traditional values that are often disregarded, and governments that are unable to effectively address the serious problems we face. We wonder how the future will turn out, when so many events in the present are so disturbing. We feel the old rules no longer apply, but we don’t seem to have a clue about what the new rules are. If there are any.
As in modern physics, our world has dramatically changed in the past 100+ years. Just as modern technology has enabled scientists to learn more about the make up and workings of matter, modern technology has enabled us to learn more about the make up and workings of the world we live in.
Most people in 1900 knew less about what was happening 100 miles from where they lived than we know now about events on the other side of the world. Life was simple back then because there was no widespread knowledge of viable alternatives to local customs and beliefs. People were born into a culture with an accepted set of values, and that was what they believed for the rest of their lives.
In today’s global village, it is impossible to believe in a set of values without being aware of the fact that there are many others in the world who believe just as deeply in other sets of values. Belief in the rightness of a particular way of life has become less a matter of tradition or fate and more a matter of individual choice. In such a world, we are each confronted with a question that was rarely asked before: why do we believe what we believe? Confronted with so much change and uncertainty in our lives, we are left without a framework with which to answer this question.
If modern science has shared our sense of upheaval, perhaps we can use its emerging principles to create a new framework for understanding our world and our beliefs. After all, science does more than just provide the tools that lead to the technologies that affect our lives in so many ways. Science also provides a framework by which we understand our world and our place in it. If we describe events in terms of causes and effects, we are manifesting a sense of dynamics that classical science provided for us. If we view ourselves as “cogs in a machine,” we are reflecting the mechanical paradigm embodied in classical scientific thought.
Just as science has had to redefine its world, its findings can help us redefine ours.
– Perhaps if we recognize that uncertainty is fundamental to the basic building blocks of our universe (per Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), we can come to accept and learn how to deal with the uncertainty that will always be an inherent part of our lives and our world.
– Perhaps a knowledge of the interrelated nature of the quantum world will help us understand and deal with the interrelated world we find ourselves in today.
– Perhaps an awareness of the dual particle/wave nature of elementary matter will help us understand that we don’t have a choice between individualism and collectivism: we are always intrinsically individuals and members of groups at the same time.
– And perhaps we can come to understand, as the science of complexity has revealed, that living systems, be they ecological, economic, social or political, are actually based on the flow of energy (power) from the bottom up within the context of their environment.
“Quantum Sense,” in exploring the social and cultural implications of modern scientific thought, is dedicated to the search for the “new rules” for living in today’s world. It is offered as a small contribution to the necessary dialogue about the values by which we should live.
Perhaps, in using modern scientific ideas to help us understand the world modern technologies have created, we can join in REM’s proclamation:
“It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine”