Friday, 16 November 2012

Quantum History Take 2

An interesting comment via email from Helen Forsey about my post the other day on Quantum history (responding to Neil Turock's Massey lectures). She writes:

Very brave of you to raise this, but I am wary. I caught the last part of the same lecture, and Turock's suggestion that the "quantum" future "may even change who we are" (I think that's the quote)as human beings gives me a sick anxiety in my gut. I may be misunderstanding, but I think fiddling with the essential nature of humanity (or of our fellow creatures) is both dangerous and fundamentally wrong. It smacks of those among space enthusiasts who want us to pursue the frontiers of outer space instead of taking on the responsibility of caring for the Earth, our home. Our record of tampering with nature is not a shining one. Such science has deep roots in patriarchal arrogance, and it has already brought us to the brink. As feminist Dorothy Dinnerstein has written, such prospects "smell vile" to me.   
I confess that I hadn't thought about any of what Helen says. I was taking his words in another direction - not in turning us into a different, more techno centred kind of humanity - but in actually making us more aware of reality as it really is. The world works in certain ways that we find almost impossible to understand.

I certainly share the distrust of those who see possible solutions in space and technology that are only about avoiding the real humanly/politically created problems of here and now (ie so many responses to global warming). But I was taking Turock in a different direction. That is, the discoveries of physicists seem to ask us to confront our limits as humans, the ways in which we are incredibly limited, irrational, and unable to really understand the world. So I read his perhaps overly rosy language about the quantum future in this light.

But still. Quantum history anyone? Is anyone actually applying this stuff to the humanities? If time isn't linear; if can be seen as a spatial 4th dimension, how does this affect the writing of history?

I asked these questions to three great historians and smart people the other day over drinks. I received kind, bemused expressions. Maybe I really am out in left field on this one....


  1. I'm not sure if I'm one of the historians you're referring to, though the beers and bemusement are familiar. As I said (or, to be more accurate, attempted to say at the pub), what strikes me as a historian is how we haven't even grappled with recent developments in the social sciences, let alone quantum physics.

    While the fascinating wave of behavioural economics has generated a rich scholarly debate and public discussion, few historians in Canada seem interested in its implications for our discipline. We still seem wedded to the outdated assumption that we should understand human baviour as fundamentally rational. We tend to privilege social forces -- culture, discourse, materialism, et cetera -- and to overlook the possibility that the behaviour we're studying could be rooted in psychology.

    As Daniel Kahneman notes in his remarkable book, _Thinking, Fast and Slow_, economists and psychologists have started to break down the barriers separating their disciplines. Although there is still a common popular presumption about the supposed economic rationality of human behaviour (or "Econs," as Richard Thaler put it), this is simply not supported by the extant evidence. As Kahneman notes, "To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable." His explanation about how we're hard wired in peculiar ways has prompted me to reconsider some of the basic assumptions I've been making as a historian.

    Though this may sound light years away from quantum history, it relates quite nicely with your point, because the behavioural economists' findings underscore how limited, irrational, and unable we are to understand fully the world around us.


  2. Thanks for the thoughts Jerry. You were indeed one of the bemused beer drinking culprits. Heck of a week, so I"m only getting to respond now. And what should you do but give me something else to read!

  3. Interesting thought at the end about the writing of history in the wake of the fourth dimension. I have actually never thought of it that way, and it's a pretty world-changing thought. I'm not sure the writing of history changes, because we tend to only understand the linear (maybe this is a limit on our perception?)

    Cheers and thanks for the powerful idea,

    P.S. I saw the first part of Turok's lectures out here in NfLd, and felt it was good, but it was sad to not get the whole story.

  4. I would like to have seen the lectures. Quite possibly, the questions I have are just that: questions. But I'd love to see someone who actually knows a good deal about physics think through this. The odds that I can become knowledgeable enough in my lifetime are pretty slight.