The Revolutions of the Twentieth Century
If we are to understand the changes that have faced us, and the issues that now confront us, we should go back to that watershed year of 1900. It was in that year that Lord Kelvin, the President of the Royal Society, in an address to the Royal Institution claimed that in principle everything that was to be known in science was already known1. The combinations of Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories were capable of explaining every phenomenon in the physical universe. (He did however point to two small clouds that lay on the horizon of physics but had every confidence that these would soon be cleared up. One turned out to be quantum theory and the other the theory of relativity!)
The notion of the unity of knowledge inherent in Lord Kelvin’s speech perfectly complemented the overall vision of the new century, at least within Europe and North America. It was to be an era of certainty and knowledge and, thanks to the power of science and technology, a time of limitless progress. After all, within the two years around the turn of the century, radium, the radioactivity of uranium, and the electron had all been discovered, speech had been transmitted by radio and sound recorded magnetically, photographs were being sent over telephone lines, air had been liquefied, alternating current was being generated at Niagara Falls, the Zeppelin airship constructed, the Model T Ford built, and the Paris Metro opened.
An era of transformation
Yet 1900 was also the year when Planck hypothesized the existence of the quantum, Poincaré suggested that chaos may be hidden within the motion of the solar system and Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. Five years later Einstein would present his first paper on the theory of relativity. The turn of the century was certainly a watershed in which so much of what had been accomplished, so much that human beings could feel proud about, was about to be swept away.
M.C. Escher, Day and Night (1938)
To see how radical the issues are that face us today and the need for a change in thinking it is best to start with a brief exploration of just how revolutionary the transformation had been in our theories of the ontology of the world.
In one year, Einstein had transformed the laws of conservation of matter and conservation of energy in favour of the conservation of matter+energy. In an address to the 80th Assembly of German Natural Scientists and Physicians, Hermann Minkowski proclaimed that, ‘henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows2.’
The implications of the theory of relativity were indeed disturbing yet, from another perspective, the theory preserved a significant aspect of the edifice of classical physics, that of the objectivity and inviolate nature of its laws. While Einstein showed that physical phenomena appear differently to observers moving at different speeds, accelerating or within a gravitational field he also demonstrated that the underlying laws of physics remain invariant for all observers. Relativity may have predicted Black Holes and the Big Bang origin to the universe but, to Einstein, it embraced a universe that was rational, causal, did not admit chance processes and was built out of ‘independent elements of reality.’
Not so for the quantum theory, it demanded a far more radical change; one that even today is not always appreciated in the fullness of its depth. Schrödinger, for example, highlighted the curious circumstance whereby quantum theory allows for the simultaneous superposition of all possible outcomes to any experiment (i.e. linear superpositions of the solutions to Schrödinger’s equation), yet the large-scale observing equipment always registers only one outcome3. Attempts to resolve ‘Schrödinger’s cat paradox’ led to all manner of bizarre proposals, such as the notion that the consciousness of the human observer acts to ‘collapse the wave function’ into a single outcome, or that there are an infinity of possible worlds with a unique solution existing in each of these worlds.
Examples such as the Schrödinger cat paradox expose one of the deep problems of the quantum theory: how to extract a physical explanation from the underlying mathematical formalism. Heisenberg’s original discovery of quantum mechanics involved the use of arrays of numbers, called matrices, some of which do not commute when multiplied together: In other words, A x B is not the same as B x A. The physical meaning of the matrix A could correspond to the measurement of the position of an electron, while B would correspond to a measurement of the electron’s speed (more properly its momentum). Hence, the measurement of speed followed by position gives a different result from first measuring position and then speed.
Heisenberg interpreted this mathematical result in the following way. For any measurement to be registered, at least one quantum of energy must be exchanged, or shared, between the electron and the measuring apparatus. Suppose we measure the speed of an electron. We next attempt to measure its position, but this involves interfering with the electron using at least one quantum. Hence, this second measurement disturbs the electron and alters its speed in an uncontrollable way. Each measurement disturbs the universe so there will always be a level of uncertainty in determining both the speed and position of an electron4.
Heisenberg’s example appeared to offer a clear physical interpretation underlying the mathematical equations. Neils Bohr did not agree and adopted a far more radical approach5. Bohr pointed out that Heisenberg’s interpretation was based on the assumption that, just as with objects in our large-scale world, the electron ‘possesses’ a speed and ‘possesses’ a position. According to Bohr this is an unwarranted assumption about the nature of quantum reality. All one can say is that a certain disposition of experimental apparatus will produce a result that can be interpreted as ‘position,’ while another disposition will produce a result that can be interpreted as ‘speed.’ In between making these measurements one cannot properly speak of the electron as ‘having’ such properties.
Bohr went even further6. He argued that when physicists wish to discuss the meaning of an equation, they communicate using ordinary, everyday language, albeit spiced with a number of technical terms. Yet as soon as we introduce words such as space, time, path, distance, before, after and so on we are employing terms that evolved linguistically in our large-scale world. In other words, as soon as we discuss quantum reality we contaminate the conversation with unexamined assumptions and concepts about causality, space, time and the nature of objects that apply only to the classical world of large-scale objects. Bohr’s famous statement ‘we are suspended in language such that we do not know which is up and which is down’ places a strict limit on any attempt to create models of the quantum world, and shows why objective descriptions of quantum reality is doomed to confusion and failure. It also negates Einstein’s belief that we can construct our world out of ‘independent elements of reality7.’
Another radical change in science has been the development of what is popularly termed ‘Chaos Theory’ (more properly the dynamics of non-linear systems)8. While chaos theory does not require a change in our ontology of the world it does place strict limitations on our dream of complete knowledge about a system, as well as on our ability to predict and control the world around us. There will always be missing information about the world and predictions will only be successful under certain limited circumstances. And, just as the dream of endless prediction has to be abandoned, so too that of controlling or directing the systems and organizations around us. Some systems are highly resistant to change and simply bounce back when affected, others will behave in unpredictable ways when we attempt to influence them.
In a sense this puts an end to that Enlightenment dream of conquering the world through pure reason. Yet in other ways that dream had already begun to founder in 1900 with the publications of The Interpretation of Dreams. The Enlightenment was founded upon faith in the inherent rationality of human thought, but Freud now claimed that this was an illusion. In part, our behaviour is determined by rational judgment and in part by the promptings of the unconscious. In Civilization and its Discontents Freud even argued that true human happiness can never be achieved, for the instincts of Eros and Thanatos (the death wish), are always acting in conflict with each other. An ideal society can never exist, for civilization seeks to repress our deepest instincts and the Enlightenment dream is based upon a fragile illusion.