The Future of Everything

March 29, 2019

Talk for Quantizing IR panel at ISA 2019

Filed under: Economics, Physics, Quantum, Talks — Tags: — David @ 6:49 pm

This is an edited version of my contribution to the panel discussion “Quantizing IR I: Physicists, Meet Social Theorists!” at the International Studies Association conference in Toronto on March 29. The session was chaired by James Der Derian (University of Sydney) and the other participants were Alexander Wendt (Ohio State University), Shohini Ghose (Wilfrid Laurier University/Perimeter Institute), Kathryn Schaffer (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Michael Schnabel (University of Chicago), and Genco Guralp (San Diego State University).

One nice thing about quantum is that it looks different to people who come at it from different backgrounds and take different paths. My background is in applied math, and my own interest in applying quantum methods to social questions came about several years ago when I was researching a book on the history of money. And I think money serves as a particularly simple and illustrative example of a quantum social phenomenon, so I will give a quick description of that before getting on to more general points.

The word “quantum” is Latin for “how much” and the money system is a way of answering that question – or “quanto costa” in Italian which makes the quantum connection more clear – which when you think about it is not an obvious thing to do since value is a quality not a quantity. Because of this fundamental incompatibility at its core, and because it is related to the transfer of information rather than of classical objects, the money system turns out to have its own quantum properties including indeterminacy, duality, entanglement, and so on.

The most trivial of these is that money moves discontinuously, in sudden quantum leaps. Schrödinger once said “If we have to go on with these damned quantum jumps, then I’m sorry that I ever got involved” but with money the same thing happens every time you tap your card at a store. There isn’t a little needle that shows the money draining out, it just jumps.

Money is fundamentally dualistic, presenting both as a physical object, like a coin, or a virtual object, like a credit transaction, while still retaining the properties of each. A bitcoin for example is a virtual currency but it exists on a real hard drive.

The money system is indeterminate: the price of something like a home is fundamentally uncertain and is only settled at the time of purchase. Transactions therefore act as a measurement process on value.

Money is entangling: here entanglement means indeterminate but coupled at the same time, an example being the state of a loan between two parties. We can model each participant as being in a quantum superposition of cognitive states. If the borrower defaults that acts as a measurement which collapses the state of the loan, even if the other party only finds out later. Of course this is a simpler version of entanglement than the kind seen in physics (there is only one axis, namely default or no default), but an advantage is that you don’t need sophisticated statistical experiments to tease it out.

So money does not behave classically which is one reason it has traditionally played a small or even non-existent role in economic models, which as many commentators have noted is one reason the financial crisis wasn’t predicted. Conventional models didn’t include a banking sector, let alone the financial entanglements represented by a quadrillion dollars worth of derivatives. The fact that money was left out of the picture seems a remarkable omission given its obvious importance not just to economics, but to everything from marital relations to international relations, but fits with the classical view that money is just an inert medium of exchange.

It was only later, through the work of people like Alexander Wendt, that I connected this with the broader areas of quantum cognition and quantum social science, which of course add many completely new dimensions. One way to think of money is as a kind of prosthetic that extends the dualistic properties of quantum mind, as we mentally collapse value down to price.

I agree with the idea that quantum processes are likely to play a role in human cognition. In itself though I don’t think that this will show or prove that society is quantum or that we are best seen as wave functions, because living systems can’t be reduced to their components. Quantum processes are believed to play a role in avian navigation, but this doesn’t really change the way we think about birds. At a trivial level, we are quantum because the universe is quantum, but what counts is the emergent behaviour. The question from my perspective is whether social systems can be usefully modelled as quantum.

The quantum methodology allows scientists to model things like indeterminacy, interference between incompatible concepts, and entanglement, all of which characterise human relations. Bohr’s theory of complementarity for example was inspired by psychology, and our ability to hold two incompatible ideas in the mind at the same time. This position is a little different from the physicalist argument, because it says that something like money is quantum not because it inherits these properties from subatomic particles, but because it is a quantum system in its own right, and I would argue this holds for other social institutions as well.

In this sense I’m not sure that economics needs a model of consciousness, but the problem is that it already seems to have one, which is that people are lifeless automata. This approach is epitomised by the old and, as economist Julie Nelson points out, rather gendered concept of rational economic man, who makes decisions to optimise his own utility based on preferences that are fixed and known. It would be a great improvement to shift to the connected, fluid, and indeterminate idea of quantum economic person.

It might still sound here that quantum is being used as just a metaphor. But the idea of a metaphor is to explain something complex in terms of something that is concrete and immediate, as in “all the world’s a stage”. A wave function is many things but it is not concrete or immediate. For one thing it involves imaginary numbers, and we have no idea what wave function collapse means, with many different interpretations, which is pretty humbling as Kathryn Schaffer noted.

Instead it makes more sense to go the other way, take human experience at face value, and use it as a metaphor to understand the physical world. One reason we don’t do that obviously is because quantum was applied to physics first.

We also need to distinguish between the system and the model of the system. Quantum models are not reality, even if they appear to give exact results in calculations. Instead they are tools adapted from mathematical techniques.

The original quantum idea came from someone, Max Planck, trying to fit a mathematical model to some strange looking data, for black-body radiation. One of the main tools in quantum mechanics is Hilbert space which is a generalisation of normal Euclidean space. This was developed in the early twentieth century and later used by physicists to formalize quantum mechanics. In general, quantizing a system is a fairly clunky mathematical procedure which converts classical equations into quantum ones.
These mathematical methods were adopted in physics not because anyone liked them but because they worked. Social scientists are permitted to do the same thing (models can be applied to different systems and at different scales).

For example if someone decides to quantize some aspect of the economy, the hope is that the resulting model captures the essence of the underlying system, addresses shortcomings in traditional models, is parsimonious in terms of parameters, and can make useful predictions. Such decisions are the prerogative of the modeller and should be made based on sound principles of mathematical modelling.

Of course there has been a lot of pushback from both physicists and economists to this use of the quantum approach, which is all to the good, but I can address a couple of points that often come up. One common objection is that quantum processes don’t scale up (Bohr’s correspondence principle), so what happens at the micro level doesn’t affect us at the macro level because it all washes out. But quantum processes do scale up, especially through the use of technology. In physics we have the atom bomb (which doesn’t wash out), or a laser pointer for that matter, in society we have the financial system which can be viewed again as a kind of quantum social technology that can be used for good or ill.

Another objection is that quantum social science is the ultimate example of “physics envy” – and there is some danger of that. But as someone pointed at another one of these events, that horse already left the barn. An example is the efficient market hypothesis, which is a central theory of economics and finance. The idea that market prices follow a random walk, and the emphasis on probability, was directly inspired by quantum theory, and was developed in part by the many nuclear physicists who switched to finance after the war. However this was a sanitised version of quantum that picked up on stochasticity but omitted its other features; and the theory was widely misused to justify the financial instruments which played a key role in the crisis.

While there is no shortage of model abuse in economics, physics envy is not the main problem. Instead it is institutional pressures that encourage the use of models that look good based on the aesthetic criteria of mechanistic science but have so many parameters and moving parts that they can give any answer you want. This is what economist Paul Romer called in a paper “the trouble with economics”. And in fact you see exactly the same issue in physics – Romer’s paper was named after Lee Smolin’s book The Trouble With Physics.

All this raises a couple of questions. One is that if something like the money system can be described as quantum, then does that tell us something useful about how we should interpret physics, for example the role of information (no idea). Perhaps more relevant from a sociological perspective at least is, why has it taken a century for these ideas and methods to feed into the social sciences.

Of course there is the worry that quantum ideas can be dangerous nonsense when applied outside physics. As physicist Sean Carroll wrote in 2016, “No theory in the history of science has been more misused and abused by cranks and charlatans”. However I would argue that the theory misused to the greatest effect in social science is the idea that we are like classical machines: inert automata, slave to the mechanisms of cause and effect. This has done far more damage than anything like “quantum healing”. Why is there so much controversy about social scientists possibly abusing quantum models, when they have been abusing mechanistic models for years?

One reason is that quantum ideas represented a challenge to our traditional scientific world view, and in some ways we still haven’t got used to them. Einstein for example said quantum reality reminded him of “the system of delusions of an exceedingly intelligent paranoiac, concocted of incoherent elements of thoughts”. Yet these concepts such as duality, indeterminacy, and entanglement seem quite reasonable when applied to our own thought patterns. And I think Einstein’s comments would apply quite well to the social world of finance.

As the Torontonian Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1992: “I do not think that philosophers in general have yet come to terms with this declaration from quantum physics: the days of the Universe as Mechanism are over”. So it is exciting that 25 years later that is starting to change.


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