Physics & Politics: Genesis by Observership – No Cats were Harmed

By Julia Sekula


“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” – Albert Einstein


Political science has long aspired to be more ‘scientific’, that in seeking the ‘objective’ and determining truth through extensive experimentation, we can arrive at the fundamental ‘laws’ that govern our political, societal and economic lives. What if, however, the existence of the sanitary, ‘scientific’ ideals we aspire to – namely that of objectivity – have already been disproven in the field we apotheosize? What if even science rejects the existence of objectivity; where would this leave our ‘political science’?

Whether to poorly execute a flatulent metaphor or test you during an interview, you will have heard Bishop George Berkley’s famous puzzle: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Depending on whom you ask, the answer will differ, and that is the wonder of modern academia; much like economists, no one can agree on very much. A semanticist will question what you mean by ‘sound’, while a philosopher will confound with both a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – can that which is unperceived be said to exist? A theist on the other hand will claim that God perceives the sound, therefore the sound exists. Meanwhile, a neurologist would argue that ‘sound’ is defined as vibrations to the human eardrum, therefore with no eardrum in range, no sound is produced.

The question Berkley posed paved the way for much scientific and philosophical inquiry into how one can ascertain the existence of things if we do not or cannot observe them. If, then, the lack of observation has an impact on how we identify with reality, how does active observation impact ‘objective’ reality and our perception of it?

My purpose here is not to digress into the deep recesses of one of philosophy’s most demanding questions. Rather – and since I have committed myself to the worlds of Physics & Politics for this series – I aim to apply the ways in which Physics has perceived the act of observation, and what its findings can mean for how ‘objectivity’ is produced and reproduced in international political discourse.

“According to the rules of quantum mechanics, our observations influence the universe at the most fundamental levels. The boundary between an objective “world out there” and our own subjective consciousness that seemed so clearly defined in physics before the eerie discoveries of the 20th century blurs in quantum mechanics.” (John Wheeler, Discover Magazine, June 2002)



Schrödinger’s Cat-Thought Experiment:

Austrian Physicist Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, devised a “thought-experiment” to explain the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics (namely that of quantum superposition and columns of the wave function); or in other words, the notion that objects and events can exist in two (or perhaps more) states at once.

The experiment goes as follows. Say you place a cat, a vile of poison, an atom of radioactive uranium, and a Geiger counter into a box. If the radioactive uranium should decay, it sets off the Geiger counter, which in turn breaks the vile of poison, releasing it into the box and silently killing the cat. Scientists are rarely known for their sense of humour.

Now, before we open the box and look, we cannot know the state of the cat. This is because radioactive decay (of the atom of radioactive uranium) is a probabilistic quantum event – it happens at complete random.

So, is the cat dead or alive? According to Schrödinger, the cat is neither dead nor alive… but is the sum of two states: it is both dead and alive.

Combined with the publication of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle only eight years prior, the thought-experiment reiterated the notion that nothing is certain in the universe until a measurement is made. Measuring the outcome of the cat’s state of existence, and all other events in the universe, relies on a conscious mind observing it. Consciousness, Schrödinger then concluded, controls everything.

As extraordinary as this conclusion already was, the thought-experiment’s findings implied a deeper paradox; either the act of observation determines the existence of the cat (or anything for that matter), or the cat is simultaneously dead AND alive. Both alternatives were staggering – reverberating through the halls of millennia of philosophical thought.

Perhaps, though, this ‘thought-experiment’ is unconvincing to many. After all, no cats were ever used – nor would one ever be able to determine if the cat is alive or dead, prior to opening the box – a classic case of ‘let’s throw in the towel and go home because there’s no way of ever knowing’. At least those would be my regressive remarks to conclude the entire undertaking.

Physicists though, are non-towel-throwing beings.


The Double-Slit Experiment

The Double-Slit Experiment established a well-known principle named ‘wave-particle duality’; matter can display both wave-like and particle-like characteristics. It is a simple exercise in shooting electrons through a slit and onto a screen – with stirringly complex implications.

If electrons are fired through 1 slit (see image), then electrons form the pattern of ‘particle matter’ – they ‘bounce’ directly where one would expect them to, indicating a simple trajectory from the slit onto the screen. If, however, electrons are shot through a double-slit, then the electrons form a wave-interference pattern (see images).

Physicists found this to be incredibly bizarre – surely the addition of another slit could not and would not alter the nature of a particle’s behavior? To better investigate what was happening to the electrons at the slit, they set up a measuring device to see which of the two slits the electrons were passing through. Shockingly, the electrons reverted back to behaving like particles; the act of observation collapsed the wave equation.

“The very act of measuring or observing which slit it went through, meant the electron decided to act differently – as though it was aware it was being watched – physicists stepped forever into the strange world of quantum events.” (Fred Alan Wolf)

What one then arrives at are some striking conclusions, given both the Double-Slit Experiment and Schrödinger’s Cat. Observation not only determines existence, but the act of observation itself has the potential to alter it. John Wheeler, influential theoretical physicist who collaborated with the likes of Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, claimed “our observations… actually contribute to the creation of physical reality. We are not simply bystanders on a cosmic stage; we are shapers and creators living in a participatory universe.”


Enter Social Construction and Historical Dynamism

What physics has demonstrated through the slits and the cat – and to date, many others alike – is the way in which object and observer are mutually constituted.  It is not enough to claim that simply by apparent ‘physical’ division between object and observer, the two are separate; yet such has been the practice in mainstream international political dialogue for centuries. Arguably, this is gradually changing. It remains worthwhile to explore the various ways in which this assumption has embedded itself in thinking from our kitchens to our parliaments.


The Civilized and the Barbarian

Any self-respecting political thinker (be it the couch or the office-kind) will wince at the words ‘civilized’ and ‘barbarian’ when skimming the words of the much revered John Stuart Mill: aged terminology for aged ways of thinking. Though the most influential political thinker of the 19th century might be excused for his poor choice of diction. Perhaps.

In one of his renowned publications, Mill divided humanity into culturally superior (civilized) and culturally inferior (barbarian) peoples:

“To suppose that the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians, is a grave error, and one which no statesman can fall into, however it may be with those, who from a safe and irresponsible position, criticize statesmen.”

Following a brief patronizing account of the immorality of the ‘barbarian’ nations, Mill continues:

“To characterize any conduct whatever towards a barbarous people as a violation of the law of nations, only shows that he who so speaks has never considered the subject. A violation of great principles of morality it may easily be, but barbarians have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one.” (On the Treatment of Barbarous Nations, 1874).

Now, such an account of Mill is partial and deeply one-sided, and it was perhaps slightly flippant on my part to introduce this part of his work first, in the case of those that have come into little contact with his work – the liberal backbone to our Western state apparatuses stems from his ideas, and with some good reason. However, it is starkly evident from the excerpts given that “Mill’s liberalism, is inextricably linked to imperialism which, in turn, is reproduced through liberal practices in the contemporary world” (Jahn).

To merely extract unsavoury diction from his work and refuse to emancipate his ideas from this civilized vs. uncivilized dichotomy would be both naïve and incomplete – but contemporary political events and narratives would suggest that just this has occurred.

For example, the manner in which the international arena has been simplistically reduced to a juxtaposition of the civilized and the non-civilized (albeit not in those exact terms) is still valid today, nearly 200 years on. “It is widely and uncritically accepted that modern civilisation – the West – embodies Mill’s principles of liberty, individuality and progress resulting in a selective application of the principle of sovereignty in the international sphere. Perfectly in line with Mill’s argument, Western states are accorded the right to non-intervention while the rest can be intervened against” (Jahn). US Foreign Policy during the Bush (George W) years came to be known as the ‘Freedom Agenda’ – ripe with ‘altruistic’ determination to bring democracy and freedom to all the lands – at all costs, including state sovereignty. Sure, there are dozens of other theories on the motives of the Bush administration, but my purpose here is not to discuss their merits. Rather, to discuss the underlying, engrained system of belief that makes it OK to intervene against some states and not others; the one that justifies action in some but not all places. This justification is arguably deeply rooted in the liberal dichotomies of Mill’s time. This is problematic to say the least and – as history continues to show – costs resources and lives.

Much like the way our ‘conscious’ mind determines the existence of the cat being alive (or dead) blurs the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, the privileging of Mill’s determinately ‘subjective’ perceptions renders an ‘objective’ reality that is partial. In failing to understand (or perhaps subconsciously neglecting) the inherent imperialistic dichotomies Mill spoke of, ‘liberal’ contemporary thought is very much congealed within this paradigm, thus both perpetuating this way of thinking (i.e. the discourse on intervention) while (more importantly) reproducing it as a given ‘objective’ reality.

Aspiring to an elusive yet venerated ideal of ‘objectivity’ masks the deeply rooted subjectivity of our conscious observation. In other words, to use the previous example, hailing Mill’s liberal theories as ‘objective’ actually overlooks the historically contingent characteristics of his theories; theories that gravely perpetuate problematic dichotomies, engendering a political reality of their own, but also distinctly shaping political discourse along these imperialistic lines.


Everything Outside the Womb

Discourse on the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’ is unfortunately mostly confined to the world of social constructivism. Social life is dynamic, complex and multi-faceted, thus positing that reality – outside the womb – has been produced and reproduced solely through human, subjective experience. This political discourse is analogous to what Schrödinger discovered with his make-believe cat: consciousness determines existence.

Unlike positivism, social constructivism doesn’t see ‘reality’ as external, independent of the mind. “According to social constructionism, individuals can create meaning only in relation to what they are exposed to in their environment. Paradoxically, the same individuals co-create the meanings that are available in this environment” (Marecek). Society and what was long believed to be the ‘autonomous’ individual, are indissoluble.

Sure, Abraham Lincoln had a point when he challenged such a fluid concept of reality: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” Calling anything something doesn’t necessarily make it so – but doing so repeatedly under the pretense of ‘objective’ analysis will, in due time, make it so.

Gender, to take a controversial example, is in its purest form, nothing but a physical identification of sex. Yet notions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ go far beyond physicality. Which toys one is to play with, which careers one is to pursue, which temper one is to have, which sex one is to be attracted to; these are – only to name a few – deeply gendered characteristics. According to social constructivists, these gender connotations were (and in some cases still are) produced to maintain certain power structures – and are continuously and indiscriminately reproduced in society. This is most evident in trans-gender cases: in the United States, to qualify for a sex-change operation one has to prove that one is suited for the ‘destination’ sex. Moreover, a mental health professional first has to diagnose you with ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ – a classified mental illness. The existence of gendered dichotomies is striking.

It is the collective production of a perceived ‘objective reality’ that gender ‘roles’ exist, which has rendered them largely objective and real; our consciousness determines this ‘realness’.

It would seem then, returning to Bishop Berkley’s famous question, that the answer is all and none of the differing views. ‘Objectiveness’ separate from the mind does not in exist; not in politics, and not in the most aggrandized of ‘objective’ sciences: quantum physics. Upon this realisation, we should sooner cease to seek ‘objective’ realities and, instead, try to more deeply understand how everything is affected by the conscious mind. Until we open the box and measure tree, cat, or electron, we cannot and should not purport to really ‘know’, as ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’ are Siamese twins in the quantum and political world of ‘reality’.


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