Wendt, Quantum Mind and Social Science

Quantum Mind and Social Science


Alexander Wendt


This book project explores the implications for social science of thinking about human beings and society as quantum mechanical phenomena. In the past there has been some very limited discussion of this question, but only as an intriguing analogy and thus it had essentially no impact. My suggestion is that man (sic) and society really are quantum phenomena. The bridge between the microscopic world of quantum physics and the macroscopic world of society is provided by "the quantum consciousness hypothesis," an argument now being advanced by growing numbers of physicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers of mind that human consciousness is a macroscopic quantum process. I address the implications of this hypothesis for three foundational issues in social science: the nature of human agency, the nature of society, and the epistemology of social inquiry.


Social science in both its positivist and interpretive forms has reflected the metaphysical assumptions of classical physics since the 19th century, when many prominent political philosophers, economists, and sociologists tried self-consciously to ground their nascent disciplines on physics. The effect of this worldview has been clearest on positivist social science, where man is now routinely seen as a "machine." If man is a machine, then like any body in motion studied by classical physics, his behavior will be deterministic and law-governed, and can be studied in an objective, third-person way that has no need to take consciousness into account. Interpretive social scientists reject the machine model of man and objectivist ways of knowing in favor of a first-person perspective that makes consciousness central. But their approach too is indebted to classical physics, since they have taken the latter as their reference for what it means to study society "scientifically." I argue that this has led many interpretivists to implicitly accept an untenable Cartesian dualism of mind and body, and to reject the idea of social science altogether.

If consciousness is a quantum rather than classical mechanical phenomenon, then these fundamental parameters of contemporary social scientific discourse will be undermined. Man will not be a machine, nor will his behavior be explainable in purely deterministic and objective terms. On the other hand, neither will this entail a Cartesian dualism or the impossibility of social "science." Contrary to both orthodoxies, the "ultimate" science, quantum physics, would establish the importance of consciousness for the scientific study of social life, and point toward a radical rethinking of man and society.

The Argument

The worldview of classical physics assumes that reality is made of material objects, that larger objects can be reduced to smaller ones, that objects behave deterministically, and that they exist and can be known independently of the subjects who study them. These assumptions have proven very fruitful for both the natural and social sciences, but they have had considerable difficulty generating an explanation for consciousness. Operating from them, mainstream students of the mind-brain problem have developed increasingly powerful theories of those aspects of consciousness that are shared by machines, like the functional organization and operations of mental "software" and their relationship to the physical "hardware" of the brain. But little progress has been made in explaining the most fundamental aspect of consciousness, which is not shared by machines: the fact of subjective experience - in the words of philosopher Thomas Nagel, the fact that there is "something it is like" to be conscious. And with this failure has come little insight into central features of the human condition that are associated with experience, like free will, creativity, purpose, and meaning. This "hard problem" of consciousness is rooted in the materialism of classical physics, namely how could material objects (neurons) generate something non-material like experience?

Quantum physics has revolutionized our understanding of the deep structure of reality. Material objects have dissolved into "wave functions" that lack well-defined properties, interact "non-locally," and "collapse" into particles in non-deterministic ways that are inseparable from the subjects who measure them. Nevertheless, it has been thought that quantum processes are only significant at the most microscopic level of reality; above that level they wash out (or "decohere"), and classical physics takes over. Since the brain is a very large object, scientists and philosophers have assumed that quantum mechanics was irrelevant to explaining consciousness, and by extension, human social life.

However, recent work by Stuart Hameroff, Roger Penrose, and others has led a growing number of physicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers to argue that consciousness may be a quantum mechanical phenomenon after all. Their claim is not that quantum events in the brain affect behavior, which would be almost trivially true, but that consciousness itself is a macroscopic quantum process. The quantum consciousness hypothesis (QCH) remains only that, a hypothesis, and faces serious challenges. The most difficult is decoherence: how can the brain sustain and aggregate trillions of quantum events into one experience of quantum subjectivity? Recent critiques of QCH have highlighted this problem, which defenders are working hard to solve. Until they succeed QCH is likely to remain a minority view in consciousness studies; but given the continuing resistance of consciousness to classical explanation, it is one that is being taken increasingly seriously.

In this book I assume QCH might be true, and explore its implications for thinking about society. This amounts to placing a "bet." It is true that this bet may turn out to be wrong, in which case all that will have been gained by this book is a more systematic study of an analogy. But if it is right then the consequences for social science may be as profound as those of classical physics were in the 19th century, and take as much time and collective effort to work through. As such, it seems like a bet worth placing now.

Plan of the Research

This is an inter-disciplinary project requiring the integration of research in three fields that rarely intersect: philosophy of quantum mechanics; cognitive science and philosophy of mind; and philosophy of social science and social theory. My previous work centered on the third, and gave me substantial background in the second (see attached statement); what I lacked at the start of this project was much knowledge of the first. Over the past year, however, I have been reading extensively on the philosophy of quantum mechanics (most of which is qualitative and does not require much technical sophistication), and on QCH and its rivals. In addition, I have established ongoing email correspondence with several scholars working at the forefront of QCH research. I still have some reading left to do, but most of my research is now complete and I am ready to begin writing.

The book is organized into two parts of four chapters each. Part I ("Theory") makes the case for QCH; Part II ("Application") explores its implications for social science. The work will of necessity be philosophical throughout, but in Part II the focus will also be on identifying concrete propositions that might later be tested. My hope is that as a social scientist I will be particularly well-placed to effect that important substantive translation. The chapters, of which the first two are now drafted, proceed as follows:

Chapter One ("Physics, Consciousness, and Social Science") looks at the historical impact of classical physics on the debate between positivism and interpretivism, which I argue has been mediated by the formerfs silence about the problem of consciousness.

Chapter Two ("The Hard Problem of Consciousness") reviews contemporary efforts to explain consciousness on the basis of classical physics. The goal is not to prove that such efforts must fail, but to suggest that there is enough doubt to warrant exploring a quantum approach as well.

Chapter Three ("An Introduction to Quantum Mechanics") introduces the findings and key concepts of quantum physics, and the debate about how these should be interpreted. Chapter Four ("The Quantum Consciousness Hypothesis") summarizes the argument and evidence for QCH, the existing critiques, and the challenges it still faces.

Chapter Five ("Quantum Epistemology of Social Science") reconfigures the positivist-interpretivist debate in light of the breakdown of the subject-object distinction in quantum mechanics, arguing for their inherent "complementarity" in Niels Bohr's sense.

Chapter Six ("A Quantum Model of Man") develops a quantum rival to the machine model of man, emphasizing free will, creativity, and the performative nature of agency.

Chapter Seven ("A Quantum Model of Society") interprets holist or discursive theories of meaning in terms of the concept of quantum information, to argue that society should be conceptualized as a super-organism with collective consciousness.

Chapter Eight ("A Teleological Model of Social Evolution") asks if society has a kind of consciousness, then could it also have "purposes"? This leads to a teleological view of social evolution at odds with the orthodox Darwinian