Quantum physics, dialectics and society: from Marx and Engels to Khrennikov and Haven


Quantum physics occupies a fascinating place at the cutting edge of modern scientific research. First developed in the early 20th Century, quantum theory is allowing today’s scientists to plumb new depths when it comes to matter and motion. A new book, Quantum Social Science, by Andrei Khrennikov and Emmanuel Haven argues that applying the logic of quantum theory to social systems can take our understanding of human society to a whole new level.

quantumSeemingly without realising it, these scientists are following in the footsteps of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who developed the logic of dialectical materialism out of philosophical enquiry into the natural world. On this basis, by applying scientific logic to society, they developed the theory of scientific socialism.

The logic of quantum physics

Quantum mechanics is complex and, occupying as it does a place at the frontier of human knowledge, arguments still rage amongst scientists as to the correct interpretations and explanations of quantum theory. It all began with the observation that light can be measured as both a particle and a wave.

Niels Bohr, famous for his series of thought experiments that sought to explain quantum physics, hypothesised that by trying to measure light (or any other particle) we inevitably change its behaviour. His argument was that the measuring device itself delivers random kicks to the particles that cause a fundamental change in its behaviour. For this reason, he argued, light can appear to be both a particle and a wave, but as soon as you try to measure that light it inevitably becomes EITHER a particle OR a wave depending on your method of measurement – it cannot be measured as both at the same time.

This approach, based on Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’, brings out an interesting point in relation to the logic of quantum physics. In order to accurately explain what was happening Bohr noted that the more accurate the measurement of the location of a particle, the less accurate the measurement of its movement and vice versa. In other words there is a contradiction between the particle and its movement, between matter and motion.

This contradiction is at the heart of our understanding of the universe because it is impossible to conceive of matter without. All matter is in motion; the particles that make up everything are constantly vibrating, moving and changing. The planet itself is in constant motion around the sun, and our solar system is in constant motion with the spinning of the Milky Way, which in turn is constantly moving in relation to other galaxies.

What is dialectics?

Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, famously said that “everything changes and nothing remains the same” and that “you can never step twice into the same stream”. It is the ideas of ceaseless change, motion, interconnectedness and contradiction that define dialectical thought.

The philosopher Zeno famously tried to illustrate how essential dialectical thinking is to our understanding of the world by using thought experiments. He poses the following:

Imagine an arrow in flight. At any one durationless instant in time (like the freeze-frame in a film) the arrow is not moving to where it is going to, nor is it moving to where it already is. Thus, at every conceivable instant in time, there is no motion occurring, so how does the arrow move?

To answer this we are forced to embrace what appears on the surface to be a contradictory idea – that the arrow is, at any one time, in more than one place at once. This thought experiment serves to highlight the contradictory nature of the movement of matter in the world.

The German philosopher Hegel further developed the dialectical in a systematic form. Instead trying to discard contradictions Hegel saw in them the real impulse for all development. In fact Hegel saw the interpenetration of opposites as one of the fundamental characters of all phenomena. Hegel’s philosophy is one of interconnectedness where the means and the end, the cause and the effect, are constantly changing place. It explains progress in terms of struggle and contradiction, not a straight line or an inevitable triumphal march forward. Hegel’s main mistake though was to see all of this development as essentially reflecting the movement of a mystical Idea or World Spirit.

Marx based his dialectical understanding of society on Hegel’s teachings, but he went further and combined dialectics the Materialist view of the world which sees the real objective world as the only existing one. Marx discovered that the dialectical laws where nothing more than the general underlying laws of nature and human society. The result is an understanding of the contradictions and ceaseless change in society and the economy. It is this dialectical understanding of society, ultimately, that gives Marxist thought its revolutionary character.

Formal logic

However, not all scientists are willing to accept that the discoveries of quantum physics are best explained using the logic of dialectics. Bohr himself was one of these scientists who saw the acceptance of contradiction in science or nature as an acceptance of failure as a scientist. For scientists like Bohr, the rigid doctrines of formal logic and an abhorrence of contradiction are the foundations of their approach to scientific study.

As a result Bohr interpreted the Uncertainty Principle, not as confirmation of the contradictory nature of matter, but instead as proof that we can never know about the objectively real world. The fact that the nature of matter changes as it is measured proves, according to Bohr, that our experience of the world is subjective and that any attempt at measuring the objective world will be thwarted by the very act of trying to measure it.

This is problematic because this leaves Bohr and his supporters defending a very unscientific position. The history of Science has been the expansion of the collective knowledge of the world and its processes. This endeavour is rendered impossible if there is no objective world to be discovered. The discoveries of one individual would apply only to the world as experienced by that individual and would have no general scientific application. In fact the only existence that would be left for any person to prove would be the existence of their own thoughts.

Ironically, by rejecting the dialectical ideas of contradiction and the unity of opposites, Bohr placed himself in the contradictory position of being a scientist arguing against science.

As well as Bohr’s ideas other attempts have been made to explain quantum phenomena on the basis of formal logic. One hypothesis is the existence of multiple parallel universes which would then allow the light we see as a wave to exist as a particle in another universe. It explains what’s happening without rejecting the idea of objective reality but it avoids accepting a contradiction between matter and motion. The problem with this “multiverse” theory is that there is no evidence for it – the best that physicists have been able to come up with are abstract mathematical proofs that have yet to be supported by any physical evidence. This is the result of a formally logical position that will do anything to avoid contradiction in nature – the rejection of the results of real experiments in favour of a theoretical hypothesis that, despite numerous attempts, does not seem to be backed up by hard evidence.

Quantum dialectics

In opposition to these formally logical theorists a number of other quantum physicists have been busy proving that it is only through contradiction that the discoveries of quantum physics can be explained. An experiment carried out by physicist Shahriar Afshar suggests that we are able to measure light as a wave and a particle at the same time. Furthermore, the development of quantum computers is based upon matter being held in more than one state at the same time. While classical computers rely on electrical current to create bits that can either be on (1) or off (0), quantum computers will be able to create “qubits” that can store both 1 and 0 at the same time thus giving these computers vastly increased processing power. Finally, a phenomenon known as entanglement or ‘action at a distance’ suggests that particles that have interacted with each other become linked such that changing one invariably affects the other, no matter how far apart they are. The nature of and explanation for this effect are still not fully known.

Without accepting that constant change, movement and contradiction is at the heart of all things, and that these things are interconnected, we cannot explain the workings of quantum computers or the phenomenon of entanglement. The discoveries of quantum physics can only be explained using the logic of dialectics.

Quantum logic and society

In their new book Khrennikov and Haven argue that “quantum-like” models can be applied to areas outside the natural remit of quantum physics. Quantum theory is normally used to explain the movement of particles at the sub-atomic level and the authors do not seek to map these theories onto complex social systems in a mechanical way. Instead they take the logic underpinning quantum physics and apply it to society.

One area they particularly highlight is decision-making, a field particularly relevant to modern economics. Many economic theories rely on the assumption that humans are rational and will make rational, self-interested decisions. This is known as the basic law of total probability – a model to calculate the probability of a particular outcome. Yet this basic law is regularly violated by real life experiences. One experiment shows that people who make decisions in a two-stage gamble are influenced in the second stage by whether or not they are told how they did in the first gamble, even though the outcome of the second doesn’t depend on the first.

The reason why this so-called “law” of economics seems to be inadequate when explaining the real world is because it rests on formal logic. Modern economics too frequently ignores the interconnectedness of factors such as superstition, tradition, sentiment and other things that, in addition to rational thinking, make up decision-making processes.

Khrennikov and Haven point out that the wave-particle duality of matter also violates the basic law of total probability. The contradictory nature of matter in motion means that it is impossible for quantum scientists to pin down the exact location of a particle at any one moment in time. Applying the law of total probability does not accurately describe the location of particles. All that physicists can do is give an estimate of the probability that a particle will be in any one place at a given time. In order to explain these probability values in wave-particle experiments a mathematical factor known as the “interference term” is introduced.

What Khrennikov and Haven show is that this interference term, when applied to economics, also explains the seemingly illogical probability values for economic decision-making. What they show is that the same mathematical tools that are required to explain the contradictory processes taking place at a sub-atomic level are also required to explain the contradictory processes in society. In other words, the dialectical understanding of quantum particles also applies to economics.

The authors don’t stop there. They also explain how quantum thinking can give us a deeper understanding of a plethora of scientific and social institutions, from neuroscience to voting patterns. They argue that the strength of a quantum-like approach to social science is that it can take into account the complex blend of physical, social, environmental, financial and other factors that influence society to a much greater extent than classical models have been able to do.

In short, these scientists argue that we should understand quantum physics in a dialectical way (although they don’t use the term “dialectics”) and that using dialectical logic to understand the world can open up the possibility of creating new advances, not only in the fields of science and technology, but also in almost every aspect of society.

Marx and Engels on dialectics

Khrennikov and Haven state that “the idea of applying quantum mechanics to social science is still quite new”. It’s true that the practice has never been formulated in these terms before, but the idea of deriving dialectical principles from an observation of nature and applying them to society was first developed by Marx and Engels over 160 years ago.

Engels sums up his own position in the book ‘Dialectics of Nature’ by saying:

“It is, therefore, from the history of nature and human society that the laws of dialectics are abstracted. For they are nothing but the most general laws of these two aspects of historical development, as well as of thought itself.”

In other words Engels is saying that dialectical logic can be used to explain both nature and human society – exactly the same claim as is being made by Khrennikov and Haven.

In the book, ‘Dialectics of Nature’, Engels examines the most advanced scientific information available at the time of writing (1883) in the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, geology, mathematics and astronomy and explains the discoveries using dialectics. On this basis he is able to make a number of suggestions for future avenues of scientific study and even attempts some predictions of what scientists will find. The most famous of these predictions is contained in his essay ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’ which argues, contrary to the prevailing thinking at the time, that the development of the human brain was a consequence of the development of the hand and the use of tools and not the other way around.

This view of the development of humans is a dialectical one that views evolution and change as the product of a complex interaction between different parts of the body, and of the interaction between humans and the environment. This was not a mainstream idea at the time it was put forward by Engels because it did not conform to a clear mechanical formula for evolution. However, as modern anthropologists gather more and more evidence of pre-historic humans, they are finding that their discoveries cannot be explained by a basic model that sees the brain develop first and as a result of that humans produced tools and developed society. In fact the process of development seems to have been much more complex than that and requires an explanation based on change, contradiction and interconnectedness, just as Engels predicted.

Engels’ ability to make such a prediction shows the same thing that Khrennikov and Haven are suggesting – that understanding the world as being always in the process of contradictory change gives us a more accurate scientific picture of things than to view the world as static and mechanical.

In his “textbook of Marxism” (as Lenin described it), ‘Anti-Duhring’, Engels even provides a dialectical explanation for the apparent conundrum represented by the qubits of quantum computers that are able to store both 1 and 0 at the same time. He says:

“...in mathematics it is necessary to start from definite, finite terms...or they cannot be used for calculation. The abstract requirements of a mathematician are, however, very far from being a compulsory law for the world of reality.”

In other words, although the concept of storing the figures “1” and “0” at the same time seems illogical because they are two different definite finite terms, when we consider that these figures are nothing more than abstractions of processes occurring in the real world, the apparent problem disappears. The numbers themselves are not the concrete reality; it is the real processes that they represent which concern us. Thus, if we develop a new process that cannot be expressed using the classical system of binary digits we do not reject that discovery because it doesn’t conform to the mathematical abstractions used to define the old process, we simply have to accept that the new process can only be described by introducing the concept of contradiction into our abstract understanding. In short, to take our understanding of science and our capacity for technological development further, we must apply the logic of dialectics.

Engels thoroughly develops his understanding of dialectics as applicable to nature and society in the short pamphlet ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ where he says:

“When we consider and reflect upon Nature at large, or the history of mankind, or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes comes into being and passes away. We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, combine and are connected.”

This passage was written in 1878, long before the concept of quantum theory had been conceived. And yet this description of dialectics could very easily apply to the central argument made by Khrennikov and Haven in ‘Quantum Social Science’. Questions of entanglement, contradiction and change are the defining characteristics both of quantum mechanics and economics, history and human consciousness.

The dialectical method so clearly explained by Engels permeates all the writings of Karl Marx. In his economic writings Marx is able to explain the workings of the capitalist system by highlighting its contradictions and the interconnectedness of all of its parts. The best example of this is the Marxist theory of economic crisis, or “overproduction”. Marx explained that workers are paid less than the value of the goods that they produce which means that at some point more commodities will be being produced than can be absorbed by the market, leading to an economic crisis.

This theory highlights the contradiction in capitalism between wages and prices and it explains how this contradictory state can continue for a long period before crisis occurs. It also demonstrates the interconnectedness of all sectors of the economy such that when one country or industry is affected, the rest begin to experience the same effects. Just as Engels’ application of dialectics to evolutionary theory led him to make predictions that are being proved correct today, Marx’s application of dialectics to economic theory is being vindicated by the current economic crisis – a crisis that can only be explained with the Marxist theory of overproduction.

Marx, like Khrennikov and Haven, applied dialectics to every aspect of human society. It was from this rigorous application of dialectical logic that Marx understood the relationship between different classes in society, their contradictions and interconnectedness. Based on this dialectical study of history and economics, summed up in the ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, Marx and Engels developed the perspective of revolutionary socialism.

The future of quantum social science

It is clear that Khrennikov and Haven are not Marxists, nor even are they necessarily conscious dialecticians. Nevertheless, consciously or not, they are using modern scientific ideas and concepts that inevitably lead to the same conclusions that Marx and Engels reached many years ago. In applying their particular understanding of the complex interconnectedness at the heart of quantum physics to society as a whole, they are – albeit unconsciously – following the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

However, Khrennikov and Haven do not draw the same revolutionary conclusions as Marx and Engels. They are only interested in individual social phenomena such as voting or decision-making, but they stop short of applying their logic to class society as a whole, its history and future development as such they are defying their own principles inter-connectedness of phenomena.

This is not to say that such conclusions could not be drawn by scientists in the future because, as the authors point out, there are a lot of research grants available in the field of quantum social science (although we can bet that these grants from governments and prestigious institutes will quickly dry up if scientists start drawing revolutionary conclusions). However, for Marxist conclusions to be drawn from quantum social science what is most clearly needed are scientists who recognise the revolutionary potential of dialectical thinking. The continued study of quantum physics and the development of quantum computers and methods of encryption are likely to hail progress in the development of dialectical thinking and as a result develop the school of thought that seeks to apply these ideas to society in general.

We should also note, however, that further study of quantum physics will not automatically equal clear dialectical thinking. For example, Bohr’s idea that there is no reality beyond what we observe ourselves is a popular interpretation of quantum phenomena and is much more mainstream in academic circles than that put forward by Krennikov and Haven. Bohr’s interpretation of quantum physics, based on formal logic, is not just scientifically problematic, but it also has pernicious philosophical underpinnings. It is the same philosophy that props up the myth of the ‘self-made man’ in capitalist society. The idea that a person’s experience of the world is whatever he makes of it is entirely subjective. This idea holds that there are no objective factors really holding the individual back and that success or failure is determined by subjective factors such as how hard a person works or how lazy he or she is. Such a denial of objective reality is echoed in Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society, only families and individuals”. These ideas are false and dangerous and must be challenged at every turn, including in theoretical physics.

All genuine Marxists take an interest in scientific development. The ability of scientists to come up with new ideas, new technology and new discoveries that are capable of taking society forwards is a reflection of the ability of that society to invest in its future. It is also a reflection of the prevailing philosophical outlook of society and so explanations of scientific ideas can find an echo in explanations for the rest of society.

We have written elsewhere about the decline of innovation in the recent period, a reflection of the decline and crisis of the capitalist system as a whole and the poverty of the prevailing philosophical thought in modern times.

For this reason the work of Khrennikov and Haven is interesting and encouraging because of it confirms once again the validity of dialectical materialist philosophy – the philosophy of Marxism. It seems that these scientists are confirming that the way to make the best use of modern discoveries is to revolutionise the way we think about them. If we think about these things in terms of dialectics we can not only understand the science, but economics, history and society as well. Khrennikov and Haven’s work provides proof of the scientific basis of Marxist thought, of the radical and revolutionary potential of Marxist ideas, and of the relevance of Marxism today.

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