Exiting the comfort zone of absolute certainties- From quantum physics to today’s political populism
One may at times wonder whether Donald Trump does not a macroscopic quantum system. His intellectual, emotional, and general mental state is objectively not determinable. He lives, so to speak, in a superposition of willingness to talk and stubborn anger politics, social promises and super-rich-clientele lobbying, charm efforts and snotty brat-performances. Only the concrete interaction with a counterpart, be it a political opponent, partners, or the press, produces a certain state of his behavior, and this in an a priori undetermined way. Before, his state is comparable to that of an electron prior to measurement: not only unknown, but objectively indefinite. It thus does not have his own substantial reality. Although this parallel between quantum physics and today’s right-wing American populism may spring too much out of the desire for a satirical apprehension of the incomprehensible, connections can be made at a deeper level, as will be explained below.
We can describe our epoch, which not quite coincidentally with the end of World War I was born 100 years ago, by numerous predicates. In terms of our material and living conditions it was undoubtedly most strongly shaped by the technological progress. From a spiritual, intellectual, and emotional point of view, however, it can even more clearly becharacterized: the loss of the comfort zone of absolute certainties, be they of a religious, philosophical, psychological, or scientific nature.
Concerning the first point on that list this process had started already 150 years earlier, in an epoch which we call the „Enlightenment Era“ for a good reason. The driving force behind this epoch-making upheaval was the scientific revolution of the early 17th century –early in which the physics genius Isaak Newton was celebrated as first hero. From now on, the phenomena and developments in nature and even man himself should no longer require supernatural explanations. God lost his position as the ultimate and absolute authority of truth. But nevertheless do also the historical beginnings of the new authority in the temple of knowledge, the natural sciences, lie in the philosophical yearning and search for an absolute and ultimate truth. Already among the pre-Socratics, and at the latest with Plato and Aristotle,had the foundations of a metaphysics emerged that sought the absolute reasons and contexts hidden behind the apparent phenomena of nature. The philosophers developed their own notion for this last, unconditioned, and independent of anything else: „substance“ (Greek οὐσία, lat. Substantia). Beginning with Descartes and Leibniz modern philosophy of naturewas also driven by the desire and belief in the possibility of absolute certainty, which, as the two philosophers, mathematicians, and naturalists recognized, can ultimately find its founding principles only beyond the sensory experience in the transcendent. This philosophical frame of thought was continually driven by some absolute standard, according to which the multiplicity of individual things can always be reduced to the unity of an all-grounding principle.
Only with the emergence of modern physics in the 20th century accelerated a process in the course of which the idea of the absolute was systematically pushed back in the natural sciences in favor of an empiricist-positivist orientation with Bayesian-based methodological framework. In the detachment from an absolute certainty, as practiced by quantum physics and the theory of relativity, we identify one of the greatest philosophical insights of the last century. In fact, today we recognize that the success of the sciences in the last 100 years has found its central developmental momentumin the consistent elimination of the metaphysical dream of a universal substance or an absolute truth and the thus associated radical change of its explanatoryclaims. Well-known examples are the replacement of Newton’s idea of absolute space or time by a relational space-time structure in the theory of relativity and the central importance of concepts such as information and self-organization in the theory of evolution and genetics, the two pillars of modern biology.
But nothing has forced us more to give up the philosophical claim for ultimate and grounding substances in the space of objects and to live with the ambivalence of complementary truths than the new concept of the object in quantum physics. According to it, there exists no longer an elevated point of view, no real and independently existing object per se to cling to, and therefore no absolute truth. Objects and all being in the microcosm have no reality of their own. If a particle can at the same time be a wave and if the result of a physical measurement depends on the standpoint of the observer, two opposing worldviews can well coexist next to each other.
This of course has an impact on the human psyche. What began with Copernicus and the loss of our central position in the universe, continued with Darwin – we are no longer in the center of creation, but are rather result of a process, the animals and plants equally went through -,and at last also affected the space of our inner I, as Freud stated almost at the same time as the disappearance of an objective reality in quantum physics (the first quarter of the 20th century). According to the latter, we are not even master in our own house of our mind, the space of our subjective feelings and thoughts. Thus at last we have to accept what applies both to external objects as well as our inner subjectivity: reality, substance, independent existence, and finally any absolute truth are utterly dubious concepts.
These developments in modern physics, biology, and psychology concerning the elimination of any universal concept of substance and criterion for truth have a significant dimension also in the political sphere – which Karl Popper pointed out for the first time: In the detachment from absolute scientific truth claims and from any substantial properties in the objects we find astonishing parallels to the social dynamics and legitimacy of political authorities. Every time people thought they had found the perfect form of society, respectively of exercising political or economic power, the end result was the solidification of a despotic absolute. The natural sciences teach us to constantly question the status quo of our own intellectual solidity and to critically reflect our present knowledge (and believes). Correspondingly, as the course of scientific research the political decision-making process is also in a permanent repair mode, in which its protagonists must question and justify themselves over and over again. A form of government in which power requires continuing democratic justification and must permanently be corrected in its actions or is otherwise threatened to be voted out of office allows for much more social (and technological) progress than authoritarian forms of government.From thiswe can derive a pragmatic manual for each of us in the political decision-making process: Rulers who object to higher truth claims and reject the (scientific) discourse and the methodology of questioning must be treated with great caution! This is true today as in the 1930s
Most people, however, are overwhelmed by such a renunciation of any retreats to the absolute and substantial. One likes to rely on clear truths, strongspiritual bases, and immutable principles. What God used to be is today the absolute spirit, a substantial basic structure, immutable laws of nature, or ever valid economic, social, or historical laws, a nation with certain birth rights, a society in which „everyone has their place“, a job for a life time, and much else. Where such certainties are lost, uncertainty arises. That was no different in the 1920s than it is today. Then political, social, religious, and philosophical simplifiers and populists fill with their own falsehoods and lies the vacuum left by that loss.
What served more than 200 years ago as a battle cry against the preservers of old (religious) truths, the „Sapere Aude“, the courage to use one’s own understanding, remains valid into our time. In fact, this more than ever, sincetoday we are yet again experiencing the collapse of existing certainties, whether in the political, social, economic or, ultimately, scientific field. The temptation is great to indulge in the apparent truths of false prophets. For the latter, be it the absurd lies of Donald Trump, the neo-fascist roar of the European right-wing populists of Italian, German, Hungarian, or Polish character, the pseudo-religious power legitimizations a la Erdogan, but also the New Age movement or almost religious confessions of libertarian character always and without exception lead us the wrong way.
The path of real social progress always runs via the ongoing correction of wrong decisions, which ultimately triggered the unmatched social growth and developing prosperity in the open, anti-autocratic and democratic societies of the 20th and 21st centuries.Just as science has given up its claim for absolute insight and truth, and our knowledge of nature is thus repeatedly corrected and expanded, the “open societies” (Popper) ultimately enabled the unfolding of the historically unprecedented dynamics of modern scientific progress. The parallelism of both developments is hardly coincidental. To lose the momentum of development to intellectual simplifiers, political populists, or philosophical grand muftis would today be as much of a shameof historical magnitude as it was in the 1920’s and 1930s.