The process of the human experience of learning is dominated by analogy [the heart is like a pump] and metaphor [the heart is a pump]. In learning we transform the strange into the familiar as in our comparison of the heart to a pump. In innovating, we change contexts by transforming the familiar into the strange. Because such analogies or metaphors do not quite fit, the process of comparison of similarities and differences helps us to conceptualize a new perspective. In this vein and for purposes of learning, I would like to compare human social relations to quantum physics.
In this context, I would suggest that there are fields that influence thought and behavior and that the quantum particles involved are ideas. Since this far fetched notion, [although as we shall see, this is not the first time it has been suggested] which draws on two unrelated bodies of knowledge, we may lack information. I am a reader of popular quantum physics books, not a quantum scientist. Therefore if the analogy fails to work, it is probably my misinterpretation of field theory.
I am essentially using two references for the quantum side of the metaphor. First, is a rather unusual metaphorical work by Todd Siler who is described as an artist, a neuroscientist and a physicist. Reading his book ‘Breaking the Mind Barriers’, regenerated my interest in the metaphor of culture as field when I ran across the statement that the German ‘field theorist’ Kurt Lewin boldly proposed that the study of psychology incorporate the findings of the recently discovered electromagnetic ‘field’ phenomena. Lewin was interested in mapping the ‘psychological fields’ of what he called a person’s ‘life-space’ (or inner environment) to the outer environment. I had read and admired Lewin while in the school of social work, but had not remembered him as a ‘field theorist’. However, the reference did remind me that I had once attempted to compare nature’s forces – electromagnetic, weak, strong and gravity to the will, peer, family and culture.
Siler did not have much more to say about field theory except that gauge fields are generally used in theoretical physics to study the forces of interaction between elementary particles. This led me to speculate as to what elementary particles or ‘quanta’ were the force in human interaction. Quanta, if I recall correctly are defined as packets of energy meaning that the particle was a packet of energy with certain other properties such as “spin”, which I don’t think are important to us here.
In the mid-1900s, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley developed a model for describing how living nerve cells could generate electrical signals and we now know that this electrical activity forms the basis for communication among brain cells. In fact, neurons are unique in their ability to generate such electrical signals or packets of energy.
For further information regarding quantum mechanics and field theory, I turned to Heinz Pagels who, as the book cover provides, “writes with unmatchable elegance about the complex questions raised by the new physics”. In his book, ‘Perfect Symmetry’ Pagels suggest that field theory provides a general language for discussing the quantum particles, the syntax or rules that such description must satisfy. But, he says, it is another matter to discover the specific words – the quantum particles that appear in nature – which give real content to that language.
Obviously seduced by the use of the terms language and words to describe what I had already determined might be an appropriate metaphor, I decided to continue. This metaphor lead me a statement by Steven Pinker and to begin to think that the quanta of human interaction are ideas.
For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. [The Language Instinct – 1995]
With that in mind, I turned to the current view in physics, which is that fields are irreducible – they have no parts; they are the simplest things. They are classified in terms of how they transform under different symmetry operations and how they interact with other fields. Once one has specified these properties of a field, it is precisely defined. Put another way fundamental fields are the primary entities with which we attempt to explain everything else. As physicist Steven Weinberg expressed it, ‘the essential reality is a set of fields. All else can be derived.
This I found somewhat difficult to absorb. The field apparently is defined by the forces that it displays [gravity], but nothing else. In the psychology of human beings we know of course that there are forces that occur between people. As I described earlier the family, peers and culture all have their influence on how we think and act. And certainly as individuals we feel as though we have a ‘will of our own’. If we think of the first three as outer environmental forces and the will as the ‘life-space’ (or inner environment) we then we have begun to shape the Lewin hypothesis.
Pagels goes on to say that every field corresponds to a distinct quantum particle. If our quantum particle is the idea, then the field is described in terms of how ideas are influenced by and are influence a field of ideas. How a wave impulse may sweep through a population like a mob action, which disappears when the mob disappears. How one group of people in a culture field may think that cremation of the body is horrible while another thinks the same about interment in the ground. How a field may be used for antisocial actions like a mob, or for prosocial actions if seeded with the right ideas..
Human social systems can be defined as dissipative. Prigogine distinguishes three characteristics that make up a dissipative structure.
o There needs to be a continual flow of energy and matter, or information, between the structure and its environment.
o There needs to be a constant flow of energy and matter such that the structure or open system can experience intense fluctuations. Without these increases in fluctuation, a system would not be able to self-organize. Also, it would not be able to dissipate or decrease its entropy into the environment. It would instead become consumed by entropy like other ‘burned-out’, ‘uncreative’ systems that live near equilibrium.
o The system or structure needs to be ‘autocatalytic’. A catalyst is something that can change something else without necessarily changing itself or being influence in the process. This means that a structure or system grows by means of itself.
Siler tells us that information refers to knowledge communicated or facts and data received by all means in one system or between systems. Information is the means or process of communicating; it is what it communicates. Or as Gregory Bateson: defined it, information is “the difference that makes a difference”. Human beings are dissipative structures and human social relations are dissipative systems. The idea is the particle that creates the field and the field is the communication of ideas [notions, intuitions, etc]. Communication is information – how we communicate has distinct ‘magic’ to form ideas in another mind.
The human behavior stream is shaped by the influence of communication – the sharing of ideas. This does not diminish the force of the self [will], which is perhaps the strongest of the forces of human nature [analogous to the strong force which holds together the nucleus of the atom]. But the information/ communication process does indicate that even the force of will is subject to influence by the fields in which it participates. Since communication comes from many experiences and since the communication process has some ambiguity [words], the shaping of communication and the attributions of each quantum particle seems to have intense merit.
It would be very nice to enter into a discussion about Yang and Mills gauge field theory with its ‘global internal symmetry’ and its ‘local internal-symmetry’ how this theory allows for the shape of the self to remain unchanged under arbitrary distortions of the coordinate grid through introduction of a compensating gauge field which restores symmetry, but this is beyond both my own capacity and the limits of this paper.