Quantum International Relations

Grand Theories & Wendt’s World


Feature image via Project Q. Alexander Wendt is a “walking, talking waveform function. And so are you!”

Gabriella Skoff

Quantum mechanics is an unwieldy field to wrap the mind around, to say the least. Quantum phenomena are regularly referred to in headlines as “weird”, even notoriously dubbed as “spooky” by Einstein himself. It is no wonder, then, that the effort to apply quantum theory to the social sciences can often lead to murky associations lacking in lucidity. Yet the divide between the hard sciences and the soft sciences is also blurry. After all, do social phenomena not take place in a world that is ultimately physical? With great clarity and simplicity rarely found in the world of quantum, Grand Theories, a new podcast series that “explores lesser-known ideas that try to explain really big things about the world we live in”, dives into the world of the quantum social sciences.

The podcast’s second episode entitled Quantum Social Sciences and A Holographic Society investigates the recent work of political scientist Alexander Wendt, unpacking some of the complexities and implications of what the podcast calls “Wendt’s Quantum Society”. In this episode, Grand Theories creator and narrator Mark argues to Wendt’s point that perhaps quantum physics can provide a better framework for understanding our social world than classical physics can. This is due in part, he argues, to quantum’s ability to account for randomness and subjectivity. No one would argue that human life is characterized exclusively by the type of cold, hard rationality that is a hallmark feature of dominant economics and international relations thinking like utility maximization and game theory.

Mark explores Wendt’s ideas on quantum social theory by first elucidating some tricky quantum physical theories that underpin Wendt’s 2015 book, Quantum mind and social science: unifying physical and social ontology. He tackles concepts like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the observers effect and entanglement with great clarity, employing a refreshingly accessible tone for non-expert audiences. Through Mark’s analysis of these quantum theories, it becomes clear where Wendt draws parallels in order to interpret our social world through quantum physics. Mark refers to “Wendt’s World” as “…an undetermined, probabilistic place with a thick sense of interconnectedness”. This characterization reflects across Wendt’s quantum-social theories discussed in the podcast, including human decision making, consciousness, entanglement, and perhaps Wendt’s most bizarre-sounding conceptualisation, that society is a hologram which physically exists in the minds of the people that make it up.

This blending of the physical and the social, as theorized by Wendt, is unique and rarely expounded upon in mainstream social science. Yet, the way in which Mark explores these ideas in his podcast shines light upon not just the potential applicability of this merger but also on the important implications that an understanding of a quantum social world might have. While Wendt’s work does not explicitly include a call to action, Mark takes his interpretation one step further to argue that ultimately, Wendt’s theories imply that by virtue of being a part of society we have the power to change the things that we are not happy with. This interpretation of a world ruled by both emotions and rationality, empathy and conflict, suggests that human beings are not only capable of collaboration, but actually inherently drawn toward it. Perhaps there is potentiality for an understanding of our social world through this frame to impact social challenges from climate change action to the de-escalation of wars, should we choose to use “Wendt’s World” as our dominant global lens.

Watch Alexander Wendt’s full lecture on “The Quantum Mind and Social Science.”

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