Condivergence: Why don’t we get the quantum shift?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 21, 2019 - January 27, 2019.
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The biggest risk facing the world is “paradigm” risk, or having 19th-century glasses to look at 21st-century problems. A paradigm is defined as a worldview, how one looks at the world. The American historian of scientific thought, Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), defined paradigm as basic concepts, scientific experiments and processes that shape a particular discipline. Over time, you need a new paradigm when evidence or anomalies accumulate that the old paradigm cannot explain.

The existing dominant paradigm, Western science and technology, evolved from Greek thinking about the world in three dimensions — politics, economics and philosophy (PPE). Oxford and Cambridge still teach PPE as a basic degree for students interested in humanities, considered the basic ingredient of good administrators and politics. The British mandarins still think that the generalist rules over scientists/specialists. It is this predominantly Western worldview that is now facing its own existential paradigm shift.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner argued in 1983, “Our society suffers from three biases, ‘Westist’, ‘Testist’ and ‘Bestist’. ‘Westist’ involves putting certain Western cultural values, which date back to Socrates, on a pedestal. Logical thinking is important; rationality is important, but they are not the only virtues. ’Testist’ suggests a bias towards focusing on those human abilities or approaches that are readily testable. ‘Bestist’ …  all the answers to a given problem lie in one certain approach, such as logical-mathematical thinking, can be very dangerous”.

Western thinking was shaped by the rise of religion and its impact on village life in its feudal era. English historian R H Tawney’s classic, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, (1922) imprinted morality at the heart of Western frugality, industrialisation, science, risk-taking and the rise of companies. English common law evolved from the values that villagers treated their “commons or shared property”. It was no accident that the descendents of Abraham’s one God, Christian-Judaism and Islam both firmly believe in perfection in God, which man should seek. The rest of the world, which believe in multi-gods, think that perfection is impossible because of conflicts between different gods and values.

The history of intellectual and religious movements goes in episodic cycles. As Western power rose, so did its belief in the neo-liberal order that pushed for democracy, rule-based governance and the fundamental rights of individuals, especially freedoms. That liberal order reached its apogee in 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed with the Berlin Wall, removing the only serious ideology that could challenge the West.

But when 9/11 came in 2001, the West got into the quagmire of Middle East politics from which it has difficulty extricating itself. Free market capitalism clearly over-reached itself in 2007/08 global financial crisis, whilst the rapid rise of China cast serious doubts on the legitimacy of Western thinking. There was also a revival of non-Western thinking in Islam, crystallised by Edward Said’s Orientalism, greater interest in Indian Hinduism, Latin America’s own perspective of the world, Africa’s continuing search for her place in global history and other diverse worldviews.

What is curious is that the economics profession has been largely stuck in classical science, anchored by

Cartesian and Newtonian mathematics, which largely (but not completely) ignored the relativity/quantum revolution in science since 1907.

A century after Albert Einstein and Nils Bohr changed the way physicists think about the world, quantum thinking is beginning to make the paradigm change across the whole spectrum of academic and practical disciplines.

Quantum science has taken longer than expected because it is counter-intuitive compared with classical science, which pretends to seek perfection, but works with pretty good approximations. Economics, for example, uses the term “ceteris paribus” to approximate how we should deal with human behaviour that is so dynamic and constantly changing.

By using “other things being equal”, the economist tries to imagine how change in one variable, say, price, affects demand when everything else remains unchanged. This approximation works as a crude shortcut to analysis, but is actually a trick, because in reality, everything is affected by everything else. The mistake is to generalise such analysis to apply to the real world as a timeless, universal and self-evident “truth”, when it is at best a guesstimate.

The other dominant habit in classical thinking is linear deductive logic, meaning that if you see sequentially many swans are white, then you conclude that all swans are white. You use a general principle to predict a particular result. But this gets into trouble when there appears a black swan.

Inductive thinking works the other way round, going from a special case to general principles. Abductive thinking reasons from pattern recognition, so that the simplest and most likely explanation is generalised for predictive purposes. Inductive and abductive thinking are probabilistic, whereas deductive thinking is deterministic.

Quantum thinking works from the atomic or sub-atomic level, where the packet or “quanta” of atoms combine to form molecules, and molecules form cells or chemicals, such as enzymes, and then onwards, form complex forms of life.

As Harvard humanist Stephen Greenblatt tells it in The Swerve: How the World became Modern (2011), it all began in 1417, when an Italian rediscovered the lost poem of the Greek philosopher Lucretius (99-c.55 BC) On the Nature of Things.

Lucretius shook Renaissance thinkers because he asked them to think out of then mainstream Catholic creed — “Life is one long struggle in the dark”, “Nothing can be created from nothing”, and more fundamentally, everything is made of invisible particles (atoms) which are eternal.

This insight that the world comprised eternal “seeds of things” that are continually in motion, combining and dissolving or mutating, with no creator or designer, was

sacrilegious to Western intellectuals, who were, in the main, trained by the Church. But it sparked the “Swerve” or collision of particles that set off endless combinations and recombinations that produce everything. Indeed, one can say it changed Western thinking from religion to science.

Quantum physics, therefore, is all about how atoms behave and interact. In doing so, it revealed less about theory, but the weird fact is that it works out experimentally, and better in practice. For example, classical computers use binary mathematics (0 and 1) to digitise and process information. But as a 2016 UK government report on the potential of quantum technology explained, “The quantum world is not binary. It is a place where a particle behaves like a wave; where an electron spins in opposite directions at the same time; where information can be encoded as 1, 0 or both 1 and 0 simultaneously; where two particles can be both separated and yet entangled”.

In simple terms, quantum computers calculate in qubits (or quantum bits) that are dualistic and probabilistic, because if a qubit can be in two places or states, the computational power is more accurate than the classical computation of bits (0 and 1). Think about quantum computing as two eyes being better than one eye, and that instead of using 256 bytes as basic blocks of information processed, the quantum computer uses say, 256 qubits that carry more information than before. Indeed, recent advances by IBM and University of Waterloo have suggested that quantum computers are not only going to be much much faster, but also can do calculations that the classical computers cannot achieve!

For example, quantum computing at the photon level enables calculations of algorithms that enable very complex estimations or imaging of data not possible at the classical level (for example X-ray). With quantum equipment, we will “see more clearly, sense more sharply and see without being seen”, including encryption that would be many times more difficult to crack than ever imagined.

The commercial applications are enormous in areas such as imaging, sensing equipment, computers, modelling, and generation of new algorithms, health care, GPS, and so on.

If quantum is so “natural”, why don’t we understand it easily? The answer is that we teach quantum physics not at elementary school but at university graduate or post-graduate levels!

It takes a lot for an old dog like myself to learn new tricks. But we have to in order to deal with an increasingly quantum world. In my next article, I shall show why Asians think more naturally in quantum terms than others. The Rest is catching up with the West!


Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective

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