Quantum Thinking — A New Mental Superpower, As Explained by Huge Nerds
Nick Szabo is a guy that you don’t know, but should. At first glance, Szabo is the nerd next door. He’s a polymath, a cryptocurrency buff, and something of a recluse. But if the rumors are true, he may be “Satoshi Nakamoto”: the as-yet-anonymous inventor of bitcoin who is now worth about $3 billion.
Szabo was featured on a recent episode of Tim Ferriss’ (amazing) podcast. Ferriss and Szabo covered a wide range of topics, from Initial Coin Offerings to “wet and dry code,” but the lesson that stuck with me most was, perhaps surprisingly, a tip for success in entrepreneurship: mastering quantum thinking.
To oversimplify, Szabo defined quantum thinking as the ability to see an issue from all sides. It can perhaps be approximated as radical intellectual empathy — but that’s the oversimplified version. And, if you know me, that’s not how I operate. To understand the depth of Szabo’s insight, we need to go quantum.
In the sections to follow, I’ll serve first as nerd-whisperer to dig into the quantum mechanics analogy, then translator to explore what those quantum happenings mean for our normal-sized world, and finally evangelist to defend my belief that quantum thinking is a mental superpower worth cultivating.
Part One: Nerd-Whispering
The first rule of quantum mechanics club is that nobody understands quantum mechanics club. And when I say nobody, I mean nobody — Richard Feynman, perhaps the most famous quantum physicist of all time, famously admitted as much. Their formulas look like hieroglyphics:
We muggles can be forgiven for not being fluent in quantum-speak.
But in some cases, their findings are so cool that we’d be silly not to give them a few minutes of incredulous pondering. One such incredulously-ponderable quantum-mechanical phenomenon is the star of today’s show: superposition.
In our classically-mechanical macro-world where things are large (meaning, comprised of many atoms), we can use normal physics to make spot-on predictions. For instance, if I set up a pool table, I can calculate the exact angle at which I need to strike the cue ball to sink the eight in the corner pocket, and our classical predictions are so accurate that we can always avoid pulling a Swaggy P. And crucially, we know that my shot will always result in a binary outcome (1 or 0): I make or I miss.
But, that’s just the macro-world. At the quantum level, literally none of the obvious conclusions above hold true.
The second rule of quantum mechanics club is that nothing is certain once things are small enough, certainly not binary outcomes like “1= make, 0=miss.” To jump to the conclusion, quantum physicists have found that at the micro-microscopic level, phenomena can exist in two contradictory states at the same time. Literally. So, when I strike the quantum-sized cue ball, I will both make and miss the eight ball at the same time.
I told you — this stuff is weird. The best way to begin understanding this phenomenon is by analogy, and the best analogy in the quantum-mechanical game is one of which you may have heard: Schrödinger’s Cat.
The setup of this thought experiment is simple, if ethically questionable. There’s a box. There’s a cat in the box. And there’s a poisonous gas canister, also in the box, that will explode if the radioactive atom that it’s attached to “decays” and emits a unit of radiation. Suppose that you close the lid and know that there is about a 50% chance that the atom will decay within the next hour. You leave your lab, perhaps to have a nice lunch while thinking about how much worse this experiment would sound if you had left a puppy in the box, then return to your lab an hour later. As you walk through the doors, you wonder: is the cat alive or dead?
In our normal world, this question has a definite answer. The cat is alive or dead. (Just as I made the eight ball or missed.) But in the quantum world, things aren’t that simple. Because the decaying radioactive atom is subject to the laws of quantum mechanics, the “correct” answer is both. The cat is both alive and dead inside the box. You’ll argue that you can open the box to see if the cat is alive or dead, but quantum physicists thought of that — opening the box “collapses” the probabilities of its natural superposed state (meaning, its state as a mix of both 0 and 1, alive and dead) to the classical result (of alive or dead).
The long and short of it: in the quantum world, it’s possible for things to be both alive and dead at the same time. It’s confusing, but true, that at the quantum level, it’s possible to hold two contradictory states at the same time — and that’s the analogy Nick Szabo assumed everybody would intuitively understand.
Part Two: Translating
The analogy from quantum superposition to mental superpower may feel cloudy initially, but it works.
The key is that quantum thought requires you to both agree and disagree with an argument at the same time — to keep yourself in the world of probabilities rather than zeroes and ones, and to resist opening the box, i.e., declaring your belief for one extreme or the other. This is important not only in the initial stages of research and discovery, but also throughout the lifetime of developing an opinion and sharing it with the world.
One of the truisms that underpins quantum thought is that the world is complicated. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said that:
The more unintelligent a man is, the less mysterious existence seems to him.
Given that the world is complicated, simple truths are exceedingly unlikely to exist. This is the case for meaningful questions in the natural sciences — “Do animals act altruistically?” — and in the social sciences — “Why is the us/them dichotomy so pervasive?” — and in politics — “Why is Paul Ryan selling his soul to cut taxes for the wealthy?” — and in popular culture — “Why hasn’t Kanye named one of his kids ‘Wild Wild’?” There are ways to build coherent, reasonable answers to most of these questions, and many of those coherent, reasonable answers will contradict each other.
Enter: quantum thinking. Nick Szabo writes:
Thinking about and presenting only one side’s arguments gives one’s thought and prose a false patina of consistency: a fallacy of thought and communications similar to false precision, but much more common and important.
I can be both for and against a proposition because I am entertaining at least two significantly possible but inconsistent hypotheses, or because I favor some parts of a set of ideas and not others. If you are unable or unwilling to think in such a quantum or scholastic manner, it is much less likely that your thoughts are worthy of others’ consideration.
It’s possible to pull a number of distinct skills out of Szabo’s definition here.
At the core is thought-superposition: simultaneously holding two “significantly possible but inconsistent hypotheses.” It implores us to, in Colum McCann’s words, keep away from answers but alive in the middle of the question; to avoid the magnetic poles of oppositional opinion, and to embrace the ambiguity of the unfinished answer.
Within, around, and adjacent to that skill, however, are a host of others: rational evaluation of opposing arguments; deconstruction and isolation of the parts from the whole; accurate and non-binary communication of your opinions. Quantum thinking also implores us to keep our friends close, but our enemies closer, for if we understand the challenges that our opponents face even better than they do, then we have the advantage, and if we can hold our own positions at a healthy distance, we retain objectivity and avoid compromising biases.
These skills are difficult to master — fitting, given the mega-nerd analogy — but if you choose to cultivate even a few of them, I’d bet that you see a decided impact on your own intellectual life.
Part Three: Evangelizing
Have you ever been to a book release party, or a midnight showing of a new movie?
I vividly remember going to Barnes and Noble for the release of each new Harry Potter book. Staying up until midnight; freaking out with anticipation; dressing up in the dope costume my Mom made me, complete with cape, broomstick, and Beanie Baby Hedwig; reading as far into the book as I could before passing out into a deeply-satisfied sleep.
It’s a distinctive brand of feeling — that anticipation, excitement, uncertainty, and joy — and I’ve only ever experienced it one other time: in high school, on the nights that the National Forensics League would release new Lincoln-Douglas debate resolutions.
We got a new resolution once every two months, and we master debaters (heh, heh) would stay up all night g-chatting each other, waiting to see our debate topic for the season. In September 2007, for example, we got this:
Resolved: A just society ought not use the death penalty as a form of punishment.
And as soon as it was released at 3AM, after hours of anticipation-butterflies that rivaled those of HP@B&N, we started researching — for we would have to be ready to debate both sides of the argument at upcoming tournaments across the country, and had not a moment to spare.
Given that competitive debate is “switch-sides,” the best debaters understand not only how to convincingly share their personal beliefs on the subject, but also how to defend every conceivable belief under the resolution — across philosophy, politics, science, history, and wild, nerdy 16-year-old speculation.
More than any other skill, debate taught us nerds how to deconstruct, analyze, and test arguments. Good debaters intuitively and automatically break any argument you give them into the claim, warrant (i.e., justification), and impact; they spot weak premises in logical chains; they draw logical and philosophical linkages between seemingly disparate arguments; they develop the strongest, most battle-ready arguments for both sides, and know the n-th degree answers to answers to responses to arguments, ad infinitum.
In fewer words, debate taught me how to quantum-think.
Of course, I didn’t have the words to describe it as such at the time. But now, thanks to Nick Szabo, I do — and it’s easy to explain how crucial it is to be a quantum thinker, whether in business, politics, or even just your personal intellectual life.
As a consultant, I learned that the numbers in a business setting can always tell a number of different, yet equally-valid stories. Often, executives will get tied to a particular cut of the numbers — say, a market size estimate — and will anchor on those numbers no matter what other evidence comes their way. (Variability, limitations, and assumptions be damned.) Far better, in my view, to quantum think: to hold all possible cuts of the data in superposition.
Similarly, if you’re an innovator, quantum-thinking is your job. Innovation is like debate: you isolate faulty assumptions that the market is making and disprove them. To do so, you take all conceivable views of the market, giving no preference to your current position, and find the vulnerabilities.
In politics, quantum thinking is a dark art — poorly understood, and never used by those in the mainstream. Political wonks today seem to have roughly zero empathy for those not 100% on their team; but I submit that most political issues are complicated enough that most of us should be somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
For instance, I am nominally a Democrat. I voted for Obama and Hillary; I generally think that all people are equal and that food for the poor is more important than vacation homes for the rich.
That said, I am somewhere in the middle of the question of abortion rights — because I can’t shake one persuasive argument.
(If we are uncertain about when life begins, shouldn’t we err on the side of caution? If fertilized eggs aren’t people and we don’t abort, mothers will be unnecessarily worse off; but if eggs are people and we abort, we are killing human beings. Would you shoot a gun at a box that you thought had a 10% chance of containing a human baby?)
That said, I would never label myself pro-life or pro-choice. Labels are reductive and simplistic. I would prefer to stay alive in the middle of the question — and simultaneously consider the mostly true claims of the above argument and the right of a woman to choose what happens to her body and the challenging fringe cases of incest and rape. There are no rules that say I have to choose, so I won’t. Not, at least, until I figure out what is wrong with my “pro-life” logic.
In the end, quantum thinking can help us embrace contradictions and avoid problems. It allows us to empathize with arguments from both sides of the aisle, to win debates (or neutralize them), and to retain objectivity while developing, defending, and sharing our own beliefs.
So, for those of you who spent your weekends in high school doing anything other than playing dress-up and arguing with other nerds, I’d strongly recommend practicing quantum thinking on the regular.
From my perspective, quantum thinking truly is a mental superpower — and I’m grateful that Nick Szabo finally gave me an analogy with which to explain it.