What Relativity & Quantum Theory Reveal about the Nature of Reality

At the heart of every great question lies a paradox

Alex Goik
Alex Goik
Apr 27, 2020 · 7 min read

At the heart of every great question lies an irreconcilable paradox. The previous article in this series described the metaphysical camp of positivism, highlighting how this worldview continues to maintain dominance over collective understandings of reality. Positivism insists that we can separate ourselves from reality and view the world as a detached observer. It advocates that our understanding of facts can be separated from our relationship with them. In doing so positivism asserts that we can obtain objective facts about the world around us and the social realities we inhabit. This article explores some of the key findings of Relativity and Quantum theory to highlight how the science of physics has moved away from a strict belief in positivism as a means of arriving at knowledge and truth.

Physics has revealed that relationships permeate reality from the highest order of things in the universe, manifest in the interdependent nature of space-time, through to the subatomic and the cloud of possibility that shrouds wave-particle duality. In a twist of historic irony, it was the very belief in the infallibility of the reductionist method and positivist rationality which led physicians to the discovery of waves and particles unable to exist independently of their observer. Although we construct the image of reality with which we are presented, this does not mean that our mind alone is what constitutes this reality. The achievements of modern physics have revealed that a dynamic external reality exists ‘out there’, but it is one comprised of probabilities, relativity, uncertainty and fundamental dynamism.

In the early 20th century, discrepancies between the theories of Newton and the observed behaviours of previously inaccessible subatomic particles forced physicists to develop a new paradigm to explain their observations. Of all the experiments that have attempted to make sense of this new dimension of scientific inquiry, the double slit experiment captures the wave-particle duality of subatomic matter clearest (for a simplified visualisation of this experiment view: Dr Quantum — Double Slit Experiment).

In this experiment, streams of single atoms are fired through two straight slits and the pattern created on an opposing wall is observed. It was first hypothesised that when the atoms were fired through the slits, the pattern produced would appear in two straight bands to mirror the structure of these openings. However, upon conducting the experiment physicists observed that multiple bands appeared across the wall that did not correspond with the position of the slits through which the atoms passed.

If a wave were to pass through the same two slits, two waves would emerge from the other end and the crest of one would hit the trough of another to produce an interference pattern. This results in multiple recordings of lines on the wall that do not reflect the position of the two slits through which the initial wave passes. Therefore, the observed pattern can only be explained if the atom were to behave like a wave upon passing through the slits.

The Double Split Experiment Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

A measuring device can be added to this experiment to pinpoint the exact slit the atoms, as pieces of matter, would be forced to pass through. But when this is done the atoms return to behaving like particles — two straight bands that mirror the shape of the slits are produced and not an interference pattern. To add a further layer to the mystery, if the measuring device is turned off and the observer stops ‘peeking’ at the behaviour of the atoms as they pass through one of either of the slits, an interference pattern once again appears on the wall.

This demonstrates that the act of observation changes the nature of the phenomena observed. Two major implications advanced by quantum physics are therefore that subject and object do not exist in a dichotomous relationship and that individual entities can exhibit paradoxical natures.

Famous quantum physicist Niels Bohr introduced the notion of complementarity to make sense of the discoveries uncovered by the double slit experiment. He suggested that the wave and particle aspects of an atom embody two complementary descriptions of the same reality, each being only partly correct and having a limited range of application. It is our inherent senses and the instruments and languages which human beings have created that filter this bizarre reality into an understandable and navigable landscape. Evolutionarily, this interpretation granted us the greatest chance of survival in a three-dimensional earthly environment. In other words, the structures and events we observe in nature are the manifestations of our measuring and scrutinising minds as they make sense of quantum reality.

As noted by Niels Bohr:

“The great extension of our experience in recent years has brought to light the insufficiency of our simple mechanical conceptions and, as a consequence, has shaken the foundation on which the customary interpretation of observation was based”.

In physics, revelations from the subatomic world have forced scientists to acknowledge the inadequacy of precise measurement and prediction and accommodate a new worldview where mind and matter, fact and value, cannot be divorced. This relational worldview and the centrality of perspective within this view stands in contention with the objectivity one typical associates with science.

As eloquently phrased by political scientist Gus diZerega:

“Physics, the queen of Western science, has proven herself to be a closet revolutionary with regard to the worldview she once buttressed”.

As computer processing systems enabled by quantum physics are delegated an increasing proportion of decision-making capabilities over human life in the 21st century, it ought to at least be considered how the relational view of reality espoused by quantum theory can be applied to the study of human technology, social relations and politics.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century an earlier paradigm shift reverberated through physics as the ‘universal machine’ conception of the universe advanced by Isaac Newtown became overturned by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. In the first component of this theory, the special theory of relativity, Einstein postulated that no object or phenomena can travel faster than the speed of light, casting doubt over Newton’s idea that gravity exerts its influence from one location to another instantaneously.

If Newton’s gravitational forces were unable to outpace the speed of light, the question then became how the mutual gravitational pull between celestial objects could function the way it does. The second part of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the general theory of relativity, tells us that it is not an unseen force which enables gravity, but rather that matter causes the space around it to curve.

The larger the object, the greater the warping effect on space and the more significant influence on the motion of other bodies nearby. The warping effect on the fabric of space caused by large objects also influences the flow of time. The closer one is to a massive body, the slower the passage of time. In this conception, time is relative to the observer’s position in space. Relativity theory therefore tells us that both space and time form a four-dimensional continuum and that these phenomena are inextricable from one another. Measurements involving space and time are relative to the location and state of motion of the observer.

The distribution of matter in the universe warps the structure of space-time, the gravity of massive celestial bodies curving space and altering the flow of time in different parts of the cosmos. Because of this, when we peer out into the night sky we are not just sparing out into space, but also back in time. The interrelation of space-time as articulated by Einstein therefore stands in direct contention with Descartes insistence on the separation of subject and object. Relativity theory demonstrates that reality at our highest-level of analysis is governed by relativism. The opposing forces of space and time interweave to comprise and give meaning to the largest and most dynamic system we know — our relational universe. But despite the contributions of quantum physics and relativity theory towards a common relational understanding of physical reality, the idea of process as contradiction is still yet to be adopted as generalised thinking.

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Alex Trauth-Goik is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, Australia, whose research focuses on the development of surveillance systems in China and the US. He strives to offer fresh perspectives on foreign affairs, tech and China (coupled with the odd analysis of human nature).

References Inspiring this Article

Becker, T.L. 1991, ‘Preface: Thought Experiments, Paradigm Shifts, and New Political Insights for the Twenty-first Century’, in T.L. Becker (ed.),Quantum politics: applying quantum theory to political phenomena, Praeger, New York.

Brincat, S. 2009, ‘Negativity and Open-Endedness in the Dialectic of World Politics’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 455–93.

Capra, F. 1975, The Tao of physics: an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism, Wildwood House, London.

diZerega, G. 1991, ‘Integrating Quantum Theory with Post-Modern Political Thought and Action: The Priority of Relationships over Objects’, in T. Becker (ed.),Quantum politics: applying quantum theory to political phenomena, Praeger, New York.

Greene, B. 2015, ‘The Theory of Relativity, Then and Now’, Smithsonian, viewed 11 December 2019, <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/theory-of-relativity-then-and-now-180956622/>.

Idema, T. 2019, Mechanics and Relativity, September 17, 2019., Delft University of Technology, viewed 11 December 2019, <https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/textbooks/643"; target=”_blank>.

Müller-Kirsten, H.J.W. 2006, Introduction to quantum mechanics: Schrödinger equation and path integral, World Scientific, Hackensack, NJ.

Schiller, C. 2016, Adventure of physics. Vol. IV, the quantum of change, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, viewed 7 December 2019, <http://VH7QX3XE2P.search.serialssolutions.com/?V=1.0&L=VH7QX3XE2P&S=AC_T_B&C=Adventure%20of%20physics.%20Vol.%20IV%2C%2C%20The%20quantum%20of%20change&T=marc&tab=BOOKS>.

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Alex Goik

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Alex Goik

Here to share some words | PhD candidate studying surveillance | Hopeful Idealist | Wannabe Samurai

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Alex Goik

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Alex Goik

Here to share some words | PhD candidate studying surveillance | Hopeful Idealist | Wannabe Samurai

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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