I was watching the BBC debate on war with Iraq last night. It was an interesting and ambitious programme, but I doubt that it changed many minds. However, it got me thinking about Robert Anton Wilson
's Quantum Psychology
and how it's relevant to political debate, specifically the ongoing debate about the possible war. Somehow, I doubt there were many people thinking the same thing.
Specifically, I was thinking of it at the point when Alan Duncan, the Conservative Foreign Affairs spokesman, and a woman whose name I didn't note down from Republicans Abroad were trying to get Charles Kennedy to commit to a specific position on various hypothetical situations, and when he refused to say exactly what his position would be in every potential situation, came out with that old insult that's been thrown at every Liberal and Liberal Democrat leader since Jo Grimond (and probably before him as well) - 'you're just sitting on the fence.'
However, what I saw, and as I am a Liberal Democrat you can of course attribute this to my own personal bias, is that Kennedy has an admirable quality in modern politics in that he's willing to admit we live in an uncertain world, one where issues can't be addressed in the Aristotelian model of yes/no and right/wrong. The world we live in is a quantum one, where issues cannot be addressed with any certainty. We like to pretend that there are definite truths, when there are only probabilities, not certainties. As Wilson writes:
"Wild primates, like other verterbrates, claim physical territories; domesticated primates (humans) claim 'mental' territories - Ideologies and Religions. Thus one seldom hears a quantum maybe
in discussions of Roosevelt's economic policies versus Ronald Reagan's economic policies...one virtually never hears 'Maybe
Jesus was the son of God' or 'Maybe
Islam is a false religion.'
People ignore the quantum maybe
because they have largely never heard of quantum logic or Transactional psychology but they also ignore it because traditional politics and religion have conditioned people for milleniums - and still train them today - to act with intolerance and premature certainty.
In general, people judge it 'manly' to pronounce dogmatic verdicts and fight for them, and to admit quantum uncertainty (von Neumann's maybe
) seems 'unmanly.' Feminism often challenges this machismo
, but, just as often, certain Feminists appear to think they will appear stronger if they speak and behave as dogmatically and unscientifically as the stupidest, most macho
, p77, Wilson's italics)
Now, I'm not trying to claim that Charles Kennedy is some kind of Quantum Physics genius, but his position, and that of many people, is closer to the position of quantum uncertainty. That is to say, that there are things we do not know and it is ridculous to try and have an absolute 'I'm right and all other positions are wrong' attitude when we live in a universe that doesn't itself believe in absolutes. Any position we take can only be based on our own perceptions, not some kind of Universal Truth.
Before this essay heads off into the rabbit warren of quantum theory and begins to doubt its own existence, I'll illustrate with one of the more basic parts of quantum theory - the structure of light. Photons (the components of light) can appear as either waves or particles, depending on how they're observed - but are never both at the same time. Thus, we cannot say that 'a photon is a particle' or 'a photon is a wave' but only 'in certain conditions, the photon appears to be a particle' and 'in certain conditions, the photon appears to be a wave.' A similar condition applies to quantum particles where we can only know their location or direction, never both at the same time. I can sense the brains melting as you try to understand this...
What I'm trying to say, and what Wilson alluded to in his reference to Feminism, is that most politicians are far too concerned with saying that something 'is' definitely one thing or another, that there is only one way to do things and all other ways are wrong. Liberals can be just as prone to this error as others, but the problem comes when someone attempts to bring in the maybe
into politics - to those who hold (or at least believe themselves to be in possession of) Absolute Truth, 'maybe' is a sign of weakness, an attempt to 'sit on the fence' rather than an admission of the existence of human fallibility and the lack of certainties in life.
However, we've seen over recent years that more and more people are getting turned off by conventional politics because of its adversarial nature. In short, people are much more open to the idea of uncertainty than politicians might want to admit because, after all, politicians like to present themselves as the owners of an Absolute Truth (and of course those on the other side only think they have one) and to admit to the people that they are just fallible humans like the rest of us is a Bad Thing. After all, if we regard them as just like the rest of us we might start making our minds up for ourselves rather than rely on them to do the thinking for us, and that would never do.
In conclusion, I think it's time for us to embrace the idea of uncertainty in politics and adopt the idea of Quantum Politics, which sounds very fancy, but is very simple. Let's not shout down the people we disagree with, but listen to them, discuss ideas and, most importantly, be prepared to admit when we're wrong
. Let's move away from the old 'we're right and you're wrong' attitudes towards the kind of Open Society, discussed by Karl Popper
. We don't have to stick to the old models anymore.