Boosting the transformative power of transdisciplinarity with quantum theory

By Cyrille Rigolot

Cyrille Rigolot (biography)

How can transdisciplinarity improve its ability to foster very deep, very fast and very large transformations toward sustainability?

Quantum theory might be a major source of insights in that direction. Although quantum theory is not new to transdisciplinarity, lately it has become much more accessible, practical, and potentially transformative on the ground.

Quantum theory for transdisciplinarity research

In the debates last century about the emerging transdisciplinary research field, quantum theory inspired theorist Basarab Nicolescu to develop three basic ‘axioms’, which he argues should be recognized at the core of transdisciplinarity research, namely:

  1. Ontological axiom: The existence of multiple levels of reality. A ‘level of reality’ is associated with certain general laws. Passing from one level to another induces a break in laws and fundamental concepts, such as causality. The paradigmatic example is the passage from classical to quantum physics which involves, for example, a break from local causality to non-local causality (ie., instantaneous correlation at a distance, which relates to the quantum concept of entanglement).
  2. Logical axiom: The logic of the included middle. Given mutually exclusive pairs (such as A and non-A), there exists a third term T, which is, at the same time, A and non-A. This is analogous to a ‘quanton’ in quantum physics, which is both a ‘wave’ and a ‘particle’, and which relates to the quantum principle of complementarity.
  3. Complexity axiom: The structure of ‘reality’ is complex, and every level of reality is what it is because all the levels exist at the same time.

Uniting two streams of transdisciplinary research

Many transdisciplinary practitioners do not adhere to Nicolescu’s axioms, as they are not easily applicable to problem-solving with stakeholders, which is another core principle for transdisciplinarity. As a result, two different transdisciplinarity streams evolved independently (so called ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’).

But it is now possible to use quantum theory to unite these two streams.

A good example is the concept of worldview which can be instrumental in implementing at a practical level the idea of multiple ‘levels of reality’. In particular, worldviews have been defined as systems of meaning-making that inform how humans interpret and co-create [different levels of] reality.

Moreover, the quantum principle of complementarity can characterize some profound differences between stakeholders’ worldviews that cannot be captured by concepts such as dilemmas and incommensurability. In participatory research projects, the characterization of stakeholders’ worldviews and the complementarity principle help to bring a genuine ‘logic of the middle third’. The quantum concept of entanglement can also be very helpful as a methodological tool to characterize worldviews, and metaphorically to foster collaborations and people’s connection to nature.

In brief, the transformative power of transdisciplinary projects might be related to their ability to handle highly contrasting worldviews, and quantum insights seem particularly useful to this aim.

More generally, cultivating an open curiosity towards quantum theory and its potential implications can be extremely powerful. Contrary to a common misperception, quantum theory can be comprehended conceptually by potentially everybody, in a non-mathematical way.

Moreover, rather than any philosophical or metaphysical speculation being automatically dismissed as dubious ‘pseudoscience,’ new arguments from quantum biology and quantum cognition provide for a ‘quantum consciousness hypothesis’ as plausible, albeit speculative. The implications for social change could be considerable, allowing for not only deep, but also large and fast transdisciplinary transformations.

Speculating about quantum theory helps us to cultivate an open and humble mindset, prone to fruitful collaborations and creativity. As a premise, it teaches us to think differently, beyond classical principles such as materialism, determinism and the distinction between subject and object. But this raises important questions: What are the risks of borrowing concepts from quantum physics? Is it reasonable to speculate about controversial ideas like ‘quantum consciousness hypothesis’?

What do you think? Have you found quantum theory to be useful in your transdisciplinary work? Do you have other examples of how quantum theory can help unite the two strands of transdisciplinarity?

To find out more:

O’Brien, K. (2020). You matter more than you think: Quantum social change in response to a world in crisis. cCHANGE Press: Oslo, Norway. (Online – detail on book):

Rigolot, C. (2020). Quantum theory as a source of insights to close the gap between mode 1 and mode 2 transdisciplinarity: Potentialities, pitfalls and a possible way forward. Sustainability Science, 15, 2: 663-669.

Wendt, A. (2015). Quantum Mind and Social Science. Unifying Physical and Social Ontology​. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Biography: Cyrille Rigolot PhD (@CyrilleRigolot) is a research scientist at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE) in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He is currently undertaking a 2 year mobility period in Japan as a visiting scientist with the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN, Kyoto) and the Institute For Future Initiative (IFI, Tokyo). Trained as an animal scientist, he is now fascinated by transdisciplinarity and its applications to deep sustainability transformations in a diversity of agroecological and sociocultural contexts.

14 thoughts on “Boosting the transformative power of transdisciplinarity with quantum theory”

  1. I take the challenge to make quantum theory more accessible.
    Reflect on the following invitation:
    1. Take a red ball or take a green ball or take a blue ball.
    2. Take a ball.
    What is the difference?
    In the first case I may not take, for example, a yellow ball.
    In the second case I can take a yellow ball because the distinction “color” is not relevant.
    Anyhow: in the first case it is impossible for me to take a ball that is both red and green, these are mutually excluding materialisations of “color”, just like a location in space: all locations are mutually exclusive. “Be a ball” is similar to “be in space”. “Be a yellow ball” is similar to “be in space on location a (in space)”. Thus the “or” in the first case is exclusive, but the (implicit) “or” in the second case is just a disjunction of possibilities, not an exclusive disjunction. It is the added distinction of “color” that makes the disjunction an exclusive disjunction. In the second case you can take any color, even when knowing that the evaluation of color depends on the color(s) of the light that interacts with the surface of the ball. The invitation “take a ball” is an included middle and can be executed.
    Reflect on the following invitation:
    1. Take a big red ball or take a small red ball.
    2. Take a red ball.
    What is the difference?
    In the first case it is unclear to me what I may do because “big” and “small” are relative.
    In the second case I can take a red ball, but it is uncertain if you, who invites me to take a red ball, will recognise it as being “red” (for example: you could be color-blind).
    Uncertainty is always part of reality.

    • Thank you Walter ! Yes, such thought experiments can be very useful to get a feeling of quantum theory.
      In a similar line, there are now many very well done didactic videos available online.

      • Please, do not classify this as a thought experiment, it is a very practical insight. We should always ask ourselves in every intervention what it is that blocks our understanding. Usually it is an exclusive disjunction (“xor”) that needs a more “abstract” construction (a disjunction, “or”). Usually it is very hard to delete the distinction that made the proposition exclusive, similar to what makes quantum theory hard: people understand “space” as the collection of mutually excluding locations and they make then the deduction that quantum behavior should “have a speed”. There is no paradox “out there”, we create the paradox by lack of creativity in creating new insights and make them work. For example: only quantum behavior explains the semiconductor and without semiconductor, no computer, no digital communication, no internet,… The limits of semiconductors are bounded by “random fluctuations”, not the “speed of light”.

        • I see your point, thanks for the explanation !
          “We should always ask ourselves in every intervention what it is that blocks our understanding” Yes, this is an important statement.

          (in my mind a thought experiment can be very practical… I used the term as reading your comment, I was literally doing the ball experiment by thought… but maybe it is not the right term, thanks for clarifying)

  2. Dear Cyrille,

    as you know I’m a novice in the field of transdisciplinarity, so I could be wrong. I think that the main divide between the two streams is represented, on the one hand, to Nicolescu’s methodology for unifying knowledge and, on the other, the Zurich approach, which sees the unification only contingent on the application context, therefore being problem-solving-oriented. If I may make a comparison, this seems to me the distinction between the “knowing” of pure science and the “willing” of engineering. If the parallel is consistent, we are all aware of the interrelationships and cross-fertilization between science and engineering: not only does science feed engineering into problem solving, but engineering helps science advance knowledge by testing specific theories, discovering unknown influencing factors, drawing attention to new challenges and problems, and then generating new insights in various ways.
    Coming to the credit of your blog post, you state that quantum theory helps bridge the gap, as it can be fruitfully applied to problem solving with stakeholders, which is one of the core principles of Mode 2.
    In my example, the direction is from knowing to willing. But what about the inverse relationship, that is, from willing to knowing? Do you believe that there are the relevant premises for cross-fertilization and not just one-way?

    All the very best

    Sergio Mariotti

    • Dear Sergio,

      Thank you for this excellent, thought-provoking comment.
      I believe that we should indeed aim for two-way cross-fertilization between “knowing” and “willing”, as you put it.

      Related to that, it is essential to stress that quantum theory is just one way among others to (hopefully) improve transdisciplinarity.
      For example, another major source of insights comes from a deep understanding of indigeneous perspectives and ways of being.
      Interestingly, some authors have noted similarities between some indigeneous cosmologies and quantum theory, and potential for cross-fertilization.
      This is an example where solving practical problems with people can probably inform the “knowing”, in the other direction.

      Best wishes,


  3. I think the metaphors you point to probably work and could be helpful in the right circumstances. The problem is the amount of time it would take most people to learn enough quantum theory. What makes QT so difficult is the strangeness of its concepts, some of which you allude to. In fact it is to an important degree self contradictory. So if it took, say, 100 hours of study to be able to do some of what you describe, would that be worth the effort in most cases, just to master some metaphors? Knowing what the right circumstances are might be the biggest challenge.

    Note that I do not have the slightest idea how much effort would be required to get to the point you describe. I spent years studying QT and still have only a vague understanding. Certainly not enough to apply it metaphorically to research management. But then I did not have that application in mind at the time.

    • Dear David,

      Thank you for your comment, you raise an important point. I will try an indirect answer.

      A good way to think about the learning challenge, I believe, is to wonder if Quantum Theory could be teach at school, and if so at what age.
      In my school experience, it was almost totally absent of the basic curriculum, only lately presented as an oddity quite useless to understand for most people.
      In my opinion, QT could be introduced at a young age (maybe just starting with some puzzling facts, like from the double slit experiment). It could be presented as a central mystery in nature, and not as a useless oddity (with the exception of technological applications).
      So yes, today, it takes a lot of time, as we might be somehow “pionneers”. A challenge is to make quantum theory more accessible in the future. This, I think, is very worth the effort.

      • You raise a point that I happen to have done a big project on, mapping the sequences of concept learning in US K-12 science education. For each science they basically follow the sequence of historical development. Thus students in effect spend most of their time in the 17 and 1800s.

        This leaves very little time for 20th century science. QT is just the quantum, perhaps how it stabilizes the atom, but nothing on the strangeness of wave-particle duality. The standard model of particle theory is not taught at all. Same for artificial intelligence and other major advances.

        It might be possible to, as you say, target modern science from the beginning. But now we are talking about another world.

          • Each science field is based on a system of basic concepts which has been built up by successive advances over centuries. These concepts are our basic scientific understanding so it makes sense to teach them. How to get further along in the limited time available is then the issue.

            I do not know Troncale but in the US we have embarked on a massive alternative experiment. It is called the Next Generation Science Standards, where standards refers to the State specifications of what will be taught in each grade. Each state has detailed standards and about a third have adopted NGSS.

            NGSS is very different. It uses a complex 3D array of largely abstract concepts. The idea is for students to be able to think scientifically, whatever that means, rather than to understand specific science. My concern is that they will have very little actual knowledge. There is also great potential for confusion given the complexity of the array.

            There might be some link between NGSS and Troncale, as NGSS was designed by heavy duty reformers and there certainly is a systems aspect to them. There might even be something relevant to furthering transdisciplinarity. There is a heavy emphasis on “cross cutting concepts”.

            In any case there are now two fundamentally different systems of science education in the US.


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