By Cyrille Rigolot
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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): https://www.youmattermorethanyouthink.com/
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.