Sub-atomic particles and people exist in multiple states at the same time

Many people feel torn between their responsibilities at work, at home and with their friends. The mother would love to be home with her kids but also wants to work at something she loves. She’d like to be two places at once. She could be if she were a sub-atomic particle. On a more practical level, such contradictions are why lots of people are putting off or even forswearing having kids in many developed countries these days. Such is the route to decline of a society. What can we do about it?

It’s now winter in the Delta. Everything is mud outside, occasionally frozen mud. So it’s a good time to stay indoors by the fire and let new ideas get sparked.

You can be in two places at once at the subatomic level. Those who study subatomic particles are faced with the fact that the particles are simultaneously in multiple states, positions, energies. They interact with other particles, lose their identity and become a new entity with properties different from any of its component particles. Measurement by man forces a particle to take a particular state and cease to be a part of its whole. Particles do not take on any particular state until they are observed. Schrodinger called this state “entanglement” and came up with his cat analogy to illustrate it. Schrodinger’s cat is simultaneously alive and dead. When we look at it, we see it as either alive or dead, but if we don’t look, it is in both states at the same time.  Learn more about crossing the quantum divide.


Subatomic particles and people have much in common. Both have multiple states they can be in. Right now there are multiple impulses raging within you. You want to read this article. You want to get up and walk outside. You want to go to the refrigerator and eat that left-over pizza. You want to check your email and social media accounts. Which impulse will win out? Observers will see only one of these impulses win out, but all of them are present until one is chosen.

Similar to subatomic particles, the observer doesn’t know which impulse will be expressed. Subatomic particles are described by a “wave function” which expresses the probabilities of all the possible states of the particles. Why not apply this to people? Behavior of people could be expressed as the set of probabilities of all particular behaviors.

The probability of you getting up to get pizza depends on how long its been since you ate. You’re less likely to go outside if it is sleeting. The factors which determine which behavior will win out are virtually infinite, making precise prediction impossible. So our behavior appears chaotic, just like the weather and other chaotic phenomena. Some try to measure more and more variables to improve the ability to predict.

But no matter how many variables are incorporated in the equation, weather is still unpredictable, chaotic. Whether it will rain in one place at one particular time in not knowable. Just as how exactly you will behave in the next hour is unknowable.

With weather, we have learned to accept probabilities. We have learned to live with a ten, twenty, or fifty percent chance of rain.  We can’t know for sure whether it will is will be cloudy or rainy or sunny at our picnic spot.  Why not apply the same approach to people? We can’t know what someone will do, but we can know probabilities of him performing a particular act.  We can establish these probabilities by viewing people as complex adaptive systems made up of complex adaptive systems. From this perspective, what appears as chaos is just multiple conflicting impulses jostling with each other.

Knowing the probabilities of particular behaviors enables pretty good predictions of how a large group of people will behave. That’s all the advertisers and the urban planners need to know. But predicting behavior tells you little about any individual person or what happens when unique individuals arise.

Every person is a whole with emergent qualities not predicted by the individual impulses of the person. This whole is also called identity or self. Your identity is not whether you have performed a specific behavior or even the probability that you will perform any particular behavior. Your identity is all of the impulses inside you. All of them together and the emergent qualities they create together is your whole, your identity, your self.

The social psychologists will continue to focus on predicting behavior because controlling and predicting behavior is where the profit is. But just as meteorologists fail to predict the weather, so will behaviorists fail to predict a person’s actions.

They will fail to understand people because people are wholes not predictable by reductionistic science. Truly understanding people comes from viewing people as emerging uniquely from a mass of conflicting impulses. All the impulses jostling within people unite to form a unique person.

However, people can lose their identity. They can become a part of a larger whole, perhaps controlled by another person or just part of a family or tribe. These larger systems can come to control the impulses of the person and take away her unique identity. When a person loses their identity or self, they become much easier to predict. Die hard liberals and conservatives are easy to predict. We know how they think and act. Loyal devotees of a particular cult or tribe are predictable. Those addicted to drugs or sugar are much easier to predict.

When an outside influence, be it a cult leader, a tribe, a family or a drug, controls a person, they lose their unique identity and self and become predictable–much as a subatomic particle becomes predictable when the outside environment succeeds in controlling it enough to measure it.

But people will always seek to escape control, to regain their selves and their identities. And we will never understand people until we see them as unpredictable, unique unifications of a multitude of conflicting impulses. All these impulses, whether a society labels them good or bad, contribute to create each unique person.

All societies seek to limit, even eliminate, some behaviors and promote others. Resilient societies recognize the conflicting impulses of people and help them realize their potential to achieve in multiple areas. Resilient societies provide ways for conflicting impulses to be expressed. They provide daycare at work so people can succeed at mothering and at work. They encourage physical activity and mental activity.

And perhaps someday a society will develop a “wave function” which shows the uniqueness and potential of all its members and how each of us is far more than the sum of the probabilities of our behaviors.

One side benefit will be a grand theory which unites the physics of subatomic particles (quantum mechanics) with classical physics and the complex adaptive systems of biology.


For more information on crossing the quantum divide between subatomic particles and the rest of the world, see:

For more on complex adaptive systems, see:

a delightful video from the Stockholm Resilience Centre: