Observations on a cat in a box

9th May 1997 at 01:00
New science puts paid to many of our old certainties, ending our reliance on iron laws of nature and breaking down barriers between areas of knowledge.

Danah Zohar explains what it could mean for education

Schrodinger's cat lives in an opaque box. The fact that we can't see what he gets up to in the box is part of the story. Inside the box with the cat is a fiendish device, triggered by the random decay of a radioactive sample that determines whether it is fed food or poison. If a particle hits one switch, the cat gets food; if it hits the other, it gets poison.

In the everyday world of common sense and Newtonian physics, one switch or the other would be triggered and the cat would eat either food or poison. But Schrodinger's cat is a quantum cat, so things don't work that way for him. The quantum world is a world of bothand. All possibilities, even mutually contradictory ones, coexist and have a reality of their own. These coexisting quantum possibilities ensure that Schrodinger's cat is fed both food and poison simultaneously. Consequently, it is both alive and dead at the same time. In our world we never see alivedead cats. If we open the box to look at him, the cat is either alive or dead. But it is our looking that has saved or lost him. The observer is part of what he or she observes. Observation changes things, and the world of observation is a world of eitheror. The quantum world of bothand is forever beyond our direct grasp.

Schrodinger's cat is the mascot of the "new physics". Conceived by quantum theorist Erwin Schrodinger to illustrate some of the apparently impossible conundrums associated with quantum reality, it has become a symbol of much that is both "mind-boggling" and thrilling about 20th-century science. Uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, multiple possibility, the union of the observer and the observed, and the sheer power of observation or questioning are all part of the cat's curious story. It is the story of a second scientific revolution and of the new thinking needed to understand it.

The cat's story is also the story of new ways of looking at ourselves, of understanding the mind and its capacities, and of what might be the best ways of developing our potential. Properly understood, it might become the inspiration for science teachers and curriculum advisers seeking a new thrust in education.

The old science (and much of traditional education theory) derived from the mechanistic, or Newtonian physics of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was determinist, reductionist and atomistic. Things happened because they had to - iron laws assured certainty and predictability. Any whole was best understood by being reduced to its constituent parts, to be examined in isolation. Reality consisted of discrete, impenetrable particles, each isolated in its own place in absolute space and absolute time.

This science was non-evolutionary, without direction and surprise. It stressed the crucial importance of the subjectobject split. Reality was "out there". The Newtonian observer stood apart from what was being observed. Hence the stress on "scientific objectivity" and the divorce between objectivity and subjectivity, reason and experience, fact and value. This split reinforced the tendency to dualism in the West and gave us our two cultures: science and the arts.

The new science includes relativity theory, quantum mechanics and chaos and complexity theory. Each is different, but they have a common paradigm. The new science stresses the creative importance of the indeterminate and the unpredictable. It is emergent, its uncertainty constantly giving rise to surprise and new, self-organising forms. It is holistic - the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and new patterns of dynamic relationship replace the old tension between isolation and collision.

Quantum physics and complexity stress the multiplicity of possibility and the necessity for bothand thinking. Light is both a wave and a particle, things can be both here and there, now and then. Evolution is reintroduced with the knowledge that the universe is evolving in a definite direction - towards ever greater complexity. And the subjectobject split is replaced by a new kind of "observer participancy" - the quantum observer stands inside what is being observed, the observer's own goals, consciousness, intentions and questions, help to "make" what is being observed. This replaces the old objectivity with a new kind of "truth within the situation", or engaged truth. The distinction between fact and value becomes less clear, art and science find themselves more in dialogue.

Science has never existed in isolation. It is both a product and a moulder of culture. The scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was part of a wider intellectual and spiritual revolution that included the earlier renaissance, rationalism (Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz) and the Protestant reformation. The latter two emphasised reason as the dominant access to truth or salvation, and the individual as the primary agent of social and religious action. Descartes' emphasis on a mindbody split set the stage for Newton's preoccupation with the material world. Faith in scientific objectivity and certainty was fostered by the rationalist passion for one truth.

It was the genius of the scientific revolution that it focused and articulated in a clear and appealing set of images and metaphors all these wider cultural currents, and its practical success in turn reinforced them. Newton's concepts of mass and force, his three powerfully simple laws of motion, and the empirical method became the dominant symbols of the new world view. Almost all the great social, political and economic thinkers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries turned to them for inspiration. They became the cornerstone of educational orthodoxy.

Sigmund Freud wanted to become the Newton of the psyche, and his "scientific psychology" took on the determinism and mechanism of Newtonian physics. His theory of "object relations" reflected Newtonian atomism, his bleak views on love, altruism and spirit its materialism. Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill and John Locke looked to the new mechanical philosophy for inspiration and example in their writings on state and society. Adam Smith's free market economics and Darwin's reductionist theory of evolution issued from the same source. Western medicine and education used Newtonian atomism as a model to fragment the body and the body of knowledge into isolated parts.

The new physics of the 20th century is also a child of its age. In 1896, Nietzche announced that "God is dead". He wasn't referring simply to the death of religion as we had known it, but to the death of a whole paradigm, the end of the traditional framework of western understanding. Nietzche's assault on reason, tradition, singular truth and the god's eye-view that can give us an absolute perspective on anything was reinforced by the multi-perspectivism of cubism, the traumatic eruption of the First World War and the thinking of the early existentialists. Old certainties no longer held.

It was in this intellectual climate that Einstein introduced the relative frame of reference and Heisenberg his Uncertainty Principle. Relativity scientists and quantum theorists enshrined indeterminism, abrupt change and the observer's context in their equations. Chaos became something to go for. Hierarchy, absolute certainty and the single point of view were out. A new kind of democracy of perspective, the positive value of ambiguity, of rapid and unpredictable change and of pluralism were in. A new conceptual box that could house Schrodinger's cat had been built.

Just as the old Newtonian science fired the imaginations of several generations of thinkers in other fields, the new science offers a rich repository of language, metaphor and allusion, a set of images we can apply to today's experience. A new world view may be arising from the ashes of the old. The process is perhaps further advanced in science than in the humanities because clear theories and experimental data can accelerate progress. But we can get some idea how this might enlighten educational thinking by looking at just one example.

The nature of knowledge and the knowledge of how best to acquire it are crucial to any new. The educational orthodoxy portrays knowledge as "out there", arranged in tidy compartments of specialisation, and best imparted through instruction. The teacher is an expert, the knowledge simply exists, the pupil is a passive sponge, or a piece of clay to be moulded.

Education inspired by the new physics would recognise that knowledge itself emerges in creative dialogue with the questions we ask. Its substance is always changing, always a surprise. Boundaries between disciplines are artificial. Poetry informs maths, maths informs literature, physics has become a philosophy. Teacher, pupil and knowledge are co-creative partners in a dialogue that makes everyone a seeker. If science teachers could take this on board, if they could adopt Schrodinger's cat as their mascot, they and their curriculum colleagues could be harbingers of much-needed new thinking in education.

Radical education reform requires updating what is taught, and a philosophical revolution in how it is shared with students. School students aged 13 to 18 to whom I have lectured about the new science are excited by its freshness (and its subversiveness). Yet almost nothing of quantum physics, chaos or complexity science is taught at pre-university level. Nothing is taught about their wider implications, their challenge to orthodox thinking in psychology, social relations, politics, religion or education. In this case, the medium is the message.

Quantum holism shows the crucial importance of context and relationship. Schools must relate learning (and teaching methods) to the students' world, problems and concerns. Teachers must relate one subject to another, and help students to make connections. Synthesis is as important as analysis. Quantum leaps emphasise the rapid change in our society. Much knowledge is out of date before the students leave school. Facts are important, but far more so is knowing how to think, learning to be effective. Philosophy might usefully be introduced from age five.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle shows the importance of teaching students to frame good questions, to learn different perspectives and points of view and how to integrate them through dialogue. And being "at the edge" (between order and chaos, from chaos theory) indicates striking a healthy balance between questions and answers, between edu-cation (drawing out) and in-struction (putting in).

Society increasingly needs people who can think out of the box. Orthodox education puts too much emphasis on conditioning thought into boxes. Neuroscience shows that brains grow through curiosity, play, learning from mistakes, making connections and surprise. Schools need to cultivate children's natural gift at these. The "new science" is actually quite old wisdom. Socrates would have used it.

Danah Zohar, physicist and philosopher, lectures at Oxford Brookes University, and is co-author with Ian Marshall of Who's Afraid of Schrodinger's Cat? Bloomsbury Pounds 19.99

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