6. Tarja Kallio (5.11.2001)

Tarja Kallio 5.11.2001 - Luonnonfilosofian seura

Hyvät luonnonfilosofit

Haluan tuoda esiin oman näkökulmani Antti-Veikko Perheentuvan käsittelemiin mielenkiintoisiin teemoihin liittämällä oheen alustuksen, jonka pidin viime viikolla Wienissä systeemiteorian isän Ludvig van Bertalanffyn 100-v konferenssissa "Unity through Diversity". Esitin Bohrin ajatuksiin pohjautuvan paperini sessiossa, jonka teemana oli "Ethical Implications of System Thinking".

Terveisin Tarja Kallio


Ethical Implications of Niels Bohr´s thinking 1. Introduction I am going to focus my presentation on the ethical implications of Niels Bohr´s ideas, because I am not any expert in system theory. However I think that many of the implications of Bohr´s interpretation of quantum mechanics are relevant also for system theory. Bohr is critizing the presuppositions of classical physics, that is the conception of reality that was formed at the turn of the Modern era. Quantum mechanics can not be properly understood in the mechanical and deterministic world of Descartes and Newton, and I doubt neither can system theory. Classical paradigm is not able to provide a clear foundation for them. Notably, relating to the theme of this presentation, classical paradigm does not offer any foundation for values either.

Descartes divided the reality sharply into two parts: res extensa and res cogitans. He proglaimed that ”neither God nor any rational soul present in World will ever disturb the ordinary course of nature in any way”. Physics began to study the measurable world of extended objects where as subjective phenomena belonged to a different realm. Newtonian mechanics presented a clear and visualizable model of the mechanical world where nothing could happen that was not in principle predictable. The behaviour of material particles was supposed to be governed by strict deterministic laws and complex phenomena could be understood by reducing them to their simple parts.

This simple model is quite restrictive but I think that it is still often thought to be basically true. The conventional ontological and epistemological ideas concerning objects, their characteristics and relations as well as our own relation to them are suitable to classical physics. This certainty limits our imagination and ability to figure out a satisfactory realistic framework where different kind of holistic systems as well as possibilities and evolution could be properly understood.

2. Towards a new paradigm for science Well, system theory is able to deal with this kind of things. Some people like Fritjof Capra have said that system theory is a new paradigm for science. The most clear-cut definition for the system that I could find out says that “a system is a set of elements in dynamic interaction organized for a goal” (Joël de Rosnay) As a physicist and philosopher I am interested in the nature of the relevant elements. How are they defined and what kind of substance they are made of. Where do the organization and the goal come from. The definition remains too general to provide us tools for a more sophisticated approach to reality. Bohr was more explicitly dealing with the utmost metaphysical questions. In his epistemological and ontological approach Bohr encountered many ideas that are quite similarar compared to those involved in system theory.


¤ Attention is focused on relations rather than on objects. The system is studied as a whole depending on its parts and it is inserted in a relevant context.

¤ Actions and processes form the foundation of system ontology.

¤ Observing mind is not independent of body, neither is observation independent of action.

¤ Models are not static reflections, but dynamic constructions.

I found these expressions in pages propagating system theory. These are all characterizations that could be used to describe Bohr´s ideas. As you know Bohr was led to these issues because of quantum mechanics.

3. The tools given by quantum mechanics and Niels Bohr

Quantum mechanics entailed a radical schift of paradigm in physics in the 1920s. It offered the same kind of broad and universally applicable theoretical framework that was able to lead modern research in a way Newton´s mechanics had done in its time. Even if the interpretation of this abstract theory is still under discussion it is evident that many of the typical quantum characteristics like superposition and non-locality, entanglement or statistical predictions can not be understood within the mechanistic and deterministic framework of classical physics.

The founding fathers of the Copenhagen interpretation, who were also largely responsible for the construction of the theory, understood this fact very well. The interpretation implied radical reconsideration of classical metaphysics as well as evaluation of the role of human beings.

Niels Bohr who was the main architect of the Copenhagen interpretation used to say that human beings are both observers and actors. They are deeply embedded to the same reality (or same system if you like) that their theories aim to describe. It is not possible to go into details of Bohr´s ideas but I think it is important to point out that he was not a positivist as some researches have said. I think that concerning realism his position is quite similar to van Bertalanffy who did not give up the notion of reality. He just puts it in quotation marks saying “reality” - whatever this might mean in a metaphysical sense.

Bohr realized that classical mechanics was a construction of human mind and so was the worldview accompaning it. As quantum mechanics surpassed classical mechanics, at the same time it provided tools for better understanding of reality. The classical paradigm turned out to be applicable only in macroscopic world (when we observe phenomena that are not directly related to us). Contrary to all expectations more intricate investication in microworld showed restrictions in the usual idea of divisibility and space-time description (of the phenomena) that led to a more general framework, the framework of complementarity.

This viewpoint entails many differences compared with the classical way of thinking. One important aspect of them deals with ethical issues.

4. The ethical implications of classical physics

Classical physics did not say anything about values or ethical issues but has, nevertheless, had a considerable influence on our understanding of them. And I think it still has because the worldview, the conception of reality, prevailing in our society is still very much based on facts dictated by classical physics. In the classical framework Ethics had to be located somewhere in the map for reality but as it happened there was no room for it.

Mind, reason, all subjective phenomena were stripped from objective reality at the turn of Modern Era when natural science abandoned the Aristotelian concept of matter and returned to the dead matter of Democrit. The external observer assumed by classical physics concentrated his studies on the objective laws of nature whereas his values belonged to a different subjective realm. The fundamental distinction between res extensa and res cogitans penetrates the modern thinking. It has been impossible to deny the new conception of matter and the impressive results of science even if a philosopher would have wanted to pay attention to mind. The distinction led Hume to say that values cannot be derived from facts. You cannot allow it in a deterministic system if you want to retain your subjective freedom.

As an outcome values have lost their objective foundation in the modern world. Science is thought to be value-free. As values cannot be directly observed or measured, it is easy to think that they are something unreal, less important compared to the hard facts of science. On the other hand in cultural and human studies it is not possible to forget the subjective side of our being nor the values that determine our behaviour. The confrontation has led to emergence of the breach or gap between these two cultures - to use C.P. Snow´s term.

Even if my background is in physics, I find it very difficult to deny the ”objectivity” of values. I mean the effective side of our values. We can see how the real world around us is changing rapidly. Our values direct the construction of Gene and nanothechnology that will speed up the transformation in the traditional ”objective world” out there. After our manipulation the world is not the same it used to be. We do live in a different kind of world than our ancestors did and perhaps our grandchildren should be classified to a different species ’Techno sapiens’. At least some visionaries are already forecasting the time when Homo sapiens will be displaced by Techno sapiens. The capacity of human brain, the memories, knowledge, peculiarities, the whole personality so to speak, could be downloaded to a neuroprocessor.

It may be science fiction but the day when smart machines are more important than Human beings will come if the ongoing trend does not come to an end or change. If we continue to value technological progress and economical profits. If we do not wake up and think what we really want. What are the most important values and goals.

The development we witness obviously calls for updating the proclamation of Descartes. The rapid change in our environment has made the connection between res extensa and res cogitas inescapable. Our mind is profoundly intertwined with reality in the systems sense.

5. The ethical implications of Bohr´s (system) thinking Niels Bohr was the first physicist who really immersed human beings in the same system with the rest of the world. In his interpretation the detached observer of classical physics can be seen as an constructive evolutionary agent. It means that our knowledge, values and goals also are a noteworthy part of the evolving process of nature. Human actions and choices may direct the outcome of possibilities in nature and thus for example our ethical, social and religious aspects have their own role in the dynamical web of reality.

Bohr stressed the fact that in quantum physics there is no observation in which the object observed and the subject observing can be absolutely separated. So the ”facts” of nature do depend on the kind of measurements that are made. In certain measurement arrangements we observe particles and in another waves. The form of questions we put to nature in our experiments and measurement determines to a significant degree the kind of answers we receive. It is always we who form the questions but of course nature must be allowed to answer for itself. We can only predict probabilities.

What implications does this Bohr´s move have for ethics. Perhaps it does not give us very much compared to the detailed instructions of traditional moral systems of religions or philosophy, but what it gives is much more difficult to escape. When the subject and object do depend on each other, when the form of question to some degree determines the form of possible answer, our responsibility increases. Our actions are not just our own business, neither are the values motivating those acts.

We may be free to think and value whatever we like, but at the same time we have to live with the consequences. The subjective freedom of humanism meets the objective facts of science. For example we may think that the world around us is mechanical and machine-like and that we can just use it for our own egoistic purposes. It is, however, irrational to hold on this rough metaphor when we begin to see the consequences. Today the utilitarian progress typical to Modern age has become threathening for our own well-being. When we are integrated to an evolving and changing system, we have to learn from our experience. False ideas or unjust values cannot be held forever if we want to survive.

In a way we have to derive suitable values from the facts against what Hume said but I do not think we commit here the ”Naturalistic fallacy” because all the time we are free to choose whatever we want under any circumstances. Some of the choices just may be bad. At their worst wrong values may threathen our own survival. Along with better choices the quality of life increases.

Personally I do not trust any categorical or dogmatic instructions given from outside. The idea of strict rules is analogical to a rigid deterministic world, whereas in the complexity of reality the situations we encounter will vary all the time. It is our life-long challenge to judge and choose what to do in every unique situation.

Of course it is worth listening the insights of past experience. The ”Golden rule” that finds its expression in almost every religion and moral teaching is good enough also for systemic thinking: One should treat others as one would want to be treated. It is a constructive starting point for every system consisting of human beings. (One should treat others as one would want to be treated.) However in today´s global system it is not enough. There should be another code concerning our relation with nature. Should we use or not use the natural resources in a way that could be allowed for everybody. I am afraid that it is easier to be fair to one´s enemy than to give up refrigerators, cars and unnecessary holiday or congress flights just because the vast majority of people on this planet cannot afford them even if it would be possible to develop environment friendly technology. I do not, however, have the fanatism needed to say that we really should give up the priviledges we have got, I just hope that we would do our best to reduce the global injustice in our own circumstances.

The Heisenberg uncertainty relation in quantum mechanics says that certain characteristics of the entities being investigated are coupled in such a way that if we want to determine one characteristic exactly we at the same time loose our ability to determine the other. It means that we are not able to find out everything at the same time. The cosmos is not open to full and complete description. Bohr´s principle of complementarity is linked to this fact. In its widest form it says that we do not have descriptions, models or ideologies that are able to catch the whole truth. Every honest trial however may picks up a part of it. The models give us perspectives, that are suitable to some situations. Even if two descriptions sometimes seem to be contradictory they may just be complementary. I think this kind of tolerance is far from relativism not to speak of lazy indifference. If we accepted it the endless controversies defending the right opinion could not be any more used as excuse for depressing others.

The world is a much more complex thing than was supposed by classical physics. We have not got any God´s-eye-view or no-point-of-view to reality and we are not able to know the nature of whole cosmos in advance. I think our time is about to witness the dawn of a new understanding concerning the role of human beings within the reality, as we are fundamentally embodied, situated in it. When the material world is not stable and totally pre-determined we have no reason to think that the contents and abilities of our subjective faculties would be something given and fixed in advance. The subjective self developes in the course of life as the number of neuron connections in the brain increases. The experiments investigating brain activities have shown that normal emotions seem to be missing in some persons. The result is not surprising. Violence or mental disorders do not come out of nothing. The output depends on input. When the development seems to go wrong in some persons, besides the physiological factors we should look at the causative role of the surrounding culture. Have we cared enough for the most precious gift the system gives us: the possibility for human development (and improvement of the human condition).

6. Conclusion

Putting the story to a broader perspective, since the turn of the Modern era we have been living through the utopy of Francis Bacon. He put into words the urge motivating the scientific and technological progress. Knowledge is power. Bacon´s vision was possible to achieve and realizable, because knowledge belongs to the same system with the rest of the world. By knowledge we are able to direct our actions and the actions change the world. Systemic thinking may help us to see that there could be other strategies in our relation to nature that would lead to very different outcomes. Instead of taking the technological and economical progress as an end in itself we could concentrate on human nature and culture.

I suspect our human potential has so far been incompletely used. Knowledge, know- how, is, of course, important in manipulating the material aspect of the world and our own being. On the other hand our emotions and feelings are also capable of producing acts that impose effects on the world. The formative potential of these acts should not be neglected. The mental and spiritual faculties of human beings involve abilities and sensibilities that could be put to use to increase the quality of our life. What do we want and what do we need. Who would not like the idea of living in a reality where one would be cared, loved and encouraged to cultivate his/her abilities in a sensitive, peaceful, co-operative and intelligent atmosphere, where goodness would not be considered naivety or an obstacle for success. If only we could find another powerful rhetoric like Bacon who would make the relevant values wanted.

Tarja Kallio-Tamminen