How Did we Move so Far From the Human Universe?

Outside the box


Scrolling through good conversations in my inbox, I came across an article I used to discuss what happened to management science. The article makes the case that physics might still be part of our human universe, not just an increasingly abstract description of some “uber-folded N-dimensional meta-scrapple.”

To the question (emphasis mine): “Do you think that physics has neglected some of these foundational questions as it has become, increasingly, a kind of engine for the applied sciences, focusing on the manipulation, rather than say, the explanation, of the physical world?”

Tim Maudlin says:

“Look, physics has definitely avoided what were traditionally considered to be foundational physical questions, but the reason for that goes back to the foundation of quantum mechanics. The problem is that quantum mechanics was developed as a mathematical tool. Physicists understood how to use it as a tool for making predictions, but without an agreement or understanding about what it was telling us about the physical world. And that’s very clear when you look at any of the foundational discussions.

This is what Einstein was upset about; this is what Schrodinger was upset about. Quantum mechanics was merely a calculational technique that was not well understood as a physical theory.

Bohr and Heisenberg tried to argue that asking for a clear physical theory was something you shouldn’t do anymore. That it was something outmoded. And they were wrong, Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong about that. But the effect of it was to shut down perfectly legitimate physics questions within the physics community for about half a century. And now we’re coming out of that, fortunately.”

Maudlin is a philosopher of physics, then working at New York University, the top ranked philosophy department in the English-speaking world. Maudlin's interests span the foundations of physics and philosophical inquiry through metaphysics and logic.

Physicist David Bohm suggested going beyond argument in On Dialogue. “Bohr and Einstein probably should have had a dialogue. In a dialogue they might have listened properly to each other's opinion. And perhaps they both would have suspended their opinions, and moved out beyond relativity and beyond quantum theory into something new.”

I wrote elsewhere how conversation is the work. Going back more than fifteen years, the email threads of a continuing dialogue with my friend corporate law theorist Peter Tunjic showed me the value of knowledge in use. Our back and forth taught me a lot about the progression of my thinking and evolution of our work.

Random articles we found and shared comments as we went about projects, travel, and changes over time make sense of what's been happening. More than the frantic news bits and volatile social media streams, impermanent and quite possibly limiting fragments. In dialogue you have the freedom to roam based on accountability to each other.

One of the cons(equences) of search having become the dominant technology of our time is that it forces the classification of everything. When you start by classifying, assumptions become part of it. Possibility shrinks. The infinite possibilities for explanation shrink withing the googled universe.

Searching for answers, in itself, can be positive. But the perception that there doesn't seem to be room in the future for exploration of what could be, that is limiting. In business, “out-of-the-box” signifies going beyond you'd consider usual, traditional, or conventional. Your mileage may vary as to how far from the constraints.

Rarely, if ever, we see the boundless humanity

that is outside the box.

“Out of the box” is an idiom borrowed from technology. If you buy a computer or software and you can use it out of the box, it means you can use it immediately. We're not just borrowing the words and expressions, technology has rewired the way we think about and act upon things. 

Progress for management science as for physics and technology depends on getting back to fundamental questions. What is value? How do we know what it the right thing to do? How do constructs influence what we hear when and if we listen?

Confusion is a natural condition. Our bodies recognize confusion before we ever experience it. But the body then reacts to it by running away. “I am right and you are wrong,” rather than allowing the state of confusion. What Peter calls “flight to right” limits human potential.

Imagine how much we could accomplish with boundless humanity.


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