Quantum Physics: A Touchstone for Environmental Health?

Elise Miller, MEd

Before Einstein, Bohr and other scientific luminaries started grappling with questions of quantum physics, traditional Western scientific research was based on a number of assumptions. These included the belief that all particles are fundamentally distinct and that the observer has no influence on the outcome of an experiment. With quantum physics, however, two major new scientific developments came to light that upended these previous assumptions; namely, “entanglement” and “emergence.” Though I am in no way qualified to offer an in-depth explanation of these concepts, I think they (even in general terms) can be used to elucidate how we understand environmental health—and ideally, lead to more cogent ways to address complex issues.

“Entanglement” is a term physicists use to describe the phenomena of two parts coming together to form a “whole” with attributes that are not a sum of discrete parts, but an entity that is distinct unto itself. In other words, the parts are “entangled” and the whole is as privileged as the parts are when not connected. The concept of “emergence” amplifies this way of understanding by suggesting that properties emerge when two parts come together that are not expressed when they are separate entities. An example often used is that when hydrogen and oxygen connect to form water—the “wetness” that emerges cannot be found in either the hydrogen or the oxygen, but only when those parts come together in the proportions necessary to create water.*

What do these have to do with environmental health? Scientific research continues to be biased towards a reductionist approach. We have barely begun to consider how new discoveries in physics apply to other sciences, much less our everyday lives. In the environmental health field, for example, we have primarily studied how a single chemical can trigger a cascade of biological events which may ultimately express itself as a certain disease or disability. We are a long ways, however, from understanding how chemicals interact with nutrition, the built environment, socioeconomic status, electromagnetic fields and other multifaceted factors to influence health. While we have been looking at different parts and trying to clarify their specific properties, we have missed what is equally important; namely, that the intrinsic relationships of whole systems cannot be identified by simply refining our understanding of one piece or another. In short, we have been giving higher value to separate parts, thereby neglecting the significance of the unique attributes of complex systems.

We now are at a juncture in our human and scientific history when we can no longer think along the lines of: “If we just fix each of these parts, our health—our society—will be better as a whole.” We’ve tried that, and by doing so, we have indeed gained important insights. But that’s only part of the story. We also have to give our dedicated attention to studying whole systems in order to understand some essential properties of life. This means valuing integrative and qualitative methodologies as much as quantitative research—and this means valuing relationships as much as independent entities.

Perhaps the difference in emphasis is best represented by René Descartes’ famous statement, “I think, therefore I am”; and Desmond Tutu’s, “I exist because of you.” Both views are right—just as in quantum physics, a photon can be observed as both a particle and a wave. But in Western thinking to date, we haven’t done a particularly good job elevating and integrating the insights of newer disciplines, such as quantum physics, ecology, systems biology, sociology and others—those that underscore a more expansive, holistic and relational understanding. In this context, instead of remaining solely enchanted by a reductionist framework that implies “it’s all relative,” we need to fully grasp that “it’s all relational” as well. By doing so, we can no longer believe that actions can be taken independently. Instead, because of the complexity of the interactive, relationship-based system in which we live, we have the moral imperative to act with the knowledge that anything we do has consequences not just for ourselves, but for all of life.

Next week, the core leadership of CHE will hold its first in-person retreat in years. I am too much a pragmatist to even suggest that we might map out a course of action that incorporates the concepts of “entanglement” and “emergence,” which will, in turn, move whole systems towards improved public and planetary health. What I do hope we can do, however, is take the next stab at articulating an ecological model of health, based on the emergent properties of our life systems. In this process, our intention is to define some strategies, within CHE’s mission and means, that can catalyze more integrative action. I look forward to sharing the results (and, hopefully, insights) of our discussions, so that we can collaborate even more effectively with all of you in the future.

The following books notably informed my ideas for this essay:
Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Science Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World by Lisa Randall, PhD
The Heart of Higher Education by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc, PhD
The New Physics and Cosmology by Arthur Zajonc, PhD


One thought on “Quantum Physics: A Touchstone for Environmental Health?

  1. If I could add to this essay other things quantum mechanics entails about our conceptual thinking.

    1. It makes no sense to talk in terms more precise than statistical relationships and probabilities.

    2. Probability distributions are causally determined, not specific events.

    3. The very act of attempting to establish determinism produces indeterminism. This relates to the reductionist fallacy and the infinite regress of analysis.

    4. There is selective value in losing detailed information in favor of relevant information. Such organisms are pattern recognizers and they are evolutionarily successful.

    5. Human beings are pattern-recognizing organisms par excellence. I would add that we better get on with it.

    Tom Muir

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