Many people have been asked to explain quantum physics over the years, but Robert Anton Wilson had perhaps the best answer. He dexcribed how, after he left LA, he moved into a little apartement in Santa Cruz. After something was stolen from his car he called the police, and they told him that he didn’t live in Santa Cruz after all, but in a place called Capitola. The post office disagreed, and assured him that he did live in Santa Cruz. Wilson then spoke to a reporter on the local paper to see if he could shed any light on this, and the reporter explained that he did not live in either Santa Cruz or Capitola, but in an unincorporated area known as Live Oak.
Wilson was delighted to discover that he lived in three different places at the same time. His aprtment didn’t move, of course. What happened was that different authorities had drawn different lines on their maps. Each authority had a system that worked well enough for their own purposes, so they had no reason to change it. The problem with quantum physics, Wilson argued, is that many people fail to realise that it is we who draw the lines on the map. ‘It seems hard to understand how a particle can be in three places at the same time without being anywhere at all,’ he said, ‘but when you remember that we invented the boundaries […], then quantum mechanics is no more mysterious than the fact that I live in three places at the same time.’
Hence we have experiments that show that lights travels as a wave, and we have experiments that show that light travels as a particle. This strange dual nature of light, where it behaves as a wave when treated as a wave but like a particle when trated like a particle, baffled many of our greatest physicists for many years. Wilson’s point is that both the ‘wave model’ and the ‘particle model’ are our own inventions, the lines that we have drawn on the map. Both models are elegant and useful, but they are not light itself. Light is not affected by our attempts to understand it. Like Wilson’s apartment, it remains its own thing, removed from the models we use.
This recognition, that we habitually confuse our models with what they describe, is central to Wilson’s thinking. Instinctively, we feel it is possible to know the nature of things themselves, so there is a natural resistance to accepting that we can only know our models. Wilson’s work was dedicated to wearing down that resistance. His philosophy was one of multiple-model agnosticism – not simply agnosticism about the existence of God, but agnosticism about everything. With multiple-model agnosticism there is no point getting hung up on the models themselves, because that’s all they are – models. Models are by definition smaller and simpler facsimilies of whatever it is they are trying to describe. The models are not ‘ture’, but they do vary in usefulness depending on how accurate they are in different cultures and circumstances. Once this is recognised, we no longer attach our sense of personal identity to models we use, and we lose our resistance to swapping between different models when necessary.
Personally identifying with models that we don’t realise are models is the cause of much discord. An obvious example of this is the furious arguments that erupt on the internet between people who, although they don’t realise it, are largely in agreement. These nasty, vitriolic clashes occur between people who both agree that people should try to be nice to each other, that the economy is important, that freedom is a good thing and that family should be protected. What is happening is that both sides in the argument are using different models (typically, different political models) and that those models are clashing in much the same way that the particle and wave models of light clash. These internet ranters fail to realise that they are confusing their models with the actuality, or that their arguments are about their models, not about the thing-in-itself. No true communication can occur in such instances. As Wilson wrote in Illuminatus!, ‘You cannot understand a man’s actions unless you understand his beliefs.’
When you are dealing with models, it is necessary to remember that they have limits. Even the bestonly work at certain times and on certain scales. Newton’s laws are so reliable and accurate on human scales that we trust our lives to them when we climb into aeroplanes, yet they break down at larger or smaller scales. They are unable to predict the orbit of Mercury, for example, for which we need the models created by Einstein, and they are little use on a sub-atomic scale. Communism, some have claimed, is the most effective model for social order, but only in tribes of around thirty people or less. Alan Greenspan’s economic model, likewise, was unfortunately only useful under specific conditions. Magical and objective materialism are both models, even if this is often forgotten. And, being models, they too have limits beyond which they are little use.
John Higgs, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds.