Quantum Community

In physics, there is what is known as the “wave-particle duality” of photons. Sometimes, light behaves like a particle, and sometimes it behaves like a wave. It seems occasionally to simultaneously follow the rules for particles and waves! This confounds physicists (and me).

Recently, I have become aware that community is much like this. One might think that a community is just an aggregate of particles (individuals), and so it should behave like an aggregate of individuals. Another might think that a community is like a wave–it behaves like a single extended entity. These people will treat community differently; the first person will place ultimate foundation in each individual, and will argue that their motions (i.e., the influence of God’s will in their life, and their response) qua individuals define the epiphenomenal motions of the community at large. Those of the wave persuasion will argue conversely that God directs the community as a whole according to his will, and the motions of individual members follow like crests and troughs in a wave–all very connected.

It is hard to know within which paradigm I should be viewing community right now. Are we fundamentally separated, and therefore at the end of the day we must discern our calling from God as pertaining to ourselves alone? Or are we fundamentally connected, and must therefore all collectively submit our motions to the movement of the larger group?

Right now, it seems appropriate to view the motions of some as following the particle paradigm, and others as following the wave paradigm. Are we therefore separate entities (i.e., in separate communities)? Or are we exhibiting the true essence of community and just failing to describe it in classical sociological terms, exactly the same as physicists failed to describe quantum phenomena using Newtonian language?

We have been gathering data for a while now, but I think we still need some more. Anyone else have any data worth sharing?

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

3 replies on “Quantum Community”

Man, I had a pretty cool reply worked up for this, but then I talked to our office’s resident quantum mechanics expert and my overextension of the metaphor came crashing down.

I learned that the wave equation (Schroedinger equation) of quantum mechanics which resolves the wave-particle duality does not describe the trajectory of a particle’s motion, but rather the probability that the particle will be found in a given range of space and time. Of course this lends itself to its own set of metaphor extensions. If the community is like a wave in the quantum mechanical sense, then we don’t know with complete certainty where or when we will be; we merely have probability.

The likening of a community to a wave, in the sense that we’re fundamentally connected and continuous, probably refers more properly to a mechanical wave, not a quantum one (which I’m told is just a probability function). At any rate, I love the question, Jonathan. I would say that as a wave, we’re more like one in a chainlink rather than, say, a rope or pool of water. Links can be removed and reconnected, but one’s removal causes profound change in the waveform.

Some equally baffling but beautiful thoughts:

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
– from “Mr. Tambourine Man”

Thanks, Dan. Actually, the quantum phenomena which introduced the wave/particle dilemma arose because shooting certain “particles” through slits produced “hit patterns” which, for some reason, appeared to follow wave interference rules, even though the particles were not being shot simultaneously, and even though they were being shot in the same direction.

So it’s in that sense that I was talking about waves and position in the same breath. You’re right though that the Schroedinger equation doesn’t talk about waves per se, but a particle’s position probability graph. Which, as you said, gives rise to a whole lot of other metaphors!

The likening of a community to a wave is then (according to me, anyway) paradoxical in the same sense that particles which are shot through slits form interference patterns, almost as if they had been connected like with chain links (but we know they’re not)! It seems deeply mysterious to me, and that’s the aspect I was getting at with my analogy.

Loved this post, Jonathan, especially the LAST bit, calling for data from the scientific community at large. I wish I had something tangible to contribute in the way of data… but your post somewhat reminded me of related questions I’ve had. Here’s one: what does one do with people who feel called to be part of a community for a while, but are then called elsewhere? Certainly for the literalists, there is Biblical precedent for such, and it would be ridiculous to claim that God calls each of us to a loving, lifelong, monagamous relationship with a certain, particular community. So when someone says to you, “I feel that God is calling me elsewhere”, what can one really say? On the other hand, perhaps it sometimes feels that people aren’t really treating the community as something to be committed to longterm, just hopping mindlessly from one community to the next. Does one challenge their ability to hear God’s voice? Othertimes I wonder if we should all directly consult the community we’re in before moving on?

Sorry for posting to your site from the browser whose name we won’t mention; Firefox would’ve taken a decade to download to my parents’ machine over dialup.

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