Saturday, April 09, 2005

Fundamental matters

From yesterday’s New York Times op-ed piece commemorating Albert Einstein’s miraculous 1905: “Quantum mechanics does not merely challenge the previous laws of physics. Quantum mechanics challenges this centuries-old framework of physics itself. According to quantum mechanics, physics cannot make definite predictions. Instead, even if you give me the most precise description possible of how things are now, we learn from quantum mechanics that the most physics can do is predict the probability that things will turn out one way, or another, or another way still.”

I believe there is a physics of human behavior as well. Whenever we think we know what makes someone tick, we are bound to be mistaken.

Think of conflict between people. If you and I disagree on some matter, it would be nice if we could simply agree that we each have our own view of the situation and move on. The more emotionally charged the matter, however, the less likely we will be able to do that, as least not without a lot of practice in analyzing the matter and resolving to separate our purposeful actions from our emotions.

If I cannot make that separation, then I will start to blame you for disagreeing with me. I may get very angry with you that you dare to have a contrary opinion. Soon I will decide that it is all your fault. And you may be doing nothing more than holding steadfast to your right to be yourself and to see the world in your own way. If I listen to your words and your tone and I observe your actions, then I may have a better chance of predicting your reactions, which may be driven by some past interchange.

I am not suggesting that we enter into psychoanalyzing each other, which I view as just another manipulative technique, but certainly it is more pleasant to deal with people who have better developed social and emotional skills. I’m thinking of a particular group in which I participate that operates for all the world like a dysfunctional family. Sometimes it seems that the mildest question or contrary opinion sets off incoherent, babbling, spitting rage. The effort of dealing with long past, unresolved conflicts—which had nothing to do with me—may soon cause me to opt out of that particular organization.

All the hidden vectors on human behavior make people unpredictable, but what quantum physics tells us is that the idea of predictability is illusion. It’s as if two pool balls collide in the middle of the table and rise straight up into the air. Traditional physics says this cannot happen. Quantum physics says it doesn’t happen often.

It is still worth studying traditional physics, and it is worth working hard to try to understand our friends, our colleagues, our lovers and our families. Every observation is grist to that mill. I spent decades unable to feel or display anger at even the most intrusive behavior, then more years—some would say—being angry at everything. Now I am learning to avert other people’s anger without responding in kind. I am learning to say, “I understand that you are unhappy with me, but your anger will not make me behave in any way I do not choose for myself.” It is behavior worth practicing.

It is also worth remembering that the world and its inhabitants are inherently unpredictable. That observation strips away our false sense of safety, but it gives us the possibility of blinding joy.

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