Interview: Nicholas Harrington on polarizing politics and epistemological value of quantum theory

In this episode of our interview series, Ananya Bordoloi talks to visiting researcher Nicholas Harrington from the University of Sydney, Australia.

Listen in as they discuss Nicholas’ dissertation exploring quantum physicist Niels Bohr’s idea of Complementarity in political philosophy and how it can aid in resolving polarizing politics.

[Photo: Nicholas Harrington]

Find an abridged transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Bordoloi: What brings you to the WZB?

Harrington: I am being supervised in my dissertation by Professor John Keane. Professor Keane is a research professor at WZB. So, he pointed me to the opportunity of doing a research exchange sometime ago and said that obviously there are huge advantages in coming to such an internationally recognized institution. So the idea came from my supervisor and I pursued it. At the beginning of this year to try an organize an exchange formally between the University of Sydney and the WZB. And there is also a decent history of cross-pollination between our two institutions. But then when the COVID pandemic became a real onset reality all of those plans were completely abandoned. There was no exchange between our two institutions at all. Despite that I still tried to see whether it was possible to come and make a visitation. It was still made possible but that was because of the gracious hand that was extended by the WZB.

Bordoloi: And it’s great to have you here. I have read a lot of your work already but you could give a general overview of what you are working on currently.

Harrington: I am trying to do a deep dive into Thomas Hobbes. Look at his writings and the way that he came to his concept of the political in a fresh and original way by looking at some material which hasn’t been given a great deal of treatment in the past. I am doing a similar thing with Niels Bohr, the quantum physicist. And in this respect Niels Bohr hasn’t received a great deal of treatment from a political philosophical point of view at all. And that’s not surprising since he is a quantum physicist rather than a philosopher in terms of how he is understood. And then making a comparison between these two authors – that I think hasn’t been done before. In fact, I know that it hasn’t been done in this explicit way. In my undergrad it was made clear to me that Thomas Hobbes was a natural philosopher and that he was informed in his political philosophy by physics. So I had this obvious question then – if philosophy of Thomas Hobbes is driven by his understanding of nature, natural philosophy and physics, what becomes of our concept of the political if we have this supposed revolution in understanding of physics, nature and natural philosophy that’s brought on by the quantum revolution of the early 20th century. So that’s it – stage one look at Hobbes, stage two look at Bohr and in the third section see what is the synthesis that comes out of those two contrasts.

Bordoloi: That’s sounds quite interesting. You speak of social paradoxes. Perhaps you can explain a bit more about them and how they compare to the science-political paradox.

Harrington: That’s a great question. So, Niels Bohr’s most famous theory is this theory of Complementarity. And a very short-hand way of explaining the motivation behind Complementarity for Niels Bohr was that it was a way of resolving these apparent physical paradoxes that emerged in the quantum physicist examination and exploration of the physical reality that they were dealing with at the sub-atomic level. And in my reading, it’s pretty clear that the way of resolving these physical paradoxes is a question of epistemology. How these pictures of reality are looked at and considered from a knowledge perspective rather than saying that one picture of reality is correct and the other not correct. We have from Bohr then an epistemological proposition which is Complementarity. And Bohr’s said that theory was not meant to be nested within physics. He suggested it could be applied across all social sciences. He makes that explicit. And so well, I thought I will take that seriously then. What are the political-philosophical ramifications of taking Complementarity across? The easiest thing to do is if he is dealing with physical paradoxes then what say social paradox or political paradox. Bohr says that physical paradox are two pictures of reality that are incommensurable. So there is this obvious underlying tension because one description of a phenomenon does not match another description of the same phenomenon. Then I tried to find analogies to this in politics. And it seems that you are immediately drawn to questions of polarization, political tension, political conflict, where one description of the event does not match the other and we can’t get past this blockage in the way that things are understood. As you look across the political landscape there are lots of these paradoxes. In democracies we have partisanship embracing one picture of reality and the other side embracing another. Then the idea is that this mode of thinking– this Complementarity mode of thinking – is to find your way past these blockages. Not to privilege one description over the other. And this is the object of my thesis. It’s more to say – Can we move beyond what looks like a descriptive impasse to a pragmatic compromise position? Some position ideationally and then practically politically where both sides can some form of win and can feel as though a position they can both agree. From a practical political view, Complementarity is meant to be a pathway towards pragmatic politics so solutions can be advanced which can accommodate both these previously conflicting pictures. So society can move forward and not be entrenched in these bitter divides. 

Bordoloi: From what I understand its a purely epistemological framework aimed at understanding the clash of different positions. When applied to pragmatic politics, how do you think people from different positions could or would come to a compromise?

Harrington: That’s a great question because I am not sure who is supposed to use Complementarity. Is it meant to be used by one of either sides? You are meant to step in and say, hey you all are having this argument, here use Complementarity instead. I don’t think that’s likely. It’s a tool for leadership or a tool for states people. Its a tool for someone observing the situation from the outside is able to propose an alternative position. Seems to me that it has to work that way because its unlikely somebody who is invested in their position is somehow going to relinquish it for this other alternative. So I have not resolved yet how that might actually be possible. For example, people who working in a commentary field – the media could certainly be employing this means of observing these dynamics between two political sides and offering this compromise perspective potentially to resolve this impasse. Rather than what we see at the moment which is that partisan media will just fuel one side of the paradox or the other rather than actually looking to see if they can be moved beyond. It seems to me that anybody in a leadership position, whether its Merkel’s cabinet or Boris Johnson’s administration, that they could look at this situation which is causing great deal of friction and great deal of tension in opinion polls and can measure the degree to which there is a non-salience and a salience on a particular issue with different interest groups. And then propose an alternative vision for addressing this and a policy prescription that matches. For example, we have seen how Brexit is understood – an absolutely incommensurable understanding of what took place in June July of 2016 – and here we have the opportunity then of reinterpreting what took place. It’s not mired in this question of openness versus closeness, nationalism versus internationalism, these kind of binaries that are unhelpful. Often times those groups who are ascribed with those appellations are quite offended with having that description applied to them and that is completely unproductive. So in a sense it [Complemetarity] would be useful to deal with situations exactly like that. So then it would be an opportunity for someone like a leader, Boris Johnson or Theresa May in the past, to use a different frame to move beyond this entrenched paradoxical description of reality.

Bordoloi: Something I found interesting from our conversation last time was the situation you described where the observer in quantum mechanics makes a change to the thing being observed. Hence when you talk about a leader or someone in power employing this framework [Complementarity]. Does that mean they are impacting the situation as well? Is that the same parallel that is being created here?

Harrington: I am sure, I mean there is no way that you can escape that reality. Anybody who is an actor and observer in politics is having a constitutive effect on what is happening. So part of what the Complementarity framework is meant to make you appreciate is the way in which these two opposing pictures have been constructed by the tools that are being used to examine and understand them themselves. Also just on the question that you asked about if Complementarity is meant to have a practical political application. I kind of always felt that that is an obligation of anything within social sciences and political science in general. That you really do want to ask the question – how can this be used practically, how can this have an outcome for society for betterment or great enfranchisement or liberation. If its really just theory for theory’ sake and a little bit of navel gazing then I think its seems less worthwhile. So the idea of trying to project whatever I was working on in the dissertation to possible practical application was always definitely important.

Bordoloi: Speaking of practical application, do you think research in political philosophy is different than research in International Relations (IR). You wrote your honors dissertation in IR so I wanted to know as a young researcher I am also quite interested in IR and philosophy but often it happens that I can’t make the worlds meet because technicalities or the jargon in one discipline are so different.  How do you navigate yourself between fields?

Harrington: That’s really interesting. I suppose it depends on like what the actual nature of the work that you are undertaking. So for my dissertation for honors, which was about the European Union, so it was an institutional analysis. It definitely dealt with supranational institutions so it had a international relations element. But the way that I undertook the research is not that dissimilar to what I am doing now because it was still like an excavation of ideational formation. How ideas are made, how things come about, and so it was a historical study of primary research from that very early period – the Schuman Plan where those “founding members” who designed those institutions of the European Coal and Steel Community and how they chose to design those institutions. What were the ideas that backgrounded the institutional design. And my general gut feeling was that those ideas were somehow embedded in the institutional design and carried forward. So today, the EU that we are still living in is a resonance of the mentality of those institutional designers back in the late 40s early 50s. That was the central premise there. Yes it was IR and yes it was dealing with institutions. It was still dealing with ideas and philosophy and how institutions are embedded with ideas. In a way it was a historical institutionalist analysis and I know that this department here at the WZB deals a lot with that sort of study. It also had an implicit backgrounding in path dependency but at the end of the day it’s not that different to what I am doing now. I am still doing a lot of primary research. I am saying – how were Thomas Hobbes’ ideas made, how were Niels Bohr’s ideas made under their own respective conditions. So then the question is – how do you then lead this into something practical? In a way its believing that times are not any different. The time of Thomas Hobbes is pretty much exactly the same as now, at least in my opinion. Its just a change of costume or a change of technology but its exactly the same. He is dealing with the same tensions in that time just with different names applied. I don’t find it necessarily a challenge to see how looking at Hobbes’philosophy could be employed to help us today or the difference between IR [and political philosophy] – we are still dealing with ideas. To answer the question in a very roundabout way, my study about ideas and how ideas are made –  it was the same with the IR study as it is now with the dissertation in political philosophy. Best way to say it is that I jammed my IR dissertation into political philosophy and I am doing it again with my PhD.

Bordoloi: That’s brilliant. So you are quite conceptually inclined in your work?

Harrington: I think we live in a world of ideas, ideas and beliefs. That’s it. The reality of society is the reality that people have accepted and the ideas they have accepted. This is nothing new. Pretty parochial stuff. But I think now we have find ourselves in a tricky situation because those ideas are very much contested and they are contested broadly. In the past you could imagine that there was a massive accepted reality and then at the margins there were people who were a little bit skeptical and trying to advance alternative propositions but now we seem to experience real cleavages so its almost like one third of the entire population believes in a different reality. This is an unbelievably crude depiction but I see the ideational landscape in a lot of OECD countries “western states” to be trifocated. You have one third that believe A, one third that believe B, and one third that kind of just wait to see what happens between team A and team B. But the size of group A and group B are really pronounced and in the past it was more like there was an insurgent group picking. This might be a naive way of looking at it. But the group that was waiting to see what happens seemed to be the predominant group. Then you had the elite mentality that was guiding the mass blob group. And there was this insurgent group sort of picking and trying to change. These are those with progressive ideals. This is sort of the way it moved across the 20th century. Now though it seems like people themselves are far more invested in one picture of reality. I don’t know if this was always the case but I suppose the way that we now fight online, on Twitter, on social media about descriptions of what is happening. It was made so painfully clear during the Trump administration which is coming to an end pretty soon. It’s just how different these pictures of reality were. It was so difficult to talk to so many people about one side or the other. These claims about fake news and so on were symptoms of a phenomenon or a paradox I am describing. What is fake news? Fake news is the claim by one side of the paradox that the media representation of the other side of the paradox is a lie. So when I talk about a social paradox, a good way to understand what that is would be that you are aware of a social paradox every time you hear someone make a claim of fake news because it means that there is a social paradox taking place and one of the side is saying that the other side is not being faithful to what’s going on in “reality”. I feel like the ideational terrain is more pertinent now than ever that we live in this type of society where a large group believe that reality is this way and another enormous group believe reality is another way and we have a democracy where both of these groups are in principle empowered to impose their view of reality upon the other side. And I think this is where real tension comes up and this is that problematique that my idea of Complementarity is meant to resolve. How do we deal with this enormous tension which emerges when there is a clash of these mutually exclusive pictures of reality and you take Trump’s America as an example – 70 million people voted for one person and 80 million voted for the other person but 70 million people is a sizable chunk of people who literally do not live in the same ideational reality as the other 80 million. Now that’s not something you can sweep under the carpet. How do you pretend that that doesn’t matter – these people are not going away. Their ideas are not being ameliorated by what used to be the tool of incorporation before – the media – because they are watching other media. And they say that the media that’s meant to be trying to pacify their inconsistent views is fake news. This seems troublesome and we have seen the bubbling over of the underlying paradoxical tension between these two incompatible pictures with Brexit and with Trump. I think that unless there is a way of dealing with, there will be many many uncertainties coming forward and unexpected consequences. It seems to me that in the past the way  in which inherent tension was dealt with in a democracy was through elite control of media. Elite control of media could send one message and say here is the view of the world we want you know, this is what is happening. This is how international relations should be understood, these are the enemies and these are the good guys. That generally speaking kept the dissidents over the world picture at the margins. Now with the change in technology (social media) I think the elite control over the media message has really been relinquished and so now that grip, the dissidents, the non-believers of this mass impression of the world, are much larger than they used to be. They are so consequential that they can have a democratic impact. They can push a referendum in a way that was not expected. They can push an election in a way that wasn’t expected. That’s the portrait of the social ideational landscape, that’s the problematique for my disseration. And I believe that Complementarity offers a completely unique way of addressing that and it is a pragmatic compromise. No one wins fully but it gets you to a place that you simply don’t get to by trying to force the other side to accept the picture of reality that has been determined.

Bordoloi: On that note I wish you all the best for your dissertation and thank you for being here.

Harrington: Very welcome!

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