Context in modern physics

I mentioned that modern physics actually demonstrates the importance of context. This is a total aside, which is why I’m putting it in a separate post (think of this as a long DFW-esque footnote), but while I was contrasting the “objective physical reality” with the contextual social world, I realized that the objective physical reality is a thing of the past. In an earlier post, I mentioned the “Enlightenment Left”, which believes in the preeminence of reason and the ability of logic to conquer all. They envisioned a clockwork universe, set in motion by a Prime Mover, and following Newton’s Laws throughout time, where if one knew the positions of every particle in the universe at a given time, and had enough computing power, you could then predict the position of every particle until the end of time.

However, we now know that is not possible. Chaos/complexity theory has demonstrated the extreme sensitivity of systems to initial conditions, as is most famously illustrated by the butterfly effect, where a butterfly flapping its wings could cause a storm halfway around the world. In other words, to stretch a metaphor too far, chaos theory demonstrates the important of context (initial conditions) in even something as prosaic as simple classical mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is another area of modern physics that can be construed as demonstrating the importance of context. The two slit experiment is a good example. The photons somehow “know” whether the other slit is open or not, and decides whether or not to create the interference pattern or not based on that information. You can come up with all of the “probability wave” explanations you want, it’s just spooky and counter-intuitive. And I won’t even get into the EPR paradox and entanglement, mostly because I don’t really understand either. But it all points to the futility of trying to analyze a system in isolation, without knowing everything else it is interacting with, its context.