You Matter More Than You Think

How quantum thinking relates to our social world.

By Karen O'Brien

As a climate change researcher, I’m passionate about understanding how we can transform at the rate, scale, speed and depth that is called for today. As a human geographer, I’m interested in what quantum social science means for our understanding of social change, and especially the relationship between individual change, collective change, and systems change. I’m convinced that we are vastly underestimating our collective capacity for rapid social transformations toward an equitable and thriving world.

The reason that I want to convey an alternative paradigm for social change and why you matter is because so many people today feel hopeless, despondent. They feel they do not matter. I know that I often feel this way, especially when I read the news or the latest research on the state of the planet.

But maybe we are missing something. What if we transcend the individualistic, reductionist paradigm that currently influences our understandings of social change, and what if we open up to the possibility that we are all part of one entangled system and live in a world of potentiality? By potentiality, I mean that in every moment we have the possibility to disrupt cultures and systems and generate new ones based on equity, integrity, and oneness. To realize this potential, I believe we have to make a “quantum leap.” I have an ongoing book project called You Matter More Than You Think. This book is an inquiry into how the meanings and metaphors of quantum physics can contribute to quantum social change in response to a world in crisis. The reason I am so interested in this is because we have a limited time to transform ourselves and our society.

This decade matters. We’re living in a time when our actions will have profound consequences for life on earth for millennia to come. The UN calls this the Decade of Action, but from a quantum perspective, we are in the Decade that Matters. Most of our understanding of social change today is still based on a paradigm that sees humans as inherently separate from one another and from the environment.

Now, the word “matter” can refer to materials of substance, like solids, liquids, gases, or plasmas, or it can be considered something that is significant and important. In a quantum world, where electrons and photons can be both particles and waves, matter is not either/or; and perhaps we need to think of matter in terms of “both” substance “and” significance. Quantum physics offers us new ways of thinking about mattering, and a new paradigm for social change. Paradigms matter. Our patterns of thought influence how we see systems, how we design systems, and how we engage with systems. They also influence how we relate with each other, and with nature. Most of our understanding of social change today is still based on a paradigm that sees humans as inherently separate from one another and the environment. As a result, we view ourselves as if we were classical matter, or what Isaac Newton referred to as “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles.”

Quantum physics has changed this understanding, recognizing that entities at the quantum scale can be both waves and particles. It introduces concepts such as indeterminacy, superposition, coherence, entanglement, and potentiality. Although quantum physics is typically considered to be relevant only at the atomic and subatomic scales, the division between quantum and classical worlds is blurry and increasingly questioned. As writer Danah Zohar put it, “we actually live in a quantum world, and once we fully grasp that, nothing will ever be the same again.” Beliefs matter — literally.

To challenge a paradigm is to confront the very beliefs that inform our understanding of reality. Beliefs represent both individual and cultural constructs that help us navigate a complex world. They can be conscious or subconscious, depending on the extent to which we are aware of them, and they influence our perception of and engagement with the political and social world. Many of the current debates about beliefs focus on either/or, right/wrong and us/them. Quantum physics challenges “separateness” and fragmentation, and many interpretations invite us to rethink the relationship between subjects and objects. For example, an interpretation known as Quantum Bayesianism, or QBism, is based on participatory realism, which explores the role subjective beliefs play in shaping our reality. In other words, quantum theory is fundamentally about agency, actions, consequences, and expectations. Our beliefs about the world influence our relationships, including our relationship to change.

Relationships matter, and clearly, our relationships to concepts and ideas such as self, other, and nature have been influenced by the Enlightenment worldview and the assumptions of classical physics.

In fact, classical systems are considered as a group of interacting or interrelated entities that form a unified whole. A key here is the prefix inter-, which means between two groups, as in two separate or distinct groups.

Quantum systems are characterized by entanglement, uncertainty, indeterminism, and potentiality. Here, relationships are described by intra-actions, where intra- means within or inside a whole. From this perspective, we are the system that we are transforming. Yet to consciously transform, we need to acknowledge the role of consciousness in systems change.

This means acknowledging that consciousness matters. A classical, materialist depiction of humans downplays the significance of consciousness, free will, and personal responsibility — or “response-ability.”

There is no consensus on the definition of consciousness, or where it comes from, where it is located in the body, whether it applies to all matter, and how it can be measured. This is not a trivial problem, because it relates to our sense of place and relationships with the world. Climate scientists usually focus on interactions among the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and so on but pay little attention to the noosphere — or the sphere of human consciousness and mental activity, especially regarding its influence on the biosphere. Yet one of the most profound aspects of climate change is that we are beginning to consciously perceive ourselves as influencing global systems.

But when we disregard or overlook consciousness and the collective, transpersonal and shared nature of human existence, we underestimate the role of individual and collective agency in social change. Agency matters.

Transformations to an equitable and thriving world will not happen through wishful thinking and hope. They require actions and interventions that generate new systems that are more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. Feminist theorist Karen Barad’s concept of agential realism emphasizes that we are constantly intra-acting with the universe, and our intra-actions matter because each one reconfigures the world. Through our entangled intra-actions, we are mattering every moment. However, it’s not just the expression of agency that matters — in fact, agency has often proven to be destructive or oppressive. It is a quality of agency that we are interested in; a quality that recognizes wholeness and is an expression of what matters for the whole, whether it is equity, diversity, sustainability, or compassion. We generate new patterns by expressing these values at every moment in time.

Just as this decade matters, time matters. Quantum physics challenges our view of time as unidirectional and linear, and it upsets our perceptions of the relationship between past, present, and future. It introduces ideas such as backward causation and temporal entanglement. To me, this suggests that the potential for an equitable and thriving world exists in every moment: It is about Now. I believe quantum social change is about collapsing a wave of potential now, and in a series of continuous nows to generate a metaphorical quantum leap. Quantum social change is based on the recognition that the individual is the collective, and that we are the system.

Metaphors matter. Figures of speech can be powerful in communicating facts, ideas, understandings, and meanings from one person or group to another, and it has been said that “New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.”

They influence the reality that we perceive and experience, and also how we act. Concepts such as quantum leaps, entanglement, and potentiality can serve as powerful metaphors that open up new ways of thinking about social change. Metaphors and stories do not exist only in our minds — we embody and live them, and can use them to generate new and more sustainable patterns. This is why fractals matter. Fractals are self-similar patterns that repeat themselves at every scale. We see them in nature, and we can also create them through algebra and geometry. More important, we can consciously generate fractal patterns in our social world. However, unlike natural or mathematical fractals, which are value-neutral, social fractals embed qualities and values that replicate at all scales. Metaphorically, quantum fractals are non-local, entangled patterns that influence the whole.

And this is where you come in. You matter. I matter. We matter. The values that we stand for, for ourselves and for others, can shift systems and cultures in ways that influence both our individual and shared reality. Quantum social change is based on the recognition that the individual is the collective, and that we are the system. So when I say you matter, I’m not referring to the individuality of the classical world, but rather the entangled [I/We] nature of the quantum world. Every idea, initiative, or endeavor can be designed and generated with the same characteristics or qualities we want to see for the whole.

This is why you matter when it comes to social change. Quantum social change draws attention to the potential for every one of us to matter — both substantively and significantly — in every moment when it comes to creating an equitable and thriving world.

Karen O’Brien is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo, Norway. She is also co-founder of cCHANGE, a company that supports transformation in a changing climate. Karen has 30 years of research experience, with an emphasis on the social dimensions of climate change and implications for human security. She has participated in four reports for the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, and as part of the IPCC was a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2019 Karen was named by Web of Science as one of the world’s most influential researchers of the past decade. You can find the You Matter More Than You Think book project here.


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