Physics and anarchy

From Anarchy In Action

Physics, the science of matter and energy, has offered a range of political implications as a discipline, from authoritarian to anarchist. On the authoritarian end, classical physicists have employed mechanistic philosophies to describe human and nonhuman nature as basically manipulable machines. Modern physicists have developed technologies of war and control, most notably the intertwined technologies of nuclear weaponry and nuclear power. Today, some physicists work on other catastrophic and authoritarian technologies such as geoengineering and nanotechnology. Still, physics arguably has an anarchist side that finds self-organization and cooperation embedded throughout the cosmos.

Some anarchists have found inspiration in findings in post-Newtonian physics that suggest the universe may be much more self-organizing, spontaneous, and interconnected than Newtonian physics suggested. The theory of general relativity can be seen as a blow to the Newtonian worldview of a dead, mechanistic universe that, as science historian Carolyn Merchant has pointed out, helped capitalists rationalize the exploitation and colonization of nature.[1] Scientists have found self-organization in the supposedly inanimate world, everywhere from cloud formations to the formation of galaxies. The unpredictability of quantum mechanics arguably provides a better grounding for free will than predictable Newtonian mechanics did. Theories of a multiverse (multiple universes) offer non-theistic explanations for why our solar system and universe are so conveniently suited for life, without making recourse to any Creator dominating over the cosmos. Chaos theory has caught the attention of anarchists interested in the universe's spontaneity and unpredictability. Such findings and theories in modern physics provide compelling metaphors, at least, for those interested in mutual aid, sustainability, and horizontal societies.

Social philosophies in every age draw from the physics of their time, as the physicist Nick Herbert explains:

In the Middle Ages, when virtually everyone believed the world to be the personal creation of a divine being, society mirrored the hierarchy that supposedly existed in the heavens. Dante's picture of the world...gave everything and everyone his proper place in the medieval scheme of things... Coincident with the rise of the Newtonian physics was the ascent of the modern democracy which stresses a 'rule of laws rather than men'...The Declaration of Independence, for example, 'we hold these truths to be self-evident' reads more like a mathematical theorem than a political document.[2]

Peter Kropotkin thought that the Newtonian worldview had a certain anarchistic potential, particularly in how in described the world without recourse to religious concepts.[3] However, Errico Malateta criticized Kropotkin's argument as naive and unconvincing, since the portrayal of human beings as merely complicated machines did not leave much room for free will and consequent ethical ideals of freedom.[4]

Before proceeding, it is important to note that there is a danger in extrapolating social ideals from physics, a risk of anthropomorphizing atoms and oversimplifying human societies, of finding false affinities between very different phenomena. Rudolf Rocker implores in Nationalism and Culture that society has no set of basic scientific laws akin to those followed by basic particles of matter. “The assertion that the destiny of social structures is determinable according to the laws of a so-called 'social physics' is of no greater significance than the claim of those wise women who pretend to be able to read the destinies of man in tea cups or in the lines of the hands,” Rocker writes.[5] Worse, there is a tendency among some non-scientists to misrepresent physics in order to derive mystical-sounding conclusions. The website Rational Wiki warns that there is an entire industry of “quantum woo,” defined as “the justification of irrational beliefs by an obfuscatory reference to quantum physics”.[6]

Anarchist themes

Drawing on the science of ecology, the anarchist Murray Bookchin defines “libertarian” with reference to principles he saw in nature: “unity in diversity, spontaneity, and complementary relationships, free from all hierarchy and domination”.[7] Working from this definition, this article asks whether the universe as understood by contemporary physics displays tendencies that might be considered libertarian. Specifically, it explores whether physics finds the universe to follow these principles of unity in diversity, spontaneity, complementary relationships, and freedom from hierarchy.

From the perspective of cosmologist Brian Swimme, the universe does follow a similar set of principles. In his books The Universe Story and Journey of the Universe--coauthored with Thomas Berry and Mary Evelyn Tucker respectively, he says the universe is ordered by (1) differentiation, (2) self-organization, and (3) communion.[8] These principles correspond to the first three enumerated above by Bookchin and imply the fourth. The approach of Swimme, and some of the complementary approaches discussed below, arguably presents a picture of a fairly anarchistic universe.


According to Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, the universe has tended to move toward ever-increasing diversity of things and beings. First, there was a "fireball." Then there emerged the universe, then stars, then planets, then very simple life forms, then more complex life forms, then human societies. There is tremendous diversity among galaxies, among planets, among species, among communities. "There has never been a time when the universe did not seek further differentiation. In the beginning all the particles interacted with each other with minimal distinction."[9]

The biologist Stuart Kauffman argues, in Humanity in a Creative Universe, that the universe is nonergodic, or non-repeating, meaning that the universe's physical and chemical particles assemble in increasingly complex ways: "Briefly, as more complex things and linked processes are created, and can combine with one another in ever more new ways to make yet more complex amalgrams of things and processes, the space of possible things and linked processes becomes vastly larger and the universe has not had time to make all the possibilities."[10]


The universe's physical structures self-organize, creating spontaneous orders such as the oscillations of electromagnetic waves and the formation of stars and planets. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, a central tenet of quantum mechanics, shows that events cannot be definitively predicted in advance, and therefore, humans are never entirely slaves to a predetermined destiny. Even at the level of subatomic particles, the spontaenity of movement might suggest a sort of freedom, as the physicist Richard Feynman reportedly noted, the electron "does anything it likes."[11] See the section below on quantum physics for elaboration on these princples.

When subatomic particles collide, they often transform in bizarre and creative ways. Attributing a playful creativity to these particles, the physicist Fritjof Capra argues, "all matter, whether here on Earth or in outer space, is involved in a continual cosmic dance."[12]

Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker describe the universe's development as a story of self-organization and increasing complexity, from the spontaneous emergence of galaxies to the spontaneous evolution of life. They write:

Once a galactic system has been evoked, we can find self-organizing stars within the galaxy. And once we have stars, we can find self-assembling planets such as Earth, with its own organizing substructures such as hurricanes or whirlpools. Then and only then is there the possibility for a new self-organizing system, a living cell, to come forth.[13]

Neil D. Theise and Menas C. Kafatos describe the entire universe as a series of self-organizing networks, all the way down to the subatomic scale. They assert that the universe follows of a logic of "quenched disorder," meaning it exhibits a spontaneity that characterizes complex systems as opposed to programmed machines, which qua machines do not exemplify self-organization:

[M]olecules in turn arise from self-organizing atoms (with quenched disorder now being supplied by quantum mechanical processes), atoms themselves arise from self-organizing subatomic particles and so on, down to the Planck scale where the smallest entities ("strings" or otherwise) do not arise from anything smaller, but appear and disappear from the energetic vacuum in a "quantum foam."[14]

Complementary Relationships

Rejecting hyper-individualistic social philosophies, anarchists understand the individual self as embedded in community, and this understanding leads anarchists to deepen their solidaristic connections with the people and environments around them.[15] Aspects of modern physics suggest that everything is connected and that any particular being or object is heavily shaped by its relationship to the physical world.

Just moments after the Big Bang, particles began bonding and communing with each other. This bonding between particles caused the development of all complex structures in the universe. Swimme and Tucker observe, “Even from the first moments, our universe moved toward creating relationships [...] This bonding is at the heart of matter.”[16]

In the words of physicist David Bohm, “The inseparable quantum interconnectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality.”[17] Several strands of research, explored throughout this article, support this view of interconnectedness. Particles on opposite sides of the universe are sometimes “entangled” with each other, meaning that the direction one spins affects the direction the other spins. According to the Many-Worlds explanations of quantum physics, a subatomic movement anywhere in the universe can instantly create a copy of the rest of the universe. Path integral formation says that each quantum-scale particle travels everywhere in space-time all the time, creating a giant cosmic dance connecting all things to each other. The uncertainty principle has convinced scientists that there is no way to definitively determine where one object ends and another begins, and thus the universe must be understood as an assortment of interrelated processes rather than an assortment of separate things. Chaos theory shows how small actions can have dramatic effects in distant places, further demonstrating an interconnectedness of all things.

This relatedness of all things could have either authoritarian or libertarian interpretations, depending on the type of relatedness. It is authoritarian if it entirely merges the individual into the universe, sacrificing individuality. It can be anti-authoritarian, however, if it is based in unity in diversity and thus strengthens both the individual and the whole at the same time.[18] Contemporary physics, it could be argued, represents the latter, libertarian possibility. The interconnections of the universe do not imply a conformity of objects. To the contrary, findings suggest that since the Big Bang, the ever-expanding universe has constantly been forming different objects, relations, and spawning a nearly infinite variety of parallel worlds.

Freedom from Domination

Although there are a number of religious anti-authoritarian movements and societies, Anarchists influenced by Bakunin often extend their rejection of domination to a rejection of God, who, they say, should be opposed like any other ruler. “[I]f God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him,” argued Bakunin.[19] Newton had invoked a creator, as explained above, to explain the formation of the universe. Contemporary physics, however, offers explanations that seem to enable a satisfying non-theistic physics much like natural selection enables a non-theistic biology. Therefore, contemporary physics, moreso than Newtonian physics, may portray nonhuman nature as lacking a cosmological hierarchy and domination.

In many ways, the solar system and universe appear finely-tuned to support intelligent life, and some have consequently argued that there must have been a conscious creator. If the Earth's orbit were a little less circular and more elliptical, then winter would get too cold and summer too hot for life. If the sun were a little closer or bigger, Earth would be too hot, and if the sun were a little farther or smaller, then Earth would be too cold. Going further, the universe itself has certain conditions that seem “tailor-made to support us,” according to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.[20] Small changes in the forces of nature would prevent carbon, the basis of life as we know it, from forming inside stars and then being distributed through space when the stars explode. If the universe’s strong nuclear force were changed by 0.5% or the electrical force changed by 4%, this would destroy either nearly all carbon or all oxygen in every star. If the weak nuclear force were weaker, all the hydrogen in early universe would have turned to helium and there would be no normal stars. If it were much stronger, exploding stars wouldn’t eject carbon through space.

Theories of contemporary physics--String theory, M theory, and the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics--have led many scientists to believe that our universe is just one of many that exist in a multiverse. Consequently, the existence of a planet "finely-tuned" for life seems statistically likely given the nearly infinite number of planets spread out over multiple universes. M theory says there are as many as 10^500 different universes. As a result, it is much less shocking that at least one solar system, ours, has the apparently miraculous conditions that could support intelligent life. Since there are many different universes and so many different solar systems within each of them, it is more understandable that at least one of solar system can support life, even if the vast majority do not. In response to developments in M theory, Hawking has written, “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”[21] As Darwin's theory of natural selection provided biologists with a non-theological explanation for the apparently unlikely existence of complex life, the multiverse can provide physicists with an explanation for the apparently unlikely existence of the physical conditions necessary for life.

One parallel between contemporary physics and Anarchist theory involves decentralization. Anarchists argue that society should be decentralized so that each community can organize itself; while there is extensive worldwide coordination and mutual aid in Anarchist visions, society has no single center. Likewise, physicists' understanding of the existence of many galaxies suggests that the universe is highly decentralized. Swimme and Tucker explain, "For what we have come to realize is that there is not one center, but millions. Each supercluster of galaxies is at the very center of the expansion of the universe. We live in a multicentered universe and are only now awakening to this new discovery."[22] Theories of the multiverse go even further and suggest that our universe is just one of many. While some traditions may see a particular city or country as the "center" of everything, contemporary scientists' understanding challenges such views and present instead a radically decentralized universe and multiverse.


Self-organization is a process of spontaneous order self-created by the components of a system. These systems can be seen as anarchistic, since they are orderly without having any external governing body. The physicist Hermann Haken lists examples of self-organizing physical systems:

* Formation of spatial, temporal or spatiotemporal patterns. We mention a few examples.

* Lasers: coherent light, self-organization of many atoms

* Nonlinear optics: coherent light, self-focusing, generation of harmonics, coherent Raman and Brillouin scattering, etc.

* Fluid dynamics, gas dynamics: cloud streets, convection instability, Taylor-Couette flow, roll patterns, hexagonal patterns (Bénard cells), weak turbulences, defects, etc.

* Gas discharges: patterns of molecular densities under the impact of electromagnetic fields.

* Plasma physics: density and velocity patterns of partly or fully ionized atoms and electrons in (partly self-organized) electromagnetic fields, instabilities.

* Semi conductors: patterns of electron and hole densities and currents, Gunn-effect, current filaments.

* Astrophysics: formation and structure of planets, stars, galaxies, big bang, voids, etc.

* Meteorology: climatology, cloud formations, cyclones, etc.

* Geophysics / Geodynamics: inner and surface structure of the earth, geodynamo

* Hadron plasmas: formation of hadron plasmas in high energy collisions of hadrons.

* Self-sustained oscillations: can be found in many of the above mentioned fields.

* Radio-engineering and other sources of coherent electromagnet fields: magnetron, clystrons, etc.[23]


Relativity theory marked a shift from the Newtonian worldview of a static, dead universe to a new view of a dynamic, expanding universe in which space and time are interrelated with all the universe's bodies and forces. As Stephen Hawking explains:

Space and time are now dynamic quantities: when a body moves or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time—and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe.[24]

Einstein's concept of relativity came in two parts, a “special theory of relativity” in 1905 and a “general theory of relativity” in 1915. The special theory of relativity responded to James Clerk Maxwell, who had found light travels at the same speed for all observers. The problem with Maxwell's finding was that it could not explain how different people can observe a single beam of light travelling at different speeds. Suppose someone turns on a flashlight on a moving train. A person on the train will see the beam of light move merely from one end of the car to another, but someone standing outside the train will see the beam of light, along with the train, moving many times the length of the car.

How can the speed of light be constant when the two observers saw the same beam of light moving two different differences at apparently the same time? One explanation was that empty space was full of a substance called ether and that the speed of light should be measured in relation to it. When the scientists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley tried to test the ether theory, however, they found no evidence of any such substance existing.

In 1905, Albert Einstein, a “hitherto unknown clerk in the Swiss patent office” published his special theory of relativity, which asserted that the laws of science for all freely moving observers are the same, no matter their speed. One consequence of his theory was that there is no such thing as absolute time. “[I]f the observer on the train shone a flashlight, the two observers would disagree on the distance the light travelled. Since speed is distance divided by time, if they disagree on the distance the light has travelled, the only way for them to agree on the speed is for them to also disagree about the time the trip has taken,. In other words, the theory of relativity requires us to put an end to the idea of absolute time! Instead, each observer must have his own measure of time, as recorded by a clock carried with him, and identical clocks carried by different observers need not agree.”[25]

In 1915, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which unlike the special theory, applied to gravity. The main postulate of Einstein's general theory of relativity was that in small enough regions of space, it is impossible to tell whether you are at rest in a gravitational field or uniformly accelerating in empty space. The far-reaching impacts of this theory can be seen in the “twin paradox”. Suppose one twin boards a spaceship that accelerates to nearly the speed of light and the other twin stays on earth. When the first twin returns from space, she will be younger than the twin who stayed on earth, since she experienced less time than the person who stayed on earth. “Our biological clocks are equally affected by these changes in the flow of time,” explains Hawking.[26]

Einstein's equations imply that the universe contained zero matter at some point in the distant past, about 13.7 billion years ago. In contrast to Newtonian physics, relativity theory implies that the universe is expanding. For all its explanatory power, general relativity could not explain the big bang, when the universe was reduced to a single point. Scientists developed a new branch of physics, quantum mechanics, to explain phenomenon occurring on the very smallest scale.[27]

Holistic implications of relativity?

In a 1950 letter to a grieving father, Einstein himself indicated that he saw the universe as holistic, although he did not specify whether or how this view was related to his scientific research:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe", a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.[28]

The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell thought relativity theory should lead scientists to adopt a form of methodological holism, understanding the world as a collection of processes rather than entirely divisible objects:

From all this it seems to follow that events, not particles, must be the 'stuff' of physics. What has been thought of as a particle will have to be thought of as a series of events....Thus 'matter' is not part of the ultimate material of the world, but merely a convenient way of collecting events into bundles.[29]

Quantum Mechanics

In 1900, the scientist Max Planc argued that light and other electromagnetic waves consisted of packets called quanta. A branch of physics called “quantum mechanics” emerged, which describes what occurs at the smallest scale of the universe. One of the most startling aspects of quantum mechanics is Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which said that the position and velocity of a quantum-scale particle prior to its measurement can never be determined. Heisenberg noted that in order to measure the speed and velocity of any particle, you need to shine a light on it. If you shine a light with a high wavelength, you can measure the particle's velocity but you can't measure its precise location. To find the precise position, you need to use a light with a short wavelength. The problem is that when you shoot light at the particle, the light affects the particle's velocity. The shorter the wavelength, the more the light affects the particle's velocity. So, the more accurately you measure the particle's position, the less accurately you can measure what its velocity was. The uncertainty principle shows that scientists cannot predict with certainty the movement of particles. Hawking writes, “One of the revolutionary properties of quantum mechanics is that it does not predict a single definite result for an observation. Instead, it predicts a number of possible outcomes and tells us how likely each of these is.”[30]

It may be tempting to think that the particle actually has a definite position and velocity all along and that the measurement merely disturbs a particle which had a definite state prior to measurement. Nick Herbert calls this view the “disturbance model”. However, phenomen such as quantum entanglement contradict the disturbance model. The position and velocity of objects are actually probabilistic in a way that has required scientists to explore new conceptions of reality.[31]

Path integral formulation

One of the consequences of the uncertainty principle is the concept of particle-wave duality. The tiniest bits of matter behave both like particles and like waves. Fire electrons — normally thought of as particles — at a wall with two slits, and the electrons will interfere with each other as if they were waves of light. The screen on the other side of the wall will show a pattern that looks like a wave was sent through the two slits. Remarkably, the same result occurs if the electrons are fired one at a time. Hawking and Mlodinow explains, "Each electron, therefore, must be passing through both slits at the same time and interfering with itself!"[32]

Richard Feynman's “path integral formulation” theory provides a framework for understanding how quantum objects can make up larger bodies like basketballs and boomerangs that conform to to classical laws of motion. According to Feynman, each particle takes every possible path in the universe, including through both slits. Hawking and Mlodinow summarize:

“In the double-slit experiment Feynman's ideas mean that particles take paths that go through only one slit or the other; paths that thread through the first slit, back out through the second slit, and then through the first again; paths that visit the restaurant that serves that great curried shrimp, and then circle Jupiter a few times before heading home; even paths that go across the universe and back.[33]

With larger objects, it turns out, paths tend to cancel each other out except for the one predicted by Newtonian physics. Hence large objects move just as Newton's theory predicts they will.[34] Feynman's theory implies that at every moment, you travel everywhere in the universe. In the words of physicist Michio Kaku:

[A]s odd as it may seem, every time you walk across the room, somehow your body 'sniffs out' all possible paths ahead of time, even those extending to the distant quasars and the big bang, and then adds them up... When I first learned of Feynman's point of view as a graduate student, it changed my entire mental picture of the was the idea that I am in some sense sniffing out paths that take me to Mars or to the distant stars as I walk across the room that altered my worldview. Suddenly, I had a strange new mental picture of myself living in a quantum world.[35]

Quantum Entanglement

Two quantum objects can become entangled, in such a way that when one spins in one direction, the other instantly spins in the opposite direction. In 1935, Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen made an argument against quantum mechanics, saying that if two particles were entangled and then shot in opposite directions at a distance, one would have to be able to somehow send information to the other faster than the speed of light. Einstein ridiculed this communication as impossible “spooky action at a distance.”

With “Bell's theorem,” physicist John Stewart Bell calculated that if quantum mechanics were correct the two particles would be correlated one way, while if Einstein and other skeptics were correct the particles would be correlated another way. Experimentation with entangled particles proved the quantum mechanicists correct and Einstein wrong.[36]

The entanglement of particles across the universe implies a much stronger interconnectedness across galaxies than Newtonian physics envisioned. As Kaku writes,

There is a cosmic “entanglement” between every atom of our body and atoms that are light-years distant. Since all matter came from a single explosion, the big bang, in some sense the atoms of our body are linked with some atoms on the other side of the universe in some kind of cosmic quantum web. Entangled particles are somewhat like twins still joined by an umbilical cord (their wave function) which can be light-years across. What happens to one member automatically affects the other, and hence knowledge concerning one particle can instantly reveal knowledge about its pair. Entangled pairs act as if they were a single object, although they may be separated by a large distance. (More precisely, since the wave functions of the particles in the big bang were once connected and coherent, their wave functions might still be partially connected billions of years after the big bang, so that disturbances in one part of the wave function can influence another distant part of the wave function.)[37]

According to Nick Herbert, “Bell's theorem shows that the holistic grammar of the quantum formalism reflects the inseparable nature of reality itself. Beneath phenomena, the world is a seamless whole.”[38] Herbert later concludes:

“Religion assures us that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same deity; biologists say that we are intertwined with all life-forms on this planet: our fortunes rise or fall with theirs. Now physicists have discovered that the very atoms of our bodies are woven out of a superliminal fabric.”[39]

More cautiously, Richard Healey in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, writes, “Superficially, such entanglement of systems already demonstrates nonseparability. At a deeper level, it has been maintained that the puzzling statistics that arise from measurements on entangled quantum systems either demonstrate, or are explicable in terms of, holism or nonseparability rather than any problematic action at a distance”.[40]

Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics

The “Schrödinger's cat” thought experiment helps illustrate a number of ways that quantum physicists understand reality. Suppose that inside of a box, there is a cat, an atom of uranium, a Geiger counter, a hammer, and a bottle of poison gas. If the atom decays, it sets off a Geiger counter which launches the hammer, which breaks the bottle of poison gas, killing the cat. There’s no way to predict ahead of time whether the uranium will decay or not, since the decaying is a quantum event. According to some interpretations, prior to measurement the cat exists in a quantum state, or wavefunction, where it is both alive and dead at the same time.[41]

Rational Wiki warns, “It's best not to take the experiment literally and at face value as that can lead to some extreme misconceptions about quantum mechanics. At best, the superposition can represent our uncertainty and our lack of knowledge about the state of the cat. So the 'dead and alive' interpretation is true only on a metaphysical and probabilistic level—to mistake it as a physical reality for the cat is a different matter entirely.”[42] The article goes on to point out the the cat itself, or even the Geiger counter, can be interpreted as an “observer” that collapses the quantum state well before a scientist opens the box.[43]

Many Worlds Interpretation

The Many Worlds Interpretation, proposed in 1957 by Hugh Everett III, says “the cat is both dead and alive because the universe has split into two. In one universe, the cat is dead; in another universe, the cat is alive. In fact, at each quantum juncture, the universe splits in half, in a never-ending sequence of splitting universes.”[44] Michael Clive Price's The Everett FAQ describes the splitting of worlds during a variation of the Schrodinger thought experiment:

A cat is placed in a sealed box with a device that releases a lethal does of cyanide if a certain radioactive decay is detected...According to many-worlds the device was split into two states (cyanide released or not) by the radioactive decay, which is a thermodynamically irreversible process...As the cyanide/no-cyanide interacts with the cat the cat is split into two states (dead or alive)...The investigator splits when they open the box.[45]

The advantage of the Many Worlds Interpretation is that it does not require the wavefunction to collapse, making it simpler than competing theories like the Copenhagen Interpretation.[46]

Although Bell's theorem does not apply to the Many Worlds Interpretation, Everett's worldview still implies an interconnectedness of things across the universe. Nick Herbert elaborates:

Any model of reality in which a tiny event in the Andromeda galaxy can instantly split my reality into thousands of Xerox copies cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called 'local.'[47]

The Everett worldview has some poetic affinities with the Zapatistas' concept of “a world where many worlds fit” and the alter-globalization slogan “another world is possible”. It also allows for the anthropic principle to explain plausibly how the universe developed the specific conditions for life without divine intervention. See further discussion on the multiverse in the section on “A multiverse without Gods or masters” and in the section on M theory.

Copenhagen Interpretation

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics says that “there is no deep reality” prior to measurement and that it is the act of measurement “collapses” the wavefunction of an object into a definite state. It is measurement, then, that makes the cat either dead or alive.[48] N. David Mermin explains the implication, “we now know that the moon is not there when nobody looks.”[49]

In his 1975 book The Tao of Physics, physicist Fritjof Capra used the Copenhagen interpretation to argue that everything in the universe is connected. The core of his argument rests on the uncertainty principle. Since no one object can exist in a non-quantum state without being observed, Capra argues, no object can be understood in isolation from other the observer.

Quantum theory thus reveals an essential interconnectedness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smaller units. As we penetrate into matter, we find that it is made of particles, but these are not the 'basic building blocks' in the sense of Democritus and Newton. They are merely idealizations which are useful from a practical point of view, but have no fundamental significance. In the words of Neils Bohr, 'Isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interactions with other systems.[50]

Capra's book is controversial among scientists. Rational Wiki gives a literature review:

Many who acknowledged Capra had described quantum physics fairly though his correlations between it and Buddhist mysticism were superficial and silly, and Peter Woit noted the book used quite a bit of out-of-date physics. Physicist John Gribbin described The Tao of Physics as the only purveyor of quantum-based mysticism that had any genuine grasp of quantum physics at all, although the book's physics has been severely criticized by Victor Stenger.[51]

Contrary to Capra, the physicist Steven Weinberg argues the Copenhagen does not preclude a deterministic view of the universe. Even though the position and velocity of a particle cannot be known, Weinberg writes, the wave function can be known: "By repeating measurements many times for the same initial state, you can work out what the wave function in the state must be and use the results to check your theories....Any system is in a definite state whether any humans are observing it or not' the state is not described by a position or a momentum but by a wave function."[52]

However, many quantum physicists appear to share Capra's commitment to a methodology that recognizes the impossibility of reducing the universe into separate, definite objects. Hawking and Mlodinow share Capra's belief that it is impossible to understand any object without understanding how the observer interacts with it and affects it. They explain, “According to quantum physics, you cannot 'just' observe something. That is, quantum physics recognizes that to make an observation, you must interact with the object you are observing.”[53]

David Bohm's interpretation

Offering an alternative to both the Many Worlds Interpretation and the Copenhagen interpretation, David Bohm believes the universe is an undivided whole. He wrote, “One is led to a new notion of unbroken wholeness which denies the classical analyzability of the world into separately and independently existing parts..The inseparable quantum interconnectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality.”[54]

String theory and M theory

While relativity theory describes phenomenon at a large scale and quantum mechanics describes them on a small scale, neither theory can completely explain the universe. Specifically, gravity does not conform to quantum mechanics. Scientists have searched for a quantum theory of gravity that combines the insights of relativity and quantum mechanics.

String theory, invented in the 1960s, attempts to provide a unified theory of physics. It suggests that particles are actually vibrations on strings that are curled up into up to twenty-six dimensions. We never notice the extra dimensions (beyond the four we inhabit: length, width, depth and time), since they are curled up into a million million million million millionth of an inch.[55]

In the 1990s, some physicists decided that string theories all belong to a more fundamental theory called M theory.[56] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow write that M theory is “the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe”.[57] M theory says that there are 11 dimensions and as many as 10^500 parallel universes.[58]

A consequence of there being many universes is that it becomes much more explicable that our solar system (one of many galaxies in many universes) has the very unlikely combination of physical conditions for life to develop. See the discussion in “A multiverse without Gods or Masters”. As with the Many Worlds Interpretation, M theory has an implication of non-local connectedness, where an observer on one end of the universe can spark the formation of a modified replica of the entire universe.

Finally, the existence of further dimensions allows for a possible connectedness unnoticed in the first four dimensions. “If these additional dimensions are appropriately considered spatial, then...processes involving classical springs...would count as (spatiotemporally) nonseparable, even though all particles and their properties conform to spatial separability.”[59]

Chaos theory

A branch of physics involved in “chaos theory” has shown that the universe may be even more spontaneous and resistant to mechanistic explanation than has been previously understood. As Wikipedia notes, chaos theory considers systems (anything from weather to evolution) to follow “widely diverging” patterns that, while deterministic, are impossible to predict."[60] Edward Lorenz summarizes the theory, “Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”[61]

Chaos theory shows that small actions anywhere can affect big changes in distant places, demonstrating the complementary relationship of all things. The famous "Butterfly effect" says that a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking can influence a storm in New York the following month. Knowledge of the effect emerged when Lorenz discovered that a computer simulation of the weather patterns often followed familiar patterns but always with variations. James Gleick summarizes, "But the repetitions were never quite exact. There was a pattern, with disturbances. An orderly disorder."[62]

“Chaos theory does not deny natural order; it denies static equilibrium, and reaffirms Heraclitus' notion of flux...Both relativity and quantum theory imply that the universe is an unbroken whole, and chaos theory does not undermine such a worldview” writes the anarchist Peter Marshall.[63] Hakim Bey argues that chaos theory implies “reality itself subsists in a state of ontological anarchy,” since it means reality “has no 'ruler' and 'no laws'”.[64]


Free will is a concept valued by many if not most anarchists as a premise for the moral necessity of freedom; Malatesta wrote, "[I]f will has no power, if it does not exist, if everything is necessary and cannot happen in another way, then the ideas of freedom, of justice, of responsibility, have no meaning, do not correspond to anything real."[65]

The anarchist David Graeber finds a basis for free will in the philosophical notion of panspsychism, which argues that all matter has at least some basic level of consciousness. As possible evidence for panpsychism, he cites the self-organization and spontaneity of the electromagnetic field, snowflakes, and subatomic particles:

Or more to the point, why are we perfectly willing to ascribe agency to a strand of DNA (however “metaphorically”), but consider it absurd to do the same with an electron, a snowflake, or a coherent electromagnetic field? The answer, it seems, is because it’s pretty much impossible to ascribe self-interest to a snowflake. If we have convinced ourselves that rational explanation of action can consist only of treating action as if there were some sort of self-serving calculation behind it, then by that definition, on all these levels, rational explanations can’t be found. Unlike a DNA molecule, which we can at least pretend is pursuing some gangster-like project of ruthless self-aggrandizement, an electron simply does not have a material interest to pursue, not even survival. It is in no sense competing with other electrons. If an electron is acting freely—if it, as Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, “does anything it likes”—it can only be acting freely as an end in itself. Which would mean that at the very foundations of physical reality, we encounter freedom for its own sake—which also means we encounter the most rudimentary form of play.[66]

The Dispossessed

Ursula Le Guin's science fiction novel The Dispossessed stars a physicist named Shevek who lives on the anarchist planet Anarres. Shevek tries to combine the Theory of Sequency (which saw time as linear) and the Theory of Simultaneity (which saw time as cyclical) into a general theory called the Temporal Theory of Time. "Time goes in cycles, as well as in a line," Shevek explains.[67]

  1. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980).
  2. Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985), xi-xii.
  3. Peter Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchism, trans. David A. Modell, Anarchist Library, 2012,
  4. Errico Malatesta, "Peter Kropotkin: Recollections and Criticisms by One of His Old Friends," trans. Max Nettlau in ed. Davide Turcato, The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 516-517.
  5. translator Ray E. Chase, Rudolf Rocker, Nationalism and Culture (New York: Covici Friede Publishers, 1937), 26.
  6. Rational Wiki, “Quantum Woo,”
  7. Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Palo Alto: Cheshire Books, 1982), 352.
  8. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoric Era (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 71.
  9. Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story, 73.
  10. Stuart Kauffman, Humanity in a Creative Universe (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2016), 41.
  11. David Graeber, "What's the Point if We Can't Have Fun?," The Baffler, January 2014,
  12. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (Boston: Shambhala, 2000), 241.
  13. Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), ch. 5.
  14. Neil D. Theise and Menas C. Kafatos, "Sentience Everywhere: Complexity Theory, Panpsychism & the Role of Sentience in Self-Organization of the Universe," Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research, Vol. 4, no. 4 (2013): 378-390.
  15. Peter Gelderloos, Anarchy Works, see “A Broader Sense of Self” in ch. 1.
  16. Swimme and Tucker, Journey of the Universe, ch. 1.
  17. Herbert, Quantum Reality, 18.
  18. Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, 352.
  19. Bakunin, God and the State,
  20. Hawking and Mlodinow, Grand Design, ch. 7.
  21. Laura Roberts, "Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe," The Telegraph, 02 September 2010,
  22. Swimme and Tucker, Journey of the Universe, ch. 1.
  23. Hermann Haken, "Self-Organization," Scholarpedia (2008): accessed 22 May 2017,
  24. Stephen Hawking with Leonard Mlodinow, A Briefer History of Time (New York: Bantam, 2005), 48.
  25. Hawking, Briefer History, 33.
  26. Hawking, Briefer History, 48.
  27. Hawking and Mlodinow, Briefer History.
  28. Albert Einstein, Letter to Robert S. Marcus, 12 February 1950,
  29. Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 832.
  30. Hawking, Briefer History, 92.
  31. Herbert, Quantum Reality, xiii-xiv. "Bell's theorem has immensely clarified the quantum reality question. For instance we now know for certain that no local model (such as my naive disturbance model) can explain the quantum facts.”
  32. Hawking and Mlodinow, A Briefer History of Time, 98.
  33. Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design ch. 4.
  34. Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, ch. 4. See also Michio Kaku, Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 163.
  35. Kaku, Parallel Worlds, 164.
  36. Kaku, Parallel Worlds, 174-6.
  37. Kaku, Parallel Worlds, 176-177.
  38. Herbert, Quantum Reality, 242.
  39. Herbert, Quantum Reality, 250.
  40. Richard Healey, “Holism and Nonseparability in Physics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 10 December 2008,
  41. Kaku, Parallel Worlds.
  42. Rational Wiki, “Schrödinger's cat,”ödinger's_cat.
  43. Rational Wiki, "Schrödinger's Cat".
  44. Kaku, Parallel Worlds, 168.
  45. Michael Clive Price, "The Everett FAQ," 1995,
  46. ibid.
  47. Herbert, Quantum Reality, 242.
  48. Herbert, Quantum Reality, 16.
  49. Herbert, Quantum Reality, 17.
  50. Capra, The Tao of Physics, 137.
  51. Rational Wiki, “Quantum woo.”
  52. Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 79.
  53. Hawking and Mlodinow, Grand Design, ch. 4.
  54. Herbert, Quantum Reality, 18.
  55. Hawking, Briefer History, 125-129.
  56. Hawking and Mlodinow, Grand Design, ch. 5.
  57. Hawking and Mlodinow, Grand Design, ch. 8.
  58. Hawking and Mlodinow, Grand Design, ch. 5.
  59. Healey, “Holism and Nonseparability in Physics”.
  60. Wikipedia, “Chaos theory.” Accessed 25 December 2015.
  61. Wikipedia, “Chaos theory.” Accessed 25 December 2015.
  62. James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 8.
  63. Peter Marshall, Nature's Web: Rethinking Our Place on Earth (New York: Paragon House, 1994), 382, 384.
  64. Hakim Bey, “Quantum Mechanics & Chaos Theory: Anarchist Meditations on N. Herbert's Quantum Reality,” The Anarchist Library.
  65. Malatesta, "Peter Kropotkin," 516.
  66. Graeber, "What's the Point if We Can't Have Fun?"
  67. Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 223.