Political economy through the quantum: uncertainty, entanglement, and superposition

Quantum physics: abstract illustration of waves and particles by Gerd Altmann from https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=380050&picture=00034-quantum-physics (CC0 Public Domain)

Event details


Date & time

Tuesday 13 June 2023


Seminar Room 1.04 Coombs Extension Building #8 Fellows Road ANU


Wesley Widmaier

Richard Feynman famously argued that “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Indeed, this may be the case if we think first through the lens of the subatomic quantum world. Quantum perspectives highlight the importance of uncertainty (as only incomplete and indeterminate understandings of a system are possible), of superpositioning (as particles in a system can exist in multiple positions), and entanglement (as particles in and observers of systems cannot be described in abstraction from one another – with measurement choices themselves affecting experimental outcomes). This all seems at odds with everyday experiences – leading us to embrace Feynman’s scepticism - as well as Niels Bohr’s similar view that quantum mechanics are “fundamentally incomprehensible.”

However, quantum mechanics might seem much more comprehensible if we accept David Orrell’s argument that there exists another quantum system – the economy (particularly in its financial and monetary aspects). Here we see an everyday, real world system that is best understood in terms of uncertainty, entanglement and superpositioning. Keynesian economists in particular stress the weight of uncertainty regarding economic trends, cast economic interactions as entangled in “macro” contexts, and treat agent preferences as superpositioned in the context of “animal spirits” that drive overlapping emotional imperatives.

Consider that house prices are marked by uncertainty over appropriate valuations, can be assigned a range of superpositioned values, are entangled with the values of surrounding properties, and are only revealed when they are “measured” in a sale.

Developing these insights, this talk will address potential implications of quantum theory for economic theory – and, to paraphrase Feynman – suggest that “if you can understand Keynesian economics, then you can understand quantum theory.”

About the Speaker

Wesley Widmaier is Professor in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU. His research addresses the interplay of wars, crises, and change – and the ways in which stability can cause instability, a concern that spans International Political Economy and International Security debates.

COVID protocols

The ANU strongly encourages you to keep a mask with you at all times (for use when COVID-19 safe behaviours are not practicable) and to be respectful of colleagues, students and visitors who may wish to continue to wear one. Please continue to practice good hygiene. If you are unwell, please stay home. The ANU’s COVID Safety advice can be accessed here.

This seminar presentation will be in-person only.

Image credit: Quantum physics: abstract illustration of waves and particles by Gerd Altmann from publicdomainpictures.net (CC0 Public Domain).

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