'Breaking Bad' and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
The wildly popular television show "Breaking Bad," ends its run this evening. Rumor has it The End is truly apocalyptic. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise, given the moral anarchy affecting most of the characters.
For those unfamiliar with the show, the lead character, Walter White, is a seemingly mild-mannered chemistry teacher who is confronted with a diagnosis of cancer. He decides to defray his medical expenses by putting his skills as a chemist to work cooking up batches of crystal meth. His product is so pure and profitable that he soon makes more money than he ever dreamed of.
But the consequence of operating illegal meth laboratories means his conventional morality gradually metastasizes into the moral cancer of the drug subculture, where raw violence and power are symptomatic of diseased ethics. The dark side of White's "success' begins to reveal itself in unforeseeable and tragic ways. White finds his traditional views of morality infinitely flexible as greed and power take over. His old mores prove to be shallowly rooted in unexamined custom and vague assumptions amounting to cruise control of the soul. The fragility of his societal norms becomes quickly apparent.
While the show supplies fascinating entertainment as well as intellectual stimulation, it also offers us some clues as to why the West's moral compass is completely out of kilter.
The reason the times, and with them, Walter White's moral code, are out of joint is that the West has taken interpretations of scientific observations as infallible measures of humanity's morals. Neither revelation, nor tradition, and certainly not religion in general are to be guides for human behavior.
White's code name in the drug underworld is "Heisenberg," an identity that enables White to become virtually invisible to the rest of normal society, much like the subatomic particles Werner Heisenberg attempted to examine. But the name "Heisenberg," Walter White's other identity, becomes fraught with meanings Werner Heisenberg never attributed to his findings.
What happened is that the meaning of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, like Einstein's theory of relativity before it, moved from its basis in the scientific method, which is a tool for examining material reality, to speculative philosophy and theology. Both theories became in the minds of philosophers and some theologians reasons for new rules for moral behavior. The interpretations then disseminated gradually into common culture, disestablishing the Judeo/Christian idea of an overarching, absolute and understandable, universal moral grid. Both theories were translated as meaning that all morality is relative and indeterminate. Only the individual gives meaning to the situation in which he finds himself, and even that meaning is tenuous, liable to change at any moment like quixotic quarks.
Truth, then, is utterly dependent on the way the individual sees his circumstances. The individual can, with supposed impunity, act one way at one time, and entirely a different way at another, and who is to judge him? Popular misconceptions of the meaning of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the theory of relativity eventually produced commonly held concepts of the Left, including multiculturalism and the pop culture mantras, "You can be anything you want to be" and "Everything is relative."
As John Lienhart notes: "The riddle of the cat [Schrodinger] begins with Heisenberg's Uncertainty idea: the most precise measurement we could ever make would be to shoot one photon of light at a moving object. But even so delicate a peek will change the position and motion we're trying to measure. At best, you always measure with some uncertainty.
That's easy enough to understand. But an awesome subtlety turns it into a new tenet of scientific faith. It makes precise measurement unthinkable. And that means we no longer have reason for thinking the world has any ultimate precision to measure.
So we take the last terrible step. We admit the world is indeterminate."Believing the world is indeterminate in every respect inevitably leads to believing all morality is indeterminate. Morality is thus made up on the fly to fit any particular situation he or she finds him/herself in. Moral truth is relative to the situation.
The result is that Walter White, aka "Heisenberg," becomes both victim and perpetrator of moral chaos. His moral confusion gradually destroys not only him, but the social and relational structures he lives in and with. Family, friends and all the structures that formerly gave his life meaning and worth explode before his eyes as the "make it up as you go" morality of the criminal underworld to which he gradually devotes his life takes over. It is not hard to find examples of moral indeterminancy and relativity in the worlds of politics, religion and social mores.
If Walter White were the former Secretary of State, he would say "what difference does it make" now that four brave people are dead and the observed situation is now changed. He would also blame a video for the Benghazi uprising because that would be the preferred, made up "reality" at the moment.
If Walter White were our president, he would see a red line in Syria's actions one day; and the next he would see an opportunity for "diplomatic" solutions. In his mind, the red line would no longer exist if more political capital could be found by taking a different path. If he were president, he could at one moment claim Israel is a valuable ally and friend while at the same time seeking negotiations with an Iranian leader determined to exterminate Jews and Israel.
If Walter White were a Palestinian radical, he would draw the Middle East map without the nation of Israel on it, as his reality wouldn't allow the country to exist.
If Walter White were an activist in the bisexual movement, sometimes he would feel like having sex with a woman; and sometimes he would feel like having sex with a man. The act chosen would depend on the circumstances, and both would be valid choices.
If Walter White were a "pro-choice" advocate, sometimes the unborn fetus is a baby and sometimes it isn't. It all depends on circumstances. It depends on whether or not the mother wants to have the baby.
If Walter White were running for the office of senator of Massachusetts, he could declare himself to be a Cherokee even though his genetic makeup was white.
And so on.
In brief, moral relativity and indeterminancy deny the existence of a natural moral law applicable universally. To put it another way, Heisenberg, falsely accused of endorsing Nazi pseudo-scientific principles because he worked on the Reich's atomic bomb project, did not believe there might exist a hidden explicatory reality that inexorably affects the subatomic world. White does not believe there is a universal moral grid affecting the behavior of humanity.
The Judeo/Christian world view declares a moral grid exists despite those who deny its existence. It proclaims that consequences follow hard upon the heels of those who defy the moral law. As surely as the force of gravity will dash a man who jumps off a cliff to pieces on rocks below; so, too, is a man's soul wrecked if he willfully defies the moral law written into the universe and the human heart by a personal God, creator of all.
Of course, as White discovers, moral ambivalence is the guarantor of moral anarchy leading to personal and national disintegration. Slowly, inexorably, he is ground down under the weight of his immoral choices. It proves impossible for him to create what is essentially moral anti-matter, as his choices do not annihilate the moral grid that formerly held him together and made some sense of his world. Instead, his choices annihilate him. His foray into a new morality chosen by his Heisenberg persona causes him to run completely amok.
It is supremely ironic that White creates by means of following the inexorable laws of chemistry and physics, frozen clouds of ice blue, pure crystal meth that rain down money. But he is forced to suffer the consequences of defying the moral law as surely as defiance or ignorance of the laws of chemistry and physics would produce a chemically impure mess. The perfect methamphetamine -- 96% pure, blue as the sky and innocent looking as clear, cool water -- turns out to be pure poison. The devastation the perfect high the meth produces are written on the ravaged faces of the addicts and sellers alike. Lives are completely destroyed by ice blue purity that permanently dyes black the souls of those who make and sell it.
Walter White seeks to consign definitive moral categories to irrelevancy. He tries to make new categories of morality relative only to the situation at hand. The moral imperative, pure and absolute, is sacrificed to the gods of expediency, money, and power.
The moral indeterminancy that characterizes Walter White's saga is not confined to the characters in a television show, as noted above. Relative morality and moral uncertainty afflict nearly every American institution, including political organizations; and perhaps most sadly, many churches which at one time defended universal morality.
The vacillating and destructive compass of moral indeterminancy wrongly inferred from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle can be set right, but only by a certain moral compass, the true North of God's commandments, revealed authoritatively by a Being who infuses the universe and the hearts of mankind with inexorable laws. Denial of those laws leads to destructive moral rot that corrupts the soul.
It is only by returning to that God, whose righteous and moral character is written on the heart of every human being, that humanity can begin to right the moral anarchy presently destroying the West's institutions.
But the way back to rectitude, personal and societal, can and must be led by the Church, guardian and conservator of spiritual and moral truth.
Fay Voshell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org