Existential Diabetes

I’ve been reading a book about quantum physics the past few weeks, and the far-reaching ideas about determinism versus probabilities, separable states versus entangled states, and the notion that everything we see as tangible in our world is essentially a collection of vibrational waves, is utterly fascinating. It’s a book tailored for people like myself who find the concepts fascinating, but have an appallingly low level of scientific knowledge (if there is such a thing as reincarnation, next time I’m coming back as a theoretical physicist — what a tremendous field of inquiry it is!). Perhaps that’s why I’m in such a philosophical, introspective mood this week. But whatever the reason, the ideas that started swirling in my head after reading about these concepts have inspired my inner philosopher to write!

Determinism versus probability
Einstein, in response to the stunning discoveries of the way atoms behave (specifically, the fuzzy, impossible-to-pin-down behaviors of electrons within the atom in which specific location is impossible to articulate, and where “entangled states” exist where seemingly opposing dualities really do exist simultaneously), gave the famous quote, “God does not play dice with the universe.” To which quantum physics responded, “Well, yes, [he, she, it] kind of DOES!” In fact, many of the early pioneers of quantum physics regretted their discoveries — not because they failed to become scientifically useful, or because they failed in experimentation to prove their hypothesis, but because the ideas DID prove to be true. When those ideas proved true, centuries of Newtonian physical laws were upended, and along with it the determinist worldview that accompanied those sanctified laws. Quantum theory presented an existential, spiritual, and moral crisis for many people on the front lines of scientific research.


At the core of the upheaval was the discovery of what has been dubbed a “probabilistic” rather than a “determinist” understanding of physics. The details are too deep to go into here (and like I said, the book I was reading managed to give details, but obviously the authors worked very hard to translate the dense mathematical ideas into sentences a non-scientist might understand), but the gist is that the behaviors on the very small, quantum scale (that is, the scale of the inner workings of the atom) are inherently based on probabilities rather than clearly defined chains of cause and effect.

For example, an individual photon (a light particle) may or may not be reflected off a pane of glass as part of a large “wave” of photons. All of the photons are structurally the same, and scientists haven’t detected any reason or mechanism within photons that would logically dictate whether an individual photon passes through or is reflected — leading to the realization that it is mere chance that will determine each photon’s fate. And yet, if you stood in front of that same pane of glass, with the same lighting, the same percentage of them will be reflected every time. In other words, every time, 20% might be reflected, while 80% would pass through. And so somehow this quantum world of probability and chance adds up to a macro world of apparent predictability and chains of perceived cause and effect! There are countless other examples of weird, fuzzy, and head-scratching behaviors in the atomic realm, but this a diabetes blog, so I should probably leave it at just one physics example. (If your curiosity is piqued, the book I’ve been reading is Quantum Physics for Poets, and I highly recommend it).

This core idea of probability versus determinism really resonated with me as I thought about living with diabetes. There’s the obvious practical fact that we live with probabilities everyday. Every Diabetian can tell you that managing blood sugar is all about probabilities. Eighty-five percent of the time, X amount of insulin for Y amount of carbs after Z amount of exercise will equal a number between 90 and 120. But then there’s that 15% of the time when it might yield 55 or 201. Dealing with that probabilistic pattern is just a part of dealing with diabetes.

But this idea speaks to me on an existential level, too. I, like all of you, have asked myself “why” I ended up with diabetes. And like everyone, I have an inherent drive to find a logical, X-leads-to-Y-leads-to-diabetes reason for it. And that drive is not a bad thing. It has given us the great religions of the world, the arts, scientific investigation, and more. But there is a limit to the answers that drive can provide — just as there is a limit to the cause-and-effect world of Newtonian physical laws that came crashing down on the quantum level. We, too, have a level at which we must acknowledge that reasoning, concrete cause and effect, and determinism falls short. At that level, we must simply acknowledge that we are that percentage who inherited diabetes. We are the percentage of that great probability wave of human lives that must live with this. And while meaning can certainly be found, while diabetes can teach us many things, and while we can live wisely and contemplatively with diabetes, when all is said and done I have to tip my hat to chance and acknowledge that in a fundamental way, I’m simply doing my best to live with the roll of the cosmic dice.

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  • Mike Powner

    Great article **