One of Houellebecq’s more endearing juvenile enthusiasms is his passion for quantum mechanics, his admiration for the physicist Niels Bohr, and his belief that culture has not yet caught up with the mind-blowing implications of 20th-century theoretical physics. In a typical 1995 interview with Jean-Yves Jouannais and Christophe Duchâtelet, the author warns: “We’re moving towards disaster, guided by a false image of the world; and no one realizes.” The problem, Houellebecq thinks, is that “we’re stuck in a mechanistic and individualistic view of the world,” as a result of which, he predicts, “we will die.”
Of course, many physicists and philosophers of science have themselves grappled with the problem of how to preserve what is sometimes called “the manifest image” of the world, while also accepting the reality of such puzzling phenomena as quantum superposition. Many believe our minds are simply so evolved as to keep us constantly convinced of the reality of midsized physical objects, of individual humans and animals, of all that is “manifest,” even if our best theory tells us it’s all in fact a lot more complicated than that. If failure to think in consistently quantum-theoretical terms leads to death, one would want to ask Houellebecq what it’s like to pass one’s time in a state of such profound enlightenment that even Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger only dipped into it as their work required. But of course Houellebecq is in no such state. He is not living each moment in full light of the implications of quantum theory, and his insistence that we must do so reminds us more of the common than of the exceptional quality of his mind.