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On Uncertainty

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To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it. - Bertrand Russell

I've been thinking a lot lately about uncertainty. The past century, and more pointedly, our current world climate, is absolutely shot-through with it. It is the ideological elephant in the room... everyone is taking drastic measures to cope with it, all the while doing everything they can to avoid facing up to the thing itself. To me, Heisenberg's discovery may well be the most important, as well as the least assimilated idea of the last one hundred years. Philosophy has barely addressed it, and, more practically, we still haven't learned to deal with the realities that it opens up. I fear that until we do, we'll never be able to truly move on and live stably and peacably in the chaotic world we have created. In an uncertain time, we must embrace uncertainty on some level or consign ourselves to chaos and failure. So, what does Heisenberg mean, and why is it important? The gist, in scientific terms, is this:

The more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known.

Sounds simple, right? The implications are rather earth-shattering though. A little context: at the end of the 19th century, a strongly materialist, mechanistic worldview was beginning to come to the fore. Darwin had shown that, with little doubt, the laws of nature applied to us just as inexorably as they do to everything else. It was thought that the end of physics, and by extension the end of uncertainty, was within sight, and that the laws of the universe, soon to be fully known, would eventually allow us to predict the future, given enough information about the present.

This is a lot of what the 19th century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, were on about. Russia was in a bit of a unique situation, as it had traditionally been a feudal, spiritual, mystical sort of society, which had had the enlightenment and all of its implications suddenly thrust upon it by Czar Peter the Great. Even 150 years later, thoughtful people were still struggling to assimilate the contrasting worldviews, and to a Russian outlook shaped by this context, determinism was much more disturbing than it was to the average European intellectual at that time. Dostoevsky was horrified by rational self interest and the "Crystal Palace" of positivist thought because he (rightly) saw that if this worldview were totally true, it meant cutting out a large part of what makes us human; the loss of imagination, of spirituality, and ultimately, of freedom.

Tolstoy was more well-versed in western science, and in his younger years was a materialistic atheist. Later, he found it lacking, went through a nervous breakdown of sorts, and founded his own prophetic variant of Christianity. The great Russians were seekers, humanists in a grander sense of the word, in that they thought human imagination, belief, spirituality, and freedom in some way transcend cold reason and scientific certainty.

Of course, this wasn't merely a Russian phenomenon, though the Russians made the terms most clear in their work. European Romanticism in general, and the American variant, Transcendentalism, were also rebellions of the spirit and imagination against the rigor and limitations that science seemed to personify. Whitman's "When I heard a Learn'd Astronomer" is a representative example of what I'm getting at, and Thoreau's whole ouvre is the more practical, philosophical side of the same coin.

Looking back, late Victorian-era determinism was a very hubristic outlook, but at the time it all seemed fairly reasonable. Nothing much new was on the horizon, and existing theory worked for almost every practical situation that the physicists had encountered. This general belief in the inevitability of determinism and the approaching end of physics continued for quite awhile, but chinks started to gradually show up in its armor.

New, strange discoveries started to pop up, such as the Curies' work with radioactivity, and Roentgen's discovery of X-rays in the 1890's. Albert Einstein struck the first truly major blow, with general relativity. However, this was still compatible with an ordered, deterministic universe, it was simply a more subtle and complicated way of looking at it, which was easy enough to eventually assimilate with the old Newtonian views of motion (though not so easy to assimilate philosophically, a predicament which arguably helped in the rise of relativist postmodernism in the stead of the one-way, natural-law-centric path of logical positivism.) However, it was Heisenberg and his fellow discoverers of quantumn mechanics who would truly throw physics (and who should have also thrown philosophy) into disarray.

Basically, Heisenberg's discovery removed the spectre of determinism from the scene once and for all. Free will was vouchsafed forever, by a strange quirk in the measurability of subatomic particles. Since we could never know both the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time, the best we could do was a probability-based guess at where the particle might be at the next measurement. Thus, we would never be able to get all the information required to absolutely predict the future of complex systems (such as consciousness or history) and remove the human conception of free will from the equation of choice.

Paradoxically, uncertainty had saved human freedom, and perhaps human spirituality, once and for all. We could never know absolutely, and thus there would always be a chance for novelty, variation, imagination. This should have been occasion for rejoicing. Nature had provided a way out, a way to reconcile Romanticism with Positivism, art with science, reason with emotion, human-centric conceptions of the universe with observable reality, and without giving up either one entirely.

However, it didn't quite work out that way, and I'm not exactly sure why. There was definitely something deeply disturbing to both camps about there being a fundamental randomness or ineffability at the heart of reality. This is an old idea, and, instructively, things shook out in a similar fashion the last time it came up.

Way back in Hellenistic Greece, Epicurus (picking up where Democritus left off) postulated a universe made up of atoms falling through a void, with life, action, and choice made possible by a randomness inherent in some of the atoms, which he called "The Swerve." This conception eventually lost out to the Platonic and Aristotelian visions, which roughly approximate the later idealist Romantics and realist Positivists.

On the scientific side, the reason for tumult and denial was fairly obvious, best exemplified in Einstein's famous "God does not play dice" quip. An ordered and predictable universe was the bedrock principle upon which all research rested. For the Romantic or spiritual side, it was probably more diffuse... perhaps for some just a failure to understand the significance and implications of the discovery, for others an aesthetic distaste for a "flawed," imperfect reality (hearkening back to the desire for perfect Platonic ideals), for the more spiritually minded, some thorny clashes with accepted dogma (though to me, quantum uncertainty is one of those things in science that is so weird that it almost makes the idea of God, or at least some sort of distributed universal guiding intelligence, sound plausible, because this somehow happening on its own, and also just coincidentally turning out to be a backdoor for the preservation of our ideas of free will and inquiring intelligence, is just plain wacky.)

After the old generation of Newtonians had died off, science managed to assimilate uncertainty into its worldview rather readily, if not very completely (the main problem in physics to this day is the attempt to find a reconciliation between quantumn mechanics and Newtonian/relativistic mechanics.) Taking off from Popper and Kuhn, science studies even managed to produce a new worldview in which science wasn't an infallible religion, but rather just another way of looking at the world, subject to the same sort of limitations of the rest of our constructs, albeit one which is quite useful for many of our purposes. However, philosophy and literature seemingly failed here. At any rate, nobody I've read has ever really managed to philosophically address both relativity and uncertainty, in terms of knowledge, ideas, choice, and existence, in a satisfying way.

Camus and Kierkegaard came close to what I'm getting at, but ultimately backed off. They both posited the absurd as man's reaction to uncertainty. Kierkegaard looked at the leap of faith, the embracing of God despite the lack of proof, as the absurd man's reaction to an uncertain world. Camus went a step farther, abandoning God and embracing the absurd in of itself, in the form of the struggle to know and create, regardless of its ultimate futility in terms of ever being able to attain absolute certainty or permanence. Neither went so far as to question the very desire for certainty that they were trying to deal with.

Pragmatism and other forms of postmodern thought, with greater or lesser degrees of success, embraced relativism and attacked the problem by using it in attempt to eliminate the idea of certainty altogether, an approach I embrace, though with reservations.

I don't think any of them really attack it from the angle I prefer though, in which uncertainty serves to empower human beings to write their own narratives. This is sort of a synthesis of Existential and Pragmatic/Postmodernist thought, and does show up somewhat, though obliquely, in the postmodern fiction of Eco, Nabokov, and Borges. I don't think we should abandon the idea of certainty altogether, but we should treat it as exactly that, as one way at looking at things, as an ideal, human-imposed benchmark from which we can measure the deviation of reality, much as scientists already use ideal systems as a tool in order to better understand more chaotic real ones.

The key is to acknowledge uncertainty, to even praise it as a necessary prerequisite for a good human life. Without uncertainty, there would be very little in the way of possibility, wonder, or discovery, and of course, no freedom, no choice, no autonomy. The search for knowledge and understanding consumes us, and we tell ourselves that we want it to end with complete certainty, but have we really thought that desire through? What would we do if there was nothing more to strive for, nothing more to learn... if there were no more suprises?

I think despair and gradual mass suicide would be the more likely outcome in that case, as opposed to the usual claptrap about perpetual contented bliss. Human beings don't deal very well with stasis and contentment in large doses. We need to struggle, to grope blindly in the dark, to be thrilled and awed once in awhile. We may be rational animals, but I don't think we're by any means wholly rational, or that we should ever want to be. Uncertainty, both in terms of physics and philosophy, guarantees that we will never have to face such a difficult ultimate choice, to have to choose between the human heart and the human mind. And because of that, the associated slings and arrows are ultimately worth it.

Russell was right. If philosophy and literature have taught me anything, it's the ability to be comfortable with, and at times to even revel in uncertainty. This is of course much easier when it comes to abstract matters, but enough of the temperament carries over to everyday life that I am willing to accept more risks and unknowns than most in trade for the possibilities these realities open up. As a global society, I feel strongly that we need to take a similar approach, both in terms of our ideas and beliefs, and in terms of our more concrete social and political realities.

We may not have certainty about many of the big questions, but life would be infinitely less rich if we did. The joy is in the search, even if the ultimate and complete solution is actually foreordained by the subatomic structure of the universe to be elusive. This is the first, and perhaps the only, lesson of philosophy.

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