A New Uncertainty Principle: Some Uncertainty In Your Principles Is Good

Uncertainty PrincipleThe world is on the brink of economic – and perhaps ecological – disaster. Instead of looking at the possibilities with some humility, there are people, with real power, raring to push their long-beloved ideologies harder than ever.I want to make a humble plea: stop being so certain about everything.

About ten years ago I read a book that is now more than twenty years old, from which I gleaned (apart from very cool bits of information about dynamic systems and other macrophysical phenomena) a very simple lesson.

The book was James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of New A Science. The lesson was that certainty and clarity are not synonymous. Not even close.

I think this is true not only of trajectories and attractors, but also of knowledge itself. In fact, when it comes to knowledge (and the epistemological processes we have to use to know or to make any sense at all of the undifferentiated mass that is our life and our universe), you might go so far as to say that certainty and clarity seem to have an inversely proportional relationship. I made some marginal notes in my copy of Chaos. On page 41, I wrote: “theory makes you see things. Theory makes you miss things.” All abstractions – theory, language, measurement, description – are necessarily approximations and reductions. When you think about that, the expectation that our theories would infallibly fit reality – or worse, that reality would “fit” our theories – is simply ridiculous.

Far greater intellects than mine have acknowledged this conundrum. Albert Einstein said of mathematics (one of our most powerful epistemological tools) “as far as laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are uncertain and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Werner Heisenberg pointed out that our observations are not so much “nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of inquiry.”

Yet, although analysis, abstraction, and theoretical filters destroy the gestaltic reality of things, without those methods we would understand very little about anything. In fact, speaking of Chaos Theory, let’s not forget it was mathematical analysis that revealed the vast descriptive validity of nonlinear patterns, which prior mathematical/theoretical filters had treated as “error.”

It’s scary how many people insist on sticking to their ideological guns in the face of real disaster. I’m talking to you, free market purists and climate change deniers!  Whatever the cognitive devices we use to learn about our world, all of our learning stops being useful and may even become dangerous when we forget that our theories are just tools that point to reality, with varying degrees of success, but they are not reality themselves.

Alfred Korzybski said it better: “the map is not the territory.”

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