About fifteen years ago I read a book that is now almost thirty 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 epistemic 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. Those who want to continue extracting and burning fuels pretend they can do it for ever. Those who want to take “bold action” will bulldoze ahead without actually considering whether their “solutions” will end up making things much worse and whether it’s wise to ram policies through on a global scale, endowing governments and tech industry giants with limitless power over all of us with no guarantee we can ever back out if/when we realize they got something very wrong or lied to us (both of which governments and corporations do so well). Maybe there are newer more creative ways to solve problems. Maybe we can get people who disagree to brainstorm together. 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.”
[photo by energepic-com from Pexels]