Category Archives: Philosophy

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

Looks like we might be in for another economic downturn. We’re inching ever closer to 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 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]

The Properties of Property and the Reality of Reality

I was talking yesterday to a friend about my concerns regarding assertions of absolute private “property rights” over stuff taken out of the public domain. My friend, an architect by training, is vehemently opposed to anything that remotely resembles a restraint on commerce and wealth accumulation. She describes herself as “nearly objectivist.” She says she was “a typical liberal intellectual” when she first started studying architecture some twenty years ago. Then, in the Autumn of 1991, she read a little book about a brilliant fictional architect, that turned her around. (That book, if you haven’t guessed, was Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”).

Anyway, she was irritated by my suggestion that any such thing as a “public domain” existed. I tried to press her to consider whether perhaps some things could be considered “commons” (the rivers, the airwaves, the last of the old growth forests, some designated public spaces. . .).“There is no such thing as ‘commons,’” she snapped. “Things don’t exist just because you say they do.”It’s not the first time I have heard statements in this vein. And she’s right to assert that “commons” is purely a construct. It’s nothing more than a proposition I am considering. It was made up by humans who think it might be a useful way to organize our relationship to the world.

But what struck me about my friend’s reaction is her utter failure – or refusal – to recognize that there is also no such thing as “private property” EXCEPT THAT WE SAY THERE IS! It’s fine to argue that “private property” is a more useful or desirable construct than “commons” but to pretend that one is a fabrication and the other is something “natural” is absolutely baseless.

Ultimately, what’s more important in property theory (a) that we all – really and substantively – have the ability to prosper as best as our talents and efforts will allow us without hindering someone else’s ability to do the same or (b) that we have a philosophically pure fantasy of limitless acquisition, even as in reality wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?

Keep in mind, that it is modern capitalism, with all its built in public oversight and limits, that has made more people prosperous than any economic system in the history of civilization. In fact, the longest period of sustained economic robustness characterized by wealth proliferation (rather than concentration) was in postwar, post-New Deal United States. By contrast, the objectivist dream was lived out in the 19th Century, when staggering amounts of wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few Robber Barons.

Just to clarify:
*I’m not arguing against private property. For the record, I do think private property and many aspects of capitalism are useful. I just think that, like most human-made systems, they are flawed, and should be evaluated pragmatically, and modified as necessary.

* To the extent that I would entertain the idea of limiting private property rights it would only be with respect to the world’s finite natural resources, air, water, land. . . . frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. . . NOT property rights in stuff you create yourself (although, most things you create require some natural resources; but that’s beyond the scope of this post).

* Even though I like the idea of “commons” – I like it only in a limited sense, and even then, I don’t claim to know where the lines should be drawn. I am just interested in exploring the idea.

* I understand that even if we figure out the perfect balance between private property and the public commons, there will always be a question as to who gets to administer “public” resources. Governments theoretically represent the public interest, but I think we all know better.

Before you dismiss the entire line of inquiry as either “basic” or “radical” I urge you to consider this: no one has ever made great – or even particularly interesting – leaps in knowledge without going back to first principles. I’m not saying generally accepted first principles have to be abandoned before you can have any insight. I’m saying there has to be a willingness to question them. No matter how good a theory has been in describing the world, as evidence of its weakness starts to pile up, you have to be willing to revisit it. Even Newtonian physics had to make way when Einstein came along with a theory that explained things better at a more complex level. And Newtonian physics gave a much, much better description of real-world phenomena than does classical free-market economic theories.

One or other economic system is not a “natural” order just because it makes use of some recognizable facts about human behavior (any more than basketball is a natural order just because the athletes’ movements and the trajectory of the ball follow certain laws of physics). It’s a game we made up to serve our own purposes. It’s inane to place the rules of a game we invented beyond our own ability to revise and correct when it no longer serves our purpose as well as it could.

There are significant gaps in our understanding of human nature and how best to order our economic relationships. We routinely treat our theories (private property, money, present-value-discounting, etc.) as gospel truth, and we sometimes treat the world’s refusal to comply with our models as an irrational failing on the part of world, instead of as a failing on the part of our economic theologies! As I said in another recent post, our conceptions of reality should always be recognized as such and never taken for reality itself. Reality will always be complex beyond our full comprehension. Our approach toward it will always be asymptotic.

What we can do, as Jacob Bronowski suggested many years ago, is to get at incrementally better and better approximations of some aspect of reality and with each step, open up vast new frontiers of reality about which we know absolutely nothing.