The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty

Uncertainty is one of our biggest issues today. With so many changes happening in the world, and with nobody in charge appearing to know how to deal with them, the uncertainty of it all can feel overwhelming.

However, it appears that some people are oblivious to the larger issue here while pushing their own dubious agenda. Some business people and politicians – especially Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner – claim that businesses can’t operate unless we “remove the shackles of uncertainty.”  Boehner says:

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration isn’t taking small business owners’ concerns seriously.  Last month, the Treasury Department launched “a full-fledged effort to knock back Republican claims that overregulation is slowing down economic growth” (Politico, 10/24/11), arguing in a Treasury Department blog post that one of the “most commonly repeated misconceptions” is that “uncertainty created by proposed regulations is holding back business investment and hiring.”  Yesterday’s report confirms what small business owners have already made clear: “complying with government regulations is the most important problem facing them today.”

Apparently, in these folks’ eyes small businesses are in no way affected by the uncertainties related to (among other things) energy costs, credit availability in the wake of our recent financial meltdown, consumer confidence and ability to pay for what those businesses offer, potential economic and/or political crises in other parts of the world that could affect the American economy, vulnerability to the stray extreme weather event – possibly or not caused by global warming – which could wipe out their business or at least increase their insurance on it, and the potential for chaos arising out of the political mischief playing out in Washington and caused by these politicians themselves.

Nope, according to them the primary concern these small businesses have is with government regulations. Get rid of them, and everything would be swell.  (Hmmm, isn’t inadequate regulation a key part of what led to our recent financial meltdown?)

The problem for Republicans and their small business friends who claim to be paralyzed by uncertainty is that uncertainty is an integral part of modern life. Unfortunately, these folks seem to be mentally stuck in time somewhere back in the pre-20th century era of classical physics, when determinism ruled the day and the workings of a clockwork universe offered an assured certainty of how things worked. (Either that, or these folks are just using “uncertainty” as a political talking point to advance their anti-government agenda – take your pick.)

In any event, the reality is that uncertainty is a fact of life. This is true on the macro level of the world we see and experience. And it’s true on the micro level, in which quantum mechanics explores the workings of the subatomic world. If we want to successfully adapt to this uncertain world, we need to understand this fact.

So what does science have to say about uncertainty? I recently came across a couple of fascinating videos of a lecture on the subject by one of 20th century physics’ leading lights.

The first is a brief 8 minute video titled Probability and Uncertainty in quantum mechanics – the introductory part of a lecture given in 1965 by Richard Feynman at Cornell University. At one point, alluding to the strange ways of the quantum world of which he’s about to speak, Feynman offers a warning:

Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get “down the drain,” into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.

That’s only the introduction. The video cuts out just when Feynman is about to get into the specifics. A video of the full hour-long lecture is available – which I’ll get to in a moment. First though, while Feynman was known for his ability to explain complex ideas from physics in a way that we can understand, some may still find it pretty tough going. If you’re not familiar with the double slit experiment and what it says about the dual nature of elementary particles, I’d suggest first watching this short cartoon video.  I found being familiar with the concepts presented there helpful in getting through some parts of Feynman’s lecture.

Then if you’re still up for it, here’s the hour-long video of Feynman’s full Cornell lecture, titled “The Character of Physical Law.”  While it’s a little more challenging to understand than the cartoon, I was interested in seeing how he presented the science behind the idea. It’s also interesting to see a lecture by one of the great minds of 20th century physics. He has a charming, alternately casual, passionate and humorous style in presenting such a profound subject.

A key point of Feynman’s lecture – and one of the major discoveries of 20th century physics regarding how the world works – is that on a basic level things are imbued with uncertainty. Before quantum mechanics, physicists and others believed everything was – while complex – inevitably deterministic and predictable. It was just a question of gathering sufficient data and you could accurately forecast what would happen. As Laplace put it in 1820:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Thanks to quantum mechanics, we now know this is an illusion. At the most basic level of matter, things by their very nature are uncertain. If that is true of the world at its basis, then uncertainty must be a fundamental element of the world we live in.

This fact is something we still, as human beings, are having a hard time adjusting to. Humanity has lived a long time with a confidence in certainty; it’s hard letting go of that. Some are resisting with whatever certainty they can find. But this leads to other problems. As Feynman once noted:

Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.

While Feynman saw a problem with people seeking – or proclaiming – absolute certainty, he also recognized that uncertainty offered the only hope for progress and growth:

We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified — how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don’t know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know.

Perhaps, as we learn to live in a troubling and uncertain world, we can take solace in this thought.

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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