"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 1, 2018

My Iron-clad Case Is Rusty, My Open-and-Shut One Mildewed–Facing The Uncertainty Principle

My iron-clad case is rusty

My open-and-shut one mildewed

The vent to my emotions not working

My heart strings frayed through

I'm a pitiable mess

My body needs overhaul

Prices are rising, and I'm surmising

I'll not be fixed at all (Anonymous)

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is that in quantum mechanics any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously. In simpler terms, one may know how fast a particle is travelling but never its exact location; or vice-versa.  Although science had encountered conundrums before – Einstein for example postulated that a traveler can only approach the speed of light but never attain it; and that the faster he travels, the slower time passes – never before were there uncertainties in the natural order.  There are things that we do not know, things that we may never know, and things we thought we new, but never an uncertainty about an observable phenomenon. 

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Daniel Defoe is credited with the saying “Nothing is certain but death and taxes”; but on closer examination, neither one is absolutely true. The Hindus have hedged their bets and said that one doesn’t actually die but instantaneously reincarnated into another life, either better or worse than the one just left.  And who is to say that in a few hundred years when scientists have perfected the last artificial part of the human body, death will not disappear?  As long as you get regular tune ups, you should be fine for a thousand years.  After all, it is that ineffable spirit, your soul,your being that really defines who you are, and who cares what Infernal Machine it is housed in?

Bishop Berkeley famously asked in the early 18th Century if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? but contemporary wags said:

There was a young man who said, "God,
Must think it exceedingly odd,
When he finds that this tree,
Continues to be,
When there's no one about in the Quad."

But of course, Berkeley doesn't leave us there, because obviously there are things unobserved by humans that do exist. So this is the reply:

"Dear Sir: your astonishment's odd,
I am always about in the Quad,
And that's why this tree,
Continues to be,
Since observed by, yours faithfully, God."

Descartes expanded on this theme when he claimed, “I think, therefore I am”, suggesting that not only does thought precede reality it is the sine qua non of it.  Kant supposed that the philosophical concept of substance (reflected in the scientific assumption of an external world of material objects) is an a priori condition for our experience.

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Plato suggested that all life exists on two planes, one of higher order than another.  Expressed in Phaedo. Plato expressed the belief that the true substances are not physical bodies, which are ephemeral, but the eternal Forms of which bodies are imperfect copies. These Forms not only make the world possible, they also make it intelligible, because they perform the role of universals.

None of these metaphysicians, however, doubted that they would ever look at a phenomenon – whatever its substance, material qualities, or meaning in a dualistic world – and not be sure of what they were seeing.  Perception might be a questionable human quality, but whatever it is, it is not built on shifting sands.  Once one has agreed upon a philosophical construct of reality, objects, whether moving or at rest are unquestionably there.   The world may have many perplexities, but uncertainty is not one of them.

Philosophers like Wittgenstein opined on the epistemological nature of certainty – how do we know what we know. Robert Burton in a recent book entitled On Being Certain takes a neuro-biological position:

The central premise is: Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” are sensations that feel like thoughts, but arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason

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In other words, we can’t help wanting certainty – it is an emotion like love, hate, or sex. Certainty provides a mooring, an anchor in an uncertain world.  Having some absolute certainty helps to give stability, perspective. 

Whoever ‘Anonymous’ is, the lament rings true.  There is reason for despair if one day we realize that not only is there more uncertainty in the world than we had thought, and that our attempts to hammer down even a few of the most troublesome bits are for naught. Probability – another way of looking at uncertainty – is a common lens through which to observe the world.  We may never know for sure whether it is going to rain or not in ten days; or whether the stock market will go up or down; but we can assess risk and probability and make an educated guess.  In fact most decisions are based on uncertainty and probability; and other than the most obvious fixed, absolute things – sinks, dogs, or water – we live in a probabilistic world.

Yet this is still nothing like the uncertainty of quantum physics where it is impossible to determine exactly where a particle will be.  In ten days we will know for sure whether or not it did in fact rain, but we can never pinpoint the location of a particle travelling at a given speed. There is never a fixed end point, only maybes.  It is one thing to contemplate the probabilistic nature of the weather, the stock market, and I-95 congestion; another to realize that one’s identity – personhood – is nothing more than random bits of genetic material swimming around in ancestral ooze and producing an eye of Great Grandfather Hiram, the tics of distant cousin Alfonse, and the nimble fingers of Uncle Harry.  It is another thing altogether to have the philosophical rug pulled out from under one’s feet.  The very nature of the physical world is based on uncertainty.  If this subatomic world of fermions, bosons, leptons, quarks, and hadrons is unpredictable and unknowable, then what to make of the minor illusions of our everyday lives, whether we will be taken off by a bus or the Ebola-type virus; or whether it will rain next week or not. 

For Nietzsche and Schopenhauer the individual and the expression of his pure will was the ideal form of existential reality in a meaningless world; and in some way their theories touched on the principles of uncertainty.  Yet they called for a very certain, distinct, and unmistakably unique, determined, willful individual.

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Personal uncertainty goes beyond nihilism and determinism, for the ‘uncertain’ individual never searches for identity, individuality, or personhood. He is quite happy with the cards he has been dealt, the vagaries of the probabilistic environment in which he lives, and sees no need to waste time, energy, or emotion on figuring out what’s what.  In other words the search for certainty creates its own prison, so better leave off the effort.

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