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From Certainty to Uncertainty: Thought, Theory and Action in a modern world

F. David Peat

To read more see David Peat's New Book "Pathways of Chance"


Just as biologists speak of punctuated evolution so too something similar seems to occur within human societies when great evolutionary leaps are made that act to transform the way people think and act. There was, for example, the development of speech, the invention of the Clovis spear, the transformation from hunter-gatherer groups to more settled farming, the creation of towns and cities, the invention of the wheel, the development of writing and the use of tokens in trade.

Within European society there was the sudden appearance of important abstract intellectual tools of the late middle ages: the adoption of Hindu-Arabic numerals, the use of double entry book keeping, the discovery of the compass, map making, the more systematic use of logical rules in philosophical arguments and the appearance of mechanical clocks on public buildings that led to the subsequent secularization of time.

More was to follow: the Renaissance and the rise of the merchant classes, the sense that individuals had an interior life (as seen in the monologues of the Elizabethan playwrights) and the beginnings of modern science. In each case, however, there were long periods when the old thinking coexisted along with the new. Indeed Maynard Keynes proposed that Isaac Newton was not only the first modern scientist but also the last of the Magi. After all, his alchemical research appears to have been as equally important to him as his work on optics, the calculus, gravity and the laws of motion. Likewise, while Shakespeare uses an English that belongs to an earlier era, at times his thought is as contemporary as that of a Samuel Beckett. Maybe paradigms shifts are not as clear cut as Thomas Kuhn would have us believe, and the old is always enfolded implicitly within the new.

This is particularly true of our present time in which so much has changed – in terms of knowledge, technology, globalization, the limited supply of some natural resources including energy, the serious threats posed by global warming and the increasing complexity of our lives – yet the old ways of thinking persist. We truly do need a new thinking for a new age. In fact some would say that we must “rethink civilization” or “re-envision the modern world”.

The Revolutions of the Twentieth Century

If we are to understand the changes that have faced us, and the issues that confront us, we should go back to that watershed year of 1900. It was in that year that Lord Kelvin, the President of the Royal Society, in an address to the Royal Institution claimed that in principle everything that was to be known in science was already known. 1 The combination of Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories were capable of explaining every phenomenon in the physical universe. (He did however point to two small clouds that lay on the horizon of physics but had every confidence that these would soon be cleared up. One turned out to be quantum theory and the other the theory of relativity!)

One could perhaps forgive Lord Kelvin for what, to us today, appears to be scientific arrogance. After all, he had come to praise “the beauty and clearness of the dynamical theory”. Taken as a whole, classical physics was a truly elegant structure. Newton’s edifice had stood unchallenged for two hundred years. Faraday had unified electricity and magnetism and Maxwell had shown the way light and other electromagnetic radiations are propagated. Add to this the aesthetically satisfying theory of heat and work embodied in thermodynamics and one had a veritable symphony of science with its various movements and variations satisfyingly integrated together. The notion of the unity of knowledge inherent in Lord Kelvin’s speech perfectly complemented the overall vision of the new century, at least within Europe and North America. The United States had adopted the gold standard, which meant that economic stability was ensured for the future. Twenty six nations had met at The Hague to establish an international court that would arbitrate disputes between nations and outlaw poison gases, dumdum bullets and the dropping of bombs from balloons. For the first time in world history, a global peace had been assured.

It was also a time in which the world was more compartmentalized and issues may have appeared simpler and more controllable. After all, mass communications had yet to make their impact, the computer had only been dreamed about by Charles Babbage and, other than the train, for centuries people had moved at walking pace so that it took days to visit another country.

It was to be an era of certainty and knowledge and , thanks to the power of science and technology, a time of limitless progress. After all, within the two years around the turn of the century, radium, the radioactivity of uranium, and the electron had all been discovered, speech had been transmitted by radio and sound recorded magnetically, photographs were being sent over telephone lines, air had been liquefied, alternating current was being generated at Niagara Falls, the Zeppelin airship constructed, the Model T Ford built, and the Paris Metro opened. And if science could understand the workings of nature it could also organize society in a more “scientific” manner. It may even be possible to apply Francis Galton’s science of eugenics to produce humans who would be mentally and physically superior. No wonder a U.S. senator, such as Chauncy Depew, could claim that “ There is no man here who does not feel 400 percent bigger in 1900 than he did in 1896, bigger intellectually, bigger hopefully, bigger patriotically”.

An era of transformation

Yet 1900 was also the year when Planck hypothesized the existence of the quantum, Poincaré. suggested that chaos may be hidden within the motion of the solar system and Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. Five years later Einstein would present his first paper on the theory of relativity and propose the equation E=mc 2 .The turn of the century was certainly a watershed in which so much of what had been accomplished, so much that human beings could feel proud about, was about to be swept away.

In order to see how radical are the issues that face us today and the need for a change in thinking it is best to start with a brief exploration of just how revolutionary had been the transformation in our theories of the ontology of the world.

In one year Einstein had swept away the laws of conservation of matter and conservation of energy in favor of the conservation of matter + energy. In an address to the 80 th Assembly of German Natural Scientists and Physicians, Hermann Minkowski proclaimed that, “henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows.” 2

The implications of the theory of relativity were indeed disturbing yet, from another perspective, the theory preserved a significant aspect of the edifice of classical physics, that of the objectivity and inviolate nature of its laws. Einstein showed that physical phenomena appear differently to observers moving at different speeds, accelerating or within a gravitational field. On the other hand, he also demonstrated that the underlying laws of physics remain invariant for all observers, as they have always done. Relativity may have predicted Black Holes and the possibility of a Big Bang origin to the universe but, to Einstein, it embraced a universe that was rational, causal, did not admit chance processes and was built out of “independent elements of reality”.

Not so, for the quantum theory demanded a far more radical change; one that even today is not always appreciated in the fullness of its depth. The revolutions of quantum theory have been discussed in many books and articles, both technical and popular. Einstein, for example, was particularly disturbed by the suggestion that the disintegration of an atomic nucleus occurs by pure chance -“God does not play at dice with the universe”. Schrödinger highlighted the curious circumstance whereby quantum theory allows for the simultaneous superposition of all possible outcomes to any experiment (i.e. linear superpositions of the solutions to Schrödinger’s equation), yet the large-scale observing equipment always registers only one outcome. 3 Attempts to resolve “Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox” led to all manner of bizarre proposals, that nevertheless are taken seriously by many physicists. These range from the suggestion that the consciousness of the human observer acts to “collapse the wave function” into a single outcome, to the proposal that there are an infinity of possible worlds with a unique solution existing in each of these worlds.

Examples such as the Schrödinger Cat paradox expose one of the deep problems of the quantum theory: how to extract a physical explanation or account from the underlying mathematical formalism. Let us follow one such pathway in more detail to discover just how radically challenging the quantum theory has proved to be. Heisenberg’s original discovery of quantum mechanics involved the use of arrays of numbers, called matrices, some of which do not commute when multiplied together: In other words, A x B is not the same as B x A. The physical meaning of the matrix A could correspond to the measurement of the position of an electron, while B would correspond to a measurement of the electron’s speed (more properly its momentum). Hence the measurement of speed followed by position gives a different result from first measuring position and then speed.

Heisenberg interpreted this mathematical result in the following way. For any measurement to be registered at least one quantum of energy must be exchanged, or shared, between the electron and the measuring apparatus. Suppose we measure the speed of an electron. We next attempt to measure its position, but this involves interfering with the electron using at least one quantum. Hence this second measurement disturbs the electron and alters its speed in an uncontrollable way. In other words, each measurement affects the universe so there will always be a level of uncertainty in determining both the speed and position of an electron. 4

Heisenberg’s example appeared to offer a clear physical interpretation underlying the mathematical equations. Neils Bohr did not agree and adopted a far more radical approach. 5 Bohr pointed out that Heisenberg’s interpretation was based on the assumption that, just as with objects in our large-scale world, the electron “possesses” a speed and “possesses” a position. According to Bohr this is an unwarranted assumption about the nature of quantum reality. All one can say is that a certain disposition of experimental apparatus will produce a result that can be interpreted as “position”, while another disposition will produce a result that can be interpreted as “speed”. In between making these measurement one cannot properly speak of the electron as “having” such properties. Furthermore, if the electron is observed at position P 1 and later at position P 2, according to the orthodox Copenhagen Interpretation it is not even legitimate to say that the electron “had” a path between P 1 and P 2 or “traveled” between P 1 and P 2. All that the quantum theory allows for is the mathematical correlation of different sets of measurements.

Bohr went even further. 6 While Heisenberg claimed that “the meaning is in the mathematics”, Bohr pointed out that when physicists wish to discuss the meaning of an equation they communicate using ordinary, everyday language albeit spiced with a number of technical terms. Yet as soon as we introduce words such as space, time, path, distance, before, after and so on we are employing terms that evolved linguistically in our large-scale world. In other words, as soon as we discuss quantum reality we contaminate the conversation with unexamined assumptions and concepts about causality, space, time and the nature of objects that apply only to the classical world of large-scale objects. Bohr’s famous statement “we are suspended in language such that we do not know which is up and which is down” could equally well have come from Ludwig Wittgenstein. It places a strict limit on any attempt to create models of the quantum world, and shows why objective descriptions of quantum reality is doomed to confusion and failure. It also negates Einstein’s belief that we can construct our world out of “independent elements of reality”. 7

If I have spent time exploring this particular thread it is to show what a truly radical change in thinking the quantum theory requires. Indeed, it is so radical that most working physicists prefer not to confront it, and simply use the theory as a tool for calculation. As the physicist, Basil Hiley, likes to point out: “Physicists come to praise Bohr and decry Einstein (who rejected the quantum theory) but end up ignoring Bohr and thinking like Einstein”. 8

Another radical change in science has been the development of what is popularly termed “Chaos Theory” (more properly the dynamics of non-linear systems). 9 While chaos theory does not require a change in our ontology of the world it does place strict limitations on our dream of complete knowledge about a system, as well as on our ability to predict and control the world around us. In a sense it puts an end to that Enlightenment dream of conquering the world through pure reason. Yet in other ways that dream had already begun to founder in 1900 with the publications of The Interpretation of Dreams. The Enlightenment was founded upon faith in the inherent rationality of human thought, but Freud now claimed that this was an illusion. In part, our behavior is determined by rational judgment and in part by the promptings of the unconscious. In Civilization and its Discontents Freud even argued that true human happiness can never be achieved, for the instincts of Eros and Thanatos (the death wish), are always acting in conflict with each other. An ideal society can never exist, for civilization seeks to repress our deepest instincts and the Enlightenment dream is based upon a fragile illusion.

But back to chaos theory. While the notion of highly complex and even chaotic behavior is implicit within Poincaré’s paper of 1900 it was not until 1954 that mathematical theorems devised by A.N. Kolmogorov, Vladimir Arnold and J Moser (known as KAM), along with the development of the computer and visual displays, allowed for a proper treatment of non-linear systems including weather, economics, traffic flows, ecologies, fluctuation in insect populations, behavior of electrical circuits, markets, living cells, chemical reactions, convection currents, electronic noise, soliton waves in water, etc. In this way new theoretical tools opened the door to a highly fashionable field whose applications are still being exploited today. Chaos theory demonstrated the richness and variety inherent in non-linear systems, with their positive and negative feedback loops. If we know behavior in one small range of a linear system, we can deduce its entire behavior. Not so for non-linear systems which may always contain surprises. They could be compared to a rich landscape with plains, mountain peaks, ridges, deep valleys and even swamps. Chaos itself or to put it another way, an order of infinitely high degree, is only one possible form of behavior. Others included bifurcation points (the so-called “butterfly effect”), regions of extreme stability, and “self-organization” (that is, systems in which a flow of energy, matter, information, or money causes a spontaneous organization of structure and behavior). Some non-linear systems, such as the stock market, are in the grip of what are known as Strange Attractors (attractors having a fractal structure). While their moment-to-moment behavior is totally unpredictable, at the same time there will be overall patterns of behavior that are similar at different scales of time or distance (self-similarity).

Some non-linear systems have behavior that is so complex it cannot be fully described, no matter how large a computer is employed. Likewise some forms of behavior are essentially unpredictable and the slightest deviations or perturbations become amplified within the iterations of endless cycle of feedback loops. In other words, non-linear systems force us to face an essential limit to knowing. There will always be missing information about the world and predictions will only be successful under certain limited circumstances. And, just as the dream of endless prediction has to be abandoned, so too that of controlling or directing the systems and organizations around us. Some systems are highly resistant to change and simply bounce back when effected, others will behave in unpredictable ways when we attempt to influence them.

Hubris and the Will to Power

During the 1940s the theoretical physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, became distressed at what he saw as the rise in “the will to power” amongst physicists whom he felt were exhibiting the desire to control and dominate the natural world. 10 For him the true meaning of science was that of understanding the wholeness of the world in order to discover the wholeness within. Indeed, he felt that the true spirit of physics should be similar to that of “the alchemists of old” who carried out their work for their own salvation. Ironically this same science has now brought us face to face with the hubris inherent in our desires for complete knowledge, endless progress and control over the natural world.

The hubris inherent in that dream of the universal power of science also showed its face in the search for artificial intelligence. 11 A.I. was the dream of pioneers from the very inception of the computer in the 1940s. Marvin Minsky and others even entertained the fantasy that they were the spiritual descendants of Rabbi Loew of Prague who had created the Golem and animated it by placing the Holy Name in the creature’s mouth. In 1956 Minsky, John McCarthy, Claude Shannon and others met at Dartmouth College to draw up goals in the quest for true artificial intelligence. These included building a system of artificial neurons that would function like the human brain, a robot capable of creating an internal picture of its environment, as well as computers that would compose music of “classical quality”, understand spoken language and discover significant mathematical theorems. The date for this achievement, set at 1970 came and went, and despite talk, during the 1980s, of neural nets and fifth generation computers, true artificial intelligence, to its critics, has become an impossible goal.

It is not so much that we are ignorant or incapable of advances in programming and computer design–each year computers became faster, cheaper and have larger memories. They are even linked together in large numbers across the globe via the Internet. Some critics have pointed to Kurt Gödel’s demonstration of the inherent incompleteness of any axiomatic system: Human mathematicians will always be able to arrive at truths which can never be demonstrated by any algorithmic (programmed steps) process.

But a deeper issue is that that we don’t really understand how we humans operate. 14 The most advanced natural language inference engines simply do not imitate the serendipity that humans apply when coming across interesting facts, using their intuition and “sixth sense”, or making fortuitous connections between different branches of knowledge. Humans also have great skills in making rapid, and very often highly accurate, choices and decisions based on incomplete information. 15 We are all capable of highly creative acts without ever know how we do these things. Innovative ideas appear out of the blue. Mozart appears to have received compositions in their entirety, while the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan claimed that original mathematical theorems were given to him by a goddess. The first stanzas of Kubla Khan appeared to Samuel Taylor Coleridge until he was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock, while Rumi’s poetry was recited when the mystic was in a state of ecstasy, while rotating around a column, and his words set down by his followers. In short we don’t really understand what it is to be human, or what it means for mind to be embodied in the natural world, let alone build a device that would reproduce human creativity and behavior. It is for such reasons that I believe that, in our present world, A.I. remains no more than a dream. The best we can hope for is a constant extension of the present role of the computer as a fast and efficient assistant to natural human genius.

The failure of the A.I. program to realize its goals may well be tied to another dream, that of understanding mind and the experience of human consciousness by means of the physical and biological sciences. When physicists such as Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins moved into the field of molecular biology they brought with them techniques and approaches that enabled enormous advances to be made, from the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA to the completion of the Human Genome Project. Maybe similar advances would occur in theories of consciousness?

Indeed, over the past decades considerable advances have been made in what are termed the neural correlates to consciousness; that is, in discovering the specific brain activity that is associated with particular tasks. One example that has received a great deal of attention has been the discovery of the various strategies employed by the brain to analyze a visual scene. This also had applications in initial stages of developing machine vision. While much is now well understood, on the other hand the so-called “binding problem” has still to be resolved. That is, how these various strategies are located in different regions of the brain, then integrated together to produce a coherent visual scene. Even more outstanding is the problem of what it means for us to have the subjective experience of “seeing” the world. Understanding the meaning of our direct and immediate experience of consciousness is what David Chalmers calls “The Hard Problem”. Some feel that a fundamental principle remains to be discovered before we can ever understand what it means to have a personal consciousness, others believe that science itself may never resolve the problem. Possibly we have encountered one of Wittgenstein’s famous category mistakes – that the category of scientific descriptions is totally different from that involved in understanding our experience of the world. Yet again scientific research moved so far until it encountered hubris and a new limit to knowing and understanding.

The Nature of Scientific Theories

So far we have explored particular scientific theories and their limits, but the twentieth century also saw a change in the overall meaning and ontology of scientific theories and the nature of physical laws themselves. The overall field of chaos theory, for example, provides an interesting illustration of the ways in which scientific theories influence how we see the world, and what world we actually see.

When I was a graduate student, researchers in solid state physics used an approach known as perturbation theory, or Green’s functions. In this, a series of small corrections are added to the solutions for a simpler (and solvable) system in order to account for more complex situations. The origin of the approach came from astronomy where, while the motion of two bodies (earth and sun) could be solved exactly, that for three or more bodies (earth, moon and sun) could only be approached by adding up series of approximations or corrections.

In this way useful mathematical techniques were developed that allowed physicists to calculate the behavior of real systems, such as the properties of metals. These techniques worked particularly well for systems that were in balance, close to equilibrium and experiencing only small disturbances, such as low heat flows, small vibrations, weak electrical currents, and so on. The ability to make useful calculations strongly influenced physicists to study only those systems for which their techniques were best adapted. The result was a somewhat circular system and text books of the period avoided talk of shock waves, violent disturbances, or systems that were far from equilibrium: In other words most non-linear systems. Such latter systems were thought of as exhibiting aberrant behavior. Related mathematical equations were characterized as producing “monster curves”. In this way the successful techniques of physics very much influenced scientists in what they chose to see.

It was only when new techniques, such as the KAM theorems, were developed in 1954 that an entirely new world was suddenly revealed. Where before, science considered only linear systems in equilibrium and subject to tiny disturbances now it was exploring chaos, self-organization, bifurcation points and fractal attractors. What before had been dismissed or swept under the carpet had now taken center stage. Hence scientific theories and approaches deeply influence how and what science sees of the world. When the young Heisenberg was struggling to replace Bohr’s atomic theory, Einstein told him that the theory itself should suggest the observables and not the other way around. This advice helped Heisenberg achieve the sudden insight he had that evening on the island of Helgoland when he created quantum mechanics (matrix mechanics). In other words theories provide the lenses through which we view the universe, they tell us where to look and how to see.

There have also been subtle changes in what scientists mean by the ontology of physical laws. In the world of classical physics the laws of nature existed in some sort of Platonic limbo and, if the world had been created in time, these laws must have in some sense preexisted, to be imposed on the emerging realms of matter, energy, space and time. Indeed, while the term “law” had been in existence in the English language for over a thousand years, according to the Complete Oxford Dictionary, its use in describing the natural world only began in the 17 th century when it was generally used to refer to sets of rules imposed by a deity that had to be obeyed by matter. Such rules were created before time and fixed for all eternity. In this sense the laws of nature appear to belong to that domain of “the eternal” discussed in ancient Chinese philosophy, as opposed to the contingent world of the apparently real and everyday.

Then in the mid twentieth century scientists began to study what they termed self-organized systems, that is, systems open to the flow of matter, energy or information that spontaneously develop their own structure and behaviors. In this sense, such systems develop their own laws of behavior. This raises the possibility that the laws of nature themselves are not fixed ab initio but could have evolved with the universe, as frozen or fossilized habits laid down during the first microseconds of the Big Bang. Current theory suggests that the universe was created in a highly symmetric state, with all the forces of nature unified and all particle masses equal. Then, through a series of fortuitous symmetry breakings, the gravitational force separated from the other three, then the strong nuclear force from the weak/electromagnetic force and finally the symmetry between the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force was broken. At each stage the symmetries between the masses of the elementary particles was also broken, the final stage being the generation of a small difference in mass between the proton/anti-proton and the neutron. In this sense the structure and behavior of the cosmos and indeed the laws of the universe could be seen as evolutionary and emerging out of the totality of that which exists, rather than being fixed before time.

Yet another change in the status of physical law and scientific theory comes about with what some scientists have called “postmodern physics”. Traditionally a new scientific theory should lead directly to experiments that seek to confirm a series of predictions, or instead to some crucial experiment that falsifies (in Popper’s sense) the theory. But theories in the field of superstrings and M theory refer to energies and temperatures very close to those that existed during the big bang origin of the universe; as for that matter do theories of the big bang itself, the subsequent period of inflation and of symmetry breaking. Such conditions will probably never be produced within laboratories and thus the theories themselves will never be directly testable. The best one can hope for is internal consistency, and that within these theories can be embedded other theories, and theories about theories which are themselves testable.

For the first time in history, science is creating theories about the cosmos that will never be definitively tested. In this sense they come closer to musical compositions, or works of art, in that they have no direct correspondence to anything measurable but must be judged on the aesthetic grounds of beauty, elegance and internal consistency. It is at this point we recall Einstein’s observation that a scientific theory is a free creation of the human imagination.

To introduce another analogy, post-modern theories are like the paintings of Piero della Francesca, who was both artist and a mathematician. Rather than using perspective to create a two-dimensional representation of a real three-dimensional space (projective geometry), Piero preferred to create what could perhaps be called a “perspective of the intellect” or a “mental space”. That is, a set of relationships within the canvas or fresco that could be mentally projected into a three-dimensional space but one that need not necessarily correspond to anything in our real world. In this way Piero was able to build up spaces of the intellect that could express relationships of a symbolically spiritual nature, they are mathematically internally consistent within two dimensions but refer to something beyond themselves.

In discussing the ontological changes within the nature of scientific knowledge. I would like to mention another current of thought, that admittedly is not taken seriously by working scientists. Writers on cultural relativism in the social sciences, argue that one should not assign relative values to the particular beliefs, behaviors, practices and codes of different societies. To classify certain practices within a society or group as having greater or lesser value compared to others is viewed as a form of social colonialism or imperialism. Similar ideas have sometime crept into popular accounts of science in the form of loose statements such as “we all create our own realities”. On a more serious level the claim that science is totally objective and value-free has been challenged, and feminist critics have pointed to the “masculine” aspect of science that seeks to control or even dominate the natural world.

Such arguments need to be examined carefully and there is no room in this article for that type of analysis. But I would like to point out that there does indeed exist a level of objectivity within science. This is the essence of Einstein’s theory of relativity: That, while phenomena appear different to different observers, there is a strict invariance to the underlying laws. Experiments to measure the velocity of light in free space will always produce the same result no matter how that observer is moving. Moreover, no matter what a cultural relativist may claim, this result is also totally independent of an experimenter’s belief system or cultural and religious background. The boiling point of pure water at normal atmospheric pressure will always be 100 degrees Celsius no matter if is measured by a scientist living in an ashram in India or an atheist working in a laboratory in Berlin. We may wish to believe that “we create our own reality”, nevertheless under normal conditions pure water will always boil at the same temperature within whatever “reality” we chose to inhabit.

On the other hand, the particular theory that points to that objective measurement may well be strongly culturally dependent. A culture suggests what is of value, what is of interest and, moreover, in which direction science funding should be directed. Scientists themselves are also extremely susceptible to fashion. When the theory of superstrings was developed, for example, an enormous number of scientists, all over the world, jumped on that band wagon, and a post doctoral student in search of a university position had better publish in that field. In this and other ways the development of theoretical approaches, and for that matter of paradigms, is often the reflection of a particular society and its values. (Although today, science is truly global and the same theories are studied in Japan, China, India, Europe and the Americas. But that may just mean that we also share in the same, somewhat materialistic dream.) 18

Following the French Revolution, French scientists and engineers were aware that England had made enormous advances during its Industrial Revolution and that France was in danger of being left behind technologically. Some of these, including Sadie Carnot decided to study ways in which the efficiency of machines could be increased. Their researches showed that there are limits to efficiency - a certain amount of energy will always be dissipated as entropy - and that the greater the temperature difference between a source and a sink of heat, the more efficient is the machine. In this way parts of the foundations of the science of thermodynamics were laid down as a direct result of social concerns. Similar arguments could probably be made for other scientific theories. In other words, particular social concerns and shared values have a deep influence on where scientists look and on how society supports them. Yet while those scientific theories arise out of a social matrix, the particular observations they suggest are themselves objective (with the obvious exceptions of some experiments in the biological, social and psychological sciences).

The discussion above shows that not only have our views about the underlying nature of the cosmos been subject to revolutionary change but the very meaning and nature of physical laws and theories have been thrown into question. In some ways this calls for a new and more flexible form of thinking and, as we shall see below, this applies equally well to the nature of our institutions and policies. If mechanistic thinking, and the dreams of control, prediction and the certainty of knowledge are no longer adequate for physics then why continue to hang onto them in the fields of politics and organizational structures?

Closure in Science

Are there deep reasons within the human psyche why we are always seeking closure, the ultimate explanation, the final equation, the most fundamental level, the true theory of everything. This is particularly ironic because the pleasure of doing science has always been in the quest itself and the greatest creative energies are generated when we remain in a state of tension with an open and unresolved question. Yet, despite the lessons we have learned during the twentieth century, some still entertain a dream of attaining complete knowledge.

Possibly this springs from some infantile desire to control the world, or out of our fear of death that we should create an edifice of knowledge that will persist for eternity. On the other hand maybe it is not so much an inherent human characteristic but a particular European inheritance about what knowledge means. In the field of Western classical music, for example, a composition such as a symphony advances through a series of movements involving the resolution of the various themes leading towards a final coda. Likewise the traditional novel seeks, within the final chapter, to resolve the challenges and relationships that face the characters. A scientific theory, such as Newton’s, aims to gather many different phenomena under the one umbrella of unification. Painting in the Renaissance adopted the device of perspective in which all objects are embraced within the one unifying umbrella of projective geometry. Likewise when we enter a Christian church our eyes are taken towards the central point of the altar, or follow columns upwards towards heaven. In each case there is a tendency to move towards some vanishing point, some conclusion, some all embracing resolution.

Not so in a mosque. There, there is no vanishing point, no place which has priority over all others. Each worshipper stands at the center, as did Adam on the day of creation. Infinity is not to be found outside but within. The infinite in Arabic art does not lie beyond but within the arabesques and inner detail. Arabic music continues as does a stream, without the need for a final goal, likewise the narrated story has no need of a final resolution. The stories told of the great Sufi mystics and teachers suggests that there was no desire for closure, no grand philosophical scheme to be erected, only the acceptance of the Beloved and the fact that we may spend our lives without the need for a constricting definition and even stay suspended in a transcendent state of confusion. For Ibn ‘Arabī those who have drunk of the sweet water perceive “The One” directly and the universe through the intellect, while those who drank of the salt water may see the world of creation directly but the divine only through reason. 19

If there is one lesson to be learned in all of this, a lesson that has been taught to us by quantum theory as well as the mystics of history, it is that we can never hope for a final image or for a true representation. Quantum theory tells us that reality will never be pinned definitively within words and images, while chaos theory indicates that we will never have a complete description of many of our human and natural systems, or be in a position to exercise total control over them. Those were all the dreams of a past era, a time when human reason was elevated over the wisdom of the heart.

Similar ideas about limits and openness have surfaced in the arts where approaches have become more fluid and less focused on single ways of working, and art no longer needs to fall within the domain of an overarching theoretical methodology. Over half a century ago American art had been defined by the writings of Clement Greenberg; no such authority figure would be possible today. While it is true that galleries still house paintings and sculpture, and that art is seen as a financial investment, nevertheless the emphasis is no longer exclusively focused on the precious art object; artists also engage in performances, social actions, texts, multiples, walking in the landscape, producing works never intended to be seen, or designed to decay and vanish. In literature, emphasis has shifted from the author to the reader. There is no single definitive and objective reading of a text, rather reading is a creative act that involves the reader’s gender and cultural history. The boundaries between popular and high culture have also become blurred as has national culture itself where artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers borrow, recreate and reinvent material from a globalized culture.

The End of Objectivity

Nevertheless in so many other areas of life, in particular within institutions, policy planners and so on, the older mechanistic and “objective” ways of thinking continue to hold sway. This is particularly unfortunate, since these are the very elements and players that have the greatest impact on our lives, our security and the future of the planet.

So far we have explored crises in scientific thought experienced during the twentieth century but the issues that face us today are also vastly more complicated. In part because while, on the one hand our world is becoming increasingly globalized, at the same time it is fragmenting in ever more complex ways. As I mentioned earlier, the world at the end of the nineteenth century may, in some ways, have appeared simpler and more compartmentalized. Leaving aside the imposition of colonialism, in some senses national boundaries did define cultural identities, language and sometimes religious groups. Today a series of tensions exist that threaten both the stability and the security of the world. Let us make a very brief overview of some of these.

a. Economics

During the first half of the twentieth century the work of Maynard Keynes took economics beyond the theories of Adam Smith and his notion of the “invisible hand” that kept the market stable. His theories influenced governments to employ fiscal policies designed to ensure full employment and curb inflation. Keynes was also responsible for the creation of the International Monetary fund and the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. From now on financial cooperation would operate at international levels, world trade would be increased, high employment be ensured, financial oscillations damped and funds made available to correct maladjustments in balance of payments. In Britain the Labour Party introduced the Welfare State and a National Health Service that would care for its citizens “from cradle to grave”.

Later these Utopian dreams began to be questioned. To their critics, they were costly and inefficient and so economics saw the rise of Monetarism, the theories of Milton Friedman and, in the UK, the policies of Margaret Thatcher. In turn these measures themselves were to come under serious criticism.

In the last two decades economic problems have become more serious, for the rise of the Internet enables speculators to transfer enormous sums of money across the globe, and in uncontrolled ways, at the flick of a mouse. Money is no longer tied to goods and services and some economists fear that a global economy is inherently unstable and at some point could go into collapse, chaos or uncontrolled oscillations. In addition, the gap between rich and poor nations continues to increase. While the American Revolution was founded on the principle of “no taxation without representations”, today the poorer nations are excluded from the table when significant economic decisions are made. What is more, some areas of the world have descended from poverty to downright misery. Yet famine, a number of diseases and discontent could well be eradicated with more enlightened global economic policies

b. Global Security

While the seeds and nature of terrorism are much debated in the present climate one thing is clear: the world is far less secure than we imagined at the end of the twentieth century. With the fall of the Berlin wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the threat of a nuclear holocaust appeared to have vanished. And, even during the cold war, the prospect of mutually assured destruction was a powerful deterrent to a unilateral nuclear attack. Yet today a new generation of small nuclear weapons are considered in some quarters as tactically permissible in warfare, or for use against terrorist organizations. In addition, biological weapons – that attack populations or sources of food - become ever more sophisticated. To this list must be added weapons produced using nanotechnologies. What is truly disturbing is that while the production of the first nuclear bombs required teams of scientists with large budgets, modern weapons can easily be produced by small groups and at low cost.

c. Environment

The issue of global warming is now seen to be far more serious than hitherto believed. To this has been added the phenomenon of global dimming (industrial emissions provide the nuclei around which tiny water droplets condense and remain suspended in the upper atmosphere, acting to cut down the amount of sunlight reaching the earth) which is believed to be responsible for changing rainfall patterns and could lead to serious drought and consequent mass famine on the African and Indian continents. A number of alternative (renewable) energy sources have been suggested but studies indicate that they simply could not be implemented quickly enough, or would prove inadequate for present demands, in the short and medium term. Heavy reliance on nuclear power is therefore proposed as the short-term solution, yet that brings with it the problems of security and long-term disposal.

Indeed, there may be no comfortable solution. It may be necessary for us to take a hard and serious look at our present civilization and ask if it is possible to continue along its present lines. Some suggest that we have entered a period of collective denial of the danger inherent in our common future and that we need to undertake a radical reexamination and rethinking of the nature of our modern world.


If the revolutions of the twentieth century have taught us anything, at least they should have indicated the inherent limits of reductionistic and mechanistic ways of thinking. That is, of believing that situations can always be neatly categorized and divided up; or that problems can be clearly identified, isolated and solutions applied. Our complex world simply does not respond to such an analysis any more. It does not apply at the level of environmental issues, the march of economic globalization, nor the confrontation of and tensions between social or religious groups.

We can no longer adopt the privileged position of assuming that we lie outside a system as impartial observers who can objectify the world and discover its underlying mechanisms. Rather we are all part and parcel of the complex patterns in which we live and our thoughts, beliefs and perceptions have a profound effect on the world around us. Ironically, since it was our implicit faith in the power of science and reason that brought us to such a path, maybe we can also draw on the sciences to discover some hint of a way out.

It was Neils Bohr who coined the term “complementarity” for the observation that under certain experimental conditions an electron’s behavior can be interpreted as the motion of a particle, while in others it acts as a wave. It was also Bohr’s opinion that this notion of complementarity went far beyond the confines of quantum theory. Bohr had read William James and believed that reality is so rich that it cannot be exhausted by any single explication. Bohr’s complementarity applies well to our post-modern condition in which the world is so genuinely complex that we must always be willing to entertain more that one version of a truth, even to the point that, when placed side by side, these truths appear paradoxical or even opposed. After all, for Bohr the opposite of a truth was something false, while the opposite of a great truth was another great truth. If this spirit of complementarity could be brought to the debate between groups, cultures, faiths and the issues that face our world it may open up new possibilities for dialogue.

In this context I recall conversations with David Bohm towards the end of his life. So often we fall into polarized positions and then attempt to discover some compromise, some intermediate position, some “order between” in which everyone can feel comfortable. What our modern world requires is not that comfort zone in which each of us feels we can still hang on to some essential part of our position but rather we must reach “an order beyond”, that is, something that transcends and enriches all positions.

Maybe the time has come in our civilization for a period of creative suspension. True creativity appears when we stay within the tension of a question or issue and do not rush to assuage our insecurity with easy solutions. We are all essential parts of this modern world and must exercise our collective creativity to discover orders beyond, new forms of action and exercise our ability to hold a variety of viewpoints in creative tension and mutual respect.


  1. For a general discussion see F. David Peat, From Certainty to Uncertainty: The Story of Science and Ideas in the Twentieth Century, Joseph Henry Press, Washington, 2002.
  1. H. Minkowski, Space and Time reprinted in The Principle of Relativity: A Collection of Original Memoirs on the Special and General Theory of Relativity: Dover, , N.Y. 1952
  1. Schrödinger’s paper, along with commentaries and other key papers on the foundations and interpretation of quantum theory can be found in Eds. J.A. Wheeler and W.H. Zurek, Quantum Theory and Measurement, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1983
  1. A clear account of Heisenberg’s quantum “microscope experiment “ can be found in David Bohm, “Quantum theory” Dover, NY, 1989.
  1. An informal account, admittedly from Heisenberg’s perspective, of his conversations with Bohr can be found in Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, Harper, N.Y. 1971. See also the interview with Leon Rosenfeld in Paul Buckley and F. David, Peat Glimpsing Reality: Ideas in Physics and the Link to Biology, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1996.
  1. See Wheeler and Zurek ibid
  1. An account of Einstein’s discussions with Bohr during the Solvay conferences can be found in Wheeler and Zurek ibid.

8. Basil Hiley has often made that remark in my presence and in discussion with other physicists.

9. For a general overview see John Briggs and F. David Peat, Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness, Harper, N.Y. 1989

10 See for example, David Lindorff, Pauli and Jung: The Meeting of Two Great Minds”, Quest Books, Wheaton, 2004

13. A popular account can be found in F. David Peat, Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Think”, Baen Books, NY,, 1985

14 Arnold Smith, Concepts, Boundaries, and Ways of Knowing,

Leonardo Electronic Almanac Volume 13, Number 9, September 2005.

15 Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Little, Brown, NY 2005

17 for a general discussion see ed. Jonathan Shear, Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem MIT Press, Cambridge Mass, 2000.

18 For accounts of science from an Islamic perspective see Z. Sardar, Explorations in Islamic Science, Mansell Publishing, London 1989 and ed Z. Sardar, The Midas Touch: Science, Values and Environment in Islam and the West, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1984.

19 Stephen Hirtenstein The Unlimited Mercifier: The spiritual life and thought of Ibn ‘Arabī White Cloud Press, Ashland, Oregon 1999.


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