Living with uncertainty
Shrodinger’s cat is a quirky thought experiment that implies that a cat locked in a box with a toxic substance may or may not have spilled the venom and so is both dead and alive. Shrodinger didn’t mean that literally there are hordes of undead cats walking around, his idea is that at the deepest level of reality the Universe is uncertain. An atom is not like a billiard ball, electrons don’t orbit like planets around a sun, they are pulsating wave fields of energy that only when you stop time to have a look you’ll find the electron in a specific place. The wave shows all the possible places the electron might be, but to all intents and purposes the electron is the wave. The act of measuring can be described as collapsing the wave.
Until someone comes along and asks a question about what the smallest particles, electrons, quarks etc. are doing, where is the electron in its orbit right now or what direction is that tiny ball of energy spinning - everything is uncertain, undecided - the answer comes the moment you measure it.
Does a tree in the forest make a noise if no one is there to hear it - maybe or maybe not. Heisenberg, no not the character from breaking bad, but one of the founding fathers of quantum theory, in 1927 added his insight that it is impossible for us to know where a particle is and how fast it is traveling. We can know one but not the other. In other words there are some things we are incapable of knowing, things the Universe has no specific answer to. Reality, at a fundamental quantum level, is blurred and hazy.
Einstein famously objected to these insights by saying, “God does not play dice with the Universe'' Apart from the theological date about whether or not God exists and whether or not he plays dice. I find it interesting to note that even a great mind such as Einstein’s is triggered and unsettled by the concept of uncertainty.
Personally I like the way the Taoists say, “if you can put it into words and express it then it is not the tao.” That aside, whether the Universe is fundamentally uncertain and hazy or whether it is just our fallible human nature that is limited in what we can KNOW, the result is the same. Our knowledge is just a little gap in our ignorance. And even what we think we know is probably wrong, that one takes a lot of guts to admit. Remember the words of Socrates, there is wisdom in knowing that you do not know.
If we are doomed to uncertainty, why does it matter so much to us TO KNOW?
You know that project you are working on that may or may not come through, will it or won’t it? That person you really like who may or may not like you back, do they or don’t they? That thing that may or may not have happened to you when you were a small child but you can’t quite remember - it’s hazy right? Maybe that person over there is laughing at you, or maybe they are just laughing at something funny they remembered, why does it matter to you? What difference does it make if you know or don’t know. Why do our minds always get involved with things going on out there?
We have made KNOWING our way of life, RSS feeds flood us with data, we constantly check the analytics that matter to us and our favorite news channels feed us information for breakfast. Each channel has its own flavor, the one you like tells you the facts the way you like them, BUT don’t forget things get hazy when you blur the lines, there is always another (or many) different points of view. It would be confusing to think that way, that’s why we like hard facts in black or white. Even The BBC that prides itself from being impartial and non-partisan still sees reality through a contemporary lens with innate socioeconomic bias that subscribes to the morals that society at large has converged on as RIGHT.
However, those words I’ve just written would be incomprehensible to forest dwellers living deep in the Amazon. They would probably be more concerned about how to track their prey in the jungle - and less concerned about whether the monkey they are tracking is alive or dead or both.
Ok so ignorance is bliss, I get it, but once you cross the line there is no going back. As a Philosopher one of the first things you have to learn to live with is ambiguity, things are neither right nor wrong, just thoughts and ideas grasping at the nature of reality. Truth is more an internal feeling, and as everyone is wired up differently different things feel true to different people. Or as my Dad likes to say, “please don’t confuse me with facts, I’ve made up my emotions”.
Nevertheless we want to know, we desire the security that certainty brings. I recognise this in myself, my mind grasping, clutching at straws - to know is to get satisfaction, if only for a moment. Just like a full belly, knowing is ephemeral, soon the hunger will return again. Is there another way? Can we break the cycle of knowing?
In the East I’ve often heard spiritual teachers refer to the monkey mind, jumping from branch to branch, clinging to ideas about the world, memories of experiences and thoughts about people. In meditation you notice it instantly and yet it is hard to turn down. Little moments free from thought are like patches of blue sky breaking though on a cloudy day. If the yearning for knowing keeps the monkey jumping then letting go means falling down into the seas of uncertainty.
Is that a scary place for you? Does it shake the foundations of your being? Does it crumble the rigid walls of the castle of the known? Does leaving the safety of certainty mean that you’ll be vulnerable once more? Or like a child can we encounter the mysterious, once more, and remember what it was like to look out at the world in wonder? Can we allow things to be the ambiguous, undefined, pulsating fields of energy that physics tells us they are?
Is that what it truly means to have an open mind?
Against the backdrop of the permacrisis, costs of living increases, banks failing and companies going through tough times we can easily be washed away with economic uncertainty. I’m not saying it’s not ok to worry, I worry too. I’m suggesting that we allow the worry to be part of our being and rather than fight it - let go and fall back into the ocean of uncertainty. Uncertainty it is said is one of the major causes of stress in this day and age, uncertainty for the future, for your economic wellbeing, uncertainty over your current employment or the world that your children will grow up into. It’s not the uncertainty that is stressful, it is our relationship to it. Uncertainty exists, so we can either get with it and find a way to live with it or get stressed out and washed away, which would you rather? Ah yes, you have a choice!
Let me leave you with a tonic, the words of Stanley Keleman, a chiropractic doctor come somatic educator. Here he encourages us to make the leap from impossible yearning for knowing to the ease of living, lightly with uncertainty.
“Once you understand that there is a level of incompleteness in any event which we are participating in experientially, you have a whole different way of looking at how you are in the world, how the world is responding to you. And that uncertainty becomes a recognition about the nature of existence, and not that you could know everything about everything”
Photo credit - Matheus Queiroz and Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash