by Judith Curry
When we fail to distinguish between discovering order IN nature and imposing order ON nature, we have lost relationship with the very thing we yearn to know. Whereas once we were students of nature, looking to her for meaning, we now denigrate her in the belief that it is our inalienable right to have dominion. – Kerry Gordon
The Impermanence of Being: The Psychology of Uncertainty
Abstract. This article adopts Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine’s assertion that uncertainty is an inherent cosmic expression, deeply embedded within the core of reality. The deep psychic expression of this experience is anxiety which, following Heidegger, is conceived not as pathology but rather as an essential state of being emerging simultaneously with uncertainty. This article examines uncertainty and its child, anxiety, as a necessary consequence of a creative universe and begins to formulate a psychology in accordance with such a reality. I will show that such a psychology must inevitably be transpersonal because an unpredictable universe transcends the merely unknown and raises the issue of the unknowable. This is an inherently spiritual formulation that directly addresses the experience of mystery and the nature of faith. This article explores the possibility for a psychology in which uncertainty is regarded not as a limit but as an expression of the boundless creativity inherent in the universe.
This is a very readable (albeit lengthy) paper (h/t Matthew Hincman). I was particularly struck by this paper, since it provides metaphysical and psychological underpinnings for the uncertainty monster (which is not explicitly named, but discussed in spirit in the context of the uncertainty-anxiety nexus). This is a thought-provoking paper, of which I excerpt a few aspects here:
Our typical response to chaos is an instinctual drive to impose order and regain control. Our fear of uncertainty often impels us toward irrational and sometimes bizarre behavior. [S]uch neurotic activity does little to assuage our anxiety and may even serve to increase it. And neither should we imagine that only individuals can be affected in this way. Stalinism, Nazism, McCarthyism, and fundamentalism of all stripes are examples of the kind of irrationality of which institutions and governments are capable in the name of order.
The human need for order, given the apparent unpredictability of the natural world, is probably as old as history. This explains why universal laws have been the holy grail sought by science. The evolution of the classical scientific paradigm, beginning with Newton, reflects a 350-year progression toward this goal. Establishing the existence of universal laws has allowed us to encounter the world with enormous confidence and creativity. And although there is no doubt that this is one of the great accomplishments of Western culture, something has gone terribly awry.When we fail to distinguish between discovering order in nature and imposing order on nature, we have lost relationship with the very thing we yearn to know. Whereas once we were students of nature, looking to her for meaning, we now denigrate her in the belief that it is our inalienable right to have dominion.
But the mechanistic, linear approach that has pervaded the course of science over the past 350 years has led to the glorification of order and the subsequent objectification of reality. At the same time, the idea of mystery—a sense of the unknowable—has typically been dismissed by science as mere metaphysics or, worse, superstitious ignorance—the last refuge of a primitive mind.
Because mystery is by definition unknowable, its nature is also unpredictable and therefore beyond the aegis of technology’s control. Because its understanding serves no practical purpose in the context of the classical paradigm, there would appear to be no reason to give it attention. Be that as it may, in the final analysis, the classical scientific paradigm, in rejecting uncertainty as an essential aspect of reality, has been the unwitting agent of great injury both to our planet and our psyche. I believe that this situation is in urgent need of redress and necessarily involves “revisioning” both our scientific and psychological relationship touncertainty.
Despite its limitations, the classical paradigm has been maintained because it supports a view of the world and ourselves in which, over time, we have become highly invested. Therefore, even though it has become increasingly cumbersome and unresponsive, our culture has been extremely reluctant to give it up. It is a familiar model. For the most part, it works, at least to the extent that it explains the world in a predictable, orderly fashion. It is also, in its basis in determinism, an essentially idealistic model that assumes that if we keep to the scientific project—ask the right questions, gather enough information, solve the problems—then finally we will run out of problems to solve.
My point is only that phenomena relating to unpredictability and uncertainty have not been ignored over the past 350 years simply because scientists are narrow-minded or lack the intellectual capacity to perceive of their existence, but because uncertainty is an anomaly inherently beyond the scope and interest of the prevailing paradigm. Furthermore, to consider uncertainty as an actual systemic state opens a Pandora’s box that seriously calls into question a model of reality that has taken hundreds of years to establish. Scientists, like manufacturers, are not eager to retool the plant just when it is starting to turn a profit. Not, that is, unless they want to generate a level of crisis and anxiety that may well threaten the entire system on which their enterprise is based.
THE QUESTION OF DETERMINISM
In the newly emerging scientific paradigm, the issues of determinism and uncertainty are considered in a radically new light. Although separated by 300 years, the theories of both Newton and Einstein are models of scientific determinism, a view of the universe that holds that “the structure of the world is such that any event can be rationally predicted . . . if we are given a sufficiently precise description of past events, together with all the laws of nature” (Popper, 1982, p. 2).
However, the new scientific paradigm, in embracing nonlinearity and indeterminism, takes a radically different view, assuming unpredictability to be an inherent cosmic expression deeply embedded within the core of reality. As Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine (1997) so succinctly put it, “Chance, or probability, is no longer a convenientway of accepting ignorance but rather part of a new, extended rationality” (p. 55). According to this view, the universe is an emergent, self-organizing system of exquisite complexity, continuously evolving within an interpenetrating web of cocreative relationships (Goerner, 1999; Laszlo, 1995).
The notion of inherent unpredictability challenges the very foundation of classical science, the linear, cause-and-effect approach to the world that most of us learned in high school. For, indeed, how can a science which asserts that “the future can be rationally deduced (based on) scientific procedures of prediction” (Popper, 1982), be rationalized with a model of the universe in which uncertainty and unpredictability are regarded not as troublesome anomalies but as the essential nature of reality? Prigogine (1997) stated that “the universe itself is highly heterogeneous and far from equilibrium. This prevents systems from reaching a state of equilibrium” (p. 158). Prigogine suggested that as systems tend to move further from equilibrium, so they tend toward greater degrees of freedom, thus “distance from equilibrium becomes anessential parameter in describing nature” (Prigogine, 1996,p. 68).
We begin to see that unpredictability and uncertainty do indeed follow universal laws once we accept that probability is not an expression of ignorance but rather accurately reflects the weblike patterns of interconnection that we see all around us in the natural world. For uncertainty to make sense, we must relinquish the simplistic—a predictable, closed systems view of the universe—and take up the complex—a world comprised of interdependent, interpenetrating networks of relationship. This is the very essence of new paradigm thinking.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF UNCERTAINTY
Once entertained, the concept of scientific indeterminism leads down a slippery slope away from the known and knowable toward the psychological depths of mystery. Here, at the edge of chaos, the linear map ends and we enter on a new paradigm, one that embraces uncertainty, unpredictability, and the unknowable. [At] “the edge of chaos,” you find complexity; a class of behaviors in which the components of the system never quite lock into place yet never quite dissolve into turbulence either.
In this realm of infinite potential, nothing can be grasped or quantified once and for all. Whether despite our science or because of it, we face this “awe-full” place in trembling and anxiety, for it is one thing to conceptualize an indeterministic world but quite another to actually live in it.
Heidegger (1962), however, refuted the notion that anxiety is a pathology or even, for that matter, an emotion but rather considers it as an irreducible, existential state of being. For Heidegger, anxiety is not in response to something, such as an external threat, but exists for its own sake. It arises from the self-reflexive awareness of our own “potentiality-for-Being.” Speaking from a more strictly psychological perspective, May (1977) made much the same point in saying, “Whenever possibility is visualized by an individual, anxiety is potentially present in the same experience”
Creativity, authenticity, uncertainty, anxiety—these cannot be separated. To live a creative existence means to live with uncertainty. To live an authentic existence means to live with anxiety. But Heidegger (1962) also said that when we turn away from our authentic self and, grasping for safety and certainty, abdicate our choices to the ubiquitous “they” (Das Man), it is anxiety that draws us back from our absorption in the world (p. 189).
Our problem with anxiety is identical to our problem with uncertainty and stems from an unwavering desire to put clear, definitive boundaries on that which is, in essence, boundless.
Being in awe is not only meaningful for the individual in society but for society as a whole. As a culture, we have adopted an arrogant relationship to the world, assuming that what is beyond our dominion is of little consequence and that what cannot be known with certainty is not worth knowing. We have placed our faith in the classical scientific model and counted on it to resolve the uncertainty of our existence. But the attitude of certainty assumed by normal science, the attitude in which our culture has been so thoroughly schooled, is by no means the be-all and end-all of science. It is indeed paradoxical that the scientists of greatest genius, the Newtons and Einsteins who championed the deterministic model, were those who approached science from a position of awe.
This, however, is not the typical attitude of normal science, which, as an institution, has rejected the unknowable as irrelevant to its projects and has applied itself instead to gaining dominion over the natural world. In an effort to grasp the universal laws and know them once and for all, science has denied a level of complexity that is beyond our capacity to measure or quantify. In advocating this position, science has taught, or at least encouraged, our culture to resist the anxiety of uncertainty. In denigrating all that cannot be explained in objective, “scientific” terms, we have lost reverence, not only for our planet, but for the complex, interpenetrating web of relationships that comprise the world. By thus demeaning nature, we demean ourselves.We have paid dearly for our single-minded absorption in our own accomplishments.
Through science we have acquired far more knowledge than wisdom.
JC comments: I debated whether to insert my own comments in the midst of Gordon’s text, or to make comments at the end. I opted to bold things that I want to highlight in my comments on the relevance of these arguments to the climate change debate.
The reasoning about the climate system reflected by the IPCC is fundamentally deterministic. Yes, initial conditions and model parameters are varied in climate model simulations to some extent, and multiple models are used, but the overarching philosophy is fundamentally deterministic. Confidence in conclusions is judged in the context of arguments for and against, with disregard to acknowledging areas of ignorance (see my Italian Flag post).
An issue of substantial concern is how we actually use the scientific findings (whatever their merit) in policy making. The UNFCCC policies seem to me to be a case in point of having lost reverence, not only for our planet, but for the complex, interpenetrating web of relationships that comprise the world.
And finally, the complex web that has been woven between climate science and policy makers makes the following statement an issue of substantial concern:
Scientists, like manufacturers, are not eager to retool the plant just when it is starting to turn a profit. Not, that is, unless they want to generate a level of crisis and anxiety that may well threaten the entire system on which their enterprise is based.
Taming the uncertainty monster at the climate science – policy interface requires reflection on these issues.