Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Alert: The Uncertainty Principle on BBC4

Just a quick note to those of you who can get BBC4. David Malone's Dangerous Knowledge will be broadcast at 8 pm this Wednesday (August 8th). I haven't seen it but would highly recommend watching it, as it seems to put a finger on something I've been thinking about a lot but haven't been able to articulate clearly: the idea that uncertainty is good for us.

We are faced with all kinds of questions, and we want answers: whether, for example, mobile phones cause cancer, or perhaps whether depleted uranium causes it. It looks, from the outside (and even from the inside, sometimes) like science should be able to answer those questions. As Mr. Malone says, "science has become, in the minds of many, the new guarantor that there is certainty and that we can attain it." As I've been saying in several of these posts, recent science has often become reductionist, wanting to boil truth down into compartmentalized pieces that we can say for sure are true, are real; and that is a mistake. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know - the more there is to learn, in fact - and a good scientist will understand this. Anything else, any belief that you could possibly come to the end of it and have everything figured out, is delusional.

Mr. Malone's premise, on the other hand, is that "certainty is totalitarian. It forecloses further thinking. Not one of the theories devised by Newton, Darwin, Einstin or Planck is certain and perfect. Powerful and beautiful they undoubtedly are, but they are still partial and incomplete approximations of truth.

"For the modern counterparts of Godel and Turing - the likes of Roger Penrose and Gregory Chaitin - intellectual certainty is a dead end. Serious thinkers are not afraid of uncertainty. For them a theory's uncertainty or incompleteness is not a failing but a positive and creative condition in its own right. The profound discoveries of modern mathematics and science show that life and thinking flourish only in the liminal and fertile land that lies between too much certainty and too much doubt. The art of scientific inquiry is to tack back and forth between the two."

He says that "the very word 'uncertainty', along with 'incompleteness' and 'uncomputability', encapsulates one of the three of the most profound theories in 20th-century science and mathematics. Yet they are all defined in terms of the unsettling lack of something positive or better. It is perhaps for that reason that the stories of those who discovered these uncertainties have been largely overlooked."

I cannot express how refreshing it is to see someone exploring this realm. It always makes me happy when a problem that's been bothering me becomes clear. It has seemed to me that our reaction to uncertainty is nearly always inappropriate, and now here is someone discussing how our reactions tend toward two equally disastrous extremes: compare Weimar Germany (the nihilist approach) with Hitler's Reich (the absolutist approach). What happened to the place in between, where we explore?

Hopefully, this documentary will make it all...uh, certain.

You can watch a clip from Dangerous Knowledge here.

(Thanks to New Scientist [August 4-10, 2007] for the article from which this was derived)


theskyfullofdust said...

Hmm, sounds interesting. I think I might watch it right before I watch the next episode of Heroes.

Thanks, as ever, for the thoughtful information.

f said...

I massively (and not surprisingly) agree. People don't really want to know anything. But throw 'em enough to nibble on. It's the same reason people tune into LOST every week. There's that uncertainty looming over every tree and bush. In writing I've learned that less is more - the audience also wants a chance to play along. And giving them something to think about and create makes them feel... useful.

Keep up the posts. Love 'em.