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From Certainty to Uncertainty: Thought, Theory and Action in a Postmodern World

F. David Peat

Cover for Pari Perspectives 3: Our Changing World
This essay was published in
the March 2020 issue of Pari Perspectives.


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 bookkeeping, 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 paradigm 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 now 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 known1. The combinations 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!) 

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. 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. 

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. 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. 

M.C. Escher, Day and Night (1938)

To see how radical the issues are 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 the transformation had been in our theories of the ontology of the world. 

In one year, Einstein had transformed the laws of conservation of matter and conservation of energy in favour of the conservation of matter+energy. In an address to the 80th 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 shadows2.’ 

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. While Einstein showed that physical phenomena appear differently to observers moving at different speeds, accelerating or within a gravitational field he also demonstrated that the underlying laws of physics remain invariant for all observers. Relativity may have predicted Black Holes and the 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, it demanded a far more radical change; one that even today is not always appreciated in the fullness of its depth. Schrödinger, for example, 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 outcome3. Attempts to resolve ‘Schrödinger’s cat paradox’ led to all manner of bizarre proposals, such as the notion that the consciousness of the human observer acts to ‘collapse the wave function’ into a single outcome, or 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 from the underlying mathematical formalism. 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. Each measurement disturbs the universe so there will always be a level of uncertainty in determining both the speed and position of an electron4. 

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 approach5. 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 measurements one cannot properly speak of the electron as ‘having’ such properties. 

Bohr went even further6. He argued 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’ 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 reality7.’ 

Another radical change in science has been the development of what is popularly termed ‘Chaos Theory’ (more properly the dynamics of non-linear systems)8. 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. 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 affected, others will behave in unpredictable ways when we attempt to influence them. 

In a sense this 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 behaviour 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. 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’ among physicists whom he felt were exhibiting the desire to control and dominate the natural world9. 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 intelligence10. 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—but a deeper issue is that that we do not really understand how we humans operate11. 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 information12. We are all capable of highly creative acts without ever knowing 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, and Rumi’s poetry was recited when the mystic was in a state of ecstasy, while rotating around a column. In short, we do not 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 behaviour. 

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? 

Human genome project

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 analyse a visual scene. This also had applications in initial stages of developing machine vision. But what is not understood is how these various strategies, located in different regions of the brain, are 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’13. 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. 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 pre-existed, to be imposed on the emerging realms of matter, energy, space and time. 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 behaviours. In this sense, such systems develop their own laws of behaviour. 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. In this sense the structure and behaviour 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. 

Asher Bilu, M-Theory (2010), acrylic on plywood, string, wooden blocks, masonite. Approximately 2,000 components, dimensions variable

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 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. 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. So, for the first time in history, science is creating theories about the cosmos that will never be definitively tested. 

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? I find this particularly ironic since the pleasure of doing science is always 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 Western classical music, for example, 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. Renaissance painting embraced objects within the one unifying umbrella of perspective. 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. 

Rumman Amin, Eco-friendly mosque, Cambridge, UK
Annie Spratt , Wells Cathedral, UK

Not so in a mosque. There, there is no vanishing point, no place which has priority over all others. Each worshipper stands at the centre, 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 lesson that has been taught by quantum theory as well as the mystics of history is that we can never hope for a final image or for a true representation. Reality will never be pinned definitively within words and images. Those were all the dreams of a past era, a time when human reason was elevated over the wisdom of the heart. 

The End of Objectivity 

Despite the revolutions in scientific thinking 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. Let us make a very brief overview of some of these. 

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. 

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. 

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. Yet, today a new generation of small nuclear weapons is 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. 

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 in some quarters as the short-term solution, yet that brings with it the problems of security and long-term disposal. In short it has become 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. 


If the revolutions of the twentieth century have taught us anything, at least they should have indicated the inherent limits of reductionist 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 no longer responds to such an analysis. 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 Niels Bohr who coined the term ‘complementarity’ for the observation that under certain experimental conditions an electron’s behaviour can be interpreted as the motion of a particle, while in others it acts as a wave. Bohr felt that complementarity went far beyond the confines of quantum theory, for reality is so rich that it cannot be exhausted by any single explication. Bohr’s complementarity applies well to our postmodern condition in which the world is so genuinely complex that we must always be willing to entertain more than one version of a truth, even to the point that, when placed side by side, these truths appear paradoxical or even opposed. 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. 

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 aspect 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. 

Pari, Italy, March 2007


  1. For a general discussion see Peat, F. David. (2002) From Certainty to Uncertainty: The Story of Science and Ideas in the Twentieth Century. Joseph Henry Press: Washington, DC.
  2. Minkowski, H. (1952) ‘Space and Time,’ reprinted in The Principle of Relativity: A Collection of Original Memoirs on the Special and General Theory of Relativity. Dover: New York. 
  3. Schrödinger’s paper, along with commentaries and other key papers on the foundations and interpretation of quantum theory can be found in Wheeler, J.A. & Zurek W.H. (Eds.) (1983) Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton University Press: Princeton. 
  4. A clear account of Heisenberg’s quantum ‘microscope experiment’ can be found in Bohm, David. (1989) Quantum Theory. Dover: New York. 
  5. An informal account, admittedly from Heisenberg’s perspective, of his conversations with Bohr can be found in Werner Heisenberg (1971) Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations. Harper: New York. See also the interview with Leon Rosenfeld in Buckley, Paul & Peat, F. David (1996) Glimpsing Reality: Ideas in Physics and the Link to Biology. University of Toronto Press: Toronto.
  6. See Wheeler, J.A. & Zurek, W.H. (1983) Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton University Press: Princeton. 
  7. An account of Einstein’s discussions with Bohr during the Solvay conferences can be found in Wheeler, J.A. & Zurek, W.H. (1983) Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton University Press: Princeton 
  8. For a general overview see Briggs, J. & Peat, F. David (1989) Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness. Harper: New York. 
  9. See for example Lindorff, D. (2004) Pauli and Jung: The Meeting of Two Great Minds. Quest Books: Wheaton, IL.
  10. A popular account can be found in Peat, F. David. (1985) Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Think. Baen Books: New York.
  11. Smith, A. ‘Concepts, boundaries, and ways of knowing.’ (2005). Leonardo Electronic Almanac 13 (9). 
  12. Gladwell, M. (2005) Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Little, Brown: New York. 
  13. For a general discussion see Shear J. (Ed.). (2000) Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Author bio

F. David Peat was a quantum physicist, writer, and teacher who founded The Pari Center in 2000. He wrote more than 20 books which have been translated into 24 languages, as well as numerous essays and articles. In 1971-72, he spent a sabbatical year with Roger Penrose and David Bohm, and thereafter his research focused on the foundations of quantum theory and on a non-unitary approach to the quan- tum measurement problem. Peat continued an active collaboration with Bohm and, in 1987, they co-authored the book Science, Order and Creativity. David Peat died, in Pari, Italy in 2017.