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Book Review - From Certainty to Uncertainty
From Certainty to Uncertainty
by F. David Peat
Joseph Henry Press, 2002
Review by Pawel Kawalec Ph.D.
Jun 25th 2002

In his book David Peat endorses the claim that the world is much more complex than the clockwork model projected and, in consequence, the idea of progress as envisioned by Enlightenment is in a glaring need of revision. Science no longer, he claims, can be expected to proclaim a unifying “grand” vision of this complex world as there will always be uncertainty that science will not be able to cope with. This claim is perspicuously substantiated by Peat’s remarkably lucid exposition of the advancement of science in the 20th century (e.g. Gödel’s proof of incompleteness of mathematics, Quantum Mechanics, or Chaos Theory). In his argument he characteristically manages to combine the awareness of the principled limitations of science with a deep understanding of it. The moral Peat draws amounts basically to the acknowledgement of the fact that uncertainty and risk are inherent in our ideas and that we should recognize this in our individual, social and political plans allowing thus for more diversity and self-organization of scientifically unpredictable systems. At points, however, Peat apparently goes much further than that and reveals Rousseau-like nostalgia for the “ideal” and primitive (i.e. independent of science and technology) social relationships.

For undergraduates this book will be an inspiring survey of the most spectacular scientific, technical and artistic ideas of the 20th century; Peat is exceptionally effective when it comes to a graspable presentation of the most sophisticated theoretical accomplishments in science, like Gödel’s theorem or Chaos Theory. Advanced readers will surely enjoy the exuberant style of the book and will be stimulated to share the author’s concern for the commencing millennium.

The preface focuses on the “auspicious” year 1900. In many respects it indeed was exceptional: around this time many accomplishments in science, technology, engineering, economics and politics made themselves transparent. Taken as a whole, this apparently was an excellent evidence to sustain the expectation that a new epoch for humanity had already began; an epoch of “Peace, Prosperity, and Progress”. It was the same year 1900, however, that triggered off a revolution of ideas that was to transform the world. The first paper on the quantum by Max Planck was published, Albert Einstein finished his graduate studies in Zurich, and the following year Werner Heisenberg was born – three physicists who contributed most to dramatically change modern science as well as the resulting vision of the world. This is only an illustration of the ­wealth of – though sometimes undue and unrelated – facts that Peat refers to in order to sharpen the contrast between mentalities of the 19th and 20th centuries. For some reason, he takes the year 1900 as the first one of the new century, but still the style of the preface makes the reader expect the historical line of argument in the remainder of the book; the argument which will pin down in terms of historical detail how “certainty dissolved into uncertainty”.

            Only chapters one Quantum Uncertainty, two On Incompleteness (and the accompanying appendix on Gödel’s theorem) and six From Clockwork to Chaos meet the aforementioned expectation. Indeed, they sum up to form a plausible and expound case. The inessentials aside, Peat allows the reader to move straight to the debate between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr on what there is in the quantum world. The former, despite his ingenuity and contribution to physics, represents for Peat the 19th century mentality of certainty and unlimited realism. The latter’s thought is unmatched in its subtlety and more open to acknowledgement of uncertainty inherent in the world itself. Due to Peat’s profound understanding of the issues involved and his exceptionally lucid style the reader can easily follow the core issues of the debate and appreciate the ingenuity of both adversaries. We get involved in this discussion and cannot help reading Einstein’s next thought experiment and Bohr’s fatigueless attempts at even more sophisticated counterarguments. The latter seems to be finally stuck with the EPR thought experiment, but still, we take the opportunity to follow Peat’s exposition of the ingenuity of Bohr’s response.

            Since physics, contrary to what was supposed in the 19th century, cannot support certainty, why not try mathematics? Peat gradually advances more pressing questions concerning completeness and consistency of mathematics. Against this background Gödel’s theorem seems to be nothing but a natural way to proceed. For those unfamiliar with the latter it might seem almost inconceivable that it has been proved that mathematics is incomplete. In the appendix Peat develops a step-by-step version that almost everyone can easily follow and acknowledge Gödel’s inventiveness. The moral, however, is that neither physics nor mathematics can sustain certainty.

            Chapter six reconsiders the same issues as chapters one and two, but from a more general perspective. Since neither physics nor mathematics support unlimited certainty then the broader view of the workings of the world in Newton’s clockwork model need to be reexamined. The clockwork model epitomizes the age of certainty – it would be enough to know the initial state of the world and all the laws under which it is subsumed to know to any degree of precision any future state of the world. This certainty was put to an end not only by the existence of chance phenomena, discussed by Peat in chapter one, but also by chaos. While we are all familiar with this word, for many it still remains an open question how is this possible for a negligible event to have such a gross effect as to make the whole system behave in an unpredictable way? Again, Peat in characteristically lucid exposition delineates how chaos does really work.

Chapters three (From Object to Process), four (Language) and five (The End of Representation) illustrate that the transition from certainty to uncertainty is not specifically scientific phenomenon, since it is a wider cultural process. One of Peat’s arguments appeals to the revolution brought about by impressionists – paintings seek not only “to represent reality”, but also engage “the essential way in which we actually see the world” (105) inseparable part of which becomes now “participatory seeing”. The same process takes place in our language and in the way we represent the world. However, the problem of transition from certainty to uncertainty is not a 20th century invention as it is a recurrent theme in the history of humanity. This broad historical perspective is not entertained in Peat’s book, and therefore its conclusion largely hinges upon the current state of science. This apparently undermines the initial argument.

            The remaining chapters (seven: Reenvisioning the Planet and eight: Pausing the Cosmos) focus on “far more pressing issues” of daily life rather than “case histories from science, philosophy, and mathematics” (155). In fact, they seem to support a different argument to the effect that no longer we can conceive of science, or anything else, that would support the expectation of there being uniquely best plan for everyone. None such plan is workable in principle because of uncertainty and the fact that the order we perceive in nature or society often results from an unpredictable chaotic state. Therefore, we have to rely more on the intellectual and moral capacities of individuals than on “grand ideas and schemes”. Along these lines Peat appeals to our imagination and responsibility – there are many actions which we think of as trivial and unimportant, but which multiplied by millions or billions of ordinary people like us will yield the beneficial effect for the whole planet – “[w]e have left the dream of absolute certainty behind. In its place each of us must now take responsibility for the uncertain future” (215), concludes Peat.

The moral he draws from the ubiquitous uncertainty is apparently in the positive – since “we have learned to suspect grand, overarching schemes and ideas” (47) the future is left open to be determined by our creative actions. Sometimes, however, he seems to endorse a more grim suggestion. Given the fact that “our most sophisticated science and technology are being put to the service of our most primitive drives and reactions” (191) the former have to be reassessed – or even replaced by alternative approaches like “Blackfoot physics” – and in the last resort – “[w]ithout idealizing early and indigenous cultures” – we should give more thought to this model of social organization as “they were relatively peaceful and offered no major threat to each other or to the surrounding environment” (196). Peat, however, is silent on how to work out the details of this idea.

While written as an exercise in the history of ideas, From Certainty to Uncertainty is a book full of philosophical wisdom. It is from this perspective that Peat highlights the most urgent problems of the commencing millennium which also pertain to our everyday decisions and actions. An admirable companion to reconsider – at the beginning of the 21st century – the most noteworthy ideas of the preceding one.


© 2002 Pawel Kawalec


Pawel Kawalec Ph.D., Faculty of Philosophy, Catholic University of Lublin, POLAND