The Man Who Discovered Uncertainty

When German physicist Werner Heisenberg was 26 years old, he discovered uncertainty; or rather, he developed an “uncertainty principle.”  Heisenberg was a German physicist, a pioneer of quantum mechanics and Nobel Prize winner.  He was born on this day in 1901.

I found the best (meaning simplest) explanation of his uncertainty principle at Huffington Post:

uncertainty-formula2The principle, described by physicist Werner Heisenberg nearly a century ago, states that the mere act of measuring the position of a particle, such as an electron, necessarily disturbs its momentum. That means the more precisely you try to measure its location, the less you know about how fast it’s moving, and vice versa.”

For instance, light from a microscope produces energy that is absorbed by the object viewed under the microscope thereby disrupting or changing the object.  Naturally, there is much more to it.  The overall point is that there cannot be exactness; everything is uncertain.

The master physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, was uncertain about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  According to Stephen Hawking, “Einstein was very unhappy about this apparent randomness in nature. His views were summed up in his famous phrase, ‘God does not play dice’.”  Well, that phase is often misconstrued.  Einstein was also uncertain about the existence of God.  Skeptical is a better word.  What Einstein was expressing with the dice comment was his preference for a more ordered universe.

Did Buddha have the same preference?  Many people interpret the concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) as deterministic.  Some of them think that for every effect there is a specific cause.  Actually, causes include a multitude of factors and conditions.  Causes and effects form complex chains, and most of the time it is impossible to trace any effect back to specific causes or conditions.

It’s important to keep in mind that the “Buddha made a distinction between karma and deterministic fate (niyati) . . . and accepted that random events and accidents can happen in life.”*

So what do we do about the chaos we see in the world?  How do we deal with the uncertainty of life?

uncertaintyUncertainty springs from our desire to know what is going to happen to us.  We do not know.  We cannot be certain that we will be safe and free from suffering.  Fear arises.

Both Buddhism and Taoism teach us that there is wisdom in uncertainty or “not-knowing.”  Lao Tzu said, “It is beneficial to know nothing.  Pretending to know is a disease.  Only by becoming sick of disease can we be without sickness.  The sage is sick of sickness, therefore the sage is healthy.”

Living with metastatic cancer, my life is very uncertain.  My oncologist says I’m a miracle.  No, just lucky.  One day that luck will run out.  I don’t know when.  If in nothing else, at least with this one thing I have a calm mind and I do not fear uncertainty, nor do I fear fear.  Now the trick is to apply it to the rest of my life.  It is fairly ridiculous to be calm about death and then lose your cool over some petty matter.

From what is dear, grief is born,
from what is dear, fear is born.
For someone freed from what is dear
there is no grief
–  so why fear?


Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.

Werner Heisenberg

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* Charles S. Prebish, Damien Keown, Buddhism: The Ebook : an Online Introduction, JBE Online Books, 2010