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

– – – – – – – – – –

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


“Bodhisattvas are careful about causes”

Some individuals do not believe in a connection between succeeding events, and because they doubt it, they feel that causality is a specious concept. They maintain that there is only a string of events or phenomena and one is not caused by another. However, this only leads to the notion that events come out of nothing, by chance, and that being the case, control of events is not possible.

Buddhism teaches that there is causality. The word “cause” refers to any “thing” (dharma) or any part of any thing which produces an effect. The effect implies not only manifestation but also the relationship between the cause and the effect.

Any event is not caused by only one thing. There are innumerable aspects that play a part, many of which condition the production of any event. Causes and effects form complex chains, each link is the effect of combinations of causes, and a cause is also a combination of effects.

According to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, avijja or ignorance is the cause of desire and clinging and creates dukkha or suffering. Ignorance is lack of knowledge or understanding. In Buddhism this is meant in the sense of a fundamental darkness within life. The Buddha taught that it also refers to ignorance of cause and effect and the way things really are.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

The purpose of practice is not to be reborn in paradise or Buddha-land after death. The purpose is to have peace for ourselves and others right now, while we are alive and breathing. Means and ends cannot be separated. Bodhisattvas are careful about causes, while ordinary people care more about effects, because bodhisattvas see that cause and effect are one. An enlightened person never says, ‘This is only a means.’ Based on the insight that means are ends, all activities and practices should be entered into mindfully and peacefully.

Human activities result in interaction between individuals. Some are peaceful and co-operative, while others are turbulent and conflicting. In conflict, the weaker individual is overcome by the stronger one, but conflict is always self-destructive. Discordant activities are caused by ignorance of the interdependent nature of all things. All life is activity, and to know that a higher quality of life is achieved through better co-operation with others is the antidote to conflict and disharmony.

An atom, a cell, an organ, our entire person is comprised of co-operative groups of single entities, and just as a healthy individual body is achieved when these entities work in harmony, together with other individuals we form a society that functions better, that is, there is increased welfare of all its members, when relationships are non-antagonistic and co-operative.  This simple truth opens the gate to real solutions to enduring problems.

Ultimately, we cannot say that there is ever an end to ignorance of cause and effect. If anyone could fully comprehend all the various elements and factors of causality, that person could predict the course of future events.

The idea is to understand as best we can, to be mindful of causality and interdependency so that we live with others peacefully. Whether or not it is possible to control events is a debate that I’m not sure we need by concerned with, for we do know with absolute certainty that we can control ourselves. By training our mind, practicing mindfulness, we can control the causes we make and that in turn will influence events. If we construct our lives and society based on causes that promote harmony and peace, then surely we need not fear anything the future can bring.

Seng-ts’an wrote in the Verses on the Faith-Mind:

One thing, all things;
move among and intermingle,
without distinction.
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about nonperfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.

The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is

no yesterday

no tomorrow

no today.



Buddhists talk a lot about karma, and yet I wonder how many really understand it. There is a growing trend among Western Buddhists to reject notions about karma and rebirth, or to be agnostic about their feasibility. I maintain that Buddhism works without these concepts, however, it doesn’t work quite as well.

Stephen Batchelor, a contemporary Buddhist teacher and writer, is one of the leading figures of this trend. He is quite right when he says that notions such as karma and rebirth are teachings Buddhism inherited from traditional Indian philosophy, but to dismiss these fundamental concepts on the argument that the Buddha taught them only because they were culturally prevalent at the time, is mistaken. I share Batchelor’s desire to rid Buddhism of “magical thinking”, but I am not too sure that karma and rebirth fit into that category.

As I mentioned in my post of April 22, reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept. I have a great affinity for and admiration of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, but on this subject they are confused. I don’t care how many claim to be tulkus, there is no reincarnation.

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