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


7 thoughts on “The Man Who Discovered Uncertainty

  1. This video explains the HUP very well. The explanation you used above from Huffington Post is apparently a misconception- it is not about interfering with the particle. It is intrinsic & weird- about the ranges of quantum probabilities of various states of position & momentum being measured.

    1. Okay, thanks for helping to clarify it, Robbie. The video seems to correlate with the randomness aspect. I do think another part of it is that whatever objects we observe are changed to some degree by observation, or as in quote from Heisenberg, “The reality we can put into words is never reality itself,” which sounds very much like a paraphrase of the first line in the Tao Te Ching.

  2. We should not loose sight of the fact that there is certainity too, in this world. I mean, uncertainty is not fundamental, or ultimate. Actually, it both certainity and uncertainty are equally probable. Nagarjuna’s logic points to this extensively via his tetralemma.

    As Buddha said, nothing exists, or makes sense, on its own. Things come into life dependently. So is this uncertainty thing. It only makes sense in a context. Context is key. This is just dependent origination in a different way.

    1. Hi Red. You’re right, and I guess that means we can’t be certain about uncertainty, which as you point out is not ultimate, and neither is certainty. And Nagarjuna (and Buddha) took the middle path between the two extremes.

  3. Name and form come alive via dependent origination. This is noble truths 1 and 2. Nothing exists independently, aka no-self. This is noble truths 3 and 4.

    Any concepts we think/forumalate are just different name/forms. So NT 1/2 apply. Karma is real and works. But there is end/solution to that *cycle*, which is NT 3/4.

    Our mind/self wants to make sense of this world, which can be hard without certainity. Only the NT 1-4 are certain/truths in this world. Everything else is just name/form, with its 3 marks. Just unsatisfactory, meaningless.

    I think, if we are looking for ultimate salvation/meaning/certainity, buddha’s realizations are it.

    1. I understand what you’re saying and I agree but only up to a point. As a Mahayanist, I don’t accept the idea of an end to the cycle cycle of suffering or birth/death. The solution is not a way out or a way to end it, for as long as someone is in the cycle of birth and death there will be suffering. “Extinction” or never returning is not the solution, rather the solution is understanding that suffering and nirvana are the same thing. Personally, I’m not looking for ultimate salvation, meaning or certainty. Salvation is when we develop a life condition that is neither ruled or ruined by suffering. Meaning is something we create for ourselves, you cannot look for it, it comes from within. Certainty is empty.

      1. That’s a great comment, thanks!

        NT 1/2 are as true as NT 3/4…so suffering will always be there as does the nirvana/end.

        I believe there is a state beyond this…which we can call nirvana or “the work is done”/ .

        One can go beyond suffering. I believe in it, and I see it. It’s all everything and nothing.

        In other words, just as with uncertainity, we cannot claim suffering is ultimate or fundamental. As with karma, suffering too doesn’t exist on its own. We are back to dependent origination again 🙂

        That said, I believe Buddha went beyond suffering. His quest ended. Samsara , the cycle of suffering, does not have to be the ultimate / definable certainity. It’s just name/form. There is no end or start to it. It doesn’t exist on its own.

        If we refuse the concept of end, then what did Buddha achieve.

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