From Certainty to Uncertainty

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Early theorists believed that in science lay the promise of certainty. Built on a foundation of fact and constructed with objective and trustworthy tools, science produced knowledge. But science has also shown us that this knowledge will always be fundamentally incomplete and that a true understanding of the world is ultimately beyond our grasp.

In this thoughtful and compelling book, physicist F. David Peat examines the basic philosophic difference between the certainty that characterized the thinking of humankind through the nineteenth century and contrasts it with the startling fall of certainty in the twentieth. The nineteenth century was marked by a boundless optimism and confidence in the power of progress and technology. Science and philosophy were on firm ground. Newtonian physics showed that the universe was a gigantic clockwork mechanism that functioned according to rigid laws-that its course could be predicted with total confidence far into the future. Indeed, in 1900, the President of the Royal Society in Britain went so far as to proclaim that everything of importance had already been discovered by science.

But it was not long before the seeds of a scientific revolution began to take root. Quantum Theory and the General Theory of Relativity exploded the clockwork universe, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that our knowledge was, at best, incomplete-and would probably remain that way forever. There were places in the universe, such as black holes, from which no information at all could ever be obtained. Chaos Theory also demonstrated our inherent limits to knowing, predicting, and controlling the world around us and showed the way that chaos can often be found at the heart of natural and social systems.

Although we may not always recognize it, this new world view has had a profound effect not only on science, but on art, literature, philosophy, and societal relations. The twenty-first century now begins with a humble acceptance of uncertainty.

From Certainty to Uncertainty traces the rise and fall of the deterministic universe and shows the evolving influences that such disparate disciplines now have on one another. Drawing on the lessons we can learn from history, Peat also speculates on how we will manage our lives into the future.

-Dr. F. David Peat

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Gentle Action

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Our actions are, to a great extent, the result of the way we see the world, its perceived meanings, our shared values and the way we, as a society, communicate. Over the last few hundred years this world-view has been deeply influenced by our respect for the power of technical and scientific knowledge, analysis, control, prediction and progress. In this, science has played a significant role suggesting that not only nature but society and human behavior can, in some way, be objectified into various domains for study and analysis.

But what may work well for machines is not always so successful when it comes to individuals and society. For we have come to see our modern world in terms of a series of problems – cancer, environmental degradation, drugs, urban crime, inflation and the like. In turn, each problem demands a solution – war on drugs, medical shots and magic bullets, etc.

But the lessons of chaos theory, to take one example, suggest that in many situations analysis has its limits, as do prediction and control. Seeing the word in terms of “problems” means that we are always externalizing things, pushing them away from us and believing that we – the analyst and planner – are able to rise above the situations in which we are immersed. And each time we perceive what we take to be a problem we immediately react by looking for a solution, which is again applied externally, objectively at, or to, the problem. The result is the exertion of a degree of violence leading to what¬†David Bohm¬†referred to as “fragmentation”. Indeed, the solutions we impose on the world around us often have unforeseen results that sometimes create even more serious situations than the problem we set out to “solve.”

It is for this reason Peat has been suggesting an alternative approach, or way of thinking and seeing, he calls Gentle Action(c). Gentle Action(c) begins from the realization that we are all inexorably a part of the one word, actors with responsibilities, values and obligations. Since an objective “problem” no longer lies outside us, in some external and objective domain, what is now required is an action that arises out of the whole of the situation and is not fragmented or separated from it. Such an action need not be violent but could, for example, arise out of a very gentle, but highly intelligent “steering” of the system, in which each one of us assumes responsibility. (The analogy would be of a swimmer in the ocean who keeps afloat, not by splashing around, but by making minimal movements of the arms and legs that are in harmony with the movements of the water.)

Source: F. David Peat

 

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