Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Sunday musings 11/13/16: Uncertainty

Not surprisingly, there are lots of things on my mind this week. Sunday musings is part payback for all of the wonderful things CrossFit and our community has given me, and part electronic therapy, an extension of my blog where I do an occasional “data dump” to free up space in my brain. The sheer volume of stuff banging around in there is frightening. I’ll spare you most of it (and the crowd roars!).

As is often the case when my circuits are on overload there is a bit of a theme running through the catacombs: this week, uncertainty. So. Much. Uncertainty. On a macro level as well as the most micro of micro levels, what I see before me and within myself is uncertainty. Some people thrive on that, on not knowing what is around the corner, specifically on not only not knowing but also in not knowing the universe of possibilities. Here on CrossFit.com there’s a bit of that, right? Some of you wait until the very last minute to open CrossFit.com before your WOD, and others have no choice because their Box doesn’t pre-post the workout. The uncertainty that’s got me worked up is much more global and pervasive, though.

In physics there is actually something called the “Uncertainty Principle”, and this is more to the point of what I am feeling in general. The Uncertainty Principle holds that the more you know about one variable that pertains to a particle, the less you can know about some other fundamental, essential quality. Hmmm…ring a bell? While the physics version of the Uncertainty Principle deals specifically with the precision of measuring things like mass and momentum, the softer, fuzzier social version is what ties me in knots when I get to this point.

One way to look at this outside of physics goes something like this: the more certain you are about anything, the less able you are to adjust if your forecast is inaccurate. The corollary, at least for me, is that the less certain I am about what is just ahead the more difficult it is for me to pull the trigger on a decision. For all but the most intuitive, reactive personalities, the ability to measure precisely within a universe that is governed by reasonably firm rules or principles is necessary in order to comfortably navigate around corners. For certain there is a personality type who requires too much information of a degree of accuracy that is too high, and this most proactive of personality types is often paralyzed under normal levels of uncertainty just as the free-wheeler is unnecessarily buffeted by easily forecasted winds. But this is different. For some reason, now seems different.

For me this has been building for many months, at least; it is not a reaction to the events of the last week. In trying to divine the genesis of this feeling, returning to physics for a moment is instructive. Imagine for a moment that a universally accepted theorem was all of a sudden found to be wrong. Or even worse, imagine that most of that principle remains unchanged except for one, small but unavoidable change. I dunno…how about gravity? Instead of gravitational forces unfailingly drawing mass to the center, what if they all of a sudden pulled sideways? Or even worse, what if they sometimes pulled to the center and at others sideways? Or in the ultimate horror, your every day existence depended on knowing when gravity would shift, but you were incapable of knowing this with any degree of certainty?

This is not the first time I have looked out the virtual windows at my world and seen nothing but randomness. Nothing that I could measure with enough precision that I felt comfortable with the notion that I could feel certain about what was out there. To be sure, there is a benefit with begin comfortable with the unknown and the unknowable, and here the Uncertainty Principle may offer us some guidance. There is, in any system or with any particle, something that can be known with such a degree of precision that one simply must trust in its truth. “Dis is dis”, if you will. The more shaken you may be by what appears to be ubiquitous, universal uncertainty the more elemental that known must be so that you can begin to rebuild your foundation.

For some the foundation will be simple and concrete. The sun persists in its daily rising. My plumbing did not fail. You get the idea. Still others will return to a base that is built around faith or philosophical cornerstones. Indeed, for them, how better to combat uncertainty in the world than to be quite certain about something which, by its very definition, cannot be measured at all? Most will be like me, going back and back and back to ever more elemental, basic, and simple examples of both, our reverse journey’s length and duration directly proportional to our discomfort with the uncertainty in our lives.¬†From there I will endeavor to build upon whatever certainties I can find, from which I will seek to once again be comfortable enough to venture confidently into a world filled with uncertainty.

Physics helps here, too. The Theory of Relativity states that measurement depends on the frame of reference of the one who measures. In the end it is not the uncertainty that changes, but the one who is uncertain.

With reasonable certainty, I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

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