Uncertainty & Complexity
As a young adult with mystical leanings, I remember how it stung when a skeptical humanist acquaintance claimed, “To be a mystic is to live in the mists.” This was not meant as a compliment! Years later, I encountered a book by Frank MacEowen titled The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers and Seekers. As a result, “living in the mists” has become a positive metaphor, connecting with my own Celtic roots.
MacEowen tells us: “Mist is a beautiful natural power. This old spirit is an ambassador of the in-between [italics mine]. Not entirely water, not entirely air, the mist is a unique dancing marriage of these two elements . . . this kind of synthesis is also a quality of the Celtic spirit.” (p. 18). He goes on to explain that mist, like Celtic spirituality, is not static and unchanging. It shifts and adapts and interpenetrates, and, like the mystical experience of the reality between, it “cannot be pinned down.” It hides one moment, and reveals the next. Presences and insights lurk in the corners of our eyes. Although elusive, the mist-filled path is a path of direct encounter. Like the mist, MacEowen sees the Celtic spirit seeking to “weave in and out of places, to touch the edges of all things.” (p.20). It cannot be defined as pagan or Christian, defying categories, encouraging dialogue and fostering aliveness in the present moment.
I thought of that long-ago taunt more recently while reading about the frustrations of scientists trying to study particles. It seems, try as they might, they cannot measure both location and momentum at the same time. If they succeed in measuring one, the other becomes a blur—becomes misty, if you will! According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a particle doe not have both location and momentum at the same time – uncertainty is not simply a matter of unskillful observation. Nor does it have a clear past history – rather a “blur of possible histories.” (Ferguson, p. 15). As Ferguson puts it: “My chair is a blur of uncertainty which I am allowed to think of as imaginably tiny particles whizzing around in a fuzzy manner.” (Ibid p.5).
Buber would say that the particle was behaving like a “You” rather than an “It” – for the It-world, he claims, “coheres in space and time, while the You-world does not cohere in either.” (I and Thou:148) The It-world is predictable and to a reasonable degree dependable. During the past 300 years in particular, the wonder of encounter with the amazing natural world around and within us has tended to become “locked into the It-form of conceptual knowledge.” (IaT:90) As more and more amazing dimensions of our universe are explored, we discover our conceptual knowledge unlocking, the energy of awe-ful encounter once again calling us into relationship.
My own tradition often affirms the value of “living in the questions” rather than being certain of answers. Steven Batchelor understands the Buddhist path as embracing interrogative reflection – not intellectual analysis but a sitting with the questions in a spacious mind open to up-welling intuitive wisdom. “To question like this is to let go of opinions and remain suspended between all possible answers,” he asserts. “Certainties, beliefs and assumptions are put on hold. One can question only what one does not know . . . while waiting for the answer, one hovers in the space between all conceivable directions . . . All possibilities lie open.” (pp.83-4) This state is sometimes called ‘don’t know mind.’
The period of Western history referred to as the Enlightenment was a time of optimism about the expanding horizons of human knowledge, seen as externally verified and “objective.” The result has often been that, as Moore declares, “God or divinity cannot find a way through the sieve of our certainties.” (Original Self:115). Similarly, Irish Catholic scholar John O’Donohue suggests that the functional mind “panics in the face of the creative and generous uncertainty in the heart of life.” (Eternal Echoes, p.80)
In our time, both spirituality and science are taking us into between places that require us to stay present with uncertainty if we wish to deepen our wisdom and understanding.