In the Soviet Union of the 1970’s a group of Jewish physicists found themselves unable to travel from the Soviet Union to attend international science conferences — where they could interact with colleagues from abroad. In response, a group of Western scientists, among them Yuval Neeman, the president of Tel Aviv University and, himself, physicist, decided to bring an international conference of scientists to Moscow, in July 1974. That if these Soviet scientists could not come to international conferences, then an international conference would come to them. It was decided to broaden the conference to include specialists from physics, chemistry, mathematics, economics, biology, cybernetics and sociology. Its International Board of Sponsors and Advisors included eight Nobel Laureates. I was going to be a participant in the Conference. I am a sociologist who was, at the time, on the faculty of Tel Aviv University. To no one’s great surprise we were not given visas to travel to the Soviet Union that would enable us to actually hold the Conference. But the “presentations” were eventually published as a book, titled COLLECTIVE PHENOMENA AND THE APPLICATIONS OF PHYSICS TO OTHER FIELDS OF SCIENCE, edited by Norman Chigier and Edward Stern, and published by Brain Research Publications, Fayetteville, N.Y.,1975.
A SOCIOLOGIST’S ARROGANCE:
One of the mile-posts of physics in the twentieth century was Werner Heisenberg’s proposal, in 1927, of the Uncertainty Principle. It states the the more precisely the position [of a subatomic particle, such as an electron] is determined, the less precisely its momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa. Or, “you can never know the exact position and the exact speed of an object [at the same time] … because the universe is both like a particle and a wave…” (Wickepedia) No less a person than Einstein argued against this position, claiming that such “randomness is a reflection of our ignorance of some fundamental property of reality.” Still, the Uncertainty Principle prevailed as a major component of modern physics. As an arrogant sociologist, it occurred to me that sociology might have something useful to add, derived from our knowledge about human social behavior. Namely, there is considerable uncertainty in everyday human interactions with one another. But we can usually live with it, we can accept the uncertainty, because we often know the LIMITS of the uncertainty quite precisely. For example, I go to my doctor and tell him about my aches and pains, the various symptoms that are now troubling me. The doctor listens, but I, the patient, do not know what the doctor will say in response — what diagnosis is made, what changes in my life-style I must make if I am to recover, and so on. For me, there is much uncertainty about the doctor’s response, even though I am supposed to accept it because the doctor is a medical expert and I am not. Although I have much uncertainty about the doctor’s response to me, I DO KNOW THE LIMITS within which the doctor is supposed to function. The doctor is expected to base his actions on the currently accepted canons of Western medical science. This specifically excludes whether the doctor likes or dislikes me personally, whether he has prejudices against my skin color or religion or ethnicity. All such matters are out of bounds. In short, I ACCEPT THE UNCERTAINTY OF THIS SITUATION BECAUSE I KNOW ITS LIMITS. What applies to the doctor-patient interaction applies to many other social interactions — be it between social workers and clients, school-teachers and students, parents and children (there are definite limits of what parents can do to their children) and many others. I call this “Bounded Indeterminacy.” The title of my paper in the proposed Conference is “Bounded Indeterminacy: A component part of Systems”. In that paper I show that Bounded Indeterminacy applies to many different kinds of systems, not only to human social relationships. For example, the engineer’s design of the interacting parts of a machine usually contains precisely stated limits of “tolerance” for uncertainty among these interacting parts — such as limited “play” in the side-way motion of a rotating wheel on a shaft if that wheel is to remain in effective contact with other wheels. In short, if the interacting parts of the machine are to function effectively there must be limits to the tolerance for unpredictability by these interacting parts. Such strictly limited “tolerance” is really another term of what I am calling Bounded Indeterminacy.
Although my paper was accepted, Professor Nuval Neeman referred to it dismissively as “philosophy.” To this I could respond: Newton was called a “Natural Philosopher”, and the title of his major book is “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”. I am not in the league of Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, who had the deepest insight into the nature of physical space. But being a philosopher is not such a bad label for a person in a young science. My essay about Bounded Indeterminacy is actually an extension of my previous research about Autonomy. That work addresses the question where, within social situations, do individuals have autonomy — to act in free ways? From the perspective of outsiders, that behavior is unpredictable and uncertain. Yet the autonomy tends to have clearly defined limits, and is therefore acceptable to those on the outside. My book on this is AUTONOMY AND ORGANIZATION: THE LIMITS OF SOCIAL CONTROL, published by Random House, New York, 1968.