Intermezzo: Dialogue on the Foundation of a Secretariat on Uncertainty

“Did you say Ulrich, Ulrich Tuzzi?”
Having left the office I took about a quarter of an hour to get to the Grangettes clinic at Chêne-Bougeries, a district of Geneva. Near the Clinic car parking lot, to the west of the building, I found an old two storied house, surrounded by trees among which perhaps had survived four pines, already old at that time, and two birches described by Robert Musil in notes recounting the last years of his life. Unless, of course, those had been sacrificed to make way for the car parking lot. I was just about to check whether the half-moon shaped pool was still there, when I became aware of the presence of a friend, a research Fellow from CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research). He was a physicist and was accompanied by a person of about forty, a man with a decisive air, a high forehead and black hair brushed straight back. Both of them seemed to be looking for something in the area around the old house.
A handshake and my friend performed the introductions: “One of my colleagues from CERN, Ulrich Tuzzi”.
He then explained that they had come to see if it would be possible to rent the ground floor of the house with the veranda so as to set up a general secretariat of certainty there.
“You see,” Ulrich Tuzzi explained to me, “a few years before the outbreak of the First World War which was to put an end to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (I’m of Austrian origin), my grandfather dreamed of creating a General Secretariat of certainty and the soul.”
“I seem to remember reading somewhere…”
“…but he didn’t succeed. He wanted to reconcile culture and the European scientific tradition, which from Descartes, through Newton to our time has never ceased widening the gap between the soul and the body, between knowledge resulting from the natural sciences, and – something more difficult to define – that engendered by artistic perception, between certainty and uncertainty. He often used to say that in his universe, until then, every truth appeared to be divided into two half-truths.”
“No! You who work in a highly prestigious centre of fundamental research are not going to tell me that the discoveries are only half-truths.”
“In a certain sense, yes. Some things were not so clear in my grandfather’s time – a time dominated by positivism and by a great number of absolute and universal cognitive elements. As Popper said, science progresses, thanks to a process of falsification. It studies Newton’s laws until it realizes that under certain conditions these laws are partially false. Up until the time when Einstein arrived on the scene and revealed that they were not completely relevant. Then after Einstein came Heisenberg and then Prigogine. Research is a dynamic process and does not stop with the acquisition of eternally valid details. With every new synthesis, every new detail, the meaning of the component parts and the theory of reference change.”
“But a chair will always be a chair, a tree a tree, an atom an atom.”
“In a certain sense, and under certain conditions, yes. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle makes us recognize that at the level of the infinitely small, the equivalent of a chair can, at a determined point in time, appear as something absolutely different.”
“Yet, it is true that technology becomes increasingly more efficacious and that I’m able to distinguish − in a manner of speaking – ever more clearly the infinitely small.”
“There comes a time when the simple act of observing the infinitely small changes it because the energy released by the observation interacts with the object observed. A little more progress is made, thanks to some mathematical models and formulae, but for the moment the situation is increasingly complex and the numerous hypotheses are often contradictory.”
“My dear Mr. Tuzzi, if that is the case, are you perhaps telling me there is no longer any difference between human and social sciences (in which we ourselves are immersed) and natural sciences, subject as they are by definition to clear and objective observation?”
“This designation has its limits. The exact sciences and social sciences are ever more frequently found in the same situation: They both deal with different degrees of uncertainty. But thanks to this we have a possibility of filling the hole that obfuscated my grandfather’s view. From this it is clear that it is now possible that the creation of a centre for reflection on uncertainty would lead to something of which the general secretariat of certainty and the soul would have been incapable at that time when it was thought that these two poles must be immediately separated. This is the reason the Secretariat never came about and my grandfather lived hoping for this infinite romance, split by the contradictions between the nature of man and that of a certain positivist science, in the pursuit of an impossible synthesis. Today, however, the word “End” can be placed on the romance, thanks to a new age that is open to research and knowledge.”
“Are you telling me now that your grandfather’s life, or rather his romance, comes to an end precisely because it can continue? ?”
“There’s no paradox. Concerning this, Musil wrote that ‘men of this type certainly exist today, but there are not many of them, and for this reason it is difficult to assemble what is dispersed’. Currently a new culture is developing and spreading around the world, a culture in which it becomes increasingly less common to find isolated elements. A culture in which a New Alliance is forming, and as the Nobel recipient Prigogine states, it is a culture of a process of integration and construction.”
“As a matter of fact, it seems rather problematical to me that all this springs from uncertainty, if the little certainty that remains in the world – some scientific certainties – is hidden beneath our feet.”
“On the contrary, all the dogmas and pseudo-religions that are often transformed into political ideologies have totally exploited the concept of an exact, certain and inevitable science. From it they have deduced a great many legitimisations with no foundation. In the Middle Ages wars and massacres were justified in the name of God. Still more horrible, barbarous massacres perpetrated in the previous century in the name of society’s scientific laws. Never before had chaos been so efficiently orchestrated.”
“But how is it possible to live and give life while proclaiming that uncertainty has a positive value?”
“It’s not a matter of spreading uncertainty. The problem is that of recognizing that life is uncertain. Sooner or later humanity must decide to create a truly civilised world, built by people of proven maturity. This means recognising reality. It is an act of deep cultural awareness, essential if we want to avoid the manipulations of those who offer us definitive certainties. It is a matter of learning to live better, of accepting one’s own responsibility, of facing uncertainty and accepting it. It will be the best of psychotherapies.”
“I see. It’s not for nothing that you’re Viennese.”
“Yes, but a Viennese who accepts reality, and who demands that there should be a speedy investigation into what in Freud is false.”
“I must admit, my dear Mr. Tuzzi, that I’m a little, well actually, very puzzled. I understand that you feel great affection for your grandfather. But couldn’t you perhaps say that your attitude is due, in large part, to a world in crisis, to a world in a state of decomposition? If I remember correctly, your grandfather lived in Vienna mostly during the years immediately before the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Could not his desire to found the general secretariat of uncertainty and the soul − I hope you will not hold it against me if I speak frankly – have perhaps come from a desire to flee reality, of taking part in the political breakup of his country and also, perhaps, of being to some extent responsible for it?”
“Clearly, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had fallen into a serious crisis and was incapable of facing the historical developments of that time, and particularly the rise of nationalisms.”
“A period that lasted several decades which appears to have coincided with the great development of the Industrial Revolution.”
“Exactly. Cartesian and Newtonian logic corresponded to that of industrial specialisation, of material manufacturing productivity, of people specialisation and consequently that of nationalism and of the classes. The drama occurred when the line of demarcation between dialectic and conflict was broken and the breach became beyond repair. The incompatibility between these two poles is once again the one that exists between certainty and the soul. The Cartesian method of subdividing world and life reveals an approach that is intrinsically incapable of stimulating the differences in a positive way. Here in Switzerland it is accepted that the State guarantees and protects the individuality and sovereignty of the Cantons. This federalist system combines autonomy and supra-nationality, and reinforces them. It is the path, perhaps, that Europe is taking, in order to fully make the most of its peoples and their diversity.”
“But an independent State can at least defend its freedom.”
“It depends on its strength. Independence of unequal countries puts the weak at the mercy of the stronger. Only the strongest State can consider itself truly independent. Currently there are more than 150 ‘independent’ States in the world. They all represent only half-truths while international imbalances represent the other half.”
“So, for you, the fall of the Hapsburg Empire was a historic disaster. Don’t you think this shows a little nostalgia on your part? You aren’t by any chance creating your Centre to commemorate the anniversary of Franz Josef’s birth?”
“I have to admit you are right on one point. On the one hand the many reasons for which the old Empire of the Hapsburgs had to disappear are: its inability to present a valid plan for modern federalism, its indecisive management of the destructive effects of the Industrial Revolution, the clumsy renewal of the social structures. However, on the other hand, it is necessary to underline the positive aspects of the co-existence of different peoples, not forgetting that the disintegration of the empire also opened the way to Nazi-ism. The essential point consists in finding in this new culture that is spreading throughout the world, a new possibility of overcoming the current situation, of progressing, of recreating an image of the future and of opportunities that the old cultures and ideologies (which are no longer those of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but rather those that destroyed it) have increasingly greater difficulty in promoting.”
“Your Centre of uncertainty certainly isn’t lacking global ambitions. I’m afraid however that you’re looking for a humanity that simply doesn’t exist.”
“Of course, in all of this there is a great challenge to be met. If no one takes it on it will be difficult for our planet to survive adequately, prey as it is to the vulnerability of every kind and provenance. But it’s true it’s a question of human quality, of good sense and intelligence.”
“Everything depends on what you mean by quality. My grandfather used to say that he had none. He refused to see himself confined to a restricted vision of life. A one-dimensional life with a single truth that quickly resembles a form of blindness. To have many truths and subject them to checks is much better than having only one truth. What is necessary is to want it and to want to improve it.”
“Perhaps it’s true. I too tend to define myself as a man without qualities.”
“If you want to help me with the Centre of uncertainty, you are welcome.”
Night had fallen and someone had lit the lights in the veranda of the house on chemin des Grangettes (nr. 29 to be exact).