Uncertainty, Worldviews and World Politics: Newton and Beyond

Sometimes we get overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life and the open-endedness of the future. The pandemic gripping the world in 2020 is one such instance. As the virus spread, a sense of personal vulnerability spread together with radical uncertainty, barely masked by incessant talk about changing risk calculations. In such moments many of us do not turn to theories, models or hypotheses. Instead, we turn to worldviews to give us some traction in a world suddenly turned upside-down. President Trump’s worldview valued national borders. Early on, he imposed a travel ban on China. The World Health Organization and many critics of the President were aghast. Their worldview valued open borders and unobstructed travel. Science did not provide much guidance in the early stages of the pandemic; worldviews did. Worldviews offer basic ideas that shape the questions we ask or fail to ask, provide us with explanatory and interpretive concepts, and suggest hunches or plausible answers. Lacking tight internal integration, worldviews infuse meaning into world politics.

If anything, instances of crisis, such as the pandemic, bring to the fore the constitutive part uncertainty plays in world politics and global events. Whether we are ready to accept this is a matter of worldview. Inchoate as they often are, some worldviews are more compatible with the very concept of uncertainty than others. The worldview of scholars and commentators of world politics, it seems, belongs to the latter category.

Rather than acknowledging, and conceptualizing, the uncertain, they lavish attention on risk, expressing a profound belief in a law-governed, orderly universe. The belief in law-governed change expresses a deeply-held belief in probabilistic laws, understood as the compressed descriptions of regularities. It is a worldview based on the idea of predictability, of calculability, of cause and effect. It is a worldview committed to the premises of Newtonian physics – a worldview that, ultimately, leaves no space for uncertainty.

Uncertainty and its Discontents: Worldviews in World Politics, a volume I edited which will appear with Cambridge University Press in 2021/22, seeks to show the deep Newtonian roots of our firm convictions of what a scientific study of world politics entails and our never-ending amazement at the unexpected that derails those scientific endeavors. What physicist Less Smolin calls “the relational revolution” in 20th century physics and many of the natural sciences more generally enriches sociological relationalism in the social sciences. It embeds risk-based, Newtonian thinking of a world of being in an uncertainty-inflected, Post-Newtonian thinking of a relational world of becoming.

Newtonian physics, upon conception, proved a revolutionary turn of scientific worldview. Newton’s laws of motion articulated a universal set of principles to account for planetary movements. The effects of gravity, Newton argued, operated uniformly throughout the universe. Nature was governed by objective principles. Thus, Newton arrived at the view of a clock-like universe as a consistently working machine that reflects a hidden order captured by the universal laws of motion, accessible to human reason and observation.

The mechanical foundations of Newtonianism had a strong effect on the progressive imagination of the American Founding Fathers and theorists of a recurrent balance of power. Liberalism and realism share in the Newtonian view of the political universe as self-sustaining and self-regulating objects or actors. In both the flux of events is viewed as subject to fixed laws or statistical regularities. Entities are knowable and can be governed by humans. And humans are set apart in nature by the power of their reason.

Up to this day, Newtonianism is the reigning scientific worldview that informs the conventional understandings of world politics. In search of intellectual simplicity, the analysis of world politics typically homogenizes reality by conflating a large number of diverse political phenomena and entities under a small number of concepts. It also adopts strong assumptions about how world politics works, searching for simple causal relations aided by statistical analysis or experiments. This worldview hews closely to Newton’s own words:  scientific truth is to be found, “in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” When we explain world politics by making simple distinctions — East and West, land and water, then and now – we follow Newton’s advice.

The simple billiard ball model of international relations, conventionally taught to first-year college students, is a good example of a mechanistic application of cause-and-effect reasoning. Following the example of economics, many scholars of world politics look to Newtonian physics as their main source of scientific inspiration. Even in the face of the often shocking predictive and explanatory failures of standard explanatory constructs, the answer has been to re-examine theories, models and approaches with the hope that eventually the Newtonian strategy of simplification will lead to the discovery of valid laws that generate compelling explanations and accurate predictions.

While the social and political sciences, remain firmly in the grip of Newtonianism, this is no longer true in physics. Most physicists today agree that quantum mechanics has superseded Newtonian physics – and simply get on with their work. Modern physics and cosmology have long discarded Newton’s notion of absolute space and time. Although the classical model remains a convenient computational tool for many practical problems, it conveys a misleading view of nature as orderly and accessible to neutral observation rather than disorderly and not readily accessible to neutral observation. Furthermore, despite its practical usefulness, the classical model is inadequate for understanding the subatomic world and thus fails to account for the many practical applications of particle physics. It does not offer a general explanatory framework.

The same holds for a Newtonian approach to world politics: it can tell us only so much. It may be instrumental in describing certain configurations. But it is insufficient for explaining the whole spectrum of phenomena. The divide among Newtonian and Post-Newtonian worldviews becomes especially evident in their ability to conceptualize uncertainty. In Newtonianism uncertainty is cast in agentic terms and is believed to be manageable through the exercise of control power and risk management. In Post-Newtonianism it is considered systemic and can include protean power effects that thrive in the domain of the unexpected.

The pandemic of 2020 may be an event that creates a moment of profound epistemic uncertainty about the future of world politics. As the crystallizations of comforting worldviews confront the contingencies of a world in unfathomable flux, perhaps the time has come to acknowledge fully this uncertainty and to start waking up from our “deep Newtonian slumber.”

Uncertainty and its Discontents: Worldviews in World Politics, ed. by Peter J. Katzenstein, will appear with Cambridge University Press in 2021-2022.

This LawLog post is based on chapters 1 and 10 of “Uncertainty and its Discontents: Worldviews in World Politics”. The author wishes to thank Peter Schwarz and Fred Zaumseil for their help in putting this post together.

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Peter J. Katzenstein is the Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor of International Studies at Cornell University. Between 2019 and 2023 Katzenstein will serve as a visiting Research Professor at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center.
Website at Cornell University

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